The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America this week suspended two congregations that ordained a gay man and two lesbians in defiance of church rules.
The action came after an intense three-day hearing about the place of homosexuality in the church. Leaders and laypeople of the nation's fifth-largest denomination debated the church's policy that gay people cannot become ministers unless they promise to be celibate.
The church filed charges early this year against two San Francisco congregations that challenged the rule. At a large public ceremony in January, First United Lutheran Church ordained Jeff Johnson, a gay man who refused to take a celibacy vow, and St. Francis Lutheran Church ordained Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart, a lesbian couple.
The suspensions, imposed by a disciplinary committee, will last five years. If the congregations do not comply with church rules by revoking the ordinations during that period, the congregations will be permanently expelled.
Frost said yesterday the committee's action threatens "both the well-being of the church and its relevance to gay and lesbian people," but that it did not surprise her.
"Society has written a blank check for the church to discriminate against gay and lesbian people," the 42-year-old minister said. "We have waited too long for justice in both church and society."
Frost said she realized when she left the seminary a few years ago that she "couldn't do ministry in the church's closet."
She chose to reveal her homosexuality because the vow of celibacy was "really a lifelong vow of shame. We were being asked to discount ourselves and make our commitments expendable."
In addition to suspending the congregations, the disciplinary committee urged the church to do an intensive study of homosexuality and ordination.
The disciplinary committee took the action because the two congregations ordained people who had not been officially certified by the church. In March 1988, another church committee refused to certify Frost, Zillhart and Johnson, saying their homosexuality was incompatible with church teachings.
The move by the church, which has 5.3 million members and more than 1,000 congregations, comes at a time when other denominations are grappling with the gradual acceptance of homosexuality in the secular world.
The Episcopal, United Methodist and Presbyterian churches, for instance, have examined their stances after some congregations ordained gay clergy members. Although the Vatican has denounced homosexuality, Roman Catholics have debated the issue within the church. In June, the progressive Reform branch of Judaism declared that gay men and lesbians were fully entitled to become rabbis.
Like many churches, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America teaches that the only proper place for sexual activity is within a heterosexual monogamous marriage.
As a result, "We have half a million members of our church who are gay and lesbian who are suffering in silence and hundreds of gay pastors who are hurting," said the Rev. James DeLange, pastor of St. Francis.
Frost said she hoped that her ordination and those of Zillhart and Johnson would stir discussion within the church on gay and lesbian issues.
DeLange agreed. The disciplinary committee "made a political decision, and ours was a political act," he said.
Harold Jensen, bishop of the Metropolitan Washington synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, said the controversy was "something that should bring the church to its feet."
Even if discussion does begin, many people were doubtful the church would change its policy any time soon.
"We are in a conservative and uptight mood in this country," said Krister Stendahl, a Lutheran and former dean of the Harvard Divinity School. Stendahl, who actively supported the ordinations, said, "It takes time when the tradition is heavy."
He added, however, that he was somewhat optimistic. "I'm arrogant enough in my faith to believe that the truth wins out in the end -- even in the church."