Saturday, March 10, 2001

Church divided on gay unions

Presbyterians to vote on ban

By Terry Flynn, The Cincinnati Enquirer
and The Associated Press

        Presbyterian ministers and elders in Greater Cincinnati will vote Tuesday on whether same-sex unions can take place in churches and with the participation of church officials.

        Presbyterian Church USA leaders fear that the debate could broaden and ultimately disrupt the church's upcoming national convention in Louisville — a gathering they are hoping will celebrate that city's role as headquarters of the 2.56-million-member denomination.

        The Rev. Sam Roberson, general presbyter of the Presbytery of Cincinnati, which includes about 25,000 members in Ohio and Northern Kentucky, said local designates will meet at Crestview Presbyterian Church in West Chester to vote.

    As of this week, 79 presbyteries, or regional governing bodies, of the 172 in the United States had voted to allow same-sex unions under certain circumstances. Fifty-four presbyteries have voted for a complete ban. This is how some have voted.
Would ban all same-sex unions (a YES vote on proposed amendment):
• East Tennessee
    • Mississippi
    • North Alabama
    • Pittsburgh
    • Southeastern Illinois
    • Southern Kansas

Would allow same-sex unions (NO to proposed amendment):
• Mid-Kentucky
    • Chicago
    • Detroit
    • Memphis
    • Middle Tennessee
    • Philadelphia

        The proposed amendment reads:

        “God's intention for all people is to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or in chastity in singleness. Church property shall not be used for, and church officers shall not take part in conducting any ceremony or event that pronounces blessing or gives approval of the church or invokes the blessing of God upon any relationship that is inconsistent with God's intention as expressed in the preceding sentence.”

        The Rev. Mr. Roberson said, “I suspect the vote will be fairly close. People on both sides of the issue have been personally contacting members, seeking to persuade others as to the correctness of their position.”

        He said members of the presbytery know his position but he does not discuss it publicly.

        One church in Greater Cincinnati has ordained a gay elder, but very few area Presbyterian churches perform same-sex unions.

        As of this week, 79 of the 172 presbyteries, or regional governing bodies in the United States, had voted to uphold the church's current policy, which allows same-sex unions. Another 54 presbyteries had voted to ban them.

        The Rev. Mr. Roberson said 220 to 225 voting members of the presbytery — ministers and elders — will meet Tuesday.

        The vote — and a schism over the church's refusal to ordain homosexual clergy — have leaders worried about the upcoming assembly.

        “The rights of gays and lesbians in regard to marriages, ordained ministers and rights of office has been on the church's radar for about 25 years,” the Rev. Mr. Roberson said. “What is important at this time is that all sides have an opportunity to faithfully represent themselves.”

        Pastor Chris Torrey of Lakeside Presbyterian Church in Lakeside Park, Ky., will vote at the meeting but said he is unsure which side he'll take. Only more discussion will clear that up, he said.

        “I'm undecided, because the real question is whether the church should legislate morality in the constitution of the church,” he said. “No matter which way we vote in the current question, it's not likely to resolve the issue. All the issue does is forbid a minister from celebrating same-sex unions, which I'm not likely to do any way.”

        The Rev. Mr. Roberson said there are people on both sides of the issue “who have been in this struggle for many years. I believe there will be civility, not violence, at the General Assembly (in Louisville). Presbyterians believe in the right of individual conscience but clearly the General Assembly will be organized.”

        There was a demonstration at last year's General Assembly in Long Beach, Calif., in which a number of pro-gay Presbyterians were arrested for blocking access to the facility.

        “The police knew it was going to happen,” the Rev. Mr. Roberson said. “It was a protest over the issue of gays and lesbians not being treated with justice in the church.”

        John Detterick, executive director of the General Assembly Council, which carries out conven tion policy, said there is widespread “fear and dread” of such disruptions in Louisville. He said he remains optimistic that debate will be civil.

        Similar debates have divided other denominations. Some, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, have declared homosexuality sinful, while the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association and Reform Judaism accept homosexuality.

        Among Presbyterians, support for the ban on same-sex unions is stronger in the South and West than in the Northeast and Northwest, while a greater percentage of lay members support it than do clergy, according to surveys.

        Foes say the wording is confusing and treads on the churches' right to decide how to minister to homosexual couples.

        “Fundamentally this goes against our Presbyterian tradition of the ability of (church governing boards) and the pastor to provide ministry and pastoral care,” said the Rev. Ann Deibert, associate pastor at Central Presbyterian Church in Louisville.

        Nick Wilkerson, an openly gay elder at Central Presbyterian, said he favors letting local churches decide on same-sex unions. Central has had such ceremonies, he noted.

        “We know we're out of step with mainstream Presbyterians on this issue, but we still consider ourselves loyal Presbyterians,” he said. “We're still active in all the levels of the church. This is one (issue on which) we respectfully disagree, and we know we're right, also.”

        Those on the other side also believes they're right, citing Scripture they say makes it clear God's intention for human sexuality is between a man and a woman in the covenant of marriage.
       Enquirer reporter Susan Vela contributed to this report.



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