A regional governing body of the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country has voted to ordain a gay Madison man with a long-term partner, bucking national church policy that bars gays and lesbians in open relationships from the ministry and perhaps setting a precedent.
Members of the presbytery, which encompasses parts of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, voted 81 to 25 to ordain Scott Anderson, 54. Anderson said he's been in a committed relationship with a man for 19 years.
"I could see it having national implications, for sure," the Rev. Alex Thornburg of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Madison said of the vote. "Some will proclaim this decision the best thing in the world and others will say the church is dying. It will have its drama around it."
If Anderson's ordination withstands the appeals process, "it essentially opens the door" for other presbyteries to vote the same way, said Thornburg, who said he voted for ordination.
National church policy requires married candidates for ordination to take a vow of fidelity and single candidates - gay or straight - to take a vow of chastity. However, there's some wiggle room.
The church allows candidates for ordination to file an objection to a rule based on conscience. The presbytery then must decide the seriousness of the candidate's departures from official teaching, said the Rev. Ken Meunier, executive director of the John Knox Presbytery.
In Anderson's case, a majority of the presbytery decided his relationship status did not undermine essentials of church doctrine and that his departures from official teaching "were not serious enough to overshadow his many other gifts," Meunier said.
Anderson said Monday he was "just blown away" by the 76 percent majority vote.
"I'm very proud to be a Presbyterian today, and that has not always been the case," Anderson said.
Presbyteries are collections of churches that ordain ministers and make other decisions in the Presbyterian Church (USA), although their decisions can be appealed up the national church hierarchy. The John Knox Presbytery represents 61 churches with about 10,000 members.
Presbyterian Church (USA) is the country's largest Presbyterian denomination, followed by the Presbyterian Church in America, a more theologically conservative and evangelical denomination.
A graduate of the Princeton Theological Seminary, Anderson is a former pastor of Bethany Presbyterian Church in Sacramento, Calif. He voluntary resigned in 1990 and gave up his ordination after two church members publicly outed him as gay, he said.
For the last seven years, he has been the executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches in Sun Prairie, an association of 13 denominations that promotes unity among Christian churches. He expects to continue in the role after ordination but hopes to return to parish ministry one day.
A May 15 ordination date has been set but could be delayed. At least one church in the presbytery - Caledonia Presbyterian Church near Portage - likely will challenge Saturday's vote through an appeals process, said Whitman Brisky, a Chicago attorney representing the 60-member church.
The basis for the appeal would be the church rule prohibiting the installation of a minister "who is engaged in an extramarital, sexual relationship," Brisky said.
"No one before now has quite so clearly challenged that rule," he said. "This one is likely to be the test case."
Officials with the national offices of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Louisville, Ky., did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Anderson said he thinks he's the first gay person in a long-term relationship to be approved for ordination in the denomination. In Minnesota, a gay theology professor not in a relationship was ordained, Anderson said. In that case, the candidate declined to take the vow of celibacy, leaving open the possibility of a relationship and sanctions by the church.
In a statement submitted to the presbytery, Anderson wrote that the ministerial prohibition against gays and lesbians in committed relationships "represents a grievous misapplication of biblical teachings." This misinterpretation "is unfaithful to God's loving intentions for humankind and seriously undermines the church's gospel witness to gay and lesbian partners. I cannot in Christian conscience support it."
Saturday, Anderson sat for questioning during an examination of his fitness for the ministry, then was ushered out as presbytery members debated the issue in closed session and voted by secret ballot.
The Rev. Lin Grace Rohr, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Madison, where Anderson is a member, said Saturday's debate was "very respectful." She said she voted in favor of his ordination.
"We were affirming one person's gifts for the ministry," she said. "Scott is a gracious, compassionate, faithful and gifted human being. The presbytery recognized that."