Meeting in Madison, Wis., on Feb. 20, John Knox voted 81-25 to ordain Anderson, who currently is executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches. He previously worked as a pastor and set aside his ordination in 1990 after two members of the congregation he was then serving in California publicly revealed that he is gay.
There will be a challenge to the presbytery’s action, said Whitman Brisky, a lawyer who has represented opponents to the ordination.
That could mean that Anderson’s case will put before the Presbyterian church courts a central question flowing from the work of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the PC(USA): whether someone can declare an objection of conscience to the fidelity-and-chastity standard.
The theological task force – of which Anderson was a member – suggested an authoritative interpretation, which the General Assembly adopted in 2006, which allows candidates for ordination to declare a “scruple,” or an objection based on conscience, to the PC(USA)’s ordination standards.
The governing body responsible for ordaining then must decide whether that objection violates an essential of Reformed faith and practice. If the determination is that it does not, the candidate can be ordained.
In an interview, Anderson said he’s scheduled his ordination service for May 15, but expects the court challenge likely will bring a stay of enforcement, and a delay in his ordination as the case works its way through the church courts.
Brisky said the central point likely to be raised in a challenge to the presbytery’s action is that the Book of Order “has a mandatory provision that a person engaged in a sexual relationship outside of marriage cannot be ordained and installed.” A majority of presbyteries have supported that, Brisky said, and “the General Assembly cannot by itself . . . make that go away without amending the constitution” of the denomination.
He said the challenge likely will be brought by the session of Caledonia Presbyterian, a small, evangelical church in Portage, Wisc., and by some minister members of John Knox presbytery.
In an interview, Anderson said he was surprised by the wide margin of the vote – “we expected the vote would be closer than that.”
He said the John Knox action “made me proud to be a Presbyterian.” Anderson also said the vote “vindicates the recommendation of the Peace, Unity and Purity task force, that Presbyterians can consider candidates who have departures for whatever reason, and a presbytery can successfully weigh all that in the context of someone’s fitness for ministry. This works – it can work. And I think that’s good news.”
Both Brisky and Anderson described the presbytery’s leadership as fair and even-handed, although Brisky said he was “very disappointed” in the presbytery’s decision to close Anderson’s examination and its discussion of his candidacy to the public. Brisky said opponents of the ordination told the presbytery leadership in advance that they wanted the proceedings to be recorded, so an accurate record would be kept of what was said and done.
Although opponents of Anderson’s ordination did not prevail on that, however, Brisky said “the leadership of Knox presbytery tried to make this procedurally fair and open and honest, so as not to be oppressive. Although we were disappointed with the closing of the meeting and the lack of a transcript, the leadership was trying to be responsible.”
In an earlier interview, Brisky said the hope was to “get a clean, procedurally-exemplary examination” of Anderson, so that the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission — the highest court in the PC(USA) – can perhaps rule on the central question of the case, not on procedural technicalities. “We hope the GAPJC will get the chance to rule on a pretty clean case,” Brisky said.
Anderson, 54, praised John Knox’s “extraordinary leadership,” saying “they have been fair and transparent and open and gracious to everyone, including me. I’ve been extraordinarily well-treated. I’ve been extraordinarily well-treated by those who oppose my ordination, which speaks well for the presbytery . . . I long for the whole church to have that relationship.”
Anderson also said the vote may give hope to other gay and lesbian candidates for ministry, although “I’m not sure I would wish this on a 25-year-old who just graduated from seminary. That would be really tough.”
While some cases have emerged over the past four years of gay or lesbian candidates declaring scruples – most noticeably, Paul Capetz in Minnesota and Lisa Larges in California – their cases differ in some respects from Anderson’s.
Anderson has been open in saying that he lives in a committed relationship of close to 20 years with his life partner, Ian MacAllister. He said he told the presbytery that “if the state of Wisconsin granted us the privilege of a civil marriage license, Ian and I would be first in line to sign up.”
Capetz, on the other hand, is a gay theology professor who told his presbytery he was not in a relationship – but refused for theological reasons to take a vow of celibacy.
