Madison church ordains first openly gay Presbyterian minister

The Rev. Scott Anderson is the first openly gay ordained minister in Wisconsin. Photo by Craig Schriener/Associated Press

Last Saturday, the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Madison made history when it ordained the Rev. Scott Anderson, 56, as the first openly gay Presbyterian minister.

Anderson left ministry in the Presbyterian Church  in 1990 after a couple threatened to reveal his sexuality. In doing so, he took it upon himself to tell his sacramento, Calif. congregation, who he had been with since 1983, that he was gay before resigning.

Anderson’s re-ordination was made possible by a modification in church law. In summer 2010, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) made official changes to its constitution which now allow gays and lesbians to serve as ministers. Anderson was shortly thereafter approved for ordination by a vote of 81-25 by the John Knox Presbytery, a group of 60 congregations in Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota.

Dr. Richard Wagner, a clinical sexology therapist and former Roman Catholic ordained priest, said he thought the amendment to the constitution was long overdue. 

“There are a number of denominations who have proceeded to accept gay and lesbian priests into their ministries,” Wagner said. “People go to their religious superiors and expect to be understood, but the majority of the time that doesn’t happen.”

Wagner applauded Anderson’s strength to return to a religious community that was at first not accepting of his sexuality.

“He has a lot of courage,” he said.

Wagner was ordained as a priest in 1975 but was thrown out in 1994 after revealing he was gay. He said he gives credit to the Presbyterian Church for its step forward, and that, in his opinion, the Catholic Church will never get to such a point in his lifetime.

“(The Catholic Church) have been backed into a corner after losing the battle against birth control, sexual abstinence and divorce, and the only thing they have left is abortion and sexual orientation,” he said. “They aren’t going to let go easily.”

Christopher Wolfe, a political science professor at Marquette, said the ordainment is no surprise.

“(This is) another example of the mainline Protestant denominations abandoning traditional Christian beliefs in order to accomplish prevailing views of secular intellectuals,” Wolfe said.

According to Wolfe, the Presbyterian Church is one of many churches whose foundations are changing along with society. As the number of mainline churches becomes smaller, the more common these types of changes become.

However, the event did not happen without opposition. Westboro Baptist Church, known for protesting funerals of soldiers, picketed Saturday’s ceremony.

Some Westboro members spoke harsh words of disagreement toward the Presbyterian Church.

“That’s when the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ comes to the scene and says it’s not okay to be gay and that sin will destroy this nation,” Margie Phelps, a member of Westboro Baptist Church, said to Channel 3000 reporters in Madison.

Westboro was met at the scene by a group of counterprotestors supporting Anderson, including Michael Schuler of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a religious group open to members of numerous denominations and faiths.

“The Westboro Baptist Church is such a small minority, such a small fraction of the people of faith in this country, and yet they seem to have this habit of trying to push people’s buttons,” Schuler said to Channel 3000 reporters.

Both Wolfe and Wagner said they were upset with Westboro’s appearance.

“Westboro people are idiots,” Wolfe said. “There are a lot off people who oppose the ordaining of active homosexuals, but these individuals do not have tasteless and uncharitable views like that of the Westboro people.”

Wagner echoed those sentiments, adding that Westboro’s members are “showboaters.”

“Long ago, Westboro stopped being a theological protest,” Wagner said. “Now it is only about gaining media attention.”

Anderson could not be reached by press time, but he remains executive director at the Wisconsin Council of Churches for the time being and is hoping to eventually be named pastor of a congregation in the future.