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Gay issue continues to divide Presbyterians

Expressions of openness and reconciliation were spoken often this week at the Presbyterian Church (USA)'s General Assembly, but the church remains deeply polarized over homosexuality, especially gay and lesbian ordination.

Delegates at the church's annual convention, which concluded here Wednesday, avoided taking a firm stand on the ordination question, instead deciding after a bitter hours-long deliberation to study the issue for three years.

The next evening, amid similar but less protracted debate, delegates rejected a resolution challenging the Boy Scouts' exclusion of gay leaders and scouts. But in a close vote, they did express support for President Clinton's bid to end discrimination against homosexuals in the military. And they condemned Colorado for repealing laws designed to shield gays and lesbians from discrimination.

Several of those decisions sparked strong debate, but it was the vote to study _ and not decide _ ordination of practicing homosexuals that most clearly underscored how torn the 2.8-million-member denomination remains over sexuality matters.

The decision left partisans on both sides frustrated and overshadowed other key decisions at the assembly, including an important step by the Presbyterians to symbolically unite with eight other Protestant groups. (See story on back page.)

After more than five hours of debate Monday, delegates, in a midnight-hour vote, approved by a 71 percent margin a proposal calling for a three-year, grass-roots churchwide study and "dialogue" on issues related to sexuality and ordination.

The delegates voted to "urge strongly" that each presbytery (or group of churches) study the matter, and that local Presbyterian bodies determine how to create an "open and non-incriminating" climate for discussion so that the "reputation or standing" of participants won't be jeopardized.

Delegates did not, however, suggest lifting the church's present ban on homosexual ordination. Indeed, they affirmed the ban as an "authoritative interpretation" of the Presbyterian constitution.

The Presbyterians first passed a ban on ordination of practicing homosexuals in 1978 and have reaffirmed it several times since.

Some see as positive the vigorous debate surrounding the homosexuality issue. "Once again, the Presbyterian Church has not shied away from addressing a tough issue," the Rev. Gerald L. Tyer, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Tampa Bay, said in an interview. "In addition to its inclusiveness is its willingness to address the difficult issues of life and faith."

Yet for many _ opponents as well as supporters of gay and lesbian ordination _ the prospect of more study is tantamount to temporizing.

"Ridiculous," the Rev. Julian Walthall, an Alabama delegate opposed to homosexual ordination, said during deliberations. "This church has been studying this issue 15 years. It's time to have the courage to say . . . what the Presbyterian Church stands for."

A youth advisory delegate, supportive of homosexuals and bisexuals "who feel called to be part of this church," said, "My worst fear is that this church is continuing down the path of non-decision."

Immediately after the vote, about 70 gay and lesbian activists staged a protest in the assembly hall, carrying a huge wooden cross, singing Jesus Loves Me, and some chanting, "You want to study us to death."

The measure, whose deliberation stalled for hours over parliamentary maneuvering and repeated attempts at amendment, drew criticism from both sides of the issue.

Some delegates pointed out that the call for a "protective environment" falls far short of a guaranteed shield from reprisal for gays and lesbians who come forward to talk. An amendment, soundly defeated by the assembly, called for protection of the "ordination and installation" as well as the standing and reputation of those who participate in study groups.

Another amendment would have changed the church constitution so only those who practice celibacy or "fidelity within the covenant of marriage" would be eligible for ordination. The measure lost by a slim margin.

In a news conference, Lin Team, moderator of the committee that authored the resolution for a three-year study, downplayed the possibility of a schism in the church over homosexuality. "The center of the church will hold," she maintained.

While acknowledging that "factions within the church . . . appear to be very fixed in their positions," Team contended that they do not represent most church members. The "middle group" is trying to understand the homosexuality issue, she said.

"That's where the dialogue, I think, has true potential. We will probably never reconcile certain factions that are hardened" on the issue, she said.

Although Team said the church isn't ready to decide the homosexuality issue, others suggested a different reading of this week's vote.

"It is clear where the church now stands _ it stands by the statements it has made in the past," said Thomas Gillespie, president of the Princeton Theological Seminary and a co-signer of a declaration supporting the church's ban on homosexual ordination.

Many Presbyterians want to deal with the homosexuality issue on the basis of human experience, Gillespie said in a news conference. "Human experience should not be denied its place, but it is a subordinate place" to scripture and the confessions of the church, he said.

Yet activists for homosexual ordination also give scripture a prominent place in their argument.

"I am honoring God by loving who I am . . .," the Rev. Jane Spahr, a lesbian ordained in 1974, said in a news conference. "God's creation is diverse and beautiful."

Last October the top Presbyterian judicial body revoked Spahr's appointment as co-pastor of a Rochester, N.Y., church, ruling that even homosexuals ordained before 1978 cannot become pastors.

It was that decision, in part, that sparked a raft of resolutions on homosexuality, pro and con, at this year's assembly.

"This is a very painful time for us again," Spahr said. The church has studied the ordination issue "over and over again since 1976," she said. "How can we be equal in dialogue if we can't be fully at the table?"