SUN PRAIRIE, Wis. -- 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 with mostly open arms.
Anderson will be ordained Saturday in his new home of Madison, Wis., as the denomination's first openly gay minister, marking the latest mainline Protestant church to move toward accepting homosexual relationships.
During a recent interview, Anderson, 56, recalled being in the closet from 1983 to 1990 while serving as a minister in Sacramento. He told the congregation the truth and resigned as pastor 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 at Covenant Presbyterian Church 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," said Sauer, 41, of Madison. "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 American 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.
But he wasn't convinced of his career decision. He studied political science at the University of California, Davis and considered a law career. Eventually, he decided to attend a seminary.
"In my first year there I fell in love with another man," he said. "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?"
At that point the calling was strong enough that he remained. But when he was later forced to come out he was in emotional turmoil. He expected anger and rejection when he told his congregation of about 400 he would leave, perhaps for graduate school. Instead he received love and affirmation – along with a check to cover the entire two years of schooling.
He spent a year away from the church coming to grips with who he was as an outed gay man. His parents were shocked at first but became more supportive as they realized he was the same person they'd always known.
Eventually, Anderson found his way back to a different Presbyterian congregation. Despite his previous experiences, he said being Presbyterian was part of his spiritual DNA.
He remained active in church life, and is now executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches in Sun Prairie, near Madison. His ordination means he'll be ordained to the specific job he already has. That means the only change is that he'll now be able to administer sacraments such as communion. He could also become a parish minister, a role he said he might consider in three or four years.
Anderson said he was grateful about his upcoming ordination. He predicted the trend 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."
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.