Magazine article The Christian Century

Churchgoing: First Presbyterian Church in Topeka, Kansas

Magazine article The Christian Century

Churchgoing: First Presbyterian Church in Topeka, Kansas

Article excerpt

The Newsletter, called "The Little Minister," hinted at trouble, dropping clues in the hushed, elliptical manner of church publications. There was a string of notices about congregational meetings, committee meetings and still more congregational meetings at First Presbyterian Church in Topeka, Kansas. According to W. James Richards, senior pastor at the time, it was a difficult period in his life which led to a lot of misunderstandings. Others in the congregation had a different take on the situation. Though participants' evasions and subterfuges make it difficult to reconstruct the sequence of events, it appears to have unfolded something like this: in the winter of 1991, amid what one source described as "apparent difficulties with the pastoral relationship," the church held a two-hour congregational meeting to act on Richards's offer to resign. "The people who spoke were overwhelmingly supportive," Richards recalled, adding that the easy way out of that situation would have been to acknowledge what the rising crescendo of rumors had already concluded - namely, that though married, he was gay. The pastor refused to do so, insisting that his sexual orientation was irrelevant to the discussion. Buoyed by the level of support at the meeting, Richards rescinded his offer to leave, a decision that was greeted, he said, with a standing ovation.

But certain people within the congregation - Richards says it was one person; others say many more were involved - refused to let the matter die. At Richards's behest the session appealed to the Presbytery of Northern Kansas, which in the Presbyterian tradition of doing everything decently and in order" set up an administrative commission for the purpose of "conflict resolution." In the face of mounting pressures Richards resigned again in October 1991 and accepted an interim pastorate in suburban Wichita. He was arrested soon thereafter for making advances to an undercover officer, an incident that made the front page of the Topeka newspaper. (Richards pleaded no contest.)

The troubles at First Presbyterian Church coincided with the larger discussions of homosexuality within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In 1991 a special committee appointed by the General Assembly issued a controversial report that approved of all sexual relationships characterized by "justice-love." The committee's recommendations attracted national attention, but they were overwhelmingly rejected by the General Assembly, thereby leaving intact the denomination's 1978 "definitive guidance," which welcomes practicing homosexuals into church membership but refuses to allow their ordination as ministers.

But the issue didn't die. Jane Spahr, a lesbian, accepted a call to a congregation in Rochester, New York, which enlisted the support of the presbytery on her behalf. The denomination's Permanent Judicial Commission, however, blocked the call, whereupon the congregation commissioned Spahr as an "evangelist" charged with rallying support to change the denomination's policy. In 1993 the General Assembly again rejected any attempt to change its policy, turning back an overture from the New Brunswick Presbytery that would have placed ordination decisions exclusively in the hands of congregations and presbyteries. The assembly, however, agreed to undertake yet another study of the issue.

In many respects Richards could not have chosen less hospitable circumstances in which to be open about his sexual orientation. Topeka is home to Fred Phelps, one of the nation's leading gay-bashers. Phelps, of Westboro Baptist Church, has developed a reputation for confrontational and incendiary tactics, including the picketing of churches. Richards said that, oddly enough, "Fred never chose to make an issue out of me." He recalled a humorous incident when Phelps had organized a protest of a Rotary Club luncheon where Richards was to talk about AIDS - and Richards slipped past the picket line unrecognized. …

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