Three lesbian ministers were received Saturday on to the official clergy roster of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Anita Hill, Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart, who were ordained at least a decade earlier, beamed wide smiles after the "rite of reception" was complete.
The three are not newcomers to the church, noted the Rev. Peter Rogness, bishop of the St. Paul synod. They are long-distance runners who have been part of the ministry for years. Only now, the ELCA is opening the door more widely and "drawing the circles of welcome more broadly," he said before hundreds of people at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in St. Paul, Minn.
Twenty years have passed since Frost and Zillhart – who have been together for 26 years – were ordained "extraordinarily" by St. Francis Lutheran Church in San Francisco. The ELCA did not allow for the ordination of partnered homosexuals at the time and expelled the congregation.
Hill, who has had a lesbian partner for 17 years, was also ordained "extraordinarily" in 2001 by St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church. Her church was censured by the ELCA.
The three women's reception on Saturday was made possible by the ELCA's recent change in policy on clergy. Last August, the denomination's highest legislative body voted to permit persons who are in "life-long, monogamous, same gender relationships" on to the clergy roster.
In an e-mail to Barbara Lundblad of Union Theological Seminary in New York, Hill wrote, "We are doing you no wrong by being received to the ELCA roster. ... So why must our reception be seen as sullying the ministry for everyone? Do you not see the pain of not having ... [our work] acknowledged for all these years?"
Lundblad, who is also a partnered lesbian, paid tribute to those who were among the first to "come out" in the ELCA and fight for ordination, including Joel Workin and Jeff Johnson.
"We wouldn't be here without them," she said in her sermon.
Poking fun at how the homosexuality debate has played out in the church, Lundblad noted, "For many of us throughout this church, Anita Hill, you have been our pastor standing up, walking out, being the 'Lutheran lesbian' in every place you entered so that sometimes people forgot you did other things."
As they stood at the front of the church, the three ministers promised to preach and teach in accordance to the Holy Scriptures and give faithful witness in the world that God's love may be known in all that they do. They were received as servants of Christ by the hundreds present at the ceremony and affirmed as ELCA clergy.
The Minnesota rite of reception comes months after a similar ceremony in California, where seven gay ministers were received on to the roster.
The decision to recognize noncelibate homosexual clergy has prompted hundreds of congregations to sever ties with the ELCA.
Last month, hundreds of disaffected Lutherans constituted a separate denomination called the North American Lutheran Church. They argue that the ELCA is moving away from the authority and teaching of Scripture.
The ELCA is the largest Lutheran denomination in the country with 4.5 million members. It, however, has been experiencing continuous decline and last year saw its biggest-ever drop in membership.