Fall 2000, Vol. 3, No. 3

Contents Page,
Vol. 3, No. 3


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Taking Stock

Preacher Joe

Cult Fighting in Massachusetts

The Mexican Election: Bringing the Church Back In

Rome, Relativism, and Reaction

Waco Redux: Trial and Error

Tibet I: Lama on the Lam

Tibet II: Monastic Spinmeister


The Never Ending Story

by Andrew Walsh

Cross_GIF.gif (120674 bytes)As mainline Protestantism’s struggle over homosexuality enters its fourth decade, there are signs of combat fatigue among journalists.

In the mainline neighborhood—which is smaller than it used to be but still substantial turf—the past 30 years have been punctuated by orchestrated campaigns for and against equal treatment of gays and lesbians at the national meetings of denominations. There have been waves of heated disciplinary trials for clergy, calculated acts of civil and ecclesiastical disobedience, and seemingly endless litigation over what the rules enshrined in the Methodist Book of Discipline and the Presbyterian Book of Order actually mean and how or whether they are to be enforced.

"For churches and synagogues, homosexuality is the guest that will not leave," Larry Stammer of the Los Angeles Times wrote as the lede of a book review he published in the Times last July 21. Like many of the nation’s religion writers, Stammer spent much of this year covering the meetings of religious groups wrestling with the issue. Bitterly disputed questions such as whether homosexuals can marry or be ordained as clergy occupied a high place on the agendas of Reform Jewish rabbis, the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodists, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Episcopal Church.

Decisions came easily for the rabbis (yes) and the Southern Baptists (no), but the for the pillars of the old mainline, the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians, this year’s meetings just offered up the now customary ongoing and inconclusive agony.

The state of complexity—of irresolvability, almost—was indicated in the lede of a New York Times article by Laurie Goodstein published May 25. "The highest court of the Presbyterian Church (USA), a denomination long divided on issues of homosexuality, ruled today that its ministers may conduct ‘holy union’ ceremonies for same-sex couples, as long as the ceremonies are not regarded as marriages. Although the decision was made by the church’s highest court, it is not the last word on the matter."

Nor was the matter decisively cleared up when the Presbyterian General Assembly meeting in Long Beach in July voted 268-251 for an outright ban on holy unions. Now a majority of the denomination’s 175 regional governing bodies, or presbyteries, must approve the change in the Book of Order. That’s not likely, so same-sex holy unions may well go on.

Nor were matters resolved conclusively by the Methodists when they gathered in May in Cleveland. "The meeting largely revolved around the issue of homosexuality, as activists tried unsuccessfully to change the church’s ban on gay ordination and same-sex union ceremonies," Kevin Eckstrom wrote in a May 20 Religion News Service (RNS) dispatch. "More than 200 people, including two bishops, were arrested in protests, and the meeting was brought to its knees over the contentious and volatile issue…. As the dazed and weary delegates to the 2000 General Conference of the United Methodist Church left the auditorium with their stacks of legislation, the look on their faces was overwhelming: Now what?"

The likely answer is more of the same. In all of the three mainline groups that discussed the matter this year, nothing conclusive has yet taken place. That’s remarkable because the debate over the legitimacy of homosexuality has been taking place at full force since the early 1970s. The first stirrings of the issue can easily be located in the 1960s.

Almost from the beginning, the denominational debates have been driven by highly motivated, organizationally skilled activists who believe either that they are on the cutting edge of the human rights movement or standing firm to defend the Word of God.

Virgina Culver of the Denver Post captured the passionate commitment of the activists in a May 13 wrap-up story. "They lost every vote at the United Methodist General Conference, but gays and their supporters seem emboldened to continue their fight for recognition in churches. ‘It may take 100 years, but we’re not going to give up,’ said the Rev. Don Faldo, who faced a church trial for officiating at a same-sex union for two lesbians in 1998."

