Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Christian Churches Confront Homosexuality ; United Methodist Meeting This Week Is One of Several This Summer That Will Decide Churches' Rules on the Issue

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Christian Churches Confront Homosexuality ; United Methodist Meeting This Week Is One of Several This Summer That Will Decide Churches' Rules on the Issue

Article excerpt

United Methodists from around the world are poised to set global policy on one of the most divisive issues facing Christianity today: How far should churches go in accepting homosexuality?

After more than 25 years of debate, the Methodists will vote at a conference this week on whether to change the church's stance on homosexuality as incompatible with Christian teaching. Two other mainline Christian churches - Presbyterian and Episcopal - will take up the issue this summer.

Those on both sides of the debate are aware that the decisions not only will affect the future of their denominations, but are likely to reverberate throughout society, given religion's role in shaping cultural norms. At the turn of the millennium, "It is clear that no single practice - and the theory or law behind it - troubles religious groups more than this," says theologian and author Martin Marty.

While mainline churches have struggled with the issue for years, it is now reaching a decisive moment.

One reason is simply the calendar: Several major denominations are holding conferences this summer that convene only every three or four years.

Another is the gathering momentum of the gay-rights movement in many segments of society, including state legislatures and the courts. Within churches themselves, members of the clergy, bishops, and congregations have taken public stands in defiance of orthodoxy on homosexuality - forcing the governing bodies to confront the issue.

Protests at the meeting

An interfaith advocacy group called Soulforce was staging protests at the Methodist conference in Cleveland yesterday to urge church leaders "to end their 'holy war' against sexual minorities." Leaders from the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi are also joining in the nonviolent action.

Delegates will vote on several topics, including whether homosexuality is incompatible with Scripture, and whether the current prohibitions against same-sex unions and ordination of homosexuals should continue. Already, earlier this week, delegates rejected a proposal to require pastors to sign, in effect, a "loyalty oath" to follow the church's decisions.

The internal turmoil in the denominations has continued to grow. Methodist clergy, for instance, have been put on trial for presiding over same-sex unions. Some unions and ordinations have also been conducted in Episcopal dioceses, leading to dissension within the church.

Some Anglican leaders in the developing world in January signaled their outrage by taking an unprecedented step: They consecrated two conservative American priests as "missionary bishops" to help remedy the situation.

Views in the churches range widely, but the main split is between conservatives, who feel the authority of the Bible is at stake, and liberals, who say scriptural references are misunderstood and homosexuals deserve "full participation in God's house."

Divergent views

Conservatives, says the Rev. James Heidinger, executive director of Good News, say current policy is "compassionate and faithful to Scripture and church tradition." Along with the prohibitions, the church does commit to "being in ministry with all people," supports basic rights and civil liberties for homosexuals, and condemns violence against them.

On the other side is the Rev. Tex Sample, professor emeritus at St. Paul School of Theology, who served on a committee that carried out a four-year study on homosexuality and edited a new book on the subject. …

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