Homosexuality and the Church:

Gay acceptance, ordination, split nation's faithful

By Tom Turner
The Arizona Daily Star. Sunday, May 30, 1993

Homosexuality is the "deepest issue dividing the churches today," the Rev. Bruce Roberts told fellow United Methodist ministers at a National Workshop on Christian Unity in Milwaukee earlier this month.

Whether the faithful look upon their gay and lesbian fellows with acceptance and love or turn their backs in fear and loathing depends mostly on how literally the faithful take biblical references interpreted as condeming homosexuality.

It depends on whether they attempt to follow the Old Testament's Laws of Moses or the "one great commandment" uttered by Jesus Christ in the New Testament, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."

It depends on whether the faithful believe that homosexuality is a free choice or an illness or a born trait, and what their denomination's ministers have to say about that. If sexual orientation is determined at birth, it stands to reason that a percentage of the babies born in every congregation will be gay or lesbian.

Whether that is the 10 percent gay activistsclaim it is, the 1 percent that recent research showed or somewhere in between, homosexuals will have to be reckoned with lest congregations lose numbers and credibility.

Finally, it depends on how much the faithful know about what homosexuality is and how it is manifested, their personal fears and their willingness to learn about such things.

Among denominations surveyed by the Star, attitudes toward homosexuals range from arm's-length prayer for their conversion and salvation espoused by Southern Baptists to the notion that sexual orientation has no bearing on a person's state of grace or competence to minister, as expressed by a leader in the United Church of Christ.

Roman Catholic

Not surprisingly, attitudes run the gamut among Roman Catholics, who, with 53 million members, comprise by far this nation's largest denomination.

Sex between adults of the same gender is easily catalouged in most Christian faiths.

"Homosexual activity, as distinguished from homosexual orientation, is morally wrong," wrote Roman Catholic Bishop Francis Mugavero of Brooklyn in 1976, amplifying a rebuke of the practice issued from the Vatican in 1975. "Like heterosexual persons, homosexuals are called to give witness to chastity, avoiding with God's grace, behavior which is wrong for them, just as non-marital sexual relations are wrong for heterosexuals.

"Nonetheless," Mugavero continued, "because heterosexuals can usually look forward to marraige, and homosexuals, while their orientation continues, might not, the Christian community should provide them a special degree of pastoral understanding and care."

Activists among Catholic homosexuals find such assurances less than comforting. Does that mean that the only way to human fulfillment is by changing one's sexual orientation?

Pope John Paul II did not make the matter clearer when, just before his trip to the United States in 1978, he issued a letter declaring homosexuality to be a sin. Period.

Bishops in some parts of the US, not in Arizona, responded to the pope's utterance by forbidding Dignity, the Catholic gay and lesbian organization, from meeting in Catholic churches or priests from saying Mass for Dignity, no matter where it met. One of those forbidding was Archbishop Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles. Earlier this year, Mahony announced support for removing the ban on gays in the US military.

But the sharpest blow for gays was the letter sent in 1992 to all Catholic bishops by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in Rome.

Although the letter was meant to be "advisory," there is little doubt that it reflects official Vatican opinion on the subject.

The Vatican's 1975 teaching said that only homosexual acts were wrong; the 1992 letter said that both homosexual inclination (though it might not be a choice) and homosexual acts "must be seen as an objective disorder." Those who are homosexually inclined "must not be led to believe that the living out of this orientation is a morally acceptable option. It is not."

The letter is not specific about what "living out" means, or about what an "objective disorder" is.

"We're not sure what the Congregation meant," said Lynda Canfield of the Catholic Picture Rocks Retreat north of Tucson. Canfield, a psychologist, has a lesbian-gay counseling ministry. "We assume it means that sex that is not procreative is not OK."

Homosexuality is "contrary to the creative wisdom of God," the Congregation said, and it's "practice may seriously threaten the lives and well-being of a large number of people." Again, no elaboration. Moreover, accepting the homosexual lifestyle as legitimate puts the rights of traditional families "in jeopardy"

And, while crimes against homosexuals are "deplorable," the Congregation wrote, it is not surprising that violence erupts when government condones homosexual activity. Therefore, the Church must actively oppose such condoning.

"There are areas in which it is not unjust discrimination to take sexual orientation into account, for example, in the placement of children for adoption or foster care, in employment of teachers or athletic coaches, and in military recruitment," the Congregation said.

Such "objectively disordered conduct" is akin to contagious disease or mental illness in matters of sensitive employment, the letter said. Besides, homosexuals who lead chaste lives and do not announce their orientation are a threat to no one and do not need special civil rights protection.

