On Saturday, January 20, 1990 at St. Paulus Lutheran Church in San Francisco, unbeknownst to the ELCA (indeed, unbeknownst, at first, to most of the ordinands themselves), there was a mass extraordinary ordination of approximately 1000 people with hundreds more participating at satellite services in Seattle, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Holden Village, Washington D.C., Phoenix, and Milwaukee.
Only three of the ordinands present (Ruth Frost, Jeff Johnson, and Phyllis Zillhart) had letters of call to local parishes. In electing to call Pastors Frost, Zillhart, and Johnson, St. Francis Lutheran and First United Lutheran had set the extraordinary event in motion. Technically, none of the three ordinands were “available for call”: the ELCA’s “interim guidelines” (a predecessor of “Vision and Expectations”) required celibacy of gay and lesbian candidates for ministry. The ELCA chose to discipline and eventually expel both congregations.
The vast majority of those ordained that day, however, were (again, “technically”) lay people without seminary degrees. Many of them were gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or something else altogether, and none of them pledged to be celibate. Largely unnoticed by the ELCA, they left St. Paulus and the various satellite services to pursue their new-found ministries extra ordinem.
What had happened? In the sermon she preached that day, The Rev. Dr. Carter Heyward explained:
…I am here today to speak of what it may mean to be blessed by God, because, my brothers and sisters, we have been blessed abundantly by the sacred spirit.
Our presence here today bears this witness: the Holy One who breathes our only hope into the world; She whose tenderness and tenacity topples principalities and powers; He whose compassion and humor fortifies our lives one day at a time; this God has gathered us today to celebrate a blessing we have already been given, each of us in his or her own way — and yet, a common blessing it is: ours, not simply mine or yours, not simply Ruth’s, or Phyllis’, or Jeff’s, not simply theirs, but a blessing we share, all of us who have been drawn here today. And therein is its sacred power.
Ordination, ultimately, is not about clergy rosters. Ordination is sacred empowerment. It is rooted in the blessing from God that we hold in common: the people blessed by God are empowered to be agents of God’s blessing for others. On January 20, 1990, the scope of that empowerment expanded far beyond the three newly ordained pastors.
More than a few of those present for ordination in January, 1990 encouraged their home congregations to consider a more inclusive process for calling pastors. Some put their efforts into the newly-formed Lutheran Lesbian and Gay Ministries (LLGM), supporting ministries and congregations at risk by virtue of the ELCA policy of exclusion. Others established the Extraordinary Candidacy Project to certify qualified candidates for ministry excluded by ELCA’s requirement of celibacy for sexual minority pastors. Even others connected with Lutherans Concerned/North America (LC/NA, now Reconciling Works) or Wingspan or Soulforce or Goodsoil to work for policy change.
Fifteen more extraordinary ordinations (and more disciplinary actions) followed. Nineteen years later, ELCA policy changed, though that was no more than the tip of an enormous iceberg, and the truth of the Gospel message, the truth of the blessing we have all received, has yet to be fully embraced.
The 1990 ordinations stand in a line of irregular, extraordinary, improbable events that reaches back even further than the first Pentecost. These are the sacred events by which the community of those blessed and empowered by God moves forward.
We pray the future will be no less extraordinary.
Bennett Falk lives in Berkeley, California. He is happy to be married to Margaret Moreland. He and Margaret were present at the 1990 ordinations and at the fifteen extraordinary ordinations that followed. He was webmaster for goodsoil.org (now defunct) and proprietor of lutheranconfessions.com (inactive, but still online). He has a bass guitar and a recumbent tricycle, and he’s not afraid to use them.