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On Feb. 20, 2010, 81 of the 106 minister members of the John Knox Presbytery voted to ordain Scott Anderson of Madison as a Presbyterian minister. The Presbytery, based in Richland Center, is the governing body for a section of the Presbyterian Church USA that includes parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.
On paper, it was a no-brainer. Anderson, 54, a Madison resident, lifelong Presbyterian and current executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, had completed all of the necessary requirements for ordination. His résumé was spectacular: a Princeton Theological Seminary graduate, 25-plus years in the field, a wealth of ecumenical service and a glowing list of referrals.
There was just one problem: Anderson was openly engaging in a same-sex relationship with his partner of nearly 20 years. That prompted the Caledonia Presbyterian of Portage to seek to block his ordination.
"The church has to speak to matters of sexual morality like it speaks to many other issues," says Whit Brisky, the Chicago attorney representing Caledonia Presbyterian, one of the 61 churches that make up the John Knox Presbytery. "The church can't remain silent."
On Oct. 9, members of the synod's court will hear the case of Caledonia vs. John Knox in Eagan, Minn. The result will likely be appealed to the church's national court and decided once and for all next spring.
This counts as a small skirmish in a larger struggle among gays to find acceptance within organized religion. Though many churches across various denominations have examined homosexuality and adopted practices concerning members, there are still only three that ordain gays and lesbians. The United Church of Christ has done so since 1972; the Episcopal church ordained its first openly gay bishop about five years ago in New Hampshire; and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America adopted a more accepting policy in 2009.
The Presbyterian Church USA, a Protestant domination that boasts 2.3 million members and holds that God comes to humankind "with grace and love in the person of Jesus Christ," has been grappling with this issue unofficially for decades. But the Anderson case takes the debate to a whole new level. At its heart is a newly resurrected 200-year-old church practice called "scrupling" - essentially a conscientious objection to existing Presbyterian law.
The case will play out much like secular court cases, with heated arguments and appeals. The resulting decision will apply to other gay and lesbian Presbyterians in committed relationships seeking ordination.
And at the center of it all is a Madison man defending his very essence.
"I'm in a great place," says Anderson. "I've had moments of frustration and despair, but my faith doesn't get shaken. In fact, it's gotten stronger and more intimate through all of this. My spirituality is reenergized."
On the broad denominational spectrum - where, say, Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists stand staunchly on the right side and the United Church of Christ squats serenely on the left - the Presbyterian Church USA is nervously shifting its weight from foot to foot somewhere in the middle. Like United Methodists and many other denominations, Presbyterians are actively seeking answers to what has become "the Gay Question."
"My own sense of it is there's about 20% of the Presbyterian Church that really feels strongly against the ordination of gays and lesbians, and about 20% of the church that really feels strongly for it," says Douglas Nave, the attorney defending John Knox Presbytery's decision to ordain Scott Anderson. "And the 60% in the middle just sort of wish we didn't argue so much."
When asked to weigh in on the issue, Presbyterians are equally divided. In 2008, when the question was put to a vote, 51% of the ministers and lay leaders voting on the issue opposed gay ordination and 49% were in favor.
Current Presbyterian law, as amended in 1997, states that ministers are required to "live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness."
Attorney Brisky, who is working pro bono on Caledonia Presbyterian's case against John Knox Presbytery, says the "chastity in singleness" phrase was intended to exclude persons in sexual relationships outside of marriage between a man and a woman from becoming ordained ministers. He thinks that's a rule that should be upheld.
"Certainly, we're not against Scott as an individual," says Brisky, who works for the Chicago-based law firm of Mauck & Baker. "But Christians for two millennia and Jews for countless millennia prior to that have believed sex is essentially part of a marriage between a man and a woman. The scripture is clear on that."
Brisky says the Presbyterian Church USA's own literature is equally clear that same-sex relationships are far removed from "God's ordering of the interpersonal life for which he created mankind," and that as long as the rules are what they are, the church must follow them.
"The issue is whether homosexual practice is a sin," asserts Brisky. "If we believe that it is, then [it is not in Scott's interest for us to say], 'Hey, go ahead and sin, don't worry.' That would not be the charitable thing to do."
But a number of Presbyterians feel denying gays and lesbians who feel the call to ministry the right to serve is unjust, and have been fighting it since long before the 1997 amendment. In fact, the amendment, intended to end decades of debate, in some respects only fueled the fight.
"What is fidelity? What is chastity?" asks Nave. "The church's old confessional statements say that even married people have to be chaste. It can mean something like modesty or monogamy or temperance."
Historically, the Presbyterian Church seems to have dealt with controversy and schisms thoughtfully and progressively - in large part due to "scrupling."