"That is not a compassionate ministry," Canfield said. "It is a disappointment. This pope seemed such a champion of human rights at the beginning. Apparently he has a serious blind spot."

Catholic institutions must gaurd against "assertive" homosexuals who "seek to manipulate the church by gaining the often well-intentioned support of her pastors," the Congregation warned.

Picture Rocks recently held a weekend retreat entitled "Accepting Our Blessing: Lesbian and Gay spirituality." It was conducted by Canfield and two priests who have ministered to gays and lesbians.

"In the past, religion has been wrongfully used to justify the oppression of groups deemed to be less 'fit' or 'worthy' than others," siad a brochure promoting the retreat. "As a result, lesbians and gays, like other minority groups, have been marginalized by the dominant religous subculture.

"This weekend retreat begins the spiritual journey from the theft of our rightful place in God's plan to the reclaiming of that divine place."

Picture Rocks conducted two previous daylong seminars on gay and lesbian issues, Canfield said, with full support from the Diocese of Tucson. Additionally, several Catholic parishes in the Tucson area have launced volunteer programs to help AIDS patients.

In November last year, the Vatican issued the first new catechism of the Catholic Church in 426 years. The catechism describes homosexual acts as "intrinsically dissolute, contrary to natural law," and it instructs homosexuals to practice chastity as all unmarried persons should.

But, since most homosexuals don't willingly choose thier lifestyle, the catechism says, "one must avoid all unjust discrimination against them." The commitment to chastity for everyone also forbids masturbation, fornication, and pornography.

Southern Baptists

The Southern baptist Church has traditionally interpreted the Bible literally and strictly, including a percieved condemnation of physical realtions among humans of the same gender.

But levels of tolerance for homosexuality and compassion for victims of gay bashing varied among the nations nearly 19 million Baptists, its largest Protestant denomination, at least until a fundamentalist takeover began in 1979.

In his new book, "What happened to the Southern Baptist Convention?," Grady C. Cothen declares the takeover complete.

"We are rapidly developing ecclesiastical authoritarianism," he wrote. "The lines of communication that process decision-making are often private. The agenda is worked out in unofficial caucuses. The enforcement is placed in the hands of a board of trustees elected by the machine."

The fundamentalist aagenda, Cohen wrote, continues to include "attacks against abortion, homosexuality, Masonry and for the creation of a Christian nation by force of law."

In 1992, the North Carolina Baptist Convention "disfellowshipped" Binkley Memorial Baptist Church in Chapel Hill for approving the ordination of an openly gay seminarian and Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh for blessing the union of two homosexual men. The national convention later ratified the ousters.

It was the first time in Southern Baptist history that a church had ever been excluded on doctrinal or moral matters. The national convention adopted resolutions declaring that any other of the denominations 41,000 churches demonstrating "unfriendly cooperation" would be similarly cast out of the fellowship.

"The church's Christian Life Commision has a pamphlet dealing with preparing youngsters for being approached by homosexuals," said Dan Springer, director of the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix.

"The Rev. Springer is mistaken," a woman at the commision's office in Nashville, Tenn. said curtly. "We publish only a brochure on the issues involved in homosexuality."

The pamphlet, "Critical Issues: Homosexuality," was first published in 1977, and it recently was "revised slightly," according to a foreward by the commision's fundamentalist chief, Richard D. Land.

It consists of five short essays that are long on opinion and short on references and current information. There are confusing contradictions among the essays as well.

A couple of essays review the Bible passages most often interpreted as condemnations of homosexuality and conclude that they most definetly do condemn it, meaning that Christians should despise such abomination of God's plan.

The essays generally conclude that:


Official attitudes of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) are similar to the Southern Baptists view but more definite.

However, Mormon doctrine sometimes changes abruptly with church leadership. Mormon structure is more hierarchical that that of most Protestant faiths.

Worldwide LDS membership is now placed at about 8.5 million, 4.5 million of those in the United States, which would make it the nation's fourth-largest Christian sect. Someone is joining the Mormons every one minute and 55 seconds, the church says.

In response to the Star's inquiry, L. Don LeFevre, director of LDS Media Relations in Salt Lake City, wrote: "The Lord's law of moral conduct is abstinence outside of lawful marraige and fidelity within marriage. Sexual relations are proper only between husband and wife, appropriately expressed within the bonds of marriage. Any other sexual contact, including fornication, adultery and homosexual and lesbian behavior, is sinful.

