Several U.S. mainline Protestant denominations are about to face their latest showdowns on one of the most vexing issues since slavery: whether to break from biblical morality as traditionally understood to allow clergy with homosexual partners and to sanction blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.
"Mainline" groups (predominantly white, with early American roots, and affiliated with the National Council of Churches) contain vocal, well-organized liberal and evangelical combatants. The resulting dispute "certainly has taken a big toll," says Jack Haberer of Presbyterian Outlook, an independent magazine that airs varied views. "For some, it's the total compromise of all things moral. For others, it's the compromise of all things just," and these "polar positions" dominate discussions while many yearn for compromise.
The disagreement could be one factor in mainline shrinkage. Current memberships of major groups affected, with their declines since 1970 (including predecessor bodies):
- Episcopal Church: 2.15 million members; down 34 percent
- Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: 4.77 million; down 16 percent
- Presbyterian Church (USA): 3.03 million; down 25 percent
- United Church of Christ: 1.22 million; down 38 percent
- United Methodist Church: 8 million; down 25 percent
The United Church of Christ is in a mopping-up phase, with liberal control so solidified that in 2005 the denomination endorsed gay marriages for both church and society. Things are far more turbulent elsewhere.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church released the draft of a new sexuality policy March 13. It sidesteps biblical passages against homosexuality and simply concludes that there's no church consensus on the morality of "committed same-gender relationships." The conservative Lutheran CORE and WordAlone Network issued immediate critiques while the Lutheran gay caucus complained that the proposal "merely tolerates rather than celebrates" same-gender families.
After churchwide discussion, the text will be revised and submitted to a 2009 assembly, which will also decide whether to allow actively gay and lesbian pastors. Though a membership survey showed only minority support for liberal change, sentiment at the past two assemblies was closely divided.
The United Methodist Church has wrangled at every quadrennial conference since 1972, when a floor amendment declared homosexual practice "incompatible with Christian teaching." A new survey finds 39 percent of clergy and 37 percent of lay members in the United States disagree "somewhat" or "strongly" with that wording. But unlike with other mainline denominations, 40 percent of United Methodists are overseas.
Past liberal agitation has provoked legislation against actively gay clergy and same-sex ceremonies, enforced by ecclesiastical courts. The 2004 conference specified as "chargeable offenses" both homosexual activity and presiding at celebrations for same-sex couples, though a few congregations bend the rules.
Delegates to the next conference, slated for April 23-May 2, will mull 1,564 bills, a majority of which treat gay matters. Though many Methodists are sick of the quadrennial squabbles, some regional units and the Washington-based Board of Church and Society are again demanding repeal of strict policies. One Minnesota proposal would redefine "marriage" as between "two adult persons."
Robin Russell of United Methodist Reporter says revisionists realize that no changes will occur until 2012, "if then," and believe that younger Methodists will eventually enact toleration. However, liberal Methodist enclaves in the American Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast have generally declining memberships. Meanwhile, the growing, largely conservative African and Asian regions now have 24 percent of conference delegates and will claim even more by 2012.
The Methodists will also tackle the usual torrent of political proposals on everything from the war on terror and intelligent design (anti) to universal health insurance (pro). Some 323 bills ask the pro-choice denomination to shift and affirm abortion only when the mother's life is threatened. Liberals will seek to support Palestinians by pulling investments from Caterpillar Inc., which provides heavy equipment to Israel.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) assembly June 21-28 elects a new top executive ("stated clerk") and once again debates the church constitution's mandate that clergy and lay officers observe fidelity in heterosexual marriage or chastity if they are single.
The 2006 assembly sparked a small schism by granting local Presbyterians leeway to ordain persons who violate national church standards. In a bombshell February ruling, the denomination's supreme court said all ordinands must follow the fidelity-and-chastity law until it is legitimately overturned through constitutional amendment. Liberals want the June meeting to reinstate the 2006 policy, but assemblies rarely nullify such judicial rulings.
Amending the constitution requires ratification from a majority of regional legislatures around the nation, and conservatives have readily beaten repeal attempts. Meanwhile, ecclesiastical courts face ongoing ordinations of openly homosexual candidates. Upshot: an enervating, perennial standoff amid dissatisfaction on all sides.
The Episcopal Church, like the United Church of Christ, accepts gay clergy and same-sex rituals, culminating in the 2003 consecration of Gene Robinson, its first bishop with a gay partner. In the ensuing conservative protest, nearly 100 congregations and an entire diocese have quit the denomination, with more expected to follow. The focus has shifted from denominational decision-making to secular court battles over ownership of parish buildings and bank accounts that will consume years and untold millions of dollars.
The Episcopal situation is unique due to the denomination's affiliation with the international Anglican Communion. All Anglican bishops meet once a decade at the Lambeth Conference. The 1998 gathering gave 88 percent approval to a resolution that cited Scripture in opposing blessings for same-sex unions and gay ordinations. But that had no force of law to restrict actions by the U.S. church.
The next Lambeth Conference is set to occur in England July 16-August 3.
Anglicanism's spiritual leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, barred Robinson from participation but invited U.S. bishops who approved and conducted his consecration. As a result, conservative "global South" bishops representing at least a third of Anglicanism are boycotting Lambeth. Instead they will attend a "Global Anglican Future Conference" in Jordan and Israel June 18-29, along with some who will also attend Lambeth.
What's decided is less important, perhaps, than the fact that two rival meetings are occurring and what that says about Anglicanism's fractious state. "To be honest, the split has gone too far to be repaired," remarks David Kalvelage of The Living Church, an independent Episcopal magazine that opposes gay ordinations.
Some U.S. parishes have aligned with Anglican bishops in Africa, Asia, and Latin America; individuals are drifting away; and a parallel split is developing in Canada. Traditionalists disagree on how to proceed, Kalvelage says, and it could take years for them to form a unified entity both globally and in North America.
Kalvelage emphasizes that this is not "a gay debate." It's "a matter of authority, chiefly the authority of Scripture. Is the Bible the Word of God? Or simply a nice book of stories?"
1966: Presbyterians publish "Situation Ethics" by Episcopal theologian Joseph Fletcher, who thinks "love" trumps all biblical rules. Later mainline writings reinterpret Bible passages against homosexuality.
1970: Narrowly split Presbyterian assembly labels homosexual practice sin.
1972: United Methodist conference declares homosexual practice "incompatible with Christian teaching."
1972: United Church of Christ ordains mainline's first openly gay clergyman.
1977: Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore ordains partnered lesbian. (In 2008, his daughter reveals his own secret gay involvements.)
1978: Presbyterian assembly strongly approves "definitive guidance" barring actively gay clergy.
1979: Episcopal convention declares ordination of clergy in relationships outside heterosexual marriage "not appropriate."
1984: United Methodist conference mandates marital fidelity or "celibacy in singleness," and bars "self-avowed practicing" homosexual clergy.
1993: Evangelical Lutheran Church prohibits "practicing homosexual" clergy and blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.
1996: Episcopal tribunal acquits a bishop who ordained a partnered gay because "no core doctrine" was violated; 1997 Episcopal convention takes no contrary action.
1997: Presbyterians ratify law requiring marital fidelity or "chastity in singleness" for clergy and lay officers.
2003: Episcopal Church consecrates a partnered gay bishop, provoking uproar across Anglicanism worldwide.
2007: Evangelical Lutheran assembly urges disciplinary "restraint" regarding clergy in "committed same-gender relationships."