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Churches at turning point on gay issues

Published Sep. 9, 2005

For the moment at least, uneasy compromises over gay ministers and same-sex unions appear on the horizon for major Protestant denominations.

It's possible that someday U.S. mainline Protestants will look back upon mid-March 2001 as a turning point in their seemingly insoluble dispute over homosexual behavior.

At a strictly guarded secret conclave last week near Hendersonville, N.C., 34 top world leaders of Anglican Christianity agreed to utter no complaint and take no steps to block increasing tolerance in America's Episcopal Church. That appeared to remove the last obstacle to U.S. dioceses that ordain actively gay clergy and allow blessing rituals for same-sex couples.

Then on Wednesday, liberals in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) won a parallel triumph, defeating a ban on same-sex blessings. They will now work to repeal a 4-year-old prohibition on actively homosexual clergy and lay officers at the nationwide church assembly in June.

For the moment, at least, uneasy compromises have been reached: Both denominations still officially uphold Christianity's traditional teaching against same-sex relations. While the Episcopal church takes that formal stand, it lets dioceses do what they wish. Presbyterian conservatives won a 1997 ban on actively homosexual clergy, but now liberals have gained the right to bless same-sex couples.

Last May, the United Methodist Church decisively reaffirmed bans on both rituals and clergy, although dissenters plan to continue same-sex ceremonies.

Can this inherently unstable situation persist?

These three closely related denominations, with 14.3-million members and 54,215 local congregations among them, have struggled with this quandary for a quarter-century.

Elsewhere in U.S. Protestantism, the United Church of Christ has long followed an open policy on homosexual practice. Most other denominations are opposed.

While the Anglican leaders handled the dilemma at their North Carolina gathering with closed talks, arched eyebrows and ambiguous communiques, Presbyterian delegates have engaged in public debate.

Last year's Presbyterian assembly passed the ban on rituals and sent it to 173 regional legislatures, or presbyteries, for ratification. By Wednesday, 87 had voted no, killing the measure.

Conservatives needed the measure to overturn a ruling from the Presbyterians' highest church court. That ruling allows clergy to perform same-sex union services so long as they are not confused with marriage.

A survey by the denomination shows 57 percent of members at large and 61 percent of lay elders support a law against clergy giving same-sex blessings, but only 50 percent of pastors.

The Rev. Laird Stuart, a San Francisco pastor and co-leader of the victorious Covenant Network, says the voting on same-sex rituals has significance for the separate issue of actively gay office-holders, currently banned. The vote, he says, indicates that a change to let presbyteries and congregations reconsider that matter "would be very attractive."

"The quiet middle is beginning to speak up," Stuart says. "In a nutshell, people are getting tired of intolerance."

On the opposite side, the Rev. Joe Rightmyer of Presbyterians for Renewal in Louisville, Ky., thinks the June assembly will keep the ban on officeholders. And if it passes a repeal measure, conservatives will prevail when the presbyteries vote.

But Rightmyer sees the long-term scenario as troublesome. "Our denomination is sorely divided, and apart from supernatural intervention we are headed for destruction or schism." He considers Presbyterian disagreements over the Bible's authority irreconcilable.

Rightmyer is urging fellow conservatives to stick with the denomination despite the loss on same-sex rituals. Stuart expects a conservative schism if his side wins on officeholders, but thinks it will be small.

In the Episcopal Church, conservatives still harbor hopes that the international leaders will eventually step in, even though they didn't last week. But they're obviously on the defensive, saying that at least the international meeting approved special visiting bishops to serve parishioners who conscientiously oppose their regular bishop's liberal policies on gay issues.

However, an aide to the head of the U.S. church said that's not what the international leaders intended.

The president of Integrity, the Episcopal gay caucus, the Rev. Michael Hopkins of Glenn Dale, Md., observes of the international meeting, "Maybe if they had said something more definitive it would have slowed the process down," but Episcopal change would have proceeded anyway.

At the 1998 Lambeth Conference, 82 percent of all Anglican bishops in the world voted against homosexual practice. But Hopkins thinks international events prove that conservative strength has waned since then.

Within the United States, Hopkins is confident the next Episcopal Church convention in 2003 will move beyond the current laissez-faire situation and formally approve same-sex rituals.

As for clergy ordinations, Hopkins says, "We don't see the need for any legislation. . . . It's a done deal." He estimates that a quarter to a third of Episcopal dioceses already allow openly gay and lesbian priests.

Canon David Anderson, president of the conservative American Anglican Council, acknowledges that changing the direction of the Episcopal Church "is a formidable task, but with God all things are possible." He says that as a parish priest in Newport Beach, Calif., "I see things weekly that sure look like miracles."