Monday, February 05, 2007

Solution elusive as churches weary of gay clergy debate

Solution elusive as churches weary of gay clergy debateMany members say they would like to move on to religious missions.By JOHN BLAKEThe Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionPublished on: 02/05/07
Ron Miller is a member of Druid Hills Presbyterian Church in Atlanta who says he would have "no problem at all" accepting a gay pastor.
But the genial church elder says he'd rather focus on something else — and so should other churches.

Brant Sanderlin/Staff
The Rev. Bradley E. Schmeling of St. John's Lutheran Church told his bishop he was in a committed, sexual relationship with a man. His denomination requires that gay clergy be celibate. Schmeling is awaiting a verdict in a church trial for defying policy.
Churches and homosexuality>> Episcopal Church: The denominaton accepted the election in 2003 of Bishop V. Gene Robinson as its first openly gay bishop in a same-sex relationship. The decision sparked fierce criticism but leaders have not retreated from their action. >> Roman Catholic: The church teaches that same-sex attractions are "disordered." In November 2005, the church barred ordination to men "who practice homosexuality." >> Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): Leaders are required to live either in "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness." The Presbyterians approved a task force's proposal last year that appeared to give congregations leeway to ordain gay clergy. >> Southern Baptist Convention considers homosexual behavior sinful, destructive and deviant. The convention does not allow churches to ordain gays and lesbians or perform same-sex unions. >> Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has officially welcomed gay and lesbian members since 1991 but does not ordain practicing homosexuals or bless same-sex partnerships. >> United Church of Christ: The 25th biennial General Synod in July 2005 approved an "equal marriage rights for all" resolution, making it the first mainline Christian denomination to endorse gay marriage. >> United Methodist Church: The second-largest Protestant denomination in the country and the largest mainline Protestant denomination prohibits same-sex union ceremonies and does not allow the ordination of sexually active homosexuals. Sources: Religion Newswriters Association,, individual church Web sites and other news sources.-- Compiled by Sharon Gaus
"A lot of time and energy is being spent by governing bodies and individual churches over this issue," Miller says. "That time could be devoted to the real mission of the church: helping the poor, the homeless, the community at large."
Miller's frustration reflects the weariness in several Protestant denominations. After years of fighting over the acceptance of gay clergy, some church leaders say they're exhausted. The nonstop battles are draining the life from their congregations and driving members away.
Yet church members slog on through the gay clergy debate because leaders can't seem to devise a solution that satisfies both sides. That was evident in discussion about a church trial held two weeks ago in Atlanta. An Evangelical Lutheran Church in America jury tried an Atlanta pastor for defying church policies that accept gay clergy only if they're celibate.
The Rev. Bradley E. Schmeling of St. John's Lutheran Church in Midtown faces expulsion from the ELCA clergy roster after telling his bishop that he was in a committed, sexual relationship with another man. A verdict is imminent.
No matter what the ELCA's verdict is, expect more confrontations in more denominations in the future, church leaders say.
"It's an enormous mess," says Jim Berkley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, who has been following the gay clergy debate in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). "Because there's been 35 years of turmoil, some people are very tired and would like to get along with other things so there's some sense of trying to compromise."
Mark Jordan, a professor in Emory University's department of religion and author of, "Blessing Same-Sex Unions" (University of Chicago Press, $29), says denominations are "breaking apart like icebergs" despite the compromises.
The policy is an interim measure, not a solution, he says. Some gay ELCA pastors defy the policy by being sexually active but don't tell church authorities.
"It's just a stop-gap measure until one side or the other wins in the church," says Jordan. "The unfortunate problem is that this particular stop-gap encourages people to be dishonest."
The ELCA's stalemate isn't isolated. In 2003, the Episcopal Church accepted an openly gay bishop who was in a relationship. The infighting continues. In December, eight congregations in the Virginia diocese as well as a diocese in California announced that they were cutting ties with the Episcopal Church because of that decision.
