Homosexuality and Religion – 1997 in Review
Homosexuality, a subject that has divided members of many denominations and faiths in recent years, emerged in 1997 as an issue that threatens to split apart several mainline denominations. In other denominations and faiths, the issue continues to be discussed quietly or is considered to be a settled matter.
Anglican: The Anglican Communion in particular has been divided by the issue of homosexuality during 1997. The subject has appeared in the news so many times this year that only a sampling of stories can be mentioned here.
The Episcopal Church continues to reel from last year's controversy concerning Bishop Walter Righter; the retired bishop was threatened with a heresy trial because of his ordination of a practicing homosexual. A pre-trial court ruled that the Episcopal Church presently has no rule against ordaining practicing homosexuals; as a result, several attempts were made at this year's church convention to create such rules. The attempts failed, but the denomination at the July convention voted to apologize to homosexuals for the church's mistreatment of them. In addition, a resolution nearly passed that would have allowed the Episcopal Church to develop rites for blessing same-sex unions; the resolution's narrow defeat surprised both opponents and supporters.
The bishops of the Anglican Church of Canada issued new guidelines on homosexuality; the bishops continue to condemn homosexual behavior but have committed themselves to dialogue with the gay community. Archbishop George Carey of Canterbury, spiritual leader of the Church of England and of the Anglican Communion as a whole, opposed on several occasions the suggestion to change traditional church teachings on homosexuality. He was praised for his stance by some, and criticized by others, most notably by Bishop John Spong of Newark, New Jersey, who sparred with the archbishop in a series of letters at the end of the year.
Meanwhile, several traditionalist groups issued statements condemning progressive attitudes toward homosexuality in the Episcopal Church, and traditionalists in the United States and England are threatening to separate from the Anglican churches in their countries, partly over this issue.
Baptist: Perhaps the highest-profiled denominational story of the year was the decision by the Southern Baptist Convention in June to boycott the Disney Company. Many members of the convention were angered by what they believed to be a "gay agenda" on the part of Disney; one example cited was the airing of Ellen, a sitcom owned by Disney subsidiary ABC, in which a lesbian accepted her homosexual orientation in a positive manner.
Meanwhile, the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. continue to struggle with the question of the denomination's stance on homosexuality. In November, the American Baptists began consideration of a committee report recommending that the church reaffirm its stand against homosexual acts, but that the church continue to engage in dialogue on the issue.
Buddhist: Representatives of religious and secular gay organizations met with the Dalai Lama during his visit to San Francisco in June; the representatives asked the leader of Tibetan Buddhism to reconsider his condemnation of homosexuality. The Dalai Lama stated through a spokesman that the matter required much study, but he condemned violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Catholic: In September, a committee of the U.S. Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter addressed to parents of homosexual children. The letter repeated Roman Catholic teachings that homosexual behavior is sinful, but it encouraged parents to treat their gay children with love. The letter was cautiously praised by progressives, while traditionalists criticized certain passages that they believed departed from Catholic doctrine.
Christian (ecumenical): A large rally of the men's ministry Promise Keepers was held in Washington, D.C., in October, focussing attention on the ministry's condemnation of homosexual behavior.
Jewish: America's Reform Jews voted in October to support civil marriages for homosexuals. At the same meeting, members of the Reform movement tabled a motion supporting interfaith marriages, a coincidence that amused some observers and infuriated others.
Lutheran: The Church of Denmark voted in October to allow the blessing of homosexual partnerships, which already receive civil recognition from the Danish government. While the church's decision received much publicity in the United States, the focus of the debate in Denmark was not over whether to allow the blessings, but whether to develop new rites for such blessings. This proposal was defeated, and as 1997 ended, the debate over this matter continued.
Methodist: The year began with a bang in the United Methodist Church as two opposing groups issued statements on homosexuality. In November, United Methodist minister Jimmy Creech was suspended from office after he blessed the union of two women and was accused of contravening the denomination's rules in this matter. Emory University, which is owned by the United Methodist Church, decided in November to allow same-sex covenant ceremonies in its chapel, but only if the university-connected clergy carrying out the ceremony are allowed to do so by their denomination or faith group. At present, only the United Church of Christ and the Reform Jews fulfill that requirement.
Metropolitan Community Churches: The Rev. Troy Perry, leader of the world's largest gay denomination, has been busy this year, attending a White House conference on hate crimes, meeting with Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and making plans for a new visitor's center for his denomination.
Presbyterian: In March, after bitter debate, the presbyteries (regional units) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted in favor of the so-called Fidelity and Chastity amendment, which bans from ecclesiastical office any unmarried person who is not celibate; the amendment was perceived as being directed at homosexuals. Several Presbyterian churches immediately defied the amendment by announcing that they would continue to appoint practicing homosexuals to be deacons, elders, and ministers.
At the denomination's June convention, the national assembly voted to replace the disputed amendment with another amendment, which interprets in looser fashion who is eligible for church office. The presbyteries must now decide whether to ratify this new amendment; in the meantime, the Fidelity and Chastity amendment remains church law.
The presbyteries will also be voting on whether to ratify a four-denomination agreement to recognize each other's ministries; the attitude of the United Church of Christ toward the ordination of practicing homosexuals is part of the debate over that agreement.
Reformed: A nasty squabble has been taking place between the Muskagee Classis of the Reformed Church in America and the minister of a seceding Michigan congregation, Christ Community Church. The Rev. Richard Rhem is charged by the church with heterosexual misconduct that he denies; he has also been criticized for his belief that there are other paths to salvation besides Jesus Christ and for his favorable views toward homosexuality.
A more civilized debate took place in September over whether to renew the license of the Rev. Jim Lucas, who ministers to homosexuals. Mr. Lucas is himself homosexual but is celibate; the debate centered upon the minister's support of faithful, permanent same-sex unions. The decision to withdraw his license took Mr. Lucas by surprise, and he successfully requested that Classis Grand Rapids East extend his license to allow for further discussion. The officials making the decision stated that the issue, which will be decided in January, extends beyond the question of the minister's views on sexual orientation.
This statement in fact characterizes the nature of many debates taking place this year on homosexuality and religion; the issue of religious attitudes toward homosexuality has proved to be tied to such issues as marital fidelity, women's ordination, and even gender-inclusive language in biblical translations. The arguments seem unlikely to abate in 1998.
World News: Canadian Anglican Statements on Homosexuality Please Both Sides in Debate. By Heather Elizabeth Peterson. Amidst heated debate in the Anglican Communion over the morality of homosexual acts, Canada's bishops have issued a new statement on human sexuality that is being praised by both progressives and traditionalists. (December 1997)
U.S. News: Catholic Bishops Condemn "Rhetoric of Violence". By Heather Elizabeth Peterson. At a time when members of the Catholic Church remain deeply divided over several important issues, the president of the U.S. bishops' conference has called upon all Catholics to be reconciled through "truth . . . spoken in love." (December 1997)
U.S. News: Catholic Document Begins to Change the Lives of Homosexuals. By Heather Elizabeth Peterson. (November 1997)
U.S. News: Gay Catholics Praise "Warm" Pastoral Letter from Bishops. By Heather Elizabeth Peterson. (October 2, 1997)
U.S. Feature: The Quiet Revolution: How a Heresy Trial Has Rocked the Episcopal Church. By Heather Elizabeth Peterson. Last year, an Episcopal bishop was tried for heresy after he ordained a practicing homosexual. Recent events show that Episcopalians continue to be deeply divided over gay issues. (June 1, 1997)
© 1998 Heather Elizabeth