I was very moved by Paul Egertson’s obituary which appeared in the Los Angeles Times on January 10. Mr. Egertson, born in Litchville, North Dakota, was 75 years-old when he passed away January 7. I never met Mr. Egertson. I should really say Reverend Egertson, because I learned from the obituary that he was a former pastor (21 years) and Bishop (6 years) in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), a religion my family belong to when I was a child and teenager.
His father had also been a Lutheran pastor. In addition, he was a longtime faculty member at Cal-Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, a former Director of the Center for Theological Studies, a graduate of Pepperdine University, Luther Seminary and Claremont School of Theology where he received his Doctorate. Paul and his wife Shirley, I read, had six children, all boys. His eldest son, Greg, was gay.
I usually don’t read obituaries, but the headline was attention grabbing, “Lutheran Bishop was forced out,” all in large black lettering. Huh? “Forced out?” Was he a child molester? Did he embezzle church funds? Have an affair with the church organist? Surely he was not forced out because his eldest son was gay? I assume the good folks in the hierarchy of the Lutheran Church, who are dedicated and sworn to uphold and propagate the Universal Love of Jesus Christ, wouldn’t blame the parents for the “sin” of a son. Well, at least, this assumption was correct; Reverend Egertson was not forced out because his son way gay. Nor was he forced out for any of those other reasons.
So, what did Reverend Egertson do that was such a blaspheme to Christ that he was forced to resign?
Enter Anita C. Hill. (Not to be confused with the “famous” Anita Hill, the woman who gave sex-laced U.S. Senate testimony against the confirmation of Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court Justice.) Anita Carol Hill is simply a pastor at Saint Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church in Saint Paul, Minnesota. And, as it turned out, it could have been a lot easier on Reverend Egertson had he been involved with testifier Hill rather than Reverend Hill!
Reverend Egertson met Reverend Hill in 2001 when he defied church policy and joined three retired Bishops in ordaining Reverend Hill. Reverend Hill, you see, is a lesbian and her specific “sin” was not that she was an open and proud lesbian, but rather that she was in a committed lesbian relationship, you know, like a marriage. This meant that she was probably consummating her love for her partner by having (you might want to shield your eyes) sex with her! An act that disqualified her, in the eyes of the ELCA from serving God.
Reverend Egertson felt strongly that the position of the ELCA against ordaining “practicing homosexuals” was wrong. His own gay son, Greg, was denied ordination after graduating from a seminary because of the policy of banning non-celibate gays. To dramatize his objection to church policy, Reverend Egertson traveled to Minnesota to participate in Hill’s ordination. Said Reverend Egertson, “I went there because I wanted to protest this policy and ecclesiastical disobedience is a perfectly respectable form of protest speech. I knew punishment would go along with this, but one theory of passive resistance is to break the laws and take the consequences so that the law is reconsidered.”
It was for this act of ordaining a lesbian in a committed loving relationship that he was forced out! Imagine, in the 21st century, a church orthodoxy which “punishes” life-long, educated adult ministers from loving Christ-centered families for following their conscience. Amazing! I am sure that even Christ had to look away.
However, the good Reverend’s strategy turned out to be right! In August, 2009, ELCA delegates voted to allow churches to hire gay pastors even if they are in committed same-sex relationships or even single and not celibate. Delegates also approved a resolution which would allow but not require pastors to bless same-sex unions.
There is no doubt in my mind that in Tucson, after the tragedy which killed six people and wounded 19 others including Representative Gabrielle Giffords, when President Obama spoke about the American family and all of us treating each other more civilly, America’s churches, synagogues and mosques were included. At the very least, these very citadels representing the God who created all of us, need to re-examine their reasoning when they exclude lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transsexuals. We are all part of the American family.
I salute you Reverend Egertson.