"There is a distinction between immoral thoughts and feelings and participating in either immoral heterosexual or homosexual behavior. However, such thoughts and feelings, regardless of their causes, can and should be overcome and sinful behavior should be eliminated. This can be achieved through faith in God, sincere repentance and persistent effort.

"We commend and encourage those who are overcoming inappropriate thoughts and feelings. We plead with those involved in such behavior to forsake it. We love them and pray for them. We are confident that through repentance and obtaining needed help, they can experience the peace that comes from conforming their lives to God's teachings."

The United Methodist, Presbyterian U.S.A., Evangelical Lutheran and United Church of Christ denominations, the nations third-, fifth-, sixth-, and tenth-largest Christian groups, all maintain volunteer programs for individual congregations or even regions to endorse acceptance of gays and lesbians.

United Methodist

One church in Tucson, St. Francis in the Foothills United Methodist, has completed that denomination's "Reconciling" process. The acceptance of gays at St. Francis is total, says its pastor, The Rev. David Wilkinson. This also means acceptance is mutual. St Francis has acquired a large gay and lesbian membership.

Local churches in the other denominations are reportedly considering going through similar processes, varying from one year to four years of study and discussion, until the differences no longer are felt.

Yet the annual convention of the United Methodist Church last year refused flatly to change its prohibitions against ordaining openly gay and lesbian people, as Presbyterians U.S.A. and Episcopalians did the year before. The Evangelical Lutheran Church will ordain the openly gay but requires them to abstain ever afterward from homosexual sex. The United Church of Christ ordains the openly gay and does not ask them to remain celibate.

"Christ said, 'A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another. By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,'" Wilkinson recites. "That's it. God is oneness and no one is excluded. Anytime you are showing compassion to another human, you are living in accordance with God's word. Gay or straight it doesn't matter.

"Christ never mentions homosexuality in the Bible," Wilkinson reminds. "Not once. Why not? Because it doesn't matter."

He also wonders why dozens of other laws set down by Moses in the book of Leviticus that order such things as animal saacrifices, ritual washings, atonement for menstruation and ejaculation are ignored by Christian churches while only the single mention of "men lying with men" is held sacrosanct. The laws of Moses also define what animals cannot be eaten and what clothing must be worn and when, and all are now ignored by Christians.

Wilkinson rejects the notion that the Bible strictly forbids homosexual acts. "Compassion and open-heartedness must supersede the 'letter' of literalism in biblical interpretation," he siad, just as it did when the Methodist church changed its collective mind about the rightness of slavery, subordination of women to men and divorce.

"You must consider that scribes and teachers edited the Bible over the centuries to suit their puposes at the time. Religion springs from the situations of life. Four thousand years ago a major theme of humanity was propagation, expanding the population. If the theme today is population control, then perhaps homosexuality is praiseworthy.

"The clue that accomodation has taken place is when a biblical author is using a word, like sodomy, that didn't exist until many years after the authors time on earth.

"Messengers of God are always defined by those in power- white, heterosexual and rich. In fact, true messengers of God are likely to be those that are different. Christians have a hard time recognizing this."

Wilkinson agrees with biblical scholars that stories in the books of Genesis and Judges involving sex among males were meant to condemn loveless sex and gang rape rather than homosexuality. Other references can similary be interpreted more as condemnations of injurious and exploitive sexual relations, Wilkinson said.

"It's important to recognize that homosexuality was not even acknowledged in Judais until about 100 years ago," Wilkinson said. "It's also important to know that homosexuality has never been an issue in numerous cultures. In some Native American traditions, for example, the homosexual is regarded as gifted, sensitive and special and often becomes the shaman or medicine man of the tribe."

For now, Wilkinson;s denomination officially considers homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching," at the same time acknowledgeing that homosexualty is probably not a chosen orientation. Nor does it endorse the performance of smae-sex weddings. Wilkinson believes that the entire United Methodist denomination will one day come to be as accepting as its St. Francis congregation.

Presbyterian U.S.A.

Likewise, the Rev. John Fife, pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson and this year moderator of all 4 million members of Presbyterian U.S.A., believes his church will change its mind about the ordination of openly gay people, perhaps at its annual assembly in June.

Homosexuals are the only class of individuals banned from ordination by the national assembly. That happened in 1978 when the assembly voted to welcome gays and lesbians fully to the Presbyterian worship, declared homophobia a virulent disease in society that must be combatted, then prohibited "avowed, practicing homosexuals from ordination to leadership within the church."

Their 'sin,' church policy says, precludes them. The sin is defined by the book of Romans, it says.

