Faith on the fault line: Rev. Scott Anderson, the accidental advocate

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MADISON (WITI) -- Homosexuality is a controversial topic in houses of worship across the country. For the last year, Madison has been on the front lines in the debate after Reverend Scott Anderson took an historic stand.

Serving as a guest at the First Presbyterian Church in Oregon, Wisconsin, Rev. Anderson filled in for a reverend on maternity leave.

Rev. Anderson is gay, and is his denomination's first ordained openly homosexual pastor.

"Looking back at those years, I realized the enormous amount of energy on a daily basis that I was putting in to creating this facade -- this lie about who I was with the people I most cared about. It created a sense of despair and self-hatred. I was sort of taken in by other families and supported in that experience and really experienced the church as a sense of extended family. That really was critical to my own understanding of God's love and grace in my life was the experience of that in the lives of other people who became my surrogate parents," Rev. Anderson said.

Rev. Anderson felt the call and went to seminary. He pastored for a decade, before he was caught by congregants who threatened to out him.

"On that Sunday, I came out to the congregation. Told them what had happened with this couple.  I said you need to hear this from me and not from the rumor mill, the response in that sanctuary was just palpable.  People cried and when I finished there was just sort of this response of a standing ovation," Rev. Anderson said.

The next morning, Rev. Anderson packed up and left, thinking the Book of Scott Anderson would end unfinished.

"The church bears some responsibility for this.  Bears some responsibility for homophobia, bears some responsibility for bullying going on in middle and high schools all around this country. I don't think we've accepted it and owned it yet," Rev. Anderson said.

The topic is now debated in Episcopal pews, at Lutheran altars and even at Catholic Mass. However, these Presbyterians alone did something different, forcing the opposing sides to talk.

"It had been such a divisive, nasty, polarizing debate in the church that the church wanted to find another way forward on this issue, so a task force of 20 people was appointed. I was one of the 20.  Very diverse.  These are 20 people who would never be in the same room together under any circumstances. People who are enemies," Rev. Anderson said.

Rev. Mark Achtemeier was Rev. Anderson's archenemy. A staunch conservative from the heart of the heartland, Dubuque, Iowa, Rev. Achtemeier is one of the architects of the church's ban on gay clergy.

"I actually worked with the groups in 1996 that put the restrictions into the church constitution, that have only been removed this past summer, and I helped fight to keep them in place there," Rev. Achtemeier said.

Then, something extraordinary happened. A revelation after conversations, Rev. Achtemeier went from antagonist to ally. The influential conservative clergyman changed his position -- supporting the ordination of gays and lesbians -- clearing the way for a watershed vote at the church's General Assembly finally allowed after decades of debate.

"It started me thinking about the message the church was sending, after that I had the opportunity to meet numbers of very devout, very conservative gay Christians, who had tried for years to follow the church's teaching and wound up broken people, just losing their faith, battling with depression, suicide. It didn't turn me around right there but it sent me back to the Bible to look for what I'd missed because I do not believe Christian faith rightly destroys people, so there's got to be a misunderstanding here," Rev. Achtemeier said.

There is no misunderstanding for Rev. Dr. Bruce Jones, pastor at First Presbyterian in Janesville.

Rev. Dr. Jones says scripture is clearly against homosexuality, and declined attending Rev. Anderson's ordination.

"They set aside, or as I say read scripture with a black highlighter where they cut out parts that they don't like or don't want to wrestle with what it means. I think we expect people who are called to ordained ministry to live a life acceptable to God and to be good examples for the rest of the congregation," Rev. Dr. Jones said.

On a crisp autumn day in Madison, outside the church hosting Rev. Anderson's ordination, Rev. Fred Phelps from Topeka, Kansas sent members of his notorious Westboro Baptist Church to protest, with signs so offensive FOX6 News had to blur the messages.

"We're here to say it's not okay to be gay. It will never be okay to be gay. The preachers used to preach against sin, now this nation has reached the bottom rung with same-sex marriage, and feces eating sodomites as your preachers.  You're doomed," Margie Phelps said.

It was a noisy contrast to the cathartic ceremony inside.

"It was a day of healing quite frankly. I think not only for me and my partner, but for the gay and lesbian people who were present many of whom had been a part of this struggle for decades, to say this is a new day," Rev. Anderson said.

A year in, Rev. Anderson still remains out -- a minister without a congregation of his own. Some in the million member Presbyterian church still see Rev. Anderson's presence as inconsistent with the teachings of the Bible, and some churches have already departed. Nearly 100 congregations, including one in the Milwaukee Presbytery have left the church over the issue.

"The original meaning of courage was to tell your story with your whole heart -- a willingness to let go of who you think you should be in order to be your imperfect self, before God, who already knows the truth of our vulnerability," Rev. Anderson said.

A growing bloc of Protestant churches have voted to accept gay clergy members and church leaders. The bloc includes the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and the Episcopal Church.

The United Methodist Church is still fighting over this issue.