The process dates back to the 1700s and has come in and out of practice since. It allows a candidate for ordination who has a conscientious objection to any part of the church's standards to declare his point, argue it and still be accepted.
In 2001, the Presbyterian Church appointed a Peace, Unity and Purity Task Force to look into the issue of gay ordination. The 20-member roundtable deliberated for five years before concluding that many of the church's members are in one of two diametrically opposed camps, both biblically faithful. To resolve this conflict, it called for a revival of scrupling to allow for conscientious objection in individual cases.
This finding, adopted by the church's General Assembly in 2006, rankled some conservative members of the church. They believe, says Nave, that "this fidelity and chastity standard in the constitution must be applied, no room for exceptions."
Brisky frames it differently. "There isn't any provision for so-called scrupling in the [Presbyterian constitution]," he says. "The General Assembly adopting scrupling without a vote of the presbyteries...seems like an end run."
Since the scrupling decision of 2006, three gay ordination cases emerged. One was a man in Minneapolis, who has since been ordained. The other was a lesbian in San Francisco, whose case is ongoing. But in both situations the candidates are not currently in relationships, and so more or less squeak by as "chaste in singlehood" despite their conscientious objections to official church policy.
The third case is distinct, because for the first time the candidate in question is openly engaging in a same-sex relationship. That third case is Scott Anderson.
Throughout much of the 1980s, Anderson was ordained in California, and for two and a half years he served a mid-sized parish just outside of Sacramento. He was also in a same-sex relationship, but it was kept tightly under wraps.
Anderson loved his church and its parishioners and was loved in return. But the don't-ask-don't-tell game wore on his then-partner, who was fed up with the closet. The relationship ended, and Anderson began to question his own position.
"His leaving sparked the process of discernment for me," says Anderson. "I did some therapy, went into some vocational assessment, and decided I just couldn't do this anymore. I couldn't live a lie."
Anderson made plans to leave the church within the next two or three years to return to graduate school. But in early 1990, a married couple in the congregation discovered Anderson's sexuality and, he says, attempted to blackmail him before sending a letter exposing him to every church member.
"It was a very ugly situation," he recalls. "It was also very empowering, because it was really the first time I was able to stand before the congregation I was serving and tell them the truth of who I was. It was the best and worst moment of my life."
On Sunday, April 1, 1990, Anderson told his congregation he was a gay man and was growing increasingly dissatisfied with being forced to live a lie. His announcement was received with a standing ovation.
The next day, he packed up his office and left. Two weeks later, the church called him back for a going-away party, where Anderson was presented with a check large enough to cover two full years of graduate school.
"I tried to handle the situation with integrity," says Anderson, "and I think people, regardless of how they felt about the issue theologically, appreciated that."
But it still hurt, and Anderson left the Presbyterian Church. He nursed his wounds for about a year at a liberal Catholic parish in downtown Sacramento and started graduate school that fall, supplemented by a part-time stint working for the California Council of Churches. A year after the scandal he met Ian MacAllister, his current partner of 19 years.
But Anderson couldn't stay away from the church he says is "a part of my DNA." He joined a more progressive Presbyterian parish, where he was a member for the next decade. Meanwhile, he became the California council's associate director and then executive director, a job he held for 12 years.
In the early 1990s, the Presbyterian Church USA drew national media attention for a couple of cases in which gays and lesbians were denied ordination. Anderson watched these from the sidelines with interest.
"I just felt there was a basic injustice here," he says. "I said, you know, I need to get back into this fight."
Fight he did, for five solid years, advocating inside the church for gay and lesbian ordination. But change was not forthcoming and, by the turn of the century, both Anderson and the Presbyterian Church had reached a breaking point.
"I just felt emotionally exhausted," says Anderson. "There was this perpetual legislative battle going on, and it became this merry-go-round. The debate at that time was nasty, vitriolic, mean-spirited and, frankly, un-Christian. I said, this is dysfunctional and it's not helping the cause, and in 2000 I backed away from it."
In 2001, the church's General Assembly reached the same conclusion, appointing the aforementioned task force to seek a sustainable solution. From the start, Anderson says, "I knew I wanted to be a part of it, to find another way forward."
Anderson served on the task force as its only openly gay member, and from 2001 to 2006 saw how "enemies became friends around that table." Meanwhile, he was reconsidering his own shelved ordination.
In 2003, he and MacAllister moved to the near east side of Madison, where Anderson began his current role as executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches in Sun Prairie.
By 2006, bolstered by the General Assembly's adoption of the scrupling recommendation, Anderson reinitiated the two-year ordination process with the John Knox Presbytery. He asserted the scrupling rule - which allows ordination to proceed if an applicant dissents from a church policy that is not "an essential of the faith."