The other side is equally committed and willing to argue that its position is gaining strength. "This is not an issue on which we can compromise," the Rev. Roger Eliot told Charles Austin of The Record of Hackensack, N.J., on May 12. "We do not believe that homosexuality is a greater sin than others, but we do believe it is a sin. For us to acquiesce in any way would be to sacrifice our integrity."

Many of the stories tracking this year’s discussion of the issue asked whether the extended contention suggested that some or all three of the denominations might crack under the pressure. "No one mentioned the word ‘schism,’ but it was on the minds of well-meaning Methodists who gathered this week to find a way out of the gay rights stalemate that is tearing their church apart," Don Lattin wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle on February 5, adding that mainline Protestantism is "a microcosm of the colliding moral agendas that enliven American politics."

The Methodists, in particular, seem to be worried about division. The conservative side seems to be strong and growing stronger, with about two-thirds of delegates voting against liberalization at the 2000 conference. "We’ve spent a quarter of a century trying to resolve this issue," the Rev. J. Stephen Harper of Ashbury Theological Seminary in Florida told Lattin. "All the finest voices have spoken, but I don’t have much hope that we’ll ever reconcile this."

The Methodists also seem to be dividing regionally, with strong majorities for eliminating restrictions on marriage and ordination for gays on the West Coast and in the Northeast, and strong majorities opposed to doing so in the South and Midwest.

The Presbyterians, who are enmeshed in the most complex—and to outsiders contradictory—legislative and internal judicial processes, may also simply be involved in denominational politics that blurs conflict between local and national majorities. The Presbyterians, in fact, have been engaged in this sort of vigorous and legalistic disputation since the 18th century over issues ranging from whether clergy are honestly converted, to slavery, to the conflict of traditional religion and modern science. Presbyterians have parted institutional company on many occasions in American history.

It is, however, among the Episcopalians that the most elaborate diversity is on display. In July, the Episcopal General Convention, too, voted (in the words of David Gibson of the Newark Star-Ledger) not to "equate gays with straights in the eyes of the church." But the Episcopal experience may suggest that national meetings and policy debates may not reveal the long-term process taking hold informally.

"Even as the denominations try to maintain order in their ranks, pastors across the country are turning the most contentious argument in today’s churches into a moot point by continuing to bless gay and lesbian relationships," Gibson wrote in an opinion piece carried by RNS. "It is, in effect, a classically Protestant statement of defiance: the clergy is simply bypassing the churches’ central authorities."

"The reality is that the polity of the churches allows for this kind of muddiness and messiness that allows us to stay," said the Rev. Susan Russell, an openly lesbian Episcopal priest from Los Angeles. "It is my experience that the spirit of God continues to move ahead of the institutional church."

And in fact, in areas like northern New Jersey and California, Episcopal same-sex unions and the ordination of gay and lesbian priests who refuse to take vows of celibacy are commonplace. The life of the church goes on—whatever the state of play of the national debate—with gay believers fully integrated.

Is that the inevitable result in all groups? Certainly not. All sorts of results are conceivable at this point: Conservatives may grow stronger and win in some mainline denominations. Many conservatives argue, for example, that most mainliners, and especially the younger ones, are growing more conservative. Gay Protestants who wish for full equality might move, more or less en masse, into more liberal denominations like the United Church of Christ that adopted policies of full equality in the early 1980s.

Moreover, four decades may seem like an interminable period in the age of CNN, but not in the American Protestant dispensation. Mainline churches fought over slavery and segregation for 200 years and debated the ordination of women for 75.

Journalists may see in the gay rights story an endless and impenetrable bureaucratic debate that should be handled by fleeing from coverage of denominations and their internal politics in favor of stories about the religious struggles of individuals. That’s certainly been a strong recent tendency in newsrooms. But it’s not a healthy impulse.

There aren’t a lot of places or organizations in our society where basic questions about human sexuality and sexual orientation are openly debated by persons who all share a stake in the health of the organism in question. Denominations are places where values, standards of justice, and the pace of change are all on the table. In this debate, and in many others, mainline Protestantism remains a place where the moral work of the entire society is done. And that’s worth covering carefully.