Associated Press, 14 Aug 2001

Protestant Churches Debating Homosexuality


Filed at 3:16 p.m. ET

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and now Lutherans. Mainline Protestant churches seem to be taking turns examining their stance on homosexuality, with the results being protests, civil disobedience and split congregations.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with 5.1 million members, is the latest to weigh into the thorny debate.

The nation's fifth-largest Protestant denomination decided Monday to undertake a major study on homosexuality. Church members will look at whether to bless same-sex couples and ordain actively gay and lesbian clergy. But the faith's national assembly, meeting in Indianapolis, also dodged a vote on repealing a ban on gay clergy.

That triggered civil disobedience by 48 pro-gay protesters, who were arrested for blocking a sidewalk outside the meeting hall. Such scenes are becoming familiar: similar demonstrations have been staged at meetings of the United Methodist Church and Episcopal Church, among others.

The Evangelical Lutheran meeting also featured arguments that have been heard before.

Liberals insisted that justice and love-thy-neighbor principles require acceptance of gays. The Rev. Donna Wright of Omaha, Neb., argued the exclusion of homosexual clergy is the same as past church discrimination against blacks, women and the handicapped.

The Rev. Ann Tiemeyer of Woodside, N.Y., said it is ``time to send a message that we are a welcoming church.''

Conservatives said the moral code laid out in the Bible is at stake. ``The Scriptures offer some clear directions'' on sexual morals, said the Rev. Daniel Baker, a Lutheran delegate from Glenville, Minn.

That's the view in more conservative denominations such as the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod and Southern Baptist Convention, which have virtually no dissent from Christianity's 2,000-year tradition of regarding same-sex relations as sinful.

Mainline Protestant churches, however, have a history of becoming embroiled fairly quickly in issues that are being discussed in society at large.

The year's most dramatic development in the debate on homosexuality occurred in June, when the national assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to repeal a ban on actively gay clergy and lay officers.

Joe Rightmyer, executive director of an evangelical Presbyterian group, said at the time that conservative pastors were so alarmed by the vote they came to him in tears, worried their congregations would break apart. ``It is that serious,'' he said.

Still, the Presbyterian debate isn't over because the gay clergy still needs ratification from a majority of 173 ``presbyteries'' -- or regional units -- in balloting that runs through next spring. Conservatives have won twice before in presbytery voting on the ban.

The Episcopal Church is still absorbing last year's ambiguous convention vote to acknowledge church couples -- which implicitly includes both heterosexuals and homosexuals -- living outside wedlock. There have also been decisions not to discipline priests who conduct same-sex unions or bishops who ordain actively homosexual clergy.

In the international Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch, most bishops strongly oppose such practices. Anglican churches in Rwanda and Southeast Asia have consecrated U.S. bishops to lead an ``Anglican Mission in America,'' and rally conservatives who cannot accept Episcopal policy.

The United Methodist Church strongly affirmed its conservative policy last year, but homosexuality is still not a dead issue.

The church's supreme court will rule in October whether Seattle's bishop should appoint actively homosexual clergy, and whether the Phoenix district should have protested Methodist ``discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender persons.''

The American Baptist Churches, distinct from the Southern Baptists, also has been at odds over homosexuality. The Northwest regional unit is splitting in two because congregations can't agree on the issue. Elsewhere, liberal congregations expelled by their own regional units have joined with units in distant states.

The Rev. Bill Nicoson, coordinator of American Baptist Evangelicals, says his denomination is suffering ``balkanization'' from ``a theological problem that the national leadership is unable to deal with.''