Sexuality and ordination is a much talked about—and fought over—topic these days. The main debates are about the ordination of women to the ministry and, more controversially, the ordination of homosexuals.
Last month the congregation of the 250-member University United Methodist Church of Madison, Wisconsin, voted 32–19 to support the ordination bid of self-described homosexual Stephen Webster, 23, a University of Wisconsin graduate involved for several years in youth work at the church. But the motion lost for lack of a two-thirds majority. (If it had won, other steps would have been necessary, including approval of the denomination.) Webster said he would plead his case before a meeting of the denomination’s policy-making body in April.
The thirty-member United Methodist Council of Youth Ministry last year announced it will ask the 1976 General Conference of the denomination to amend its Book of Discipline to read: “Sex, race, marital status, or sexual orientation shall not be a bar to the ordained ministry of the United Methodist Church.” The youth council stated flatly that homosexuality should neither be a bar to ordination nor be considered synonymous with immorality. This month the council issued a 700-word statement acknowledging the sharp reaction it has evoked throughout the denomination and urging the ministries division to deal immediately with the sexuality issue. (Faced with a budget deficit of $30,000, the council in other action dismissed half its six-person staff.)
Reaction has indeed been sharp. Charles Keysor, a leader of the conservative Good News movement within the denomination, warned that the campaign to permit ordination of homosexuals could be the most divisive issue since slavery split the church in 1847. A widely circulated editorial entitled “The Gathering Storm” in Good News, the movement’s magazine, listed storm warnings. Among them: a ruling in 1971 by the UMC’s highest judicial body permitting a Texas minister to apply for restoration after his conference suspended him when he affirmed he was a homosexual; a grant of $400 last year by the UMC youth council and one for $500 by the UMC global ministries division to the ecumenical National Task Force on Gay People in the Church; sympathetic treatment of self-avowed homosexual ministers in an article in New World Outlook, a UMC publication; and a UMC-backed consultation at Berkeley, California, in which the church’s position on homosexuality was painted as being wrong and homosexuality was portrayed as good. The editorial closed with an exhortation to fight the attempts to change the UMC’s official position. (The UMC in 1972 adopted a statement condemning homosexual practice.)
Keysor and UMC leaders point out that opposition is not against homosexual persons but against homosexual practice.
Thousands of church members in another denomination, however, do not think that distinction is a valid one, and they don’t think homosexual practice is wrong. They are members of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches—churches for the so-called gay community. It’s quite possible the UFMCC will get a lot of headlines this year and set off controversies in other denominations. The group reportedly is big enough now to meet the fifty-congregation, 20,000-member requirement to apply for membership in the National Council of Churches. Such a move would ignite reaction nationwide.
A vote on whether to apply for membership in the NCC may be taken at the UFMCC’s annual convention in Dallas in July, according to Pastor Lee Carlton of the main Los Angeles congregation of the UFMCC. But, said he, there is stiff opposition among the UFMCC faithful against membership in the NCC. “We have a lot of evangelical separatists in our movement who don’t want to have anything to do with the NCC, and a number of others think it’s a dead organization we don’t need anyway,” said Carlton in an interview. He says the UFMCC has about 20,000 members in seventy-eight churches, fourteen of them in eight foreign countries. (In March he will move to Australia to become the UFMCC’s director of evangelism and world mission.)
Carlton, 28, is a former minister of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) and a graduate of the denomination’s Northwest Bible College in Minot, North Dakota. He describes himself as an evangelical and says many in his congregation of 1,000 (“about 75 per cent are gay”) have strong evangelical beliefs. He insists biblical injunctions concern homosexual lust, not homosexual love. Heterosexual evangelicals need to rethink the issue in a loving manner, he states, asserting there are thousands of homosexuals in evangelical churches who need acceptance and fellowship rather than condemnation.
The UFMCC’s big problems, says Carlton, is a shortage of qualified clergy courageous enough to “come out” (declare themselves as homosexuals). Another is opposition. Arsonists destroyed five churches in 1973 (thirty-two persons, including the pastor, died in a New Orleans blaze), and several other fires have been reported.
The gay-church movement was begun in 1968 in Los Angeles by Troy D. Perry, Jr., a former Pentecostal preacher from the South who got his theological training at Moody Bible Institute. On many doctrinal points he holds a fundamentalist position, but he deviates on the issue of sex. He performs “Services of Holy Union” for couples of the same sex, saying homosexual acts are sinful only if they are based on lust instead of love. He prefers long-term “monogamous relationships” but confesses his own love life has not been that exclusive (“God has a permissive will”). “I believe there can be loving experiences, even in a one-night stand,” he told a reporter recently. (Perry has served as full-time chief administrative officer of the UFMCC since 1972.)
