SUN PRAIRIE, Wisconsin — More than two decades after Scott Anderson told his California congregation that he was gay and therefore must resign as its pastor, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) is preparing to welcome him back.
Anderson will be ordained Saturday as the denomination's first openly gay minister, marking the latest mainline Protestant church to move toward accepting homosexual relationships.
During a recent interview at his new church in Wisconsin, the 56-year-old Anderson recalled keeping his personal life a secret from 1983 to 1990. He told his congregation the truth and resigned after a couple learned he was gay and tried to use the information against him.
"That was really the best and worst moment of my life," Anderson said. "It was the best because I was able to claim for the first time who I was as a gay man. That was incredibly empowering. But there was also the sadness, the grief of leaving the ministry and what I loved."
Saturday's ordination was made possible by decades of debate over whether openly gay people should be allowed to serve in the church. The church constitution used to include language requiring that clergy live "in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness."
The Presbyterian national assembly last year endorsed removing that rule. The change was approved in May by a majority of the denomination's 173 regional church bodies.
Jennifer Sauer, who attends Anderson's church, said she was thrilled about his upcoming ordination.
"Anyone who knows Scott sees his extraordinary gift of ministry, his ability to preach the word, his compassion, his humility," Sauer said. "If there have been any negative rumblings at all, I sure haven't heard about it."
But some conservatives who disapprove of ordaining homosexuals have threatened to leave, said Tom Hay, the director of operations for the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A).
"The Episcopalians, the Lutherans, the United Church of Christ have all made this step and all have experienced losses," he said. "I would expect we will, too. I would grieve that and hope we can find better solutions than to break apart."
Several reasons have been cited for the loosened restrictions: the trend in broader U.S. society toward accepting same-sex relationships, decreased interest in continuing the debate, and the departure of some conservative churches from presbyteries, which changed the balance of votes in some regions.
Anderson said he felt a calling to the ministry when he was a sophomore in high school, several years before he became aware of his sexual preference.
In his first year at a seminary, he fell in love with another man.
"At that point I had to make a decision: Do I follow the call and stay in the closet, or come out and be honest about who I am and leave the seminary?" he said.
The religious calling was strong enough that he remained. He expected anger and rejection when he finally told his congregation he would have to leave, perhaps for graduate school. Instead, he received love and affirmation — along with a check to cover the entire two years of schooling.
Eventually, Anderson found his way back to a different congregation.
His ordination means he'll be ordained to the job he already has. The only change is that he'll now be able to administer sacraments such as communion.
Anderson predicted the trend toward accepting homosexual relationships would make the Presbyterian church stronger in the long run.
"It really says to the wider culture, here we have a church that not only talks about being created in the image of God and you're all created to be in relationship with one another, but also wants to live that message," he said. "That's going to give the Presbyterian church a lot more integrity in its witness to the Christian faith."
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A): http://www.pcusa.org
Covenant Presbyterian Church: http://www.covenantmadison.org