WHEN OFFICIALS ANNOUNCED the vote tally on June 8, thunderous applause showered the crowd at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Concord, N.H. The occasion: Episcopalians in the diocese of New Hampshire had just elected the first openly homosexual bishop anywhere in the worldwide Anglican Communion. As joyous clergy and delegates leapt to their feet, the new bishop, the Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson, ambled forward, stood before the altar, and embraced his grown children and his male lover.
On May 23 in Nashville, officials of Glendale Baptist Church met with officials of the Tennessee Baptist Convention (TBC). The issue: Glendale had in 2002 hired as its associate pastor April Baker, a practicing lesbian, a fact the TBC did not learn until January 2003. TBC officials felt Ms. Baker's sexuality violated Scripture. Glendale officials believed otherwise, and asked the TBC to quietly vote them out.
In October 2002, about 300 Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) members from northeastern churches gathered at South Presbyterian Church in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. There they nailed to a church door dissents and demands that included calls for the reversal of PCUSA laws against ordaining noncelibate homosexuals and marrying same-sex couples. During an ensuing two-hour worship service, church members hoisted the door atop sawhorses and converted it into a communion table where gay ministers and elders blessed bread and wine, then served it to worshippers.
A growing number of churches in some denominations are stepping beyond the acceptance of repenting homosexuals as members, and instead loving both sinner and sin. Denominations that for decades have ordained pastors who reject such essential doctrines of Christianity as Christ's deity and His resurrection are now also on the verge of affirming homosexuality as biblical. Conservative Christians who remain in those bodies are fighting for the scriptural view of sexual morality that has stood for millennia.
One battle ended in May when the PCUSA's Cincinnati Presbytery disciplined Rev. Steve Van Kuiken for defying its order not to "marry" homosexuals (WORLD, July 19). Pastors and ruling elders in the presbytery ruled that Rev. Van Kuiken had "renounced jurisdiction" of the denomination by refusing to be bound by its orders. They removed him as pastor of Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church and as a member of the denomination.
Like Mt. Auburn, at least 113 PCUSA congregations in 30 states have designated themselves "More Light Presbyterians" (MLP). Membership in the group, which seeks "full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people of faith in the life, ministry, and witness of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)," is up 20 percent from three years ago, according to retired MLP board member Gene Ruff.
Meanwhile, 280 churches and 21 synods in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) participate in a similar program called "Reconciling in Christ" (RIC). During RIC's first 18 years, 250 congregations across North America joined, but 30 new churches have joined this year alone. Other denominations have gay-affirming programs such as the Rainbow Baptists, the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, and the United Methodist Reconciling Congregation Program.
Supporting this movement is a pro-gay theology that is drawing an increasing number of adherents. Tustin, Calif., counselor Joe Dallas, a former homosexual who now helps people struggling with that sin, said major tenets include general religious platitudes such as "Jesus never said anything about homosexuality, so it can't be wrong," and "Loving, monogamous relationships are compatible with Scripture, regardless of gender."
Robert and Deborah Rackerby were shocked to learn that their church had adopted the latter view. The couple had worshipped for seven years at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in Rancho Bernardo, Calif. One Sunday last September, they listened as Rev. Gary Nicolosi preached a sermon in which he dismissed the Levitical injunction against same-sex relations along with other "primitive superstitions" against "eating lobster, wearing clothes made of two different kinds of fabric, and planting a field with two different kinds of seed." (He did not mention other passages in the Bible that condemn homosexuality, such as Romans 1:24-26.)
"Every single red alarm you can think of went off in my head," Mr. Rackerby told WORLD. "I thought, 'This is going to be a church that supports homosexuality.'" Within two weeks, the Rackerbys e-mailed Rev. Nicolosi, asking him to clarify his position on same-sex relationships. The priest wrote back: "... I do believe that the living tradition of the Church actually supports blessing committed same-sex relationships."
The Rackerbys did not return to St. Bartholomew's. Mr. Rackerby suspects the church may be soft-selling homosexuality, banking on slow change, and the "get-along politeness" of long-time church members who are reluctant to make a scene.
Pro-gay theologians also argue that biblical passages condemning homosexuality are irrelevant to today's culture, suffer translation problems, or are intentionally misinterpreted by right-wingers wishing to fan anti-gay prejudice. Further, they say that since many homosexuals say they've always been attracted to people of their own gender, homosexuality is inborn, and therefore created by God.
In April, the ELCA Task Force on Human Sexuality met in Chicago for its second conference. The denomination commissioned the task force "to guide" the ELCA's decision making on gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex relationships. But its expert panels may actually be a series of stacked decks. For example, task force science panelists included a pair of Lutheran clinical psychologists who offered as fact the opinion of the gay-friendly American Psychological Association: "[Sexual] orientation is not a choice, it cannot be changed, [and] efforts to attempt to modify it may even be harmful." Another science panelist cited the discredited Kinsey Report as support for legitimizing homosexuality.
Roanoke College religion professor Robert Benne, a biblical conservative and task force panelist, told WORLD the ECLA task force "certainly is weighted toward those who are open to revising basic teaching on homosexual relations." In addition, he said the presence of open homosexuals at every discussion "makes it difficult for folks who are uncertain or just plain nice to voice objections or even reservations about the revisionist agenda. Most church people like to be polite and accepting, so they often accept that agenda out of the desire to 'keep the peace in love.'"
Meanwhile, pro-gay theologians are preaching this summer at a flurry of summer conferences designed to affirm churchgoing gays and lesbians in their lifestyles. On June 14 in Columbus, Ohio, more than 300 people gathered at the Adams Mark Hotel for "Amazing Grace," a conference sponsored by the Shepherd Initiative, an ecumenical group that teaches that homosexuality is OK with God. Speakers included liberal evangelicals Tony and Peggy Campolo, as well as Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist, Mennonite, and Methodist ministers and lay people.
Event "focus sessions" echoed the new pro-gay theology themes, but one session on bisexuality revealed the confusion that results when sexual ethics aren't grounded in Scripture. Two panelists addressed attendees: United Church of Christ minister Elane O'Rourke, who says she is bisexual but is currently married to a man; and Diane Drotleff, 28, a former Lutheran and self-described "sexuality activist."
During the hour-long session, both panelists affirmed bisexuality as a God-ordained expression of human relationships. Then a gay man stood and tossed out a question: Did the panelists believe one must limit sexual relationships to only two persons?
Rev. O'Rourke skirted the issue, saying "the Christian tradition doesn't have a way of talking about polygamy." But Ms. Drotleff was more direct: "I prefer to use the term poly-amory, loving more than one person," she said, then announced that she is currently involved sexually with a couple-a man and a woman.
"Hey, whatever floats your boat ... ," she continued. "I identify as a feminist ... a bisexual, a Wiccan, currently in a polyamorous relationship ... and I am thrilled to death that I was raised in a Christian home. Even though I no longer identify as a Christian, I still talk to Jesus."
- with reporting by Sarah Trafford in Columbus