Fight for everything you hold dear

Published in PAN, Homoguide to Denmark, 1998]

Ivan Larsen has been the parish pastor in Nørrebro, Copenhagen,for the past 22 years.

In the following interview, he tells the story of how he became an open and publicly gay Lutheran minister, and of the fight for homosexual church unions

By Mogens Ulderup and Lisser Schiøssler Poulsen, Panbladet

For many years you have been one of our open, well-known gays. How did this come about?
– After a seven-year period on Cyprus where I was a military chaplain, I decided that it was time for something new. I returned to Copenhagen and St. Stephen’s Church in Nørrebro. I was very uncertain about how things would work out, because I had never before heard of a pastor in the Danish State Church who was openly gay. And in addition, it was not until I was in my mid-thirties that I began to feel at home in the gay subculture.

– In that subculture, being an active member of the State Church wasn’t very well thought of. I was a priest, and in the Church it wasn’t popular to be gay, so it was difficult no matter where I was.

– After a couple of years, I heard an interview in Denmark’s Radio made with a colleague who talked about being gay – and so I thought one could indeed be gay without being fired.

– I joined a CR group, and almost immediately afterward, one of the members said to me: “They need a pastor on Radio Rosa would that be something for you?” And it was! Throughout the 1980’s, I was part of editorial staff for the Rosa Report where I had my own weekly program, “Sunday’s Thoughts,” that among other things contained a mini-sermon. Every Sunday we announced to the world that parish pastor Ivan Larsen would present his “Sunday’s Thoughts,” and after a while I got used to being a public person. – In 1986 I met my partner, Ove, who moved into the parsonage with me the next year. I didn’t think there should be any doubt about it: Ove was not a boarder or a friend. We were a couple

– I didn’t want to hide anything. The newspaper Politiken interviewed us, and we were on the first page of the PS-section and found out that the attention was not dangerous at all. The more open, the easier it was, although for some, it was most certainly a shock at the beginning.

What kind of reactions did you get to your openness?
– Many knew all about it in advance, but some people had to come to terms with it. The congregation was asked about it and had to make up their mind about the facts that were presented to them. Fewer than 10 persons left the church because I am gay, but, on the other hand, many others have joined because they found out that they were allowed to be here.

– During the years, I have had many AIDS funerals where gays and lesbians have sat in the church and had to say farewell. They know I say what one should say. I don’t mince words.

The big world
Have you gotten any reactions from church authorities?
– No. My immediate boss, the dean, himself lives in a registered partnership, and the bishop in Copenhagen views registered partnership very favorably. He is uncertain about giving homocouples the right to a church union and blessing, but he has to consider his constituency because he is often elected with votes from the Inner Mission wing of the State Church. I know from different contexts that he will gladly appoint us as pastors and let professional qualifications decide matters.

– One member of the congregation was furious because I was so open while, surprisingly, other members were reprimanded by their children. After a while it seemed that they were happy about the sudden fame that descended on the congregation – they are a part of a story that has been told during a visit in the USA and on foreign television.

What about other pastors and other congregations?
– I know lots of colleagues who are in the same situation as I without being public about it, and I know how much trouble they have had. One is very discreet and does not dare take his/her partner out and about. If I were a pastor out in the country, I would not openly say that I was gay, but I think it would be accepted that I lived together with a man.

– In contrast to the situation here, we see that in Norway, for example, they have decided to preclude homosexuals from the possibility of being appointed in the Norwegian State Church. In Germany there have been incidents where pastors have been fired because they lived together with someone of the same sex. In Denmark we have no such laws that forbid homosexuals from being pastors in the State Church, but just the same, I advise young, homosexual candidates to keep their mouths shut, until they have been pastor for a few years, and the congregation has had an opportunity to get to know them as they are.

– Even in Copenhagen one has to be discrete at the start, and in hiring interviews one has to be crafty when answering questions about one’s opinions about church bles-sings and church unions for homosexuals. The Inner Mission is strong here in the city, and there are so many pastors that one can pick and choose. We bear the consequences of openness, and therefore it is we who make the strategy.

What the Bible says
Is it important for gays and lesbians to be married in the church?
– No one should insist that a special reason is needed for wanting to be married in a church.

– What I want is that we be accepted on the strength of our relationships. That’s what the Danish State has done by passing the Act on Registered Partnership, and that is what the church ought to do by giving us the opportunity to be married in the church.

– What the church is saying to us now is that we are good enough as individuals. It should accept that we form partnerships just like everyone else does. It is my opinion that our partnerships are just as worthy – I really can’t see any difference.

Can one ignore what is in the Bible or categorize it as culturally relative?
– Yes, one can indeed do that. The Old Testament contains various chapters on how one should treat slaves, and these guidelines are not disturbed in the New Testament – on the contrary, Paul accepts the conditions. Today no one would argue that it is all right to own slaves because it says so in the Bible, just as no one would dream of accepting the view of women in the Bible, where it is forbidden to go to bed with a menstruating woman.

– The Bible clearly repudiates homosexuality. The Bible doesn’t know all that we know today. I find that it is wrong to find answers to modern questions in 2000 to 5000 year-old notions! Homosexual identity is a 100 to 150 year-old recognition of the fact that men and women have always had sex with and emotional attachments to persons of the same sex, and that is what we must base our work on today. I have always been criticized for saying so, but I continue to insist that the Bible is the word of man, not the word of God.

Do you have a vision for the State Church and its homosexual members?
– I will continue to fight for a church union and blessing, and for the full recognition of gay and lesbian pastors. From my own experience, I know the joy of being able to say the things that I couldn’t say before.