In light of the explosive nature of the homosexual issue, the hubbub over ordination of women seems relatively insignificant. Nevertheless, the matter continues to command attention, especially in the Episcopal Church. Charges are pending against two priests for permitting women to celebrate communion in churches in Washington, D. C., and Oberlin, Ohio. If found guilty of disobeying church law, the men can be censured, suspended from duties, or expelled from the priesthood. The women involved were among eleven deaconesses who took part in an irregular service of ordination in Philadelphia last summer that was later declared invalid by the bishops. The bishops are trying to get the pro-ordination forces to cool it until next year’s general convention.
Grace Episcopal Church in Syracuse, New York, defied Bishop Ned Cole’s advice and called Betty Bone Schiess, one of the “Philadelphia Eleven,” to be priest-associate. Cole warned she is not licensed to officiate, but the chief diocesan policy-making committee affirmed her fitness for the priesthood.
An Arlington, Virginia, rector opposed to opening the priesthood to women appealed subtly to the people in the pews. Those receiving communion elements from women acting as priests, he asserts, have been given “only the outward sign of the sacrament but are denied the power thereof.” The “Real Presence” of Christ in the elements is forfeited because consecration of the elements can be accomplished only by a validly ordained celebrant, insists priest Kenneth Eade.
In a meeting in Nashville, nearly 200 United Methodist women ministers called on their own denomination to recognize and support the Philadelphia Eleven, even inviting them to become ministers in the UMC.
Meanwhile, in a twist of irony, opposition to ordination of women cost a United Presbyterian ministerial candidate his ordination. The landmark case involves Walter Wynn Kenyon, 26, an honors graduate of Pittsburgh Seminary and supply pastor at a suburban Pittsburgh church. In a split vote the Presbytery of Pittsburgh endorsed Kenyon for ordination. The only apparent hassle during his examination occurred when, citing Scripture, he stated he could not in good conscience ordain a woman to be a ruling elder, a key lay position in local churches. He said he would not, however, prevent another minister from performing the ordination, and he affirmed he would serve willingly with ordained women.
The Presbytery’s decision was appealed to the denomination’s highest judicial unit, which ruled that Kenyon could not be ordained. The judicial panel said a decision on ordination must be in line with the denomination’s constitution, which stipulates that men and women may be ordained ruling elders, deacons, or ministers. The action was believed to be the first time a presbytery was reversed on an ordination question.
A number of Presbyterian pastors are up in arms. “What about men already in the ministry who hold similar views?” they ask. Others point angrily to the approval without question of applicants with glaring doctrinal deficiencies.
Clearly, the battle lines are being drawn on several fronts.
FOR THE BIRDS
For more than a year a Toronto man has been searching for a minister to join his two mynah birds, Rajah (who appeared on a Johnny Carson TV show) and Rani, in holy matrimony. Finally, Pastor Lindsay King of the Willowdale United Church consented. Objections by his church members, however, forced him to cancel the ceremony. King expressed disappointment, saying the action would have made his church more “human.”
The birds’ owner said six big Las Vegas casinos and a Niagara Falls hotel were competing for sponsorship of the wedding.
Beginning this month a lot of Puerto Rican churches will make some changes in order to comply with the government’s recently announced war on noise. In some cases, members will have to restrain themselves in singing and praying; in others, amplifiers will have to be turned down or off and instruments muted.
Last year the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico ruled, after a fourteen-year delay, that churches cannot produce noise that will annoy neighbors and that they must limit the volume of sound. In April a dispute erupted over the noise produced by the Pentecostal Church of God in San Juan. Traditional Christmas masses were nearly canceled by a Catholic church in San Juan when a neighbor reportedly complained that the music would disturb his early-morning sleep.
Catholic and Protestant leaders alike are sounding off against the new regulations.
Yugoslavia: Marriage On Trial
Yugoslavia is setting up a network of marriage-guidance centers and enforcing a one-month trial marriage period before the wedding, according to a United Press dispatch. The new law is an attempt to deal with the nation’s increasing divorce rate (nearly 10 per cent), say authorities. They cite incompatibility as the most commonly stated reason for divorce. Many young people get married after knowing each other less than a week, they point out.
Under the new procedure, divorce will be harder to obtain and courts will have the right to order special counseling if they think a marriage can be saved.
Tough Times For Trinity
Trinity Parish in New York City, the nation’s largest and wealthiest Episcopal congregation, has offered for sale ten of its twenty-four commercial properties in lower Manhattan. Asking price: $14.6 million (they are assessed at $7.8 million). High vacancy rates were blamed for the decision.
Net income from real-estate operations is down by more than $500,000 since 1972, says a church spokesman, who declined to cite commercial-income figures. Trinity has had to trim its annual budget from $6.2 million in 1972 to about $4.8 million this year, he said. Sources indicate the real-estate operations account for 75 per cent of the church’s annual income. Despite the seeming affluence, Trinity has been registering deficits ($2 million in 1972, an estimated $500,000 this year).
The parish, chartered by King William III of England in 1697, traces its wealth to the gift of Queen Anne’s seventy-three-acre farm in 1705. The farm included much of what is now Greenwich Village, and over the years the church increased its holdings.
