Herbert Chilstrom: Gay acceptance and churches

  • Article by: HERBERT W. CHILSTROM
  • Updated: August 3, 2013 - 4:48 PM

Despite the pope's warmhearted words, don't expect immediate change. Instead, be patient.

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The pastoral, warmhearted response of Pope Francis to a reporter’s question about homosexual persons quickened many hearts. Was it a harbinger of change in the near future?

My experience tells me such hopes are unrealistic.

I became a Lutheran bishop in Minnesota in the mid-1970s. It wasn’t until then that I began to meet members of our Lutheran congregations who were gay and lesbian. Among them were graduates of our Lutheran colleges and children of some of our most prominent parish pastors.

They told their stories — tales of heartless rejection and accounts of persistent faith. I listened and asked questions.

It was a step.

It was a full two years before I wrote a pastoral letter to all of the more than 600 ordained ministers on our roster in Minnesota. I urged them to do as I had done, to get acquainted with gay and lesbian members of their churches and to give them pastoral care.

It was a step.

Over the next decade, I carved out time to study carefully the handful of Bible passages that refer to same-sex behavior. Eventually, I came to believe that all of them addressed homosexual abuse and rape. I had seen none of this among the growing number of homosexual Lutherans I had come to know firsthand.

It was a step.

In 1987, I was elected the first presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the fourth-largest Protestant denomination in the United States. By now the issue had bubbled up into a national crisis. Along with other denominations, the ELCA was seeking to develop a policy on gay ordination, gay marriage and related questions.

Each attempt at a resolution failed.

In the meantime, in 1991, I urged the 65 regional bishops of the ELCA not to bring disciplinary action against parish pastors who felt free in conscience to bless homosexual pairs who came for an affirmation of their relationships.

It was a step.

After I retired from office in 1995, the ELCA continued to wrestle with these matters. Finally, in 2009, more than three decades after my first encounters with gay and lesbian members, the national assembly of the ELCA, by a two-thirds majority, affirmed those in faithful, lifelong same-gender relationships and allowed congregations to call a homosexual pastor who is in that kind of partnership.

It was a step.

In the four years since then, a small but growing number of the nearly 10,000 congregations in the ELCA have opened wider their doors to these fellow believers.

It is a step.

In a hierarchal organization like the Roman Catholic Church, where such decisions are made by a small coterie of cardinals in Rome, the process of change could drag on for far more than three decades. And the outcome can only be surmised.

In the meantime, many of us — Lutherans, Roman Catholics, other Christians and non-Christians — give thanks for the kind and understanding words of Francis.

It is a step.

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Herbert W. Chilstrom, of St. Peter, is former presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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