Reverend Cindy Witt – Lutheran and lesbian

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America doesn't want to accept her

— When Martin Luther invented Protestantism, he created anarchy. Luther's unmooring of Christianity from centuries of Church practice and teaching generated ironies and contradictions that remain unresolved. Reverend Cindy Witt is a recent orphan of the Reformation. She was born and raised Lutheran. Her ex-husband, Jeffrey Witt, is a Lutheran pastor. Her sister and brother-in-law are Lutheran pastors. For five decades, Reverend Witt has lived and breathed Lutheranism. Reverend Witt is so Lutheran that even the woman she has fallen in love with, attorney Kay Teeters, is also a lifelong Lutheran.

"I am a Lutheran," Reverend Witt says, "and I'm a lesbian. They're both an integral part of who I am. I have been so steeped in American Lutheranism for so long, its culture and history are so much a part of who I am, I can't imagine being anything other than Lutheran. I believe God called me to serve Him in this particular tradition. My living in a committed, monogamous relationship with another woman should not disqualify me from fulfilling that call."

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America doesn't agree. As the nation's fifth-largest denomination, the ELCA is liberal and mainline enough to welcome homosexuals into its congregations and to encourage their participation in church life, but such acceptance has its limits. Heterosexual pastors must be either married or celibate. Homosexual pastors must remain celibate for life.

Reverend Witt already knows a thing or two about difficult decisions. For 27 years she was married to a man she met at college. They were "very good friends," she says, but their relationship lacked the sort of intimacy and tenderness most consenting adults expect from married life. Reverend Witt knew something was wrong, but she couldn't quite put her finger on it. When she entered seminary, she met many lesbians, some of whom had been ejected from the seminary because of their sexuality. Reverend Witt felt "drawn" to these women.

"If I ever had any sort of romantic or sexual thoughts," Reverend Witt laughs, "I just put them out of my mind. I repressed them. I was a married heterosexual woman. How could I be a lesbian? I couldn't be. And for a long while I was satisfied with that answer."

Ten years into her marriage, Reverend Witt says that she knew in her "heart of hearts" that she was lesbian. She nonetheless believed that she would be a more effective advocate for gay and lesbian Lutherans if she remained married and closeted. But her role as advocate didn't end with gays and lesbians. Reverend Witt was a vocal supporter of Hispanic and women clergy within the denomination. She wrote letters, she spoke at meetings. She kept busy. From 1989 to 1991, Reverend Witt co-pastored Eden Lutheran Church in Riverside. She headed the Campus Ministry at University of California, Riverside, from 1992 to 1997, when she resigned from her position to move with her husband to Minnesota. There, in that Lutheran-rich state, Reverend Witt discovered that in the Twin Cities area alone there were more than 200 Lutheran pastors waiting for calls to ministry. Reverend Witt couldn't find work. Her husband suggested divorce. She agreed and returned to California, to San Diego.

Reverend Witt's activism on behalf of minority issues within the denomination didn't make it easy for her to find a job within the Pacifica Synod, which, excluding Los Angeles, covers much of Southern California and all of Hawaii. While waiting and looking for work, Reverend Witt met Kay Teeters, a civilian attorney who works for the Navy as a specialist in employment law, and the two of them fell in love. Last June, Reverend Witt felt the "honest thing to do" was to inform Pacifica Synod bishop Murray Finck that she was living in a committed, monogamous relationship with another woman. Bishop Finck took it upon himself to inform the synod council of Reverend Witt's domestic arrangements. By August, the council was preparing to vote on whether or not Reverend Witt should be removed from the denomination's national roster of clergy available to be called to ministry.

Last Saturday, the 21-member council met in Yorba Linda and voted to keep Reverend Witt "on the roster but unavailable for call" for six months. The ingenuity of this decision is that if an Evangelical Lutheran pastor does not receive a call to ministry during a three-year period, he or she is permanently removed from the roster. In June 2000, Reverend Witt will have been without work for three years.

As a seminary graduate, Reverend Witt's criticism of these events goes to the heart of mainline Protestantism's, specifically the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America's, difficulties with self-definition.

"Why this issue of homosexual clergy is so troubling to them, why it causes so much confusion, is that the ELCA hasn't yet figured out how it's going to use Scripture, how it's going to understand and apply it to life in the modern world. They had to struggle with the issue of divorced clergy. They had to struggle with the issue of women clergy. They resolved those issues. Now there are divorced and women clergy."

Reverend Witt says she is disappointed with Saturday's decision. She and Teeters attended the synod council meeting in Yorba Linda. They were asked to leave the room when the council went into executive session to vote on Reverend Witt's status. She knows many of the 21 men and women on the council.

"None of them," notes Teeters, "would look us in the eye after the vote."

Last Sunday evening, Reverend Witt sounded too dazed by the council's decision to articulate her plans for the future. She says she knew intellectually that the synod would likely not vote in her favor. However, facing up to the result in person, she said, was another matter.

"The irony," says Teeters, "an irony that was entirely lost on the synod council, was that Martin Luther himself was opposed to a celibate clergy. And here they are persecuting someone opposed to clerical celibacy.

"Moreover, they are punishing people who are honest, who have integrity. The synod council's vote means that any gay clergy within the ELCA who are living in committed, monogamous relationship are sitting ducks. Their situation is very precarious. Even if they're very discreet, if they try as best they can to hide their relationships, they could be discovered at any time and lose their jobs. People who engage in casual sexual relationships, well, that can be easily hidden. It's the people who are willing to be honest, who have integrity, who are willing to live in a committed relationship with someone else, they're the ones being punished.

"I think we all understand that we are social animals. We were meant to form stable, intimate relationships with other human beings. What the ELCA is saying is that Cindy should have to choose between love and her job. To me that seems inhumane."

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