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Margaret G. Payne, the bishop of the New England synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has chaired the denomination’s task force on sexuality for the last three years.
Margaret G. Payne, the bishop of the New England synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has chaired the denomination’s task force on sexuality for the last three years. (Globe Photo / Nancy Palmieri)

N.E. bishop at center of Lutherans' gay debate

BUCKLAND -- On the 700 acres she shares with her husband, John, and 100 head of Black Angus, Margaret G. Payne likes to describe herself as a farmer's wife.

But Payne's day job has put her at the center of the controversy roiling mainline Protestantism in the United States -- the role of gays and lesbians in the Christian church.

Payne is the bishop of the New England synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America -- with 5 million adherents, the largest Lutheran denomination in this country -- and for the last three years she has chaired the denomination's task force on sexuality. She has presided over the contentious debate from a most unlikely vantage point, one of the least Lutheran corners of the country.

And this week, Payne is in the middle of a debate, which began yesterday with the start of a biennial churchwide assembly in Orlando, Fla., over whether her denomination should ordain non-celibate gays and lesbians and allow its clergy to bless same-sex relationships. The assembly is expected to vote Friday.

Over the last several years, Payne has won high marks for her ability to keep conservatives and liberals at the same table, and for her emphasis on avoiding the division that has riven the Episcopal Church USA over similar issues. Payne's panel is advising that the denomination retain its ban on blessing same-sex relationships as an ''official action" of the church, while allowing pastors to ''minister" to such couples in unofficial ways that can include informal blessings. The panel is also recommending that the denomination continue to bar the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians, but allow exceptions at the behest of bishops.

The substance of the Payne panel's recommendations has satisfied neither side.

''Twice now in the [Evangelical Lutheran Church] we have had sexuality task forces that have been overwhelmingly in favor of approving sexual relationships outside of the marriage of one man and one woman," said Mark Chavez, director of the WordAlone Network, which opposes ordinations of non-celibate gays and lesbians. ''The stacked task forces are evidence of how disconnected the [Evangelical Lutheran] churchwide organization is from most [church] members and churches."

On the other side, Emily Eastwood, the executive director of the gay rights organization Lutherans Concerned/North America, praised Payne as ''very even and measured, thoughtful, deliberative, and calm." But Eastwood termed the recommendations of the Payne task force ''offensive" because, in her view, it reinforces a second-class status for gays and lesbians in the church.

Payne said she cannot spell out her own position on same-sex relationships, because ''my job is to maintain a public neutrality." But she said she has come to believe that mainline Protestant denominations have become elements of a broader cultural struggle in America. ''This is not just about sexuality, but is a factor in an ideological war," she said.

Payne asked to meet a reporter in Buckland and to keep secret the location of her family's farm in Western Massachusetts because the sexuality issue is so controversial that at least one member of her task force has received a death threat.

Regardless of what happens this week in Orlando, Payne, 59, said she will resign from her national duties as task force chairwoman to focus on Lutheranism in New England. She said she wants to run for a second six-year term as New England synod bishop -- the bishops are elected by clergy and lay people -- and to concentrate on attempting to build the denomination's 190 New England churches by reaching out beyond Lutheranism's traditional appeal to Americans of German and Scandinavian ancestry, and working on issues of poverty and hunger. She also said she will speak about her thoughts on same-sex relationships once her stint as chairwoman of the sexuality panel concludes.

''People are always asking me what my opinion is, and my flip answer is, 'God gave me no opinion,' " she said. ''But then I realized, I have a very strong opinion, and I have sheathed it for this period of time, because we must listen to the other side. But my sword has turned into a plow. The issue is much more nuanced and complicated than I thought it was."

In New England, Payne has respected church policy barring the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians -- ''I don't feel called to ecclesiastical disobedience," she said -- and said that although there are gay clergy, she is not aware of any who are sexually active. She has allowed pastors to bless same-sex couples, but has asked them not to officiate at same-sex marriages, and not perform blessing ceremonies that resemble weddings or are presented as official rites.

''If we bless houses and cars and goldfishes and rings, why can't we bless a faithful relationship of people bonded in Christ?" she asked. ''The conservative answer is that it's a blessing of sin, but the question really needs to be answered more fully. Not everyone agrees that homosexual activity is a sin."

On the other hand, Payne said, ''there are some wonderful conservative people who have a lot to say, because they're willing to take a stand against the culture, and the left wing alienates them."

With four German grandparents, a father who was a church sexton, and a Lutheran education at Muhlenberg College, she is unwavering in her commitment to her denomination, saying, ''If you cut me, I'd bleed Lutheran." Payne's denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is the more liberal of two major Lutheran denominations in the United States; the other, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, with 2.5 million adherents nationwide, declares gay and lesbian behavior ''intrinsically sinful" and neither ordains gays and lesbians nor blesses their relationships.

Payne said she loves the liturgy of Lutheranism, but also the theology, which says people are saved not by something they do but solely by God's grace. As Payne explained it, ''We don't believe God zaps people."

Payne said that when she was a child in Philadelphia, at a time when women were not ordained Lutheran ministers, her life's aspiration was to become a pastor's wife. But after college, while teaching English in Punjab, India, on a Fulbright grant, she met John Payne, the man she would marry. John Payne, a Peace Corps volunteer, made it clear he was never going to be a pastor -- in fact, he went on to become a banker.

So Payne enrolled at Princeton Seminary and, after 14 years of study while raising four children, she was ordained a Lutheran pastor in 1984. She served at a church in Princeton Junction, N.J., and then as assistant to the bishop in New Jersey, before moving to Massachusetts in 1999, when her husband decided to retire from Wall Street to the family farm to raise cattle and oversee a logging operation and sawmill.

Payne took a temporary job overseeing a Lutheran parish in Wilbraham and said it was purely an impulse that caused her in June 2000 to stop by a synod assembly in Sturbridge to see whom the New England Lutherans would elect their next bishop.

But 11 people -- out of 600 -- wrote Payne's name down as their candidate for bishop, and 36 hours later, after a series of votes and answering questions from the crowd, Payne, who knew few people in the synod and had never held a permanent job in New England, was elected the bishop.

The presiding bishop of the national denomination, Mark S. Hanson, said Payne was chosen to oversee the sexuality task force because she ''understands how to walk into the midst of what could be a conflicted conversation. . . . She is the model of what we would look for in bishops in this time and place."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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