Finding a new place to answer call
Gay graduate of seminary leaves denomination to pursue ministry.
Sunday, March 11, 2007
She earned the seminary degree, cleared more hurdles than she expected and won support and encouragement from Presbyterians across the country. But with the ministry still unattainable because of her lesbian relationship, Karen Thompson has decided to leave the Presbyterian Church.
She will say goodbye tonight at a service at Central Presbyterian, the downtown Austin church that sponsored her quest for the ministry, and then focus her energy on the Metropolitan Community Church in South Austin, where she works and hopes to be ordained in the fall.
The Metropolitan Community Church is a denomination founded to serve and champion believers who are gay.
“God has led me to be here at this time,” Thompson said last week. “I don’t have any regrets.”
But Central’s pastor, the Rev. Greg McDonnell, said he regrets his denomination’s position on homosexual clergy.
“It makes me very sad that our church is losing such a gifted, called woman,” McDonnell said.
McDonnell will celebrate the service with Thompson and local clergy, exploring the themes of lamentation, justice, forgiveness, hope and reconciliation.
The service will also feature a symbol of the church’s ongoing debate over sexuality: a collection of colorful stoles traditionally worn by ordained ministers.
The stoles, part of a traveling collection, were made for gay and lesbian people who could never wear them because their denominations barred them from ministry.
Members of Faith Presbyterian Church, where Thompson interned as a seminarian, gave her a stole last summer.
Thompson will add it to the collection.
Thompson’s sexuality triggered an ongoing debate on moral standards for ministers as she pursued the ordination track at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary over the past four years.
A key moment came in 2005, when the regional governing body, or presbytery, named her a candidate for ministry, the step that precedes ordination.
Thompson, 45, knew that she would probably not move beyond that step because she has a female partner, but she wanted to stay with her denomination and hoped to open a path for future seminarians who are gay.
Noncelibate homosexuals are banned from ordained ministry in the Presbyterian Church.
Last year, a retired minister filed a complaint against the San Antonio-based presbytery, arguing that church leaders violated the rules when they made Thompson a candidate.
A church tribunal ended in a deadlocked decision, meaning that Thompson could remain a candidate, and the ministers supporting the complaint appealed to the national church body to intervene.
Thompson said she learned last week that the appeal will probably be dropped.
The Rev. Toby Brown, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Cuero, said he thinks the church needs to address the question of gay candidates. Thompson may change denominations, he said, but “the people who wanted her ordained will still work to do that. . . . The disagreement continues.”
Brown said that although he opposed Thompson’s decision to continue in what he views as a sinful lifestyle, he thinks she made a mature decision.
In her resignation letter, Thompson said she felt her presence in the denomination had become “more divisive than unifying.”
Ultimately, she said, she wanted to answer God’s call to minister and decided the Metropolitan Community Church offered that chance. She’s currently leading a Saturday evening service geared toward gay people who have been rejected from church life in the past.
Thompson said she is sad that the Presbyterian Church is locked in this struggle over sexuality but that she’s not bitter.
“If it were not for the Presbyterian church,” she said, “Karen Thompson would not have gone to seminary.”
A Service of Hope and Reconciliation
When: 6 p.m. today
Where: Central Presbyterian Church, 200 E. Eighth St. Open to the public
Information: 472-2445 or www.cpcaustin.org