(RNS) — The suspension of a popular evangelical university chaplain has highlighted tensions over same-sex marriage in a growing Protestant denomination that forbids it but also takes pride in its willingness to allow congregants to hold opinions contrary to church doctrine.
The Rev. Judy Peterson, ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church and pastor at its flagship North Park University in Chicago, presided at the wedding of two men in April. That act resulted in her suspension and then a petition drive calling on ECC leaders to place a moratorium on their guidelines forbidding clergy to officiate at same-sex weddings. The petition had more than 4,270 signatures as of Thursday (Jan. 11).
Members of the ECC — which has more than 850 churches in North America, with about 225,000 weekly attenders — have grappled with the issue much as have other Protestant denominations. Other ECC pastors also face disciplinary action for taking part in the nuptials of gay couples or affirming them in other ways.
But some congregants hope the church's tradition of tolerance for those who take issue with its official stances could lead toward a more amicable resolution in the ECC on an issue that has split other churches.
Peterson, in a statement released by Mission Friends for Inclusion, an LGBTQ-affirming network of ECC members, wrote that in officiating at the same-sex wedding, she did not relish challenging church authority.
“This was not a flippant decision done with disregard for religious rules, but rather a discerned decision to stand with my brothers in the same way Jesus has stood with me,” she wrote in the statement, which the network said it published without Peterson’s permission.
Peterson wrote that she immediately agreed when asked by a former student to officiate at his wedding. She also said she met and prayed with a church executive before the ceremony, who told her there could be consequences for her role.
Peterson’s suspension from her school position has prompted a flurry of reaction — including an email sent to church members by ECC officials, two statements from the school, and the petition that seeks the reversal or halting of “punitive actions” against LGBTQ-affirming clergy.
“We urge you to create opportunities for our entire denomination to engage in vital, respectful, and thoughtful conversations around human sexuality that includes LGBTQ individuals and their allies without fear of reprisal so we may become the healthy church Christ longs for us to be,” reads the petition.
Some consider this a significant juncture for the small denomination known for its “freedom in Christ” affirmation that permits differing opinions on some matters of doctrine, such as ordaining women since the 1970s and allowing both infant and believer baptisms since its early days in the 1800s.
“When it comes to queer inclusion, LGBTQ inclusion, we’ve just failed to do that,” said the Rev. Paul Corner, an ECC pastor in Seattle and a founder and former president of Mission Friends for Inclusion, which is known as MF4i.
Five months after officiating at the April 2017 ceremony, Peterson said, she was called to a series of meetings with officials of her denomination and her ECC credentials were suspended on Nov. 7, her statement says. Peterson said she declined requests by the school and the church for her to resign. Days before Christmas, she said, she was placed on a “terminal sabbatical” and was told she could not resume campus pastoral duties unless her ordination status was reinstated. She said she now awaits a Jan. 19 hearing before an ECC board that supervises ministers.
The university issued a statement on Dec. 28 on the “extraordinarily difficult situation for all” and directed questions to the denomination.
Ed Gilbreath, the ECC's spokesman, declined to comment when asked for a response about Peterson's situation, saying, “For reasons of privacy, we do not comment on specific circumstances.”
Officials reiterated the denomination’s stance — “Faithfulness in heterosexual marriage, celibacy in singleness” — in a Dec. 29 email message circulated among ECC members. But they also acknowledged “these are complex days and feelings run strong.”
The university issued a second statement on Jan. 4, saying it “is sorry for the hurt and confusion experienced by students, faculty, staff, and friends of the school in the days since the news of the actions taken by the Evangelical Covenant Church leading to the North Park University campus pastor’s sabbatical and suspension of her credential.”
The second statement also expressed affirmation for Peterson’s “remarkable and transformative work” and a commitment to forming a university task force with its student government and Queers and Allies student organization to ensure the support and protection of LGBTQ students.
Beyond Peterson, at least a few others are also scheduled to meet with the Board of the Ordered Ministry next week.
“Their careers and credentials are on the line,” said Corner.
The petition calls for a halting of adherence to 2015 guidelines that state that clergy should not officiate at ceremonies uniting same-sex couples and congregations should not host them. It says those rules were not vetted, as required, by a gathering of ECC clergy.
Gilbreath also declined to comment on specific circumstances related to the board but said, “I believe its members are aware of the petition and will be discussing it.”
Andrew Freeman, a gay member of the church who discussed his coming out in 2011 in the blog “Coming Out Covenant,” said the guidelines have hurt more than helped his church.
“All they’ve done is sort of create chaos and confusion and fear and so I think the petition is saying we need to have a healthy dialogue,” said Freeman, a layman who now directs operations at an Episcopal church but remains a member of the ECC.
An ECC pastor who asked that his name not be used for fear of losing his job, said he, like Peterson, has an upcoming meeting with the denominational board dealing with ordained ministers. This pastor agreed to say a prayer at the wedding of a lesbian couple but did not officiate at the ceremony. He said in an interview that he struggled with how to abide by church guidelines that forbid marrying such a couple while other principles say not to withhold pastoral care on the basis of sexual orientation.
“I felt like I was in a really tough spot where I couldn’t uphold both vows,” he told RNS.
The Rev. Dan Collison, pastor of a Minneapolis ECC church since 2009, said he has been called to a meeting with the same board for a “clarifying conversation” after he preached an hourlong sermon in March that affirmed LGBTQ people and included a brief interview with a married lesbian couple. He said he joined others in being disappointed about the suspension of Peterson’s credentials.
“It’s disheartening on many levels, number one because our denomination in its historic practice and polity has not been the denomination who kicks people out,” he said. “While suspending a pastor is not technically kicking a person out, it’s showing them the door.”
The Rev. Adam Phillips, pastor of a Portland, Ore., church that lost the support of the ECC in 2015 for its affirmation of LGBTQ people, is among those who think the university may take a more inclusive stance than the denomination. He said the school’s second statement “signals that the university is waking up to the need for leadership on this while the Covenant denomination continues to punish pastors for doing ministry work.”
Christian ethicist David Gushee, director of Mercer University’s Center for Theology and Public Life, said the controversy reflects a struggle that’s happening across evangelicalism between denominational leaders who view LGBT inclusion as “a nonnegotiable” and dissenters like himself who seek dialogue about who has authority to determine what is permissible. But he said the Christian academic setting of this dispute centers on both religious and academic freedom.
“One possible outcome here would be that the university would position itself in defense of its staff person and over against denominational authorities that would attempt to put pressure on her,” said Gushee, a former RNS columnist, who was invited to address the MF4i group in 2015 after authoring “Changing Our Mind” about his personal move toward LGBTQ inclusion.
The future seems uncertain for not just Peterson, but others in her church as its officials prepare to meet in private with clergy members who have spoken publicly about what appears to be the most divisive topic in their denomination.
“It has pulled the curtain back, it’s removed the surface wound and now we’re getting into the deeper issues and here we go,” said Collison. “I don’t know where it’s headed.”