The mainstream church is not an especially comfortable place to be these days. In almost every denomination, disagreements, and outright fights, are taking place over the acceptance or role of GLBT Christians in the life of congregations. Whether it’s Methodists putting pastors like Jimmy Creech and Greg Dell on trial for performing same-sex marriages, or Lutherans expelling gay and lesbian pastors from their pulpits, the church has become a place of discomfort for many on both sides of the issue.
Rev. Steve Sabin, pastor of Lord of Life Lutheran Church, sees this a good thing. “Faith calls us to levels of discomfort,” he told his congregation. Sabin knows about discomfort. His ministry was revoked by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [ELCA] last February because he violates the church’s prohibition on “practicing homosexuals” in the pulpit. His saga, as well as the stories of two other Lutheran pastors who have caused “discomfort” to the church are chronicled in a new film by Pam Walton titled Call to Witness.
Walton experienced her own sense of discomfort when she was approached by a group of GLBT Lutherans and asked to make this film. “I’ve never been excited about organized religion,” she said in an interview with Whosoever. “I’ve had some sad experiences with it. My father was a religious bigot who rejected me.”
Once she met Sabin, and the two other people featured in the video — Anita Hill, a pastoral minister at St. Paul Reformation Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minnesota and Jane Ralph in Kansas City, Missouri — she realized why it was important to wander into a subject that caused her much personal discomfort.
“I have discovered how important it is to work within the churches to help them change this anti-gay rhetoric. I see how much our cultures are informed by these values. Anti-gay legislation comes from these values. Once the church changes their song the potential for progress for gay and lesbian people is amazing.”
Walton hopes her film will go a long way to making those changes happen. Now that the film is finished, Walton is shopping it around to congregations in all denominations, hoping they’ll either buy copies to show to their congregations or invite her to their churches to host a screening of the film. She is also hoping that the film will be nationally broadcast to further spread the message.
Before the film was finished, Walton was already seeing evidence that some of the changes are underway. “It seems churches like the Lutherans have one foot in acceptance and the other foot in some old thinking. Even in the three years I’ve been working on this we’ve seen Lutheran hierarchy soften up and begin to change,” she explained. “I don’t think it’s delusional to think within the next decade things will really change on that level.”
Call to Witness is a powerful testimony to the discomfort, and broken lives, that the fight over GLBT acceptance has caused within the Lutheran church especially. Sabin’s congregation has rallied to his defense, but he’s no longer “officially” a Lutheran minister. His name was removed from the roster last April. Anita Hill is being denied full participation as a minister in her St. Paul church. Her title remains “Pastoral Minister” although she performs the same rites and rituals as St. Paul’s main pastor. Jane Ralph gave up her congregation in Missouri, and tells of how she made the decision without all the information, and now finds herself shut out of ELCA. Despite the hardship she reaffirms the call on her life. “I still believe I’m called to be a pastor.”
Walton hopes the strictly Lutheran focus of the film won’t cause other mainstream denominations to ignore the film and its important message. “We wondered if we were restricting it too much making it just about Lutherans but we felt that the stories and human drama were universal enough and spilled over into what’s going on in other denominations, too.”
The stories are universal, crossing denominational lines. The refusal of the church to honor the call GLBT Christians feel on their lives is the crux of the problem faced not only by the Lutherans, but every mainstream congregation in the US. Opening up the pulpit, allowing full participation from GLBT Christians is uncomfortable for many within the tradition. But, as Rev. Sabin tells his congregation in the film, “Pray the church will pursue love and stop worrying so much about comfort.”
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.