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Four Houses Divided

The debate over gay issues is tearing at mainline Protestant churches.

Sunday, August 14, 2005
The Orange County Register

They've been bleeding membership for decades. And the wounds don't appear to be on the mend.

Anguished debates about ordaining gay clergy and blessing same-sex unions are worsening the exodus from four bedrock, mainstream Protestant denominations - the Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Church leaders say the moral and scriptural struggle over homosexuality, particularly with regard to clergy and marriages, is the canary in the spiritual coal mine.

"All this is only a sign of concern, of unrest," said Episcopal Bishop Jon Bruno of the Diocese of Los Angeles, which includes Orange County. "What people are really saying here in 2005 is: What is the church all about?"

The answers from the four denominations will help shape national decisions on issues as far from homosexuality as stem-cell research, Ron Farmer, dean of the chapel and professor of religion at Chapman University in Orange, said. These faiths have produced most of the nation's presidents and many prominent theologians and activists. They still carry plenty of moral clout in a country where religion is playing an increasing role in private lives and the public square.

And their members are asking, "What does the Bible really say?" Farmer said.

Two different views frame the dispute among Christians over the meaning of Scripture.

One says the Bible is the same today, yesterday and tomorrow. Its authors were directly inspired by God, and since God cannot err, what was written is flawless. Well-intentioned people might argue about it, but in the end, the truth is the truth.

A 2004 Gallup Poll found that about one-third of Americans believe the Bible to be literally true.

The same poll found 48 percent regard the Bible as divinely inspired but not always to be taken literally. They say that the Bible contains the word of God and also material that must be rejected because it opposes God's will. This includes passages that can be read as approving of slavery, torture of prisoners and treating women as property.

This view says God is inseparable from all things and therefore a part of everyone's experience. So religious truth must be seen against the backdrop of human experience. If Bible passages are morally reprehensible, they may be rejected as a vestige of some ancient writer's cultural bias.

"If you adopt a certain way of reading Scripture and how you believe and how you should act, then you can speak very logically for either side," Farmer said. "You look at the world through your culture, through your childhood learning - with those lenses on."

Focus on homosexuality

In Orange County, most of the four mainline Protestant denominations' faithful accept gays in their pews, even if they don't necessarily want to see them walking down the wedding aisle, their clergy say.

But in some parishes the debate runs deep. It shows up on Web sites and at denominational leadership meetings, such as the one Evangelical Lutherans held last week. At the convention, proposals to allow the ordination of gay clergy who are in committed relationships was turned down. Language that moved closer to permitting sanctioned blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples was also stripped from a proposal that, in the end, affirmed current church practice of allowing individual pastors to decide whether to conduct such ceremonies.

Conflict about the roles of homosexuals in leadership has left the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the 77 million member worldwide Anglican Communion, teetering on the brink of a bitter split. At least three Southern California parishes have withdrawn from the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, including St. James in Newport Beach. St. James now affiliates with a more traditional diocese in Uganda.

In jeopardy as these denominations shrink is a moderating voice and considerable moral weight in national debates from slavery and women's rights to gun control and euthanasia.

"Our country is so peculiarly conservative in some respects and so freewheeling in others ... and these churches are trying to hold the line," Ben Hubbard, professor of comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton, said. "(They) represent a theological moderation – a way of interpreting the Bible as both human and divine in a way that evangelicals proudly don't, believing that they have the truth.

"So there is a lot at stake here for those outside the evangelical or traditional position - including the secular community - on debates over stem cells or war or evolution or what constitutes a family."

Gay bishop seen as the last straw

Last year, St. James and two Los Angeles-area Episcopal parishes left the church after it consecrated Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, a gay cleric. They reaffiliated with the Anglican Church of Uganda. Bruno has defrocked their pastors, and a lawsuit is in the courts over the ownership of the parishes' assets. An Orange County judge, who has indicated he favors St. James in the matter, is expected to rule Monday.

The disaffected pastors agree that the consecration was the last straw in what they believe is a shift away from absolute biblical authority and Jesus as the only path to salvation.

Dan Tangeman, a former member of St. Margaret's of Scotland Episcopal Church in San Juan Capistrano and a lifelong Episcopalian who at one time considered being a priest, left too. He said his church had strayed so far from his beliefs that it was "like I had a wife who was cheating on me.

