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Mainliners Stymied on the Matter of Homosexuality
by James M. Kushiner
Homosexuality: It’s the issue mainliners want to talk about and not talk about, depending on who does the talking and their agenda.
It’s old news that “gay” activists in the mainline churches have pressed their agenda and clamored for dialogue about ordinations and blessing homosexual “unions.” Having earlier secured access to baptism and Holy Communion for practicing homosexuals (largely because few churches have upheld traditional restrictions), the gay lobby long ago moved on to the sacraments of ordination and marriage. (But don’t expect them to embrace more sacraments: They won’t anytime soon be clamoring for more time in the confessional or for access to vows of celibacy.)
Mainline churches have varying “policies” on homosexuality as it pertains to practice, ordination, and “marriages.” None have officially sanctioned the blessings of these “unions.” None (except the United Church of Christ) have officially approved of the ordination of homosexual persons. As to practice, the United Methodists’ Book of Discipline holds that it is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” So what’s a gay activist to do?
Change tactics, for one thing. A working group of the Methodists’ Board of Church and Society, while acknowledging strongly held opinions on both sides of the issue, is now recommending a change in the wording of its Social Principles document on human sexuality. In March the group voted to recommend that the General Conference, meeting next year, replace the sentence that says, “Although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching, we affirm that God’s grace is available to all.” The proposed replacement reads, “Although faithful Christians disagree on the compatibility of homosexual practice with Christian teaching, we affirm that God’s grace is available to all.”
The latest tactic is simply to acknowledge that “faithful Christians” can disagree on this issue, a statement that effectively legitimizes the innovation. Methodists aren’t the only ones exploring this position.
In March, the bishops of the Episcopal Church received “The Gift of Sexuality,” a report of a theology committee, eighteen months in the making and put together by six bishops and seven theologians “who represent diverse theological viewpoints.”
Two questions are raised: “Is it ever appropriate to pronounce the church’s blessing on same-gender relationships as we do on heterosexual marriages and, if so, under what conditions? Is it ever appropriate to ordain non-celibate homosexual persons, and thereby commend them as ‘wholesome examples’ to the church and society, and, if so, under what conditions?”
According to Episcopal News Service, “The report then explores the full range of possible answers to those questions, specifically addressing the controversial issues of blessing homosexual relationships and ordaining non-celibate homosexuals, urging respect for diverse opinions and concluding that ‘we do not believe these should be church-dividing issues.’”
The report warned, “The challenge we now face is how to maintain the unity of the church in the face of such intense disagreement. Despite the common faith that makes us one, we confess that on the issues surrounding human sexuality just now, we are of different minds.” The report reminded the church that at the last General Convention it voted in resolution D039 to “support” those who are living in “relationships of sexual intimacy” other than marriage. Critics of that resolution at the time claimed that it legitimized homosexual relations, and indeed, it is now being cited as an authority for essentially that position.
The new tactic of not pressing for change per se but for a stalemate comes into play in the report’s recommendation: “For a season at least, we must acknowledge and live with the great pain and discomfort of our disagreements,” exercising “sensitive restraint and mutual forbearance” rather than pressing for legislation.
“We understood that our paper would be read throughout the Anglican Communion, and it attempts to disabuse people of the notion that those people who support blessing of same-sex unions don’t believe in the Resurrection, don’t use Scripture—in other words, it was a statement that we’re really all operating from the same foundation, and operating from the same foundation in good conscience, we end up in different places on this issue,” said Bishop Catherine Roskam of New York, a member of the committee.
Bishop John Howe of Central Florida said, “We’re Christians—we’re Nicene Christians, we’re creedal Christians, we’re orthodox Christians—it restates that and says, within that context, we hold really divergent opinions about matters of sexuality. Our present conclusion is that equally orthodox Christians who are equally committed to the Scripture can come to very different opinions about these matters.”
In the meantime, a number of Episcopal bishops have ordained gay clergy. Some clergy have blessed “gay unions.” They say they will continue to do so. The practice is not being stopped or challenged effectively, and thus, by default, while the denomination has no official position, the practice is whatever is allowed to continue.
The Presbyterian Church, USA, has been officially clear in its commitment to biblical standards regarding sexual behavior of its clergy. Since 1978, the denomination has held the official position that sexual activity outside the covenant of marriage is sin and cannot be condoned by the church. In 1996 the General Assembly codified that position by inscribing it into the constitution. That would seem to give them an advantage similar to the United Methodists, but similarly, the position has been vigorously challenged.
Two attempts after 1996 to remove that constitutional standard were submitted to local presbyteries in national referenda, wherein they met crushing defeats—a two-to-one majority in 1997 and a three-to-one majority in 2000.
Similar to the Episcopal Church, however, there have been ordinations of practicing homosexuals and blessings of homosexual unions, which have also been officially banned. The issue is whether any church authority will do anything about the violations and uphold the constitutional standards. The two top officials of the Presbyterian Church, the Moderator and Stated Clerk, have consistently turned blind eyes to homosexual ordinations and blessings, and denominational courts say they can only render “opinions.”
In January, after it became apparent that acts of constitutional defiance virtually were being ignored by church officials, 57 General Assembly commissioners, more than the 50 required by the constitution, presented a petition requesting the moderator and stated clerk to call that body into a special session for the purpose of responding to “the growing defiance of, delinquency, and enforcement of the Constitution.”
Instead of honoring their request—provided for by the constitution—the denomination’s two highest officials then launched a campaign to encourage the 57 to withdraw their names. Minister commissioners, whose careers could suffer if they were deemed schismatic, were pressured by their executives and prominent denominational leaders until some acceded to the request. After securing 13 withdrawals, the moderator and stated clerk declared that an insufficient number of petitions were in hand, and they therefore need not call the meeting.
In response, a complaint against Moderator Fahed Abu-Akel and Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick was filed with the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission. The commission agreed that the case had merit and heard it in March. But they dismissed the formal complaint, stating, “Notwithstanding the improper advocacy contained in the letter of January 14, 2003, the complainant failed at trial to meet the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the moderator’s actions changed the response of any of the Requesters.”
The court further stated, however, that the moderator “acted improperly in his letter of January 14, 2003, when he ‘implored [the Requesters] in the name of Christ and for the good of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to reconsider [their] decision’ to call for a special Assembly.”
Two members of the court added, “Verification should focus solely on the legality of the signatures,” and the process of verification “ought to be sterile, neither for nor against the cause of the petition.” “For the petitioners to be cajoled or implored to remove their names from the duly presented petition, especially based on a debatable projection of the cost of the meeting or the required number of days necessary for meeting notification, was clearly improper.”
The denominational leaders, in effect, “have defied” the constitution, says Parker T. Williamson, head of the Presbyterian Layman, and have “exacerbated a constitutional crisis that is shredding the very sinews of their denomination.” Last fall, Rev. Jerry Andrews, Presbyterian pastor in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, told the Presbyterian Coalition Gathering, “The church has not succeeded in defending her own constitution. . . . It is not clear if the constitution will hold. If it does not, the church will not.”
The prohibition against the ordination of homosexuals is clearly stated. It is clearly being violated. Those in authority know it but refuse to enforce the prohibition. And they don’t want to talk about it. Those who want to talk about it have been stalemated, which means the homosexual lobby wins.
The Presbyterian General Assembly meets later this month. It will be interesting to see what they talk about.
Special thanks to Parker T. Williamson of the Presbyterian Layman for his substantial contribution to the section of this report on the Presbyterian Church, USA.
James M. Kushiner is the Executive Editor of Touchstone.