Mark Rigler, a member of the Episcopal Church for 18 years, recently left the denomination because of the debate over the acceptance of a gay bishop.
He's joined Holy Cross Anglican Church in Loganville, where the church rejects the acceptance of sexually active gay clergy.
"We don't have the conflict over leadership," he says. "We're clear about the way God wants us to lead one another."
Church leaders involved with their own denominational fights over the issue of gay clergy say there are three major reasons why the debate is so intractable.
They are:
• Differing views on homosexuality
Those who support and those who oppose sexually active gay clergy don't even speak the same language. One side sees homosexuality as a sin; another says it's a sexual orientation.
Mark Chavez, director of WordAlone, an ELCA group that wants its denomination to enforce its ban on sexually active gay clergy, doesn't accept the argument that prohibiting gay pastors from sexual intimacy is unrealistic. He considers homosexuality a sin.
"A heterosexual serial adulterer could use that argument and say, 'I can't help it, and it's not realistic for me to not act out on these feelings and you need to accept me,' " Chavez says. "That would be devastating to the church."
But Lowell Erdahl, a retired ELCA bishop, says it's unrealistic to think that people choose to be gay — or straight.
"I didn't sit down one day when I was 13 and say, 'I'm going to choose to be interested in girls,' " says Erdahl, co-author of "Sexual Fulfillment: For Single and Married, Straight and Gay, Young and Old," (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, $14.99).
Erdahl says any minister — gay or straight — should be ordained if they're in a committed relationship.
"The sinfulness of a sexual relationship has a lot more to do with the relationship between two people than it does with specific sexual activity," he says.
• At odds with local congregations
When denominations are wrestling with the issue of gay clergy, some punt the decision to local congregations, church leaders say. That's what some Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leaders appeared to do last summer at the denomination's General Assembly.
The denomination reaffirmed ordination rules requiring "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness."
But it also appeared to give local ordaining bodies greater flexibility in deciding to accept gay clergy on an individual basis in a separate decision.
"It's a way of saying we can't agree so we'll let people fight it out at the local level," says Jordan, author of "Blessing Same-Sex Unions."
When the national church doesn't speak clearly on the issue, church leaders say it emboldens local leaders to make up their rules.
Chavez, from WordAlone, says it's common knowledge that certain ELCA bishops have sexually active gay clergy in their synods but "the bishop just looks the other way."
"It continues to weaken the denomination and not only create confusion but some pretty unjust situations," Chavez says.
• Different takes on Bible
Protestant denominations are filled with groups that clash over incendiary issues such as the Iraq war, capital punishment and the ordination of women. Yet those issues rarely threaten to break them apart.
The debate over gay clergy seems different, at least for now. Both sides cite the Bible but they read the Bible in very different ways.
Church leaders tend to embrace a literal reading of Scripture. They say their opposition to gay clergy is rooted in a deeper, non-negotiable issue — obedience to Scripture.
"Instead of submitting to the word of God, we place ourselves with authority over God's word," Chavez says.
Those who support gay clergy have a different view of Scripture. They reject a literal reading of Scripture. They say Scriptural verses also sanction slavery and order women to be silent in churches.
They base their acceptance of gays on Jesus' habit of accepting the outcasts of his day: women, lepers, religious heretics.
"I don't find anywhere in Scripture where Jesus is talking about homosexuality as a sin," says the Rev. Kim Smith King, senior pastor of North Decatur Presbyterian Church in Atlanta and co-moderator of More Light Presbyterians, a group supporting gay clergy.
Church fights over homosexuality have been so bitter and prolonged that some denominations may split, says the Rev. Kendall Harmon, a leader in a group of conservative Anglicans who have opposed the church's decision to accept an openly gay bishop in a relationship in 2003.
"It's like a couple that's separated and there's very little that the marriage counseling can come up with," Harmon says. "So much mistrust has been created and damage has been done."

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