Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Potholes on the road to Damascus

Recent experiences of the Rev. Bert Oelschig, a Lutheran pastor in Anniston, Alabama, propelled out of his pulpit for daring to suggest gay folks might be God’s children, too, illustrate some of the hazards involved in road-to-Damascus experiences.

According to reports in The Anniston Star, Oelschig and his small 80-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) congregation, Trinity, were in agreement until about June concerning the wickedness of LGBT people; united in condemnation of the ELCA mother ship that during 2009 agreed by majority vote to allow gay pastors in committed relationships to serve congregations that wished to call them.

During June, Oelschig set out for an ELCA conference prepared to speak in favor of overturning that 2009 vote, then somewhere along the road something happened.

“I meant to speak to that,” Oelschig told The Star, but “by the time I got there — I can’t put a cognitive handle on it — but in front of God and everybody else, I said I thought we should keep it.”

The shit hit the fan when he returned home to Anniston and tried to explain his new leading on the matter to parishioners, now mad as a flock of old wet hens. He was forbidden to preach on the topic, suspended when kept trying to explain and finally resigned last week as the alternative to being fired. Whoops.


Just out of curiosity, I decided to check out how ELCA congregations in Iowa are handling the issue of LGBT inclusiveness these days, measured by congregational votes to abandon the ELCA ship and join new affiliations that promise to keep the homosexual horde at bay.

The Episcopal Church already has been through this process (with the significant difference that Episcopalians who march off in high dudgeon aren’t allowed to take church property with them, as Lutherans may do). The Presbyterian Church (USA), which also recently opened its doors to gay clergy in committed relationships, soon will be.

My favorite source for ELCA news in this area is the blog of David R. Barnhart, a clergyman who seems to derive a good deal of satisfaction from celebrating the woes of those with whom he disagrees (have you ever noticed that a pissed off preacher can be just as vindictive as the rest of us?).

According to Barnhart’s count, as of August, 54 Iowa congregations have departed --- a significant number, but still a substantial minority. These range in size from Clear Lake’s Zion Lutheran Church, among the larger, to tiny congregations scattered in white-steepled buildings across the prairie. I did see that votes to depart had failed in two of my old home county’s congregations, Bethany Lutheran in Thompson (narrowly) and Winnebago Lutheran Church (decisively) out east of Leland.

Beyond these, there are congregations like West Des Moines’ massive Lutheran Church of Hope (hope, that is, for heterosexuals), among the capital city’s trendiest places to worship, which remains within the ELCA more out of cussedness than anything else, but declines to support it financially.


I’m always mildly surprised that a relatively small band of LGBT people seeking God has managed to cause such a fuss.

Some of the comments made to The Anniston Star by Mike Anderson, chair of Trinity’s church council, offer a few hints about why this is happening:

“We were going to have a revolt,” Anderson said. “People were going to leave en masse if we were going to become the gay church of Anniston … at least that’s what a lot of people heard. It may not have been what (Oelschig) said, but it’s what a lot of people heard.”


“It’s pretty clear that God doesn’t like homosexuality. Mostly what we’ve addressed is openly practicing homosexuals. If you’re gay and not all up in our faces,” Anderson said, “that’s really between you and God. It’s the openly flaunting …. that the council doesn’t agree with.”

So there you have one end of it --- many Christians are horrified that if their congregations appear too friendly, undesirables will start appearing in the pews; others, that the gay deacon everyone knows about but who remains discreetly silent will come flying out the closet during the offertory some Sunday morning. How embarrassing.

And then there are preachers, most fine men and women, many of whom, after considering mouths to feed, pension plans and the like, live in daily fear that their parishioners will find out what they really think. Pastor Oelschig’s experience is a fairly clear example of what can happen when this happens.

It’s not the Bible --- Christians of all varieties manage to avert their eyes and step around anything inconvenient found there; it’s just that different folks find different things inconvenient.

Personally, I think much of it comes down to money and what it buys --- you’ll note the collection’s usually elevated in most churches on Sunday mornings.

If that’s the case, here's the best advice I can offer: If you hit a pothole on the road to Damascus, or see one coming, for God’s sake don’t drop the collection plate.

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