His mother always told him he had a preacher’s voice.
Saturday, that voice, low and rumbling, quivered just slightly as Scott Anderson became the first openly gay person ordained as a minister by the Presbyterian Church (USA).
“To the thousands of Presbyterians who have worked and prayed for almost 40 years for this day, I give thanks,” Anderson, 56, told the 325 people gathered to witness his ordination at Covenant Presbyterian Church on Madison’s West Side. “And I give thanks for those who disagree with what we’re doing today yet who know that we are one in Jesus Christ.”
The ordination — two emotion-filled hours — capped a lengthy, difficult journey for the denomination and for Anderson, a largely private person thrust into the national spotlight.
Outside, nine members of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., a group known for its extreme stance against homosexuality, displayed anti-gay signs. Anderson, watching from a window inside, called it “sad, kind of a sideshow,” adding, “they’re certainly entitled to their opinion.”
Almost 100 counter-protesters waved rainbow-colored flags. Some organized a food and blanket drive for the needy as a positive response.
Madison Police officers, including two hired by the church, kept watch. No problems were reported.
An early crisis
Saturday’s ordination was a second chance for Anderson.
He was first ordained a Presbyterian minister decades ago, at a time when the denomination barred openly gay clergy. Anderson hid his sexual orientation.
In 1990, two years into his ministry at Bethany Presbyterian Church in Sacramento, Calif., a couple from the church inadvertently learned, through a third party, of Anderson’s recent break-up with a male partner. They started making veiled threats that they would expose Anderson’s homosexuality unless he adopted their pet cause as a focus of his ministry.
Not wanting to be blackmailed, Anderson called a congregational meeting and told parishioners he was gay and would give up his ordination.
“The congregation was shocked,” said Jeannie Long, 86, of Sacramento, a church member who was in the audience that day. Parishioners rallied and collected almost $10,000 to help him start his new life.
“That shows how much we loved him because none of us is terribly rich,” Long said.
Anderson used the money to return to graduate school. He moved to Madison in 2003 to become executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches.
Last year, out of the blue, the female half of the couple who outed him contacted Anderson. Her husband had since died.
She asked for Anderson’s forgiveness.
“Of course I gave it to her,” he said.
In 2006, the Presbyterian church adopted a new process that allowed candidates for ordination to file an objection to a church rule based on conscience. It was the opening Anderson needed.
He argued his case to be ordained, this time as an openly gay man. Objections arose, triggering an extended battle within the denomination. Then in May, a majority of the church’s regional governing bodies voted to allow openly gay men and women to be ordained.
Anderson’s case, which was tied up in the church’s internal appeals process, was resolved in his favor.
To deliver the sermon Saturday, Anderson chose the Rev. Mark Achtemeier of Dubuque, Iowa, a self-described “evangelical conservative” whose journey within the denomination almost matches Anderson’s for drama.
Achtemeier once was among the loudest opponents of gay ordination, keynoting conservative conferences on the issue and helping enshrine the ban on gay clergy in the denomination’s constitution. Two years ago, he stunned his colleagues by announcing a complete turnaround.
In an interview, Achtemeier, 56, said friendships with gay Christians caused him to re-evaluate what the Scriptures say about homosexuality. He concluded God designed people to live in “intimate fellowship” with one another, and a committed, same-sex relationship “is simply an alternative form which this gift takes from time to time.”
In his remarks Saturday, Achtemeier said he hopes Anderson’s ministry will bring “healing good news” to all those who have felt “ostracized and alienated” from the church.
After Anderson was presented to the crowd as an ordained minister, audience members stood and broke into loud, prolonged applause. Then, unable to hold back, they cheered.
“That was very atypical of Presbyterians,” Doug Poland, an elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church, said later. “Usually our hands are in our laps.”
Anderson was presented with his black ministerial robe, mothballed for 21 years, as well as a ministerial stole that was given to him after his first year as a minister at Bethany Presbyterian Church in Sacramento.
In 1995, Anderson gave the stole to the “Shower of Stoles” project, a traveling exhibit by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force that showcases religious items from people barred from the ministry due to their sexual orientation.
“Today, for the first time in the life of this collection, a stole is being returned, and in so doing, it is transformed from a symbol of loss to a symbol of hope,” said David Lohman, the project’s director, who personally returned the stole to Anderson.
Among those in the audience was Shelley Banner of Las Vegas, Anderson’s older sister, who attended his first ordination almost 30 years ago.
“I had always hoped for this,” she said afterward, crying. “I’m so happy for him and for the church.”
Also there was Ian MacAllister, 49, Anderson’s partner of 20 years. The two live on Madison’s East Side with two dogs and a parrot.
MacAllister, a spiritual adviser, declined to be interviewed or photographed for this story, a decision the couple made jointly, Anderson said.
“We’ve always been very private, and we decided we were not going to use this occasion to be a public couple,” he said.
The couple’s decision aligns with Anderson’s approach to gay rights. While supportive of the broader movement, “I don’t think of myself as an activist,” he said. “My advocacy, my ministry, has been in the church.”
Asked about gay marriage — the denomination’s position is marriage is between one man and one woman — Anderson said he would like to see the definition broadened to include same-gender couples and will participate in conversations about the topic within the denomination.
He intends to remain with the Wisconsin Council of Churches for now but is open to returning to a parish one day. He hopes there is a Presbyterian congregation willing to hire an openly gay minister.
That part of the journey, he said, is still to come.