In a historic milestone for the Presbyterian Church, a Minneapolis congregation is set to host the first ordination of an openly gay person to serve as a minister in the faith in Minnesota.
On Aug. 25, Westminster Presbyterian Church will hold an ordination ceremony for Daniel Vigilante, who joins only a dozen or so other openly gay and lesbian members nationwide to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church USA since the denomination voted to lift its ban on gay clergy nearly two years ago.
Vigilante's ordination comes at a time when more Presbyterian and other mainline Protestant congregations have begun to embrace gay clergy leading their churches.
"Westminster's commitment … is to live out a gospel of God's inclusive love," said the Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen, pastor of Westminster and founder of the advocacy group Covenant Network of Presbyterians, which supports the ordination of openly gay clergy. "We're delighted to host this."
In May 2011, Twin Cities Presbyterians cast the deciding vote in favor of lifting the denomination's ban. A majority of the 173 U.S. presbyteries had to vote in favor of the new policy adopted in 2010 at the group's national assembly. The Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area happened to cast the 87th, and deciding, vote.
Vigilante, 36, will serve at Grace-Trinity Church in Minneapolis. He graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey in 2004 but did not pursue ordination in the Presbyterian Church USA because of the denomination's policy prohibiting gay clergy at the time. He went on to serve as a youth minister at a California church nearly eight years before being called to Grace.
The denomination's new policy overrides language in the Presbyterian Church USA's constitution that had limited clergy roles to people "living in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness." The new policy opens the clergy to those "joyfully submitting to the Lordship of Jesus Christ."
"I felt called to ministry since I was a kid, as long as I can remember," said Vigilante. "I just felt like the right thing to do was to stick with the church and hope and pray one day the church … will change its mind.
"For the church that at one time said 'no,' now they're saying 'yes' … When any institution makes such a huge change, it's sort of a historic moment. I think it says a lot about how far our church has come over the last 10 to 15 years."
Issue has caused rifts
With just under 2 million members nationwide and close to 75,000 in Minnesota, the Louisville, Ky.-based denomination is among the latest mainline Protestant group to move toward accepting same-sex relationships.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the largest Lutheran group in the country, liberalized its policy toward gay clergy in 2009. The United Church of Christ started ordaining openly gay clergy in the early 1970s, and more recently endorsed same-sex marriage. In 2003, the Episcopal Church consecrated the first openly gay bishop.
Change hasn't come without some fallout. Within the ELCA, for example, some 600 congregations nationwide have left the denomination since the 2009 policy that allowed for openly gay and lesbian pastors in committed relationships to serve as clergy.
According to the Presbyterian Church USA, close to 175 congregations have left since the policy change in 2011. The denomination reported having 10,262 congregations and 1.85 million members in 2012, said Jack Marcum, a researcher with Presbyterian Church USA.
A splinter group known as ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians was established in 2012 after the policy change.
Dana Allin, a national executive with ECO, says close to 60 congregations from the Presbyterian Church USA have left that denomination to join ECO, which does not embrace the Presbyterian Church policy on gay clergy.
Allin says ECO follows a more conservative theology, but was not established in direct response to the Presbyterian Church's policy change.
"It's not only conservative, but it also has a robust vision for expanding the kingdom. … We really want to plant more churches," Allin said.
"Most of us have moved out of the PCUSA, and our goal is because we didn't want to get overly caught up on those issues," he said. "We're moving in a different direction because we don't want to have to be embroiled in that. We're out of it, so we're not trying to hold the PCUSA from doing what they believe they're supposed to do."
'A real moment of excitement'
Since the policy change, close to a dozen openly gay people have been ordained in the Presbyterian Church USA, according to the Rev. Brian D. Ellison, executive director of the Covenant Network.
In addition, a number of "previously ordained ministers have been able to come out or come more fully out and talk about their whole selves," Ellison said. "They've either sought new positions or in some cases continued to serve in the churches where they were serving previously.
"Obviously some churches have left, and that grieves us. But to be honest, I sense a real moment of excitement in the church right now. … I see churches that are rallying around the gifts of openly LGBT pastors and thriving."