Presbyterian report on sexual ethics spurs provocative debate

June 02, 1991|By Diane Winston Frank P. L. Somerville, religion editor of The Sun, contributed to this article.

A daring report urging a new approach to sexuality has unleashed a torrent of unrest even before the opening of the 203rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The assembly will be meeting at the Convention Center, the Baltimore Arena, and other downtown locations for eight days, starting Tuesday and running through next Wednesday.

In the past decade, the 2.9 million-member denomination has struggled with a precipitous decline in membership and the merger of its northern and southern branches. Now it turns its attention to a topic that has tormented humanity since Eve picked up the apple.

In a bold challenge to Presbyterians to confront the impact of modern science and sociology, a 17-member committee has outlined a new sexual ethic in a 200-page report titled, "Keeping Body and Soul Together: Sexuality, Spirituality and Social Justice."

"It's a provocative report," said the Rev. Herbert Valentine, executive of the denomination's Baltimore Presbytery. "There's been a lot of conversation all around the country -- all the way from outright hostility to measured consideration."

The study, which was initiated in 1987 to bridge political divisions and to bring in members outside traditional nuclear families, seems to have best succeeded at offending almost everyone. More than half the denomination's 171 presbyteries -- the local governing bodies -- have expressed negative reactions.

During church meetings nationwide, weeping members have confronted clergy with a burning question: What is happening to the historic church of John Calvin?

What makes the report so controversial is its basic assumptions. Tossing out traditional norms of morality -- chastity outside marriage and fidelity in heterosexual marriage -- the report calls for a new standard of "justice-love," -- the right-relatedness with self and others."

"It may be said simply: Where there is justice-love, sexual expression has ethical integrity. That moral principle applies to single, as well as to married persons, to gay, lesbian and bisexual persons, as well as to heterosexual persons. The moral norm for Christians ought not to be marriage, but rather justice-love," the report said.

Supporters of the report say it may be too progressive for the church.

"It's not perfect, but it's a positive step ahead -- it just may be too bold for us," said the Rev. Roger Gench, minister of the Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church-Park Avenue. "It speaks for those who have been marginalized. It holds up values of love and justice."

The report is the first major statement on sexuality by a mainline denomination. It has generated interest outside Presbyterian walls because the subject of human sexuality is troublesome to almost every moderate religious group.

Confronted by social changes -- the women's movement, gay liberation, the sexual revolution, and new scientific theories about the origins of sexuality, these religious bodies have struggled to be accepting, but also to set limits.

In the process, many denominations opted to ordain women and to recast patriarchal language. But when gays pushed for acceptance -- specifically, ordination and blessing of homosexual unions -- church leaders were stymied. How could they reconcile traditional Biblical prohibitions against homosexuality with changing mores?

Most denominations appointed study committees to tackle the issues. Results have been trickling in.

Last year, U.S. Catholic bishops -- while not changing church policy opposing homosexuality -- said homosexuality was "not freely chosen" and therefore "not sinful."

This year, a United Methodist Church panel voted down church doctrine that teaches homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching." A final vote will be taken next year.

In July, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church will vote on a liturgy for blessing gay and lesbian unions. It will also consider allowing local church governing bodies to decide whether or not to ordain gays and lesbians.

Mr. Valentine, observing that few Presbyterian Church members like the entire report as it now stands, said he doubted it would appear in its current form for discussion by the 600 church representatives gathered in Baltimore. Rather, he expected a preliminary committee to make changes. The committee also could reject the report outright or table it for further study.

But the ideas in the report will have church members buzzing for months to come. Many say the debate is healthy.

The General Assembly will also consider a wide range of topics other than sexuality during its meeting in Baltimore. These include:

* Discussing evangelism initiatives to increase church membership, reach the "unchurched" and meet the needs of rural communities.

* Recommending a national health care system.

* Working for racial justice within the church and swift action in cases of clergy sexual misconduct.

* Adopting a new Statement of Faith that affirms traditional church teaching as well as supporting women in the ministry and environmental concerns.

Church representatives also will vote for the 1991-1992 moderator. The two candidates, both ordained ministers, are the Rev. William G. Gillespie, pastor of Cote Brillante Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, and Mr. Valentine of Baltimore.

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