"The prohibition makes no sense rationally or theologically," Fife said. He noted that homosexuals are not the first class of people to be so barred. During the Civil War, the assembly barred slave owners from ordination. Later it said that tavern owners couldn't be ordained.

Mostly, however, qualifications for ordination of ministers has been left to Presbyteries, the church's regional organizations. Fife believes that the June assembly will return that full authority.

The ban gives gays and lesbians who want to serve as ministers or church elders two choices, Fife said: Be celibate or be silent. "There are lots and lots of Presbyterian clergy today who are in the closet but who are not celibate."

At the 1991 general assembly meeting, a 200-page paper on sexuality was rejected, primarily because it referred to homosexuality as "a gift from God." Hundreds in the audience demonstrated against the rejection.

Presumably, openly gay people ordained before 1978 were exempt to the new policy. But last year, the church's court system ruled that a Rochester, Mich. church could not hire the Rev. Jane Spahr, an openly gay pastor from San Francisco, as its pastor.

The Presbyterian Church has no official policy on confirming or blessing gay partnerships. Many pastors have performed "blessings of covenant relationships," Fife said. He has never been asked to perform one.

Fife is concerned about the influence of non-religous agencies on church policy regarding sexuality. "My greatest fear is that the Pentagon is going to provide the nations moral leadership rather than the churches. As a pastor, that's impossible for me to accept.

"I think the Presbyterian Church is willing to be more open to the possibility of being fully inclusive, but is unwilling to take definitive steps toward that end because of fear. Homophobia is the deepest-rooted emotional fear I have ever encountered as a pastor," Fife said.


Evangelical Lutheran churches are semiautonomous, said Frank Imhoff from church headquarters in Chicago, but no national policy bars the ordination of gays and lesbians nor the affirmation of gay relationships.

However, Lutheran Bishop Herbert W. Chilstrom wrote to President Clinton, "We have a clear set of standards and expectations for all who are ordained. We judge them by their behavior rather than on the basis of their sexual orientation." Chilstrom was urging Clinton to lift the ban against gays in the military.

And, Chilstrom said, "Ordained persons who are homosexual are expected to abstain from homosexual realtionships."

But some among the Lutherans want acceptance to be broadened to allow intimate relationships for gay clergy. A report on homosexuality will be delivered at the church's 1995 convention, at which time the subject could become heated.

The church sponsors Reconciled in Christ congregations and synods, similar to the United Methodist Church's Reconciling and Presbyterian U.S.A's More Light groups.

The Grand Canyon Synod, which embraces Arizona and southern Nevade, is not Reconciled in Christ, nor are there any RC congregations within Arizona, said Bishop Howard Wennes in Phoenix.

Neither are there any openly gay clergy members in the synod, Wennes said, "at least not that I am aware of." The synod was created in 1978. At its second annual meeting, Wennes said, a speaker attempted to "sensitize people on how the church deals with gays and lesbians. The church feels that there is room under the cross for everyone, that homosexuals are real people with real feelings."

From Arizona pulpits, he said "we try to create an atmosphere where we can talk about it without people zooming out in space. It's a very complicated subject."


Arizona's new Episcopal Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Robert Shanan, said he stood ready to follow the direction of the denomination's 1994 convention in Indianapolis, whichever way it goes. The convention will receive and act upon a three-year-long study of human sexuality, which includes the subject of homosexuality.

The Episcopal church has a long-standing policy against the ordination of homosexuals, but the policy is not canon law and has for the most part been ignored. Gay Episcopal seminarians have made the same choice that gay Presbyterian canidates face: Be celibate or be silent, but many more Episcopalians have done neither once ordained.

The denomination's 1991 convention in Phoenix was presented with two resolutions. One endorsed the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians and favored a plan of blessing same-sex unions. The other would have made it impossible for a sexually active homosexual to become an Epicopal cleric.

The convention adopted neither proposal, but instead produced an endorsment of heterosexual marriage and a call for a three-year study of sexuality. The Episcopal church is the eighth-largest among U.S. Christian faiths.

"Episcopalians are not fundamentalists," Shahan said. "We place more faith in our ability to think. Our sources of authority are scripture, tradition and reason, and sometimes the first two are the most difficult to reckon with."

The church needs new ways to define the issue, Shahan said. A body of Episcopalians feels ordination of homosexuals is simply a matter of fairness. Others have been taught since they were very young that homosexuality is wrong. "Voices of moderation get lost, and that concerns me greatly," he said.

"Our baptismal covenant says that we will respect the dignity of every human being," he said. "Perhaps we would get further by discussing what that covenant means, turning an emotional debate into a productive dialogue."

