Presbyterians back traditional morality

June 11, 1991|By Frank P. L. Somerville and Diane Winston

Weary from a bitter debate and eager to affirm traditional morality, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) overwhelmingly endorsed a report yesterday on human sexuality that rejected the provocative conclusions of an earlier paper.

"Our report may not have been prophetic, but it reassured people that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) believes in basic truths," said the Rev. William Jameson, a Pennsylvania pastor who sat on the special committee that drafted the new report. "What I was hearing when I left home is: We want to know if the church is going to maintain certain standards."

The new report, which was accepted by 96 percent of the 600 commissioners meeting at the BaltimoreConvention Center, was voted up yesterday afternoon after a full day of discussion. Attempts to deviate from the traditional positions staked out in the paper approved yesterday -- either calling for stricter moral standards or for more acceptance of gays and lesbians -- fell flat.

The earlier report, "Keeping Body and Soul Together: Sexuality, Spirituality and Social Justice," which was prepared by a 17-member committee after four years of study, suggested the 2.9-million member denomination support a new sexual ethic based on consent and mutuality rather than "heterosexist" and