Magazine article The Christian Century

Sexuality Issues Rarely Prime Cause of Schism

Magazine article The Christian Century

Sexuality Issues Rarely Prime Cause of Schism

Article excerpt

The top legislative body of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) votes to allow ministers to preside at same-sex marriages and recommends changing the church's definition of marriage to that of a "unique commitment between two people."

In the United Methodist Church, a pastor defrocked for performing a same-sex marriage for his son is reinstated by a regional appeals committee.

As usual in the decades-long denominational debates over sexuality, each of these recent developments revived talks of schism and of the potential of a mass exodus of congregations.

Yet for all the furor whipped up in denominational politics and cultural debates over issues such as same-sex marriage, little evidence exists that they make a critical difference in the vast majority of local congregations.

Several studies indicate that disputes over gay rights are not a major source of conflict in congregations. And evolving public attitudes make it even less likely the issue will split large numbers of local churches, according to some researchers.

What matters in the neighborhood church are issues of pastoral care and spiritual growth built on a foundation of deep social networks cultivated over time. Those worshipers for whom issues of sexuality are a major concern tend to gravitate toward churches that embrace their views, researchers note.

"What happens in a local congregation is a completely different animal than talking about conflict at the denominational level," said Cynthia Woolever, who for many years directed the U.S. Congregational Life Survey. "It just doesn't make sense that this is going to be a conflict at the local level because people sort themselves out."

Gay marriage is considered an important ethical issue by many in the nation. More than half of Americans say their position on same-sex marriage is "moderately" or "very much" a reflection of their core moral beliefs and convictions, according to the 2012 Measuring Morality Study.

In most local neighborhoods and pews, however, the issue does not rise to the top of the agenda.

In ranking 12 issues from the economy to illegal immigration to the environment, respondents to the morality study said same-sex marriage was far and away the least important challenge facing the nation today.

In an online survey conducted by the United Methodist Church this spring, members said the most important issues facing the denomination are creating disciples for Christ, getting more youth involved, helping people grow spiritually, and addressing membership losses. …

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