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Panel Hears Testimony in Lutheran Gay Ordinations

July 14, 1990|JOHN DART | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

A disciplinary panel considering whether to expel two San Francisco congregations from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for ordaining three homosexuals is expected to issue its ruling late next week, church officials say.

The 12-member committee finished three days of public hearings in San Francisco on Monday.

If the committee rules against the small congregations, they would be subject to censure, suspension or expulsion from the 5.3-million-member denomination.

In an unauthorized ceremony on Jan. 20, St. Francis Lutheran Church ordained a lesbian couple, Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart, and First United Lutheran Church ordained a gay man, Jeff Johnson.

Under the denomination's regulations, homosexuals can be ordained only if they promise to be celibate--a promise that none of the three was willing to make.

Among arguments heard in the testimony was the insistence by denominational Secretary Lowell Almen that sexual activity is appropriate only "within the bonds of marriage between male and female," and a defense by the Rev. John H. Frykman, pastor of First United, that "ecclesiastical disobedience in the face of unjust practice by the church" is in the best tradition of Martin Luther, a principal founder of the Protestant Reformation.

Frost and Zillhart, who also testified, registered this week in Anaheim for the 20th anniversary celebration of women's ordination in U.S. Lutheran churches. The conference began Wednesday and continues through Sunday in connection with a national convention of Lutheran lay women.

In an interview, Frost said she was pleased that "the committee saw fit to hear the breadth of our defense rather than just whether we violated church regulations.

"What I saw happen, in religious terms, was the split between law and gospel . . . the law and the freedom to live in unconditional love," Frost said.

"I certainly can't predict what the outcome will be, but my feeling is that if this committee was not moved to see the justice issues, then I think no committee in the church would be," she said.

Bishop Herbert W. Chilstrom, the ranking bishop of the Chicago-based denomination who was also in Anaheim for the women's convention, declined to comment on the San Francisco proceedings, which he did not attend.

Chilstrom said in an interview that he did not object to the lesbian couple's registration for the anniversary celebration of women's ordination since the event is open to more than pastors. But he also made it clear that the Lutheran church does not recognize Zillhart and Frost as valid clergy.

"Regardless of the outcome of the disciplinary process in San Francisco, the (two women) will not be recognized as ordained," the bishop said.

Zillhart and Frost, who were grand marshals of San Francisco's Gay Freedom Day Parade in June, have said they serve the church in part by reaching out to members of the homosexual community who have encountered religious discrimination.

"We're acting from our consciences," said the Rev. James DeLange, senior pastor at the congregation that ordained the two women. "We hope we will be exonerated, but we're prepared to suffer the consequences."

DeLange said a conference of 13 Evangelical Lutheran churches in San Francisco had adopted a resolution not to "break fellowship" with the two congregations if they were expelled. He also said letters of support have come in from around the country.

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