In 1993 the Presbyterian’s General Assembly voted to call its members to engage in dialogue concerning human sexuality. The vote was in response to calls for the church to allow for the ordination of LGBT members as Deacons, Elders and Ministers. Presbyterians have a long, if not especially noble, history of studying, dialoguing, and forming special task forces instead of taking action. Maybe the call for three years of dialogue was one such delaying strategy, nonetheless, many Presbyterians—especially LGBT Presbyterians—took the mandate seriously.
Two such members were a pair of ministers and also a couple, Tammy Lindahl and Martha Juillerat. Both served in little churches in the Midwest. Before 1993 both went about all the duties of a pastor: visiting the sick, baptizing babies, preaching, folding the Sunday bulletin, watching out for those in need, all while living closeted lives. But, when the church called for dialogue, Martha and Tammy answered. They decided to put a face on an issue, and share their experience as ministers, Presbyterians, lesbians, and Christians. Often they would be invited to events that were more like debate and less like dialogue. “There came a time when I just couldn’t be called an abomination one more time,” I remember Martha saying.
There were threats made to revoke their ordination status, and far more serious threats on their lives. So in 1995, Martha chose to take the action of setting aside her ordination. She did so at a regular meeting of her local presbytery, a regional governing council of the Presbyterian Church.
As she did so, Martha wanted to make clear that she and Tammy were, in fact, two among many. Plenty of other LGBT Presbyterians were also quietly serving the church as ministers. Still others had either left the Presbyterian Church to serve as ministers in more open denominations or had left the ministry altogether. In this latter category was Scott Anderson, a thoughtful, quiet, button-down kind of guy who had been serving in California as a pastor until members of his congregation threatened to go public with their suspicion that he was gay. Instead, Scott—like Martha—set aside his ordination, and came out.
Just a few weeks before she was to set aside her ordination, Martha put out a call asking for current or former LGBT Presbyterian ministers to send her a liturgical stole (a symbol of ordination for ministers in our tradition) which she would place on the Communion Table in the sanctuary of the church where the Presbytery meeting was to be held. Remember, there were usenets and online bulletin boards and other such things way back in 1995, but largely the invitation spread by word-of-mouth. But spread it did, and 80 stoles arrived in Tammy and Martha’s mailbox in the first week or so. One of those stoles belonged to Scott Anderson. Now there are more than 1,000 stoles, and the collection includes other sacred objects from traditions which don’t use liturgical stoles. Since becoming part of the Institute for Welcoming Resources, the project has expanded to be interfaith, and represents more than 30 faith traditions from around the world.
Of course the point of recalling this history is simply, as the media has reported, to mark the historic moment that occurred on October 8, when Scott Anderson was ordained a second time as a Presbyterian minister and he put on the stole that the Shower of Stoles Project returned to him. It’s the first such time that the Stoles Project has returned a stole to a publicly identified LGBT person on the occasion of being formally recognized by their faith tradition.
Since the Presbyterian Church changed its policy to allow qualified LGB persons to be ordained to the offices of our church, there have been several ordination services, of which Scott’s was the first. Later on that same day, Steve Andrews was also ordained, and on October 16 Scott Clark will be ordained as well. If you’re wondering, the Presbyterians also ordains women, but it just so happens that with the ordination of Scott, Steve and Scott, three of the finest most gifted Presbyterian men now have taken on the responsibilities of serving the church.
It may happen that sometime in the future we might ordain a few mediocre LGBT folks—just as we’ve ordained some less-than-stellar straight folks over the years. But it just so happens that we’ve pretty much led with the best—three men who, though their gifts and skills and ministries differ widely, remarkably share the same manifest quality of profound gentleness. I mean, if you sat down next to any of these three, you would almost immediately feel as though a warm beam of compassion was shining directly on you. Or, at least that’s been my experience.
So, on behalf of LGBT folks everywhere, I’d like to be the first to say to my Presbyterian brothers and sisters, “You’re welcome!!! We’ve known all along what gifts of faith and skills for service we can offer, and we’re so glad you finally get to experience that firsthand through Scott, and Steve and Scott.”
And, since we began with a little foray into history, let’s end with another short history lesson. While Scott Anderson was indeed the first publicly identified LGBT individual to be ordained since the policy change that took place this past July, there have been five openly LGBT Presbyterians ordained as ministers before the rules changed. This came about because five courageous Presbyteries believed strongly in the calls of these five, and were willing to risk a judicial challenge by ordaining them. Among these are:
- The Rev. Katie Morrison
- The Rev. Mieke Vandersall
- The Rev. Tanya Denley
- The Rev. Ray Bagnuolo and
- The Rev. Cheryl Pyrch
Now that we’ve opened the history file, there are many other stories we could tell—of the many, many Presbyterian LGBT Elders and Deacons (lay leaders in our church who are also ordained and whose ordination—in theory if not so much in practice—is understood to be equal to that of ministers) who served openly before the new rules, and of those who blazed a trail for all of us—but those are wonderful stories for another time.