by Andrew Walsh
As mainline Protestantisms struggle over homosexuality enters its
fourth decade, there are signs of combat fatigue among journalists.
In the mainline neighborhoodwhich is smaller than it used to be but still
substantial turfthe past 30 years have been punctuated by orchestrated campaigns for
and against equal treatment of gays and lesbians at the national meetings of
denominations. There have been waves of heated disciplinary trials for clergy, calculated
acts of civil and ecclesiastical disobedience, and seemingly endless litigation over what
the rules enshrined in the Methodist Book of Discipline and the Presbyterian Book of Order
actually mean and how or whether they are to be enforced.
"For churches and synagogues, homosexuality is the guest that will not
leave," Larry Stammer of the Los Angeles Times wrote as the lede of a book
review he published in the Times last July 21. Like many of the nations
religion writers, Stammer spent much of this year covering the meetings of religious
groups wrestling with the issue. Bitterly disputed questions such as whether homosexuals
can marry or be ordained as clergy occupied a high place on the agendas of Reform Jewish
rabbis, the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodists, the Presbyterian Church
(USA), and the Episcopal Church.
Decisions came easily for the rabbis (yes) and the Southern Baptists (no), but the for
the pillars of the old mainline, the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians, this
years meetings just offered up the now customary ongoing and inconclusive agony.
The state of complexityof irresolvability, almostwas indicated in the lede
of a New York Times article by Laurie Goodstein published May 25. "The highest
court of the Presbyterian Church (USA), a denomination long divided on issues of
homosexuality, ruled today that its ministers may conduct holy union
ceremonies for same-sex couples, as long as the ceremonies are not regarded as marriages.
Although the decision was made by the churchs highest court, it is not the last word
on the matter."
Nor was the matter decisively cleared up when the Presbyterian General Assembly meeting
in Long Beach in July voted 268-251 for an outright ban on holy unions. Now a majority of
the denominations 175 regional governing bodies, or presbyteries, must approve the
change in the Book of Order. Thats not likely, so same-sex holy unions may well go
Nor were matters resolved conclusively by the Methodists when they gathered in May in
Cleveland. "The meeting largely revolved around the issue of homosexuality, as
activists tried unsuccessfully to change the churchs ban on gay ordination and
same-sex union ceremonies," Kevin Eckstrom wrote in a May 20 Religion News Service
(RNS) dispatch. "More than 200 people, including two bishops, were arrested in
protests, and the meeting was brought to its knees over the contentious and volatile
. As the dazed and weary delegates to the 2000 General Conference of the United
Methodist Church left the auditorium with their stacks of legislation, the look on their
faces was overwhelming: Now what?"
The likely answer is more of the same. In all of the three mainline groups that
discussed the matter this year, nothing conclusive has yet taken place. Thats
remarkable because the debate over the legitimacy of homosexuality has been taking place
at full force since the early 1970s. The first stirrings of the issue can easily be
located in the 1960s.
Almost from the beginning, the denominational debates have been driven by highly
motivated, organizationally skilled activists who believe either that they are on the
cutting edge of the human rights movement or standing firm to defend the Word of God.
Virgina Culver of the Denver Post captured the passionate commitment of the
activists in a May 13 wrap-up story. "They lost every vote at the United Methodist
General Conference, but gays and their supporters seem emboldened to continue their fight
for recognition in churches. It may take 100 years, but were not going to give
up, said the Rev. Don Faldo, who faced a church trial for officiating at a same-sex
union for two lesbians in 1998."
The other side is equally committed and willing to argue that its position is gaining
strength. "This is not an issue on which we can compromise," the Rev. Roger
Eliot told Charles Austin of The Record of Hackensack, N.J., on May 12. "We do
not believe that homosexuality is a greater sin than others, but we do believe it is a
sin. For us to acquiesce in any way would be to sacrifice our integrity."
Many of the stories tracking this years discussion of the issue asked whether the
extended contention suggested that some or all three of the denominations might crack
under the pressure. "No one mentioned the word schism, but it was on the
minds of well-meaning Methodists who gathered this week to find a way out of the gay
rights stalemate that is tearing their church apart," Don Lattin wrote in the San
Francisco Chronicle on February 5, adding that mainline Protestantism is "a
microcosm of the colliding moral agendas that enliven American politics."
The Methodists, in particular, seem to be worried about division. The conservative side
seems to be strong and growing stronger, with about two-thirds of delegates voting against
liberalization at the 2000 conference. "Weve spent a quarter of a century
trying to resolve this issue," the Rev. J. Stephen Harper of Ashbury Theological
Seminary in Florida told Lattin. "All the finest voices have spoken, but I dont
have much hope that well ever reconcile this."
The Methodists also seem to be dividing regionally, with strong majorities for
eliminating restrictions on marriage and ordination for gays on the West Coast and in the
Northeast, and strong majorities opposed to doing so in the South and Midwest.
The Presbyterians, who are enmeshed in the most complexand to outsiders
contradictorylegislative and internal judicial processes, may also simply be
involved in denominational politics that blurs conflict between local and national
majorities. The Presbyterians, in fact, have been engaged in this sort of vigorous and
legalistic disputation since the 18th century over issues ranging from whether
clergy are honestly converted, to slavery, to the conflict of traditional religion and
modern science. Presbyterians have parted institutional company on many occasions in
It is, however, among the Episcopalians that the most elaborate diversity is on
display. In July, the Episcopal General Convention, too, voted (in the words of David
Gibson of the Newark Star-Ledger) not to "equate gays with straights in the
eyes of the church." But the Episcopal experience may suggest that national meetings
and policy debates may not reveal the long-term process taking hold informally.
"Even as the denominations try to maintain order in their ranks, pastors across
the country are turning the most contentious argument in todays churches into a moot
point by continuing to bless gay and lesbian relationships," Gibson wrote in an
opinion piece carried by RNS. "It is, in effect, a classically Protestant statement
of defiance: the clergy is simply bypassing the churches central authorities."
"The reality is that the polity of the churches allows for this kind of muddiness
and messiness that allows us to stay," said the Rev. Susan Russell, an openly lesbian
Episcopal priest from Los Angeles. "It is my experience that the spirit of God
continues to move ahead of the institutional church."
And in fact, in areas like northern New Jersey and California, Episcopal same-sex
unions and the ordination of gay and lesbian priests who refuse to take vows of celibacy
are commonplace. The life of the church goes onwhatever the state of play of the
national debatewith gay believers fully integrated.
Is that the inevitable result in all groups? Certainly not. All sorts of results are
conceivable at this point: Conservatives may grow stronger and win in some mainline
denominations. Many conservatives argue, for example, that most mainliners, and especially
the younger ones, are growing more conservative. Gay Protestants who wish for full
equality might move, more or less en masse, into more liberal denominations like
the United Church of Christ that adopted policies of full equality in the early 1980s.
Moreover, four decades may seem like an interminable period in the age of CNN, but not
in the American Protestant dispensation. Mainline churches fought over slavery and
segregation for 200 years and debated the ordination of women for 75.
Journalists may see in the gay rights story an endless and impenetrable bureaucratic
debate that should be handled by fleeing from coverage of denominations and their internal
politics in favor of stories about the religious struggles of individuals. Thats
certainly been a strong recent tendency in newsrooms. But its not a healthy impulse.
There arent a lot of places or organizations in our society where basic questions
about human sexuality and sexual orientation are openly debated by persons who all share a
stake in the health of the organism in question. Denominations are places where values,
standards of justice, and the pace of change are all on the table. In this debate, and in
many others, mainline Protestantism remains a place where the moral work of the entire
society is done. And thats worth covering carefully.