The parish is made up of Trinity Church and a half dozen chapels with a total membership of 3,900 (Trinity Church itself has 400 members).
Religion In Transit
Increasingly, church leaders are calling for a crackdown on TV programing. They’re complaining to network executives, advertisers, the Federal Communications Commission, and Congress about the profanity, vulgarity, violence, and sex that are spewing into living rooms all over America. Groups working for reform range from the United Church of Christ, which is organizing a monitoring program, to the National Association of Evangelicals. Congress and the FCC (active churchmen are among its leaders) are listening.
Twelve church-related colleges and universities in Arkansas have formed a cooperative council to press for financial support from the state. They include Baptist, United Methodist, Southern Presbyterian, United Presbyterian, Churches of Christ (Harding College), and independent (John Brown University) schools. Sources show thirty-nine states offer some form of aid to private colleges or their students.
The Church of the Nazarene emerged from 1974 in good health. “Substantial” increases were reported in membership (608,000 worldwide), Sunday-school enrollment (1.17 million), total giving ($134.6 million, with a 10 per cent increase in per capita giving), and college enrollment (9,800 students in twelve schools). Membership in Korea rocketed from 7,500 to 16,500, a 132 per cent increase.
A Gallup Poll survey shows that church attendance in the United States in 1974 remained at the same level as in the three previous years, with 40 per cent of adults attending church or synagogue services in a typical week. Other findings: churchgoing is less frequent in West Coast states than elsewhere; married persons have a better attendance record than singles; and young people with college backgrounds are more likely to attend than those who haven’t gone to college.
Pending approval of plans, the 53-year-old Central Presbyterian Church building on Park Avenue in New York City was to be sold for about $2.6 million to the Asia Society for use as an art museum. The Gothic structure, built by the Rockefeller family, originally belonged to the Park Avenue Baptist Church, which later became the Riverside Church. The 300-member Presbyterian congregation would merge with another church or share facilities elsewhere. Some members were opposing the sale.
A new 815-page interfaith hymnal was produced jointly by the Army, Air Force, and Navy under supervision of the Armed Forces Chaplains Board. Hymns are not segregated into Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish categories, as in the 1959 military hymnal. The new hymnal contains many gospel songs, folk hymns, and spirituals not in its predecessor. Total contract cost for the first printing of 558,000 copies was $1.07 million.
Nothing certain was known at mid-month about the fate of Christians in Phuoc Binh, the 26,000-population South Vietnamese provincial capital overrun by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces. Two Catholic nuns from New Zealand who operated an orphanage and dispensary for mountain tribes-people remained, along with a Vietnamese missionary to the Stieng tribe (he is sponsored by the Christian and Missionary Alliance-related Evangelical Church of South Viet Nam) and other Vietnamese church workers.
The annual conference of the 150,000-member Methodist Church of Nigeria adopted a resolution decrying the state of national leadership, corruption, and filth in the cities. Conference president E. Bolaji Idowu, warning that the problem-ridden nation is headed toward disaster, called on government leaders to guarantee freedom of the press. Above all, Nigeria needs a Pentecost, he declared.
The working draft of a new Greek constitution guarantees a measure of religious freedom for persons not members of the state-backed Orthodox Church, but continues the ban on proselytism (evangelism), a prohibition against unauthorized versions of Scripture, and other restrictions.
A South West Africa newspaper, The Advertiser, reports “a full-scale revival” has rocked Tsumkwe, the main center of the Bushmen population. The paper says the spiritual movement began with the conversion of two tribesmen. People are praying aloud in the homes during the day and flocking to meetings at night, according to the account.
Yitzhak Raphael, Israel’s Minister of Religious Affairs, said a major Vatican statement on Catholic-Jewish relations doesn’t go far enough. It omits mention of Israel as a state, he said, and church leaders still believe Jewish spiritual leaders of Christ’s time were implicated in his crucifixion. Raphael rejected a proposal for joint prayer to help bridge the gap between the faiths.
Despite strong resistance by the Catholic Church and two opposition parties, a Socialist party-sponsored law legalizing abortions within the first three months of pregnancy became effective in Austria on January 1. More than 90 per cent of Austria’s 7.4 million population is Catholic.
Baptists in the African nation of Rwanda have grown from 1,500 in 1964 to 19,500 last year, a gain of 1,200 per cent, according to the Baptist World Alliance.
Dead at 80 in Beirut: Cardinal Paul Pierre Meouchi, Lebanese-born patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church, who pastored churches in Massachusetts and Los Angeles before his elevation over the Middle East church body.
The Mormons now have 1,600 missionaries and 250 churches and chapels in Britain. Members there total 80,000, up from 9,500 in 1958.
J. GORDON HOWARD, 75, retired United Methodist bishop, a former bishop of the Evangelical United Brethren Church, and a past president of the Ohio Council of Churches; in Winchester, Virginia.
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