Ceremonies of commitment have been performed for homosexual couples by Episcopal clergy in some parts of the nation, but not in Arizona, as far as Shahan is aware. Nor would he approve such a ceremony.

"I would have to say that's not appropriate for where we are in the church today," he said, "but it could happen in the future."

United Church of Christ

The United Church of Christ, the nation's 10th largest denomination, accepted the ordination of sexually active gay men and lesbians in 1980. Its clergy are also allowed to perform commitment ceremonies for gay couples, and several have been performed in the church's Southwest Conference (Arizona, New Mexico and El Paso).

In the Southwest Conference, sexual orientation is not a criteria for clergy competence," said Carol Keim, a conference minister in Phoenix. "But appropriate and ethical behavior is required of all clergy, both homosexual and heterosexual. That does not, however, include celibacy."

The United Church of Christ has an acceptance process for interested congregations, too. It's called "Open and Affirming." There are no such congregations in Arizona, although "a couple of churches" have expressed an interest, Keim said.

"We do not take the Bible literally but as instruction about how God works with people and events," Keim said. "There are always new truths to be revealed, but we look at the whole biblical principle: There is one Great Commandment, to love God and our neighbor as ourself. All other commandments are subordinate to that one.

"In a Christian community which opens itself to the full meaning of the Great Commandment, hope lives," Keim wrote in her Christmas message last year. "In hope lies the possibility that you will accept me and I will accept you, and together we will openly accept and affirm each other."

Orthodox Jews

Orthodox Jews take the Old Testament of the Bible and the Talmud literally, including many of the laws of Moses that Christians have long since abandoned. To the Orthodox, homosexuality remains "an abomination."

Conservative Jews have not dealt with homosexuality at all, while Reform Jews have, at least formally, accepted it as a fact of life.

Two years ago, the Central Conference of American Rabbis voted not to consider sexual orientation when ordaining rabbis for Reform congregations. Nor is celibacy required for those who are ordained. Word is that the conference will soon vote to bless gay Jewish relationships on request.

"The Bible has many laws, shoulds and should nots, but never tells you why," says Reform Rabbi Joseph Weizenbaum of Temple Emanu-El in Tucson. "Basically it was telling Jews, you shouldn't be like the people around you. I don't think acient Jews knew what homosexuality was.

"All books, including the Bible, are written in a time-place situation," Weizenbaum said. "If we took the Bible literally, we would be dropping stones on bad kids and chopping off arms and legs. Imagine, cooking an animal in your back yard to please God!"

Weizenbaum has addressed the subject of homosexuality at temple services several times, he said. "I built up to it by telling them I had a personal secret I had carried since birth that makes me different from most people: I'm left-handed.

"I asked them if there was ever a day in their lives, when they were hitting puberty, that they were conscious of choosing to be heterosexual," Weizenbaum said. "I try to create a sense of empathy. Homosexuality is something a person is born with. It's not a moral choice.

"Homophobia strikes all people; it touches something deeper than social conscience," Weizenbaum said. "It is a very difficult thing to overcome."


Passages From The Bible Deal With Homosexuality

Below are passages from the Revised Standard Edition of the Bible usually cited as the basis for condemning homosexuality.

Genesis 19:3-5,10-11 - "But he (Lot) urged them {two angels appearing as men) strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. But before they lay down, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may know them.'...But the men (angels) put forth their hands and brought Lot into the house to them, and shut the door. And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house."

Judges 19:22-23,25 - "As they were making their hearts merry, behold, the men of the city, base fellows, beset the house round about, beating on the door; and they said to the old man, the master of the house, "Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him." And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, "No, my brethren, do not asct so wickedly; seeing that this man has come into my house, do not do this vile thing.'...But the men would not listen to him. So the man (the house guest) seized his concubine and put her out to them; and they knew her, and abused her all night until the morning. And as dawn began to break, they let her go."

Leviticus 18:22 - "You shall not lie with a man as with a woman. It is an abomination."

Leviticus 20:13 - "If a male lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have commited an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them."

Deuteronomy 23:18 - "You shall not bring the hire of a harlot, or the wages of a sodomite into the house of the Lord your God in payment for any vow; for both of these are an abomination to the Lord your God."

Romans 1:26,27 - "For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural realtions for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men commiting shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error."

1 Corinthians 6:9,10 - "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolators, nor adulteres, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God."

1 Timothy 1:8-10 - "Now we know that the law is good, if anyone uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, immoral persons, sodomites, kidnappers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine."

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