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Lutheran Lesbian & Gay Ministries

An Open Letter to the Rostered Ministers and Synod Council Members of the Southern California (West) Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

May 26, 2001

Yesterday, Shirley and I celebrated our 45th Wedding Anniversary. Within our first year of marriage, God gave us our first son. He was and is a gift. He was and is gay. Over the next fifteen years God gave us five more sons. They were and are gifts. They are straight. You never know what is in God's gifts until you open them. We have been blessed and we are grateful.

My e-mail in the past two days has brought nearly 250 notes and letters from people all over the country who have seen news reports stimulated by an article in the Los Angeles Times last Wednesday. It said that I have been asked to resign as a bishop of this church because of my participation in Anita Hill's ordination on April 28, 2001, in St. Paul, MN. Since your people will be wondering about this and about my response to it, let me fill you in on "the rest of the story."

As you know, at the invitation of St. Paul/Reformation Lutheran Church, St. Paul, MN, and by its authorization, I participated, along with others, in the irregular ordination of Anita Hill. Among other things, that event was an act of ecclesiastical disobedience, protesting the ELCA's policy of precluding gay and lesbian people in committed relationships from ordination. My rationale for doing so was shared with you before the event. Included in that rationale was my acknowledgement that such acts of conscientious disobedience assume the willingness to accept whatever penalty may be rightly imposed as a consequence.

Early in the week following the ordination, the executive committee of the Conference of Bishops met and our Presiding Bishop, H. George Anderson, phoned me to report the results of that meeting. They recalled a promise I had made to the bishops at my first meeting with them in which I said that, if I ever found it necessary to act in accordance with my convictions about the role of gay and lesbian people in our church, in a way that would violate the constitution or policy of this church, I would resign. (The Times article was in error saying this was in writing or a signed statement. It was in verbal conversation only.) Bishop Anderson then asked if I now intended to keep my word. I said I could consider resigning, but that I needed to consult with the Synod Council before responding, since I am accountable to them and well as to him.

I asked if a resignation would be considered full satisfaction for whatever penalty my action may have incurred. In the written summary of our conversation, which I requested and he later provided, the answer to that question reads as follows: "your resignation would end the possibility of the constitutional process of discipline being invoked in this matter." The main point of the message was made equally clear: "The executive committee of the Conference of Bishops, meeting on May 2, joins me in asking you to now fulfill your commitment and resign from the office of synodical bishop."

I have since held a series of consultations with numerous individuals, the Pastor and members of my congregation, my Staff, the Synodical Board for Ro stered Ministry, our Conference Deans, our Executive Committee and finally the Synod Council. While all affirmed support for whatever decision I would finally make, only a few individuals have encouraged me to resign. The overwhelming majority vigorously opposed the idea. The following action by our Synod Council last Saturday is the most moderate response I have received. Since it is to be reported as information to the Synod Assembly next week, I am incorporating it in this letter to you.

Resolution Adopted by the Southern California (West) Synod Council, May 19, 2001.

WHEREAS, the Reverend Paul W. Egertson, Ph.D., has faithfully served in the office of Bishop of the Southern California (West) Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, since January 29, 1995 to the present; and

WHEREAS, Bishop Egertson has served faithfully as a pastor in the Lutheran Church before that for decades; and

WHEREAS, Bishop Egertson, for many years worked conscientiously within the framework of the Church to advance the opportunities for gay and lesbian people to participate fully within the life of the Church in, among other things, clergy and other roles, even if they were in non-celibate committed, monogamous relationships; and

WHEREAS, there is and has been for some time honest and significant disagreement within the Church as to the opportunities for service available within the Church for non-celibate gay and lesbian people in committed, monogamous relationships; and

WHEREAS, Anita Hill, a Pastoral Minister, at St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church has led a ministry to gay/lesbian people called Wingspan at St. Paul-Reformation for nearly twenty years, while at the same time living in a committed relationship with her partner of many years; and

WHEREAS, Anita Hill completed all of the existing requirements for becoming an ordained minister within the ELCA, except for the fact that her committed relationship barred her from advancing under the ELCA Church Councilās Vision and Expectations Policy, a result which Bishop Egertson and others diligently tried to change within the framework of the Church; and

WHEREAS, when Anita Hillās ordination was, as a result, prevented from advancing, the members of her congregation in good faith called her to serve, notwithstanding the nonadherence of such action with the policies of Vision and Expectations and asked Bishop Egertson and others to participate in her irregular ordination; and

WHEREAS, Bishop Egertson, while recognizing that others acting in good faith would disagree, chose to and did participate, with the knowledge that he might well be subjecting himself to the disciplinary process of the ELCA, with others in Anita Hillās irregular ordination, a ceremony approved of by a vote of the St. Paul Area Synod Assembly; and

WHEREAS, it is undisputed and acknowledged by all that Bishop Egertson is a man of his word and has faithfully upheld the vows he took at his installation as Bishop;

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Southern California (West) Synod Council expresses its consensus that Paul W. Egertson, Bishop of the Southern California (West) Synod, should not be removed from office or be required to resign as a result of his participation with others as an act of conscience in the irregular ordination of Anita Hill at St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church in St. Paul, MN; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that, should Bishop Egertson choose to resign his office as a further act of protest over what he and many others within this Synod and the Church at large consider to be an unjust policy, the Synod Council, with regret, fully supports any such decision by him and further acknowledges that his willingness to accept the consequences of his actions is in keeping with the finest traditions of the Lutheran Church, consistent with the maintenance of Church order and in advancing the dialogue within the Church on this difficult issue about which honest disagreement exists; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that should Bishop Egertson choose to resign, in order to permit an orderly transition, the resignation date be set at July 31, 2001 and that the Synod Assembly be asked to take a one-time action that will set the beginning date for the term of his successor as August 1, 2001; and

BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, that these resolutions be conveyed as information to the ELCA Presiding Bishop, the ELCA Church Council, the Conference of Bishops, and the Southern California (West) Synod Assembly.

The hundreds of messages I have read (but not yet answered) in the past few days, also urge me not to resign. The central point they make is that the very purpose of violating an unjust law is to force those responsible for such laws to experience the consequences of enforcing them and thereby demonstrate their injustice for all to see. I agree with them on that point and support those who follow that course. That is the whole principle upon which both civil disobedience and non-violent resistance are built. From this point of view, my resignation would relieve the ELCA of having to enforce its own policy. In effect, by resigning, I would enforce the policy on myself and thereby collude with it, detracting from the witness that was made by disobeying it.

While I grant the above to be true in most cases, I have arrived at a di fferent conclusion in regard to my situation. I cannot deny the personal promise I made to my colleagues in the Conference of Bishops, as reported above. I might argue about whether or not the event in St. Paul was what I had in mind when I made that promise, but I was not that explicit with them and they could not be expected to read my mind. More seriously, whatever I said and however I said it, I said it intentionally to gain their trust. That single fact changes the issue for me considerably. It makes this a matter of personal integrity rather than reforming strategy. What's more, in addition to that first promise, I have also publicly pledged to accept whatever penalty is imposed for my participation in the act of ecclesiastical disobedience in St. Paul.

Given these facts, I understand my penalty to be the keeping of my earlier promise to resign. Should I refuse to do so, I would be breaking both that promise and the pledge to accept whatever penalty is imposed. Consequently, the same conscience that could not refuse to participate in an act of protest against this policy, now cannot refuse to keep my own word as the penalty for that protest.

Therefore, I have notified Bishop Anderson that, at our upcoming Synod Assembly, I will announce my intention to resign this office as of July 31, 2001, in accordance with the timeline in the Synod Council's resolution. This will be done AFTER the election of the new bishop has been completed, as a part of my final Bishop's Report. The Assembly will then be asked to adopt a resolution that will enable the newly elected bishop to assume office August 1, 2001.

This timeline will provide for an orderly transition and create no period of vacancy in the synodical bishop's office. It will have no impact on the Synod's budget. It will give my successor the benefit of being a voting member, rather than a visitor, at the Churchwide Assembly in August. Bishop Anderson has verified to me his receipt and acceptance of this notice.

Now, let me express what this act of resignation does and does not mean for me. First, it does not mean I recant or wish to diminish the protest I made by participating in Anita Hill's ordination. On the contrary, resigning intends to put an exclamation point after it.

Second, it does not mean resignation is now a precedent to be applied to others who commit acts of conscientious disobedience in protest of unjust policies in this church. It may be a precedent for those who make a prior promise to resign, but not for others.

Third, it does not mean that I admit to any particular violation of my installation vows or provisions of the constitution of this church. Since no such charges have been stated, no such admission can be inferred. That "some lines were crossed," incurring a penalty, is clear. Exactly what those lines were is not so clear.

Fourth, this resignation does mean that I have come to the place where I cannot in good conscience carry out the responsibility of this office to enforce the ELCA's policies in regard to homosexual persons as set forth in Vision and Expectations. Until the invitation to participate in the irregular ordination in St. Paul arrived, I had not faced an occasion requiring me to act. If I had faced some of the cases other bishops have had, I don't know what I would have done. But now, without calling into question what the conscience of others has or will lead them to do, I know that I cannot enforce a policy that is so hurtful to people and to this church.

Fifth, this resignation does mean that I recognize and affirm my accountability to good order in the church and my responsibility to assume the consequences of my actions. If I had not made my promise, I would not be resigning but I would be accepting some other appropriate penalty.

In closing, let me thank you for the stunning support you have given me in this whole process. I am fully aware that our consciences are not formed in the same way on the question at hand. That mine has been honored by many of you who disagree with my position on this issue has been particularly appreciated. I hope you will see resignation as the right thing to do now.

Most of you who share my conscience on this matter may disagree with my decision to resign. You have said so clearly and I fully understand your position. But I hope you will come to see this as one more step forward in our witness against an unjust policy in this church. I cannot believe our cause would be advanced by breaking my promises. In the end, the only credibility we have is in the truth we tell and the promises we keep.

I look forward to seeing you all at our Assembly next Thursday. Lord have mercy upon us.

Paul W. Egertson, Bishop
Southern California (West) Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America