Taking sides in 30-year war over gay, lesbian issues

They may be getting older, with average ages climbing well into the 50s and beyond in many congregations, but mainline Protestant denominations have lost none of their sex drive.

The summertime churchwide gatherings this year again bring with them all the discontents of activists on both sides of the debate over homosexuality and religion.

The Episcopal Church General Convention July 8-17 in Anaheim, Calif., meets amid open rebellion from many of the denomination’s own churches and partners in the Anglican Communion over its liberal stand on gay and lesbian issues, including the ordination of a gay bishop in 2003. Unity will be further tested by proposals to OK the blessing of same-sex unions.

In August, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will attempt to come up with a statement on sexuality that navigates among competing theological and civil perspectives on issues from ordination to same-sex unions.

In what is already a 30-year conflict, there are few signs that national church bodies are any less hot and bothered over gay and lesbian issues. But two studies indicate that some denominations and many congregations are settling in on one side of the debate.

In a recent report, Washington-based Public Religion Research said its 2008 Mainline Protestant Clergy Voices Survey of 2,658 senior clergy across seven denominations found slightly more than half said homosexuality is a crisis in the church. Less than 2 percent, however, said it was a source of significant conflict in their congregation in the last two years.

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Peace at home

“American Congregations at the Beginning of the 21st Century,” a recent report from the 1998 and 2006-2007 National Congregations Study of 2,740 congregations, found only 1 percent of churches in the second wave of the study reported having a conflict in the last two years about homosexuality.

Part of the reason, the report said, is that gay and lesbian issues tend to rile national church bodies more than local congregations, “Indeed, national conflicts probably cause rather than reflect conflicts within congregations, meaning that congregations would argue about homosexuality even less if denominations sometimes did not force them to take sides.”

Another reason, according to the report on the study directed by Duke University sociologist Mark Chaves, is that people who feel strongly about the issue likely have found a congregation that shares their views.

There are, however, “significant and sometimes stark differences” among denominations, the survey of mainline Protestant clergy found.

The Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ, which permit the ordination of gay clergy, are the most supportive of homosexual “rights” in the church and civil society. Clergy from The United Methodist Church and the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. tend to support more traditional church teaching prohibiting gay ordinations and opposing same-sex marriage.

For example, two-thirds of United Church of Christ respondents support same-sex marriage, compared to a fifth of American Baptist clergy. Seventy-two percent of Episcopal respondents backed the ordination of gays and lesbians, a practice supported by less than a third of United Methodist clergy in the survey.

Denominations that may face sharper conflicts over gay and lesbian issues are groups such as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, where clergy are more divided. Fifty-four percent of Evangelical Lutheran clergy and half of Presbyterian respondents support the ordination of gays and lesbians. Nearly four in 10 from both churches approved of same-sex marriage.

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Areas of agreement

There were some signs of consensus. Nearly all mainline clergy said gays and lesbians are welcome in their churches. Ninety-two percent of clergy said they would be responsive to congregation requests for more conversation on gay and lesbian issues, and less than one in 10 said the best approach is “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Yet it remains a tough subject. Fifty-five percent said their congregations have difficulty talking openly about gay and lesbian issues. Thirty-eight percent said their congregations risks losing “many members” by talking too much about homosexuality.

There also are signs of fatigue. Fifty-six percent of respondents said their denomination spends too much time on gay and lesbian issues, while only 26 percent disagreed with that statement.

At the same time, 45 percent of clergy said their views on gay and lesbian issues have become more liberal over the past 10 years, compared to 14 percent who said they are more conservative. Forty-one percent said their views stayed the same.

For many on either side, the debate cuts to the heart of their conceptions of church. Opponents of same-sex marriage and gay clergy overwhelmingly believe homosexuality is a sin, with many saying church policies test the core of Christian doctrine. Supporters do not consider homosexuality a sin, and are much more likely to say church policy reveals a crisis “about what the church is supposed to be.”

Particularly given the turmoil in the Episcopal Church, any proposed changes to church policies are expected to face substantial opposition.

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted 54% to 46% last summer to drop the requirement that would-be ministers, deacons and elders live in “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between and a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.” But the change failed to received the required approval from a majority of the nation’s=2 0173 regional presbyteries.

All of which means Evangelical Lutherans can leave the theological Viagra at home when they meet August 17-23 in Minneapolis to debate loosening prohibitions to allow regional bodies and local congregations to permit non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy.

The debate over sexuality shows little sign of flagging anytime soon.

“American Congregations at the Beginning of the 21st Century” is online at http://www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/Docs/NCSII_report_final.pdf.

“Mainline Protestant Clergy Views on Theology and Gay and Lesbian Issues” is online at http://www.publicreligion.org/objects/uploads/fck/file/CVS%20Theology%20and%20LGBT.pdf.

— David Briggs

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