"It's in the Bible over and over again that you are not supposed to be homosexual. I have gay friends and I am coming from a position of love, but I can't find (acceptance) biblically and I've read the Bible seven times.

"I can't begin to describe the enormous loss I feel for having to leave."

Tangeman said he, his wife and two school-age daughters are settling in at the nondenominational Pacific Coast Church in San Clemente, which he describes as "maybe even too conservative.

"But I'm pretty impressed. We're finding a home there."

Expanding the debate

Many of those who leave don't find homes elsewhere.

Since 1991, the number of U.S. adults who attend no church has jumped 92 percent, from 39 million to 75 million, according to a 2004 study by the Barna Group, which tracks trends in religion.

Some of those who once counted themselves mainline Protestants have thrown up their hands at what they saw as the churches' wobbly public stand on issues from homelessness to hunger - and the blessing of gay unions. They now choose "none of the above" on the church question.

"Yes, that's happening," Bruno agreed, but not here.

The bishop says his stance on Robinson's consecration and related issues has attracted more "socially conscious" people to the faith than it has lost at the three breakaway parishes.

"Many more than say angry things to me say they are proud of our church. Proud we are opening our doors."

Finding how faith fits

Back in the 1950s, creating a church was a matter of, "If you build it, they will come," said the Rev. Steven Yamaguchi, executive presbyter for the Presbytery of Los Ranchos, which oversees all Presbyterian churches in Orange County. That's no longer true.

"We're trying to understand what it means to be faithful as the church, as Christ's witness of Christ's love in a world where we are not the only show in town."

There is this awareness, he said, that the church "has a role to be an expression of God's love in society, and at times that means being countercultural. If society is going a certain way and there is something wrong or evil or destructive about it, then the church, by definition, should be countercultural."

Yamaguchi said he's frustrated that so much church attention is focused on its response to homosexuality.

"If we come out of this debate bloody and we've been clubbing each other, that could be very bad."

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church is revisiting the question of whether leaving the denomination – individually or as congregations – is tantamount to dividing "the body of Christ."

Staying whole becomes a priority

Pacifica Synod Bishop Murray Finck said the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has agreed to put unity above all else as it deals with these issues. He remains confident his denomination will survive.

All voices are valuable, Finck said, succinctly summing up what many see as the strength of the mainline position and others see as its weakness.

"We need to hear the voices on the edges, and it will help us to stay more balanced. If we break off, we will lose those voices that speak to a more biblical, literal understanding of these moral issues, and we need that voice.

"Or, if those who call the church to change would leave us, then who would be there to remind us on a daily basis – that the church is never finished, that we are growing, learning, moving every day in our understanding of what it means to be God's creatures?"

The United Methodist Church is also emphasizing unity – at least for now.

Only last year, a proposal to split the church in two spread behind the scenes at the denomination's general conference. The church's official position that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching" spurred the move.

The proposal never made it to the conference floor, but the Rev. Mark Ulrickson, superintendent of the church's Santa Ana District, fully expects it back at the 2008 conference.

He's working to keep the debate from being divisive.

"A lot of folks here see ... it's not helpful to set up lines in the sand. There is more an invitation to conversation ... to find how we can understand this and listen to each other as we discern God's yearning."

"Gay and lesbian couples who want to marry suffer in the midst of this," he continued, "because there's nothing to support that desire to sacrilize that relationship."

For Ulrickson the real issue is understanding Scripture for now. "And we keep avoiding dealing with the scriptural issue because we are so preoccupied by dealing with this (homosexuality) issue."

Strategy for survival

For these denominations to survive, they will have to move away from the superheated issues of same-sex marriage, stem-cell research, abortion and the rest, Farmer said.

On both sides, he said, people need to look at their presuppositions and try to understand each other.

"In the long scheme of things this is just a bump in the road. I think the wisdom that many are going to try to follow ... is to hold things together and hope better days lie ahead.

"And I think they do. I think there is going to be another pendulum shift toward religion, and I think that those numbers that don't look so good in church right now will change with the next generation."

Copyright 2005 The Orange County Register

August 14, 2005 in Diocese of Los Angeles, St. James, Newport Beach, CA | Permalink


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Interesting post; I will have to read again later.

Right now I wanted to say thanks for the "spam poison" link... it may prove useful.

Posted by: Mark | Aug 14, 2005 7:04:47 PM

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