SAN FRANCISCO -- Two Lutheran congregations that defied church rules by ordaining homosexual ministers vowed Friday not to back down, even if it means expulsion from the 5.3 million member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
'We're acting from our consciences,' said Rev. James DeLange, pastor of St. Francis Lutheran Church in San Francisco, which recently ordained two lesbians. 'We hope we will be exonerated, but we're prepared to suffer the consequences ... including expulsion.'
A 12-member committee representing church bishops was in San Francisco for open hearings Saturday and Sunday at First United Lutheran Church, where they will hear testimony from the pastors, the controversial ministers and members of the congregations.
The Rev. John Frykman, who ordained a homosexual minister at First United Lutheran, also known as St. Mark's, said the issue was the most important he has faced in 30 years as a church leader.
'Gay and lesbian people in this country are by far the most oppressed minority,' Frykman said, 'and the followers of Jesus should be in the forefront of the oppressed.'
He said at a news conference that, when three Lutherangroups joined together in 1988 to form the largest of about a dozen Lutheran sects in the United States, a key agreement was the church's dedication to 'inclusiveness' of those oppressed and disenfranchised.
'It is time for us and for churches all over the world to say gays and lesbian people are as much a part of God's creation in the best sense as the rest of the world family,' said Frykman.
He accused church leaders who were against the the Jan. 20 ordinations of setting guidelines 'without Biblical reflection.' He said this was the only case he knew of within the church where disciplinary action was taken against an entire congregation after a member was 'called' into the service of the Holy Spirit.
'What the mother church is doing is a sin against the Holy Spirit,' he said. 'Bishops aren't supposed to decide who is ordained or not ordained.'
The Rev. Jeff Johnson, 27, the ordained homosexual and assistant pastor at United Lutheran, said gays were asking for the same rights to serve and worship that all human beings are afforded.
Wearing a lavender button with a cross that read, 'Love One Another,' Johnson said, 'Gays love one another and have relationships that need to be blessed.'
Both church pastors said their San Francisco congregations overwhelmingly supported the 'call' to ministry of the homosexual ministers and that their memberships have actually gone up slightly.
The Rev. Phyllis Zillhart and the Rev. Ruth Frost, the two ordained lesbians, were grand marshals of San Francisco's Gay Freedom Day Parade in June and both said they were dedicated to serving the church and reaching out to members of the homosexual community who have been discriminated against by many religions.
'The issue is whether the church will include gays and lesbians of faith with all the privileges and rights that entails,' Zillhart said. 'I believe it can.'
The disciplinary panel can expel, censure or temporarily suspend the two churches from national membership after hearing the testimony. Although it has two weeks to make a decision, a ruling on the matter was expected before the panel leaves town on Tuesday.
If expelled, the pastors of both churches said they would continue ministering to their congregations, since neither their funding nor church property was in any way controlled by the Evangelical Lutheran coalition.
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.
'We don't want to be expelled. We love the church,' Frykman said. 'We're not doing this out of a narrow concern, but for the service of the whole church.'