The Central City Lutheran Mission in San Bernardino, an urban ministry that serves the poor and homeless, has been stripped of its official recognition because it installed an associate pastor who is in a committed lesbian relationship.
The decision is the harshest punishment of a Lutheran congregation with a gay pastor in more than a decade. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America allows gay clergy only if they are celibate, a requirement not imposed on heterosexual pastors.
Thirteen other congregations have installed openly gay and lesbian pastors, including worshipers in Hollywood and Minneapolis. Churches that have been disciplined have received far milder punishments, however, such as letters of censure.
But the Pacifica Synod in Yorba Linda, the regional organization that oversees congregations in Hawaii and portions of Southern California, revoked Central City's congregational status on Oct. 29.
"This is the first time in 14 years that any congregation or any pastor has been dealt with this harshly. We thought those days were over," said Pastor David Kalke, who leads the San Bernardino mission. "It appears conservatism has raised its ugly head here in Southern California, much to our surprise."
Bishop Murray Finck said Central City violated the church's constitution when it installed Pastor Jenny Mason in April, because Mason is not on the church's official roster of recognized pastors. He said the church's decision has nothing to do with Mason's sexual orientation, though he conceded that she is not on the roster because she is a lesbian who chooses not to be celibate.
"The issue as we see it had nothing to do with this person's orientation," Finck said. "That wasn't our issue in this synod. Our issue was that we are obligated to abide by our governing documents that say only people who are on the roster of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are to be called into the pastoral world and sacrament ministry."
Finck said the move was necessary to provide consistency in the region, because other congregations in the Pacifica Synod had sought to install pastors who were not on the roster, though for reasons other than their sexual orientation, he said.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has more than 5 million baptized members in more than 10,700 congregations. The congregations are organized into 65 regional synods.
Discipline was once handled by the national church, complete with a public trial and an appeal process. But after a 1990 dispute with two San Francisco congregations that had installed openly gay clergy and were ultimately kicked out of the church, discipline became a matter that synods handled, said Greg Egertson, co-chairman of Lutheran Lesbian and Gay Ministries in San Francisco.
Since those 1990 incidents, no congregations have been stripped of recognition for installing gay clergy, despite the church's constitutional ban on gay clergy who are not celibate.
However, national church leaders are currently studying the matter and the church's National Assembly will be voting on the issue at its biennial meeting in August in Orlando.
Egertson said the Pacifica Synod may be trying to send a message to the assembly.
"It's a huge step backward; it's out of step with what other synods are doing and it's very badly timed," he said.
The Pacifica Synod's move also comes at a controversial time for gays in the clergy. On Thursday, the United Methodist Church defrocked a lesbian minister who lives with another woman -- the first time in nearly two decades the church acted on its prohibition of non-celibate gay clergy. And churches around the world have decreased or eliminated relationships with the U.S. Episcopal Church since it ordained a gay bishop in New Hampshire last November.
Mason previously served 10 years as an officially recognized Lutheran pastor and missionary in Chile before the church learned of her long-term relationship with another woman and forced her to resign in 2001.
"I don't know the good folks who live in Orange County, but that's where our synod office is and I have a feeling that's what moves decisions more than serving the poor and the oppressed in the inner city of San Bernardino," Mason said. "We don't bring money into the church -- we're serving the people Jesus called us to serve."
In addition to conducting eight bilingual worship services weekly, the mission provides housing for HIV-positive homeless people, allows homeless men to sleep in its pews on cold winter nights, and recently opened a medical clinic.
The Pacifica Synod said the mission could continue in its social outreach, without a spiritual component.
But Kalke said that's not enough. He plans to lead Central City as an independent Lutheran congregation, in the spirit of Lutheran churches that voiced dissent during the Holocaust and apartheid.
"I'm going to continue to celebrate Mass," he said. "These people have a right not only for a place to sleep and a bowl of soup but also a right to worship."