Saturday, January 25, 2014

Review of Queer Clergy by R.W. Holmen

Earlier this fall I responded to a call for people willing to review a new book, Queer Clergy by R.W. Holmen, that was hitting shelves in early 2014. I received an advance reader's copy. Life got a little out of hand (as is to be expected while working in a church over Christmas), so I am just now getting around to writing my review.  

Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism is a compelling history of the role of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer (LGBTQ) clergy in five major mainline Protestant denominations, the United Church of Christ (UCC), the Episcopal Church (TEC), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Methodist Church (UMC). Holmen traces the arc of history in each denomination from the first murmurings of LGBTQ clergy to the present (or until about May 2013). He uses official documents of the denominations: minutes, resolutions, policy statements, and judicial decisions, as well as personal interviews with LGBTQ pioneers in each denomination.

Holmen himself is an ELCA Lutheran with a background in law, who is an ardent ally for LGBTQ persons. He writes in the preface, "Hopefully this book will help LGBT Christians and straight allies to appreciate our past and to remember the pioneers who have led the church to be a place of welcome."   This book is a straightforward and concise history text, but for me, its real value is in naming the pioneering and prophetic queer clergy who have gone before me.  Since I am a part of the ELCA, this review will focus on that portion of the text, part III.

In this forum, it is impossible to summarize all the information packed into this section of Holmen's book. It is a rich examination of the early LGBTQ activist groups in the Lutheran church (starting in the 1970s), the early explorations of social statements regarding human sexuality (although none considered LGBTQ ordination), and the introduction of many early clergy pioneers.  After the formation of the ELCA in 1988, Holmen traces an intensifying call for discourse.  Through reporting personal interviews with those involved and citing synodical documents, he traces the heartbreaking stories of defrocking of out glory, of congregations being expelled from the ELCA for calling openly gay and lesbian pastors. He discusses the process of extra ordinem ordinations and the ultimate formation of the group, Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (ELM), to provide a credentialing body for those clergy who had a call to ordained ministry and also happened to be LGBTQ.

A theme in this section is "Biblical obedience mandated ecclesiastical disobedience."  With rising crescendo, Holmen traces the history of resolutions and proposals until the ELCA Churchwide Assembly 2009 (CWA09) and what is referred to in ELCA circles even now as "The Vote."

This resolution is as follows, "RESOLVED that the ELCA commit itself to finding a way for people in such publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as rostered leaders of this church."

With 559 voting yes, and 451 voting no, the moment had arrived for queer clergy in the ELCA.  Holmen writes, "the reaction among a thousand voting members and another thousand observers was muted.  The plenary hall was suddenly sacred space, and the quiet interrupted only by weeping and the murmur of prayer.  By twos and threes and fours and fives, the children of God huddled together in tears and prayer, some in joyous thanksgiving and others in grief."  I remember watching this vote from my desk at work in Boulder, CO.  I remember weeping too with joy that my denomination had found a way.  Little did I know how important this would become for me personally.

Holmen also respectfully addresses the opposition to this vote in the years that follow.  I was impressed by both his treatment of this issue, but also the conduct of the ELCA and its leaders.  He also covers the emotional reinstatement process of those clergy who were defrocked and those congregations that were expelled.

I don't find myself moved to tears by books very often, and Holmen's book did this for me.  I have a lot personally invested in this history, and as I read this text, I gave thanks over and over again for the brave clergy, bishops and allies, who went before.  I know many of the people personally that Holmen writes about, Pastor Anita Hill, Pastor Bradley Schmeling, Retired Bishop Herb Chilstrom, and others, but this book filled in the rest, and I will never stop being thankful for these people.

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