"The question is not whether you agree or disagree with my scruple, but rather does my objection to church policy rise to [that] level," says Anderson. "Is it a big enough departure from church teaching to deny me ordination? And in February of 2010, the Presbytery said no."
It was a short-lived victory. Several weeks after the Presbytery's vote, the Caledonia Church filed its challenge, officially an appeal. The synod imposed a stay on Anderson's ordination until the issue is resolved.
"We all knew this appeal would come," says Scott. "And I thank God I'm not 25 and starting out and having to go through this. I'm a little more mature, a little more grounded."
Yet Anderson's battle to be ordained remains intensely personal, even as time has softened his view of the opposition.
"In a sense, both ends of the theological spectrum in our church have a symbiotic , and it is a very dysfunctional situation," he reflects. "For five years I helped lead this charge, but I'm in a very different place now. I refuse to say that the conservatives are wrong anymore. When I came out of the closet, in my fiery advocacy stage, justice trumped unity. Now I think it's more ambiguous. There's a tension here between justice and unity, and I want to pursue both."
Perhaps it comes with age, perhaps it's the natural result of too many years of knocking heads, but Anderson has a clear sense of calm about him. Tall and slim, steady and kind, he seems content with the latest phase in his life, one in which he has a loving partner, a solid community, a fulfilling job and an obvious confidence that no matter what the human beings decide to do with this case, he is loved by his God.
"That's why I left the political struggle and moved into this new realm, because this is far more life-giving," says Anderson. "To be in relationships with others, to engage people, to respect where they are. My goal right now is to meet people wherever they are on this journey. I've just seen so much change and transformation in people as they have encountered gay and lesbian Christians and moved to a more gracious place in their faith. But it's one person at a time, one story at a time."
Lin Grace Rohr is a pastor at Covenant Presbyterian in Madison, where Scott Anderson is a member. She says most of the congregation (herself included) supports Anderson, but some do not - and her job is to make all members feel heard and supported.
"As a pastor to all, I walk with all," says Rohr. "And it's a challenge."
Rohr says some members feel that homosexuality is a sinful choice, or that opening the church to gay ministers will hurt membership. "My ministry," she says, "is to tend the tensions, not or to say you're right and you're wrong. It's to listen with an open heart and meet them wherever they are."
To this end, Covenant offers adult education courses on the biblical text, and discussions and presentations that allow dissenting views to be heard. Rohr says congregation members "feel like they have a voice, even if it's a different opinion. That's why we can be in community, whereas some congregations are just all one or the other, either for or against."
Ken Meunier, Presbytery executive at John Knox, is in the same boat on a larger scale. His Presbytery voted to ordain Anderson, but that doesn't mean the nearly 10,000 members within its 61 churches all agree with the decision. And indeed, in the days afterward, a steady stream of ministers contacted Meunier's office concerned about how to deal with parishioners in opposition.
"Once the Presbytery makes its decision, my role is then to speak on behalf of the majority," he says. "It's not a win-lose thing, it's a prayerful process where you try to determine what God is calling us to decide in this matter. Now I'm journeying with the group that has been supportive of the decision, while at the same time I have to be supportive of those pastors and laypeople who feel differently."
That doesn't mean their positions won't change. Mark Achtemeier, a Dubuque-based Presbyterian pastor, theologian and seminary professor, once felt that gay and lesbian people of faith ought to either be celibate or "do what they can to embrace a heterosexual lifestyle."
Throughout the 1990s, Achtemeier was outspoken in his opposition to gay and lesbian ordination. But he also spent time talking with and listening to gay Christian friends. Through these conversations and relationships, he came to believe that sexual orientation was not a choice.
"I started to realize that the traditionalist viewpoint was functioning as a sign over the church door for gay people saying, 'There's nothing here for people like you,'" says Achtemeier. "That unless you change and become something you don't think you have any chance of ever becoming, Jesus doesn't really have anything to say to you."
Achtemeier's discomfort sent him back to the Bible. Where a surface reading seemed to display homosexuality in a negative light, he found a deeper read rendered that untrue. He eventually served on the task force with Scott Anderson. He now believes the church has "been making a terrible, harmful mistake for many, many years."
Anderson has benefited from similar transformations, brought out not by arguing over Bible verses but, as Achtemeier attests, through relationships. But his ability to serve the church as a minister remains in doubt.
On Oct. 9, the Synod of Lakes and Prairies Permanent Judicial Commission will hold a one-day trial on Caledonia Church vs. John Knox Presbytery. After hearing testimony from both sides, the nine commissioners will deliberate and come to a decision. Anderson will be present for the trial but will not be called to testify.
He's in a place of peace and prepared for any outcome. Rather than making him jaded or disillusioned, the battle has strengthened his faith, made it more intimate.
But, he laughs, "I no longer equate church with God. The church is trying to do the will of God, but it is a very human institution."