News from the front

National | Updates on the most divisive battles: The gay agenda keeps mainliners fighting among themselves

Issue: "UNbelievable," June 17, 2000

Strife over homosexuality continues to flare up in one mainline denomination after another. The main bones of contention are same-sex unions (gay marriage) and ordination of practicing homosexuals-and whether or how to apply biblical standards. As battle lines are drawn and skirmishes fought, the specter of schism looms larger for some denominations. Many people in the pews, latent traditionalists morally but theologically unaware, are waking up and siding increasingly with conservative renewalists. Here are some late developments from the front lines: BAPTISTS: Seeking an "amicable divorce"
For the first time, controversy over homosexual issues has led to a structural fracture in a mainline Protestant denomination. It happened late last month in Salt Lake City at the biennial convention of the American Baptist Churches of the Northwest (ABCN). Delegates voted 184-46 "with deep regret" to begin a process to restructure the regional unit of the 1.5-million-member American Baptist Churches U.S.A. (ABCUSA) by 2002 into at least two separate bodies. The resolution was recommended by a mediation committee that had been appointed to figure out how churches with differing views on homosexuality could get along together. The committee's conclusion: It's not possible under the present structure. "The differences on homosexuality cause such tensions that we cannot function as one," ABCN executive minister Paul Aita explained. "We realize we are in a troubled marriage and if we're going to have a divorce, we'd like to do everything we can to have an amicable divorce." He and other ABCN leaders agreed that divisions over authority of Scripture and the autonomy of local churches were at the heart of the sexuality dispute. They said the restructure, which could involve a "radical" new look, may be complicated by financial, legal, and denominational implications. And, warned other observers, a domino effect could lead to similar actions in other regional units and, eventually, to the breakup of the ABCUSA itself. In a related action, delegates voted 161-92 in favor of a bylaws amendment that would have permitted the ABCN board to dismiss churches that belong to organizations that claim homosexual practice is consistent with Christian teaching. The measure specifically named the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, to which two ABCN member churches in Seattle belong. About three dozen ABCUSA churches across the country belong to the Massachusetts-based group. But the vote fell short of the two-thirds majority needed. Its failure underscored the hopeless disunity that led to the divorce decision. The ABCN, based in Kent, Wash., represents 206 congregations with nearly 40,000 members mainly in Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Utah. Last year, the ABCUSA's national governing board upheld the dismissal of four pro-homosexual churches in northern California by the regional body. The action would have meant expulsion from the ABCUSA. But an obscure rule allowing a long and costly challenge later led the board to place the dismissals on hold and give the churches time to look for a home in a friendlier regional body. This decision in turn has sparked further disputes involving geographic boundaries and other issues. PRESBYTERIANS: Tasting the cake
Clashes are expected on the floor of the general assembly of the 2.6-million-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which begins next week in Long Beach, Calif. The denomination's highest court last month in Baltimore upheld two lower-court rulings favoring those who are promoting the homosexual agenda in the churches. Conservatives expect to attract enough moderate-traditionalist votes at the assembly to plug the holes with amendments to the Book of Order, the church's constitution and by-laws. But it promises to be a bitter fight, and gay activist Mel White and his Soul Force troops will be there to sound a battle cry. In the first case, the court agreed that a New Jersey presbytery had a right to allow a homosexual to continue his preparation for ordination, even though he said he intends to live sexually with another male. In strained reasoning, the court explained that the PCUSA standard of "fidelity in marriage or chastity in singleness" applies only to those being considered at the time of ordination, not to candidates preparing for ordination. In the second case, the court sided with a New York presbytery that voted to allow sessions (local church boards) to authorize same-sex unions by PCUSA ministers and in PCUSA churches. The decision exonerated a Dobbs Ferry pastor who performed a "holy union." PCUSA law forbids same-sex "marriages" but fails to include "unions" in the language. The court cautioned that such union ceremonies cannot use language from wedding ceremonies, and none of the participants should consider the union a "marriage." In reality, the gay press, most same-sex partners, and many of the ministers who perform the rites look on the unions as marriages. Fearful that use of the "M" word will increase unrest in the pews, liberal church leaders advise clergy to avoid its use. Making a distinction between a same-sex union and traditional marriage is a "sham," plaintiff's attorney Gordon Fish complained. "They didn't talk about being holy-unioned [in Dobbs Ferry] but about being married. They didn't order a holy union cake, but a wedding cake." LUTHERANS: Testing the reigns
In Detroit, delegates to the 100-church Southeastern Michigan Synod of the 5.2-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted May 25 by a 6-4 margin to allow its pastors to "bless" same-sex unions. It followed similar action earlier in the month by the Greater Milwaukee Synod. They are the only two of the ELCA's 65 regional synods to take such a stand so far, but the practice itself has been spreading among other synods. Nationally, the ELCA bars ordination of homosexuals, it defines marriage as a lifelong covenant of faithfulness between a man and a woman, and its bishops have issued an advisory disapproving of same-sex unions, but the church's laws don't address the specific topic. Some conservatives have vowed to push for an official ban at next year's churchwide assembly. METHODISTS: Still in the trenches
It sounded like open rebellion at a meeting of the strongly liberal New England regional unit of the 8.4-million-member United Methodist Church on June 3. Following a report on how the UMC's general conference in Cleveland last month stood by its position that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching, and upheld bans on same-sex unions and ordinations of practicing homosexuals (WORLD, May 27), dozens of angry ministers stood. They shouted expressions of disgust and defiance, denouncing the church's stands as unjust, according to witnesses. Some said it doesn't matter what UMC law says, they intend to keep on performing the unions. Across the country, other dissident ministers vowed to perform same-sex unions. If they do, they can face formal charges and ecclesiastical trials, with penalties including banishment from the ministry. In the West, Bishop Melvin Talbert, one of 14 UMC bishops who joined pro-homosexual demonstrations at the Cleveland meeting, returned home to Sacramento angry. He had been rebuffed by the church's supreme court in Cleveland for contending that local considerations are "a higher authority" than the Book of Discipline. He made the claim in February in announcing the dismissal of charges against 68 of his clergy who performed a union of two lesbians in mass defiance of the church's law. Now he wanted to do something about six evangelical pastors in his conference who had taken their own step of conscience. Their congregations were placing into escrow most apportionment money until, the six said, the conference leadership affirmed the Book of Discipline as authoritative. Withholding apportionments and encouraging others to do so are cardinal sins in UMC polity. But the message was clear: If liberals can claim conscience and local considerations as higher authority than law, why not evangelicals? A truce seemed to be in effect early this month as both sides sought to lower the stakes: The conference would get its money, and the bishop wouldn't impose punishment. In Ohio, about 970 clergy of the UMC's 270,000-member West Ohio Conference in a closed meeting voted on May 31 to dismiss a homosexual minister. He outed himself in 1998, saying he no longer could promise to be celibate. A district superintendent said it was not a unanimous decision, but church law was clearly reaffirmed in Cleveland last month, and the conference is required to follow the rules. The minister, Phil Hart, 30, was ordained by Bishop Judith Craig in 1996 and served as pastor of a church in Ironton, Ohio. He also taught theology at Circleville College. The bishop, one of the Cleveland 14, told reporters the dismissal adhered to church law, but she said she's "not sure" the church's positions are right.

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Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman


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