I would never have imagined that I would be in seminary on a track toward becoming a pastor. So it was an amazing and grace-filled time when I began conversations with a friend about his experience of the Lutheran church—insights that eventually drew me into the faith, where I was baptized as a Lutheran and participated fully in the life of my congregation. I didn’t imagine that a queer person like myself would ever feel comfortable in such a place. Understanding what the church can be—and do—for the world, I experienced the stirrings of call, and was thrilled that I was a part of the ELCA, one denomination that had rather recently affirmed the place for LGBTQ persons in the pulpit.
At the time I formally began the process of Candidacy, the Obergfell v. Hodges decision had not come down from the supreme court, so I was within the letter of the law when it came to Vision and Expectations and a PALM relationship: publicly accountably, life-long, and monogamous. Halfway through our almost-two-decade-long relationship, we got married! We gathered family and friends for engagement parties and then the actual ceremony that happened on a beautiful spring day: relationships are affirmed and grown in community. We crafted a liturgy that spoke to our collective belief in God (at this time I was not a Lutheran), and used symbols from various traditions that spoke to the history of wedded union. And on top of all this, we had our bond legally recognized in the state where we were living: not a federally transferable union, but good for what we wanted at the time.
I finished my paperwork (which included sending a scanned copy of our official certificate from the state) and that was that—the process had begun. My biggest concern at the time (which is not unusual for candidates) is that I had not been Entranced before I started seminary.
By the time my Entrance interview took place, marriage equality was thankfully the law of the land. Knowing that I had been in a relationship for many years, and knowing that we had a ceremony and had a legal relationship, the committee asked:
“So, when are you going to get married?”
“But, we are married,” I replied.
“But you’re not federally married. Is that something you are going to consider?”
The committee members were very friendly, and I do believe that they were not trying to be difficult. But the reality was, as they outlined it, now that marriage equality was the law, federal marriage was now “the highest level of public accountability” for all couples, same or differently gendered. It wasn’t being required now, but at some point there could be a mandate that same-sex couples who had any designation other than federal marriage would need to get married to be in compliance with Vision and Expectations.
I knew I would have to address this in my Endorsement essay, but also knew that milestone was eight or nine months away, and I had pressing things to do for classes.
Now, let us recap what I have done at this point, as an LGBTQ Candidate for ministry:
-Enclosed a copy of the state certificate that verified my relationship as part of my Candidacy application
-Defended my marriage in conversation with the committee at Entrance
-Defended my marriage in writing as part of the Endorsement essay
My appeal was well received, and yet a new counter-narrative emerged. If they were to start making exceptions for LGBTQ couples in non-traditional, non-federally-married arrangements, then that wouldn’t be fair to the heterosexual couples who only have the option of federal marriage. And, what is the standard of accountability for differently gendered couples in candidacy? What do they have to do?
That’s right. All a different sex couple has to do is check the “married” box on the application.
Clearly the ELCA is okay with a double standard that puts LGBTQ people in a position to continue to earn their right to ministry, even after 2009. There is still evidence, in writing, that indicates regardless of what they are saying about same sex couples, different sex marriage is still privileged. In fact, there have been no edits to either Vision and Expectations or Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust to reflect marriage equality. V & E still has a footnote that reads: “This ‘Vision and Expectations’ document uses the terms ‘marriage,’ ‘marry,’ and ‘married’ to refer to marriage between a man and a woman” (pg. 12). And the social statement has this to say, specifically in the area of bound conscience:
On the basis of conscience-bound belief, some are convinced that homosexuality and even lifelong, monogamous, homosexual relationships reflect a broken world in which some relationship do not pattern themselves after the creation God intended. While they acknowledge that such relationships may be lived out with mutuality and care, they do not believe that the neighbor or community are best served by publicly recognizing such relationships as traditional marriage. (pg. 20)
So, really, I can’t get married, or at least traditionally married, since I would not be marrying a someone of a different sex!! And, if I did, there are still a slew of congregations that would never call me, because it is within their right of “bound conscience” not to do so.
While the situation has not been ideal, I can at this point report that my Candidacy committee is on my side—thankfully! My Endorsement was not hindered by the fact that my spouse and I are not federally married, and the people that were on my Endorsement panel were very aware of the justice issues, and even the theological ones, at having to get married—again! One issue of Candidacy, in all its aspects, is that from synod do synod the conversations and the requirements are very different. I have a great committee with caring and justice-oriented folk who do understand that the system is in need of overhaul. Unfortunately, they still are required to work within that system, which just goes to show you that oppressive systems oppress those on the inside and the out!
But there is the looming threat of a dictum from Churchwide that will announce: Get Federally Married, or Get Out! And that is where I stand, wondering when the news will come and will my process be postponed until I decide to get on board.
ELCA, please! Stop setting LGBTQ folk up to fail with contradictory messages and an institutional doubled standard that works to keep the justice that unfolded with the 2009 decision from being fully realized.