Capetz had set aside his ordination as a minister in 2000, in protest over the fidelity and chastity standards, then applied for reinstatement by the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area after the General Assembly approved the recommendations of the Theological Task Force. Capetz told the presbytery he was not in a relationship, but for theological reasons would not promise to follow in a future relationship the fidelity and chastity standard. In November 2009, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission allowed his ordination to stand, stating that Capetz had taken no action in violation of the standard – he just wouldn’t take a vow of celibacy, which is nowhere prescribed for ordinands.
In the future, the court ruled, “if there is any question about Capetz’ conduct, including whether he has led a life in obedience to Scripture and in compliance with the historic confessional standards of the church, he, like any other officer of the church, may be held accountable for his conduct under the Rules of Discipline.”
And Larges, a lesbian candidate for ministry, declared a conscientious objection before she was examined by San Francisco presbytery. The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission ruled, also in November, that Larges could not declare a conscientious objection before she was examined by the presbytery, and nullified a November 2008 vote in which the presbytery had declared her “ready for examination . . . with a departure” from the standards.
So Anderson’s case may be the first to come before the church courts involving a scruple declared by a gay or lesbian in a committed, long-term partnership.
In his statement to John Knox presbytery, Anderson wrote that he does not believe it’s either biblical or faithful to exclude from ordained office gays and lesbians in covenanted, lifelong partnerships. He offered a series of reasons – drawing from both the Bible and the Book of Confessions, including an affirmation that, as shown in Genesis, “we are born for relationship.”
He wrote that “God has blessed me with a faithful and loving partner who has been an integral part of my life for the last 19 years. In our life together we have sought to cultivate the kind of fidelity and love and self-giving that the Bible lifts up as God’s intention for married couples.”
And Anderson wrote that he believes the categorical prohibition in the PC(USA)’s ordination standards now “represents a grievous misapplication of biblical teachings in the case of gay and lesbian believers who are in faithful, covenanted, lifelong partnerships. For the reasons stated above, I believe this misinterpretation of the biblical witness is unfaithful to God’s loving intentions for humankind, and seriously undermines the church’s gospel witness to gay and lesbian persons. I cannot in Christian conscience support it.”
During his examination, Anderson said, he was asked one question that touched on sexual practice in his relationship with MacAllister.
“I expected to be asked about my sexual practice. I have thought and prayed about this a lot,” he said in the interview. “I told the pastor who asked it I’m in a dilemma here. On the one hand, I think I’ve been very clear with the presbytery about the fact that I’m in a long-term, committed relationship. I have not taken a vow of celibacy,” and he and MacAllister view their relationship as being like a marriage.
But for him to answer questions about sexual practice “number one, violates Ian’s privacy” and it “violates the decorum of the presbytery in my view to get into that sort of detail. And finally, for me to answer those sorts of detailed questions puts me into a position of being subjected to a line of questioning that no other candidate has been subjected to in John Knox. That’s where I left it . . . I think it’s unjust to be singled out,” in a way that no heterosexual candidate, single or married, has ever been.
But Brisky said that from what he was told of the examination, “we have a very clear record that he has admitted the sexual relationship.”
Through the years, Anderson said in the interview, he’s resisted suggestions from some that he switch and become a minister in a denomination that does allow gays and lesbians to serve.
Since he first began working as a minister, “my sense of call certainly has not diminished over all that time,” Anderson said. “I left I 1990 because to stay and be out of the closet serving a parish would have made me a lightning rod. I decided I didn’t want to go through that, nor the church I was serving,” which would have been damaged by that ordeal. “But my sense of call to ministry – if anything, it’s grown.”
If he is ordained by the PC(USA), Anderson said he hopes to return to parish ministry at some point. “I think it really is the best context for the fullest expression of my gifts. I feel very blessed to be working ecumenically. This has been an ideal situation for me . . . It’s given me some distance from the denomination. My own healing process has been allowed to happen. But there are things about parish ministry I miss terribly – being part of a congregation and experiencing the crises in people’s lives, and when faith really matters, walking with people in that context.”
The decision to seek ordination again in the PC(USA) has been a decision as much the heart as of the head, Anderson said.
“I just feel this church is part of my DNA. It’s not a rational decision, really. It’s a sense of call to stay and be part of this church.”