Printer Friendly


A new documentary captures the Lutheran Church's turmoil over gay issues

When gay Lutheran clergy members initially approached veteran documentarian Pam Walton to make a movie about their experiences, she was not interested. "My first reaction was, `Oh, my God, Lutherans!'" Walton recalls. "I thought it would be really dreadful and boring, and I didn't want to give any kind of attention to organized religion, anyway."

But Walton soon discovered there was a passionate albeit quiet struggle within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America over gay issues. With over 5 million members, ELCA--the largest Lutheran denomination in the country--is in turmoil over its positions on gays in the clergy, commitment ceremonies, and other policies.

The result of Walton's interest is Call to Witness, a 59-minute film about gay and lesbian Lutherans' attempts to become pastors, which are countered by ELCA leaders' courteous but firm responses to discipline--or quash--the movement. The documentary is currently making the rounds at gay film festivals and will air this summer on PBS affiliates in at least four major markets.

Walton had dealt with religious issues before. Her film Family Values: An American Tragedy (1996) was about her late rabidly Christian-right father, who wrote about the idea that gays and lesbians should be executed. But the Lutherans offer a far more low-key response to homosexuality. "People like Garrison Keillor are always cracking jokes about the Lutherans, how they're nothing if not polite," Walton says. "But that politeness can be terrifying."

Indeed, in the current year alone ELCA has seen a series of battles over gay issues. In February the St. Paul, Minn., synod requested that the national church overturn its prohibition of gay ministers. In April, Bishop Robert Mattheis censured a Berkeley, Calif., church for hiring a gay pastor, threatening to expel the congregation from the church altogether. In May the Milwaukee synod of the church voted to endorse same-sex unions, contrary to the church's stance.

Call to Witness chronicles the struggles of a handful of gays and lesbians who just want to serve their church as pastors: Jane Ralph of Kansas City, Mo., who lost her pastorship and now works for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation; Anita Hill of St. Paul, Minn., who hopes to be ordained this year, against ELCA's wishes; and Jeff Johnson and lesbian couple Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart, all of San Francisco, who were cut off from the national organization, along with their entire congregations.

Gay pastor Steve Sabin of Ames, Iowa, who was tried and disciplined by ELCA, says he hopes the film will give people "the courage they need to stand up for their relationships. I hope people see that coming out should never cost you your job and your church."

But the national church fights back with a polite nod and stone face. There's no quoting of scripture, no yelling and screaming. What there is among church leaders, though, is discomfort at being confronted with their own bigotry and discrimination, especially while a camera is running.

The film exposes "all their hypocritical baloney about how they want to enter into a dialogue and come to a deeper understanding," Walton says of ELCA leaders. "They're a fairly progressive bunch, but they're just using dialogue as a stall tactic."

As soon as she was convinced she had "a great story with compelling characters," Walton set out, traveling around the country to meet her subjects and to raise money for the $85,000 film. Nearly half that, she says, came from ELCA members; virtually none came from gay or lesbian groups. "[Gay groups] felt the same way that I had before," Walton says. "There was this knee-jerk reaction against [the film] because it was about organized religion. It would've been one thing if it were about attacking a church from the outside. But this was about Christians working from within."

Filmmaking came rather late in life for Walton. She was a high school teacher in the San Francisco Bay area for 20 years before quitting ("I hated being in the closet"), then earned a master's degree at Stanford University in film and video production. Since then she has produced several awardwinning films, including Out in Suburbia (1988) and Gay Youth (1992). While at Stanford, Walton met her partner, Ruth Carranza, who is the associate director of Call to Witness and with whom Walton frequently collaborates.

Walton hopes her latest film will have an impact, no matter how small. "Working on this for three years really transformed me," she says. "I was so inspired by the story of these courageous, decent people leading decent lives. They just want to be accepted by their church."

That may not happen soon. "Word has come down from ELCA," Walton says. "There will be no response to Call to Witness. Period."

Find more on the Evangelical lutheran Church of America and links to related Web sites at


The stances on gay issues of the major Christian churches in the U.S.

Controversy over gay issues roils the major Christian denominations, but even united in their opposition to homosexuality disagree on the details of their policies. Some, like the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant sect, are firmly opposed to any tolerance of gays and lesbians. Others, like the United Methodist Church, are supportive of gays in some ways and disapproving in others. Only one denomination listed below, the United Church of Christ, is unabashedly open to gays. What follows is a breakdown of the churches' stances on major gay issues, an indication of the hurdles gay Christians have yet to clear.


U.S. membership: 2.4 million

Homosexuality: Incompatible with church teaching

Gay clergy: A church court ruled in 1996 that there is "no core doctrine prohibiting the ordination of a noncelibate homosexual person living in a faithful and committed sexual relationship with a person of the same sex."

Same-sex unions: No official policy banning gay unions


U.S. membership: 5.1 million

Homosexuality: A "departure from the heterosexual structure of God's creation"

Gay clergy: Must remain celibate

Same-sex unions: Opposed


U.S. membership: 2.6 million

Homosexuality: The church should "share honestly and humbly with [gays and lesbians] in seeking the vision of God's intention for the sexual dimensions of their lives."

Gay clergy: Noncelibate gays and lesbians can be considered candidates for the ministry, but ministers must be celibate.

Same-sex unions: Clergy can bless gay unions as long as the ceremony is distinct from marriage.


U.S. membership: 59.8 million

Homosexuality: Homosexual behavior is immoral. Homosexual orientation is seen as an "objective disorder."

Gay clergy: Must be celibate

Same-sex unions: Opposed


U.S. membership: 15.8 million

Homosexuality: A sin that "can be overcome." On June 14, the church made its opposition to homosexuality part of its Faith and Message statement, a statement of belief just short of Scripture.

Gay clergy: Opposed

Same-sex unions: Opposed


U.S. membership: 1.4 million

Homosexuality: Rejects traditional condemnations of homosexuality in favor of "the Bible's liberating and inclusive voice"

Gay clergy: Permits ordination of noncelibate gays and lesbians

Same-sex unions: Permitted


U.S. membership: 8.5 million

Homosexuality: "Incompatible with Christian teaching"

Gay clergy: Must remain celibate

Same-sex unions: Opposed. Pastors who perform them can be suspended or defrocked.

Kirby is a regular contributor to The New York Times.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Liberation Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2000, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:"Call to Witness" - Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and gays
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Jul 18, 2000
Previous Article:SOUL MAN.

Related Articles
Rebels with a cause.
Lutherans vs. the lesbian.
True sacrifice.
The Rev. Anita Hill.
Swimming in the mainstream. (last word).
Across the nation.
Religious right-backed marriage amendment fails in House vote.
Lutheran progress.
Priest to lose licence over same-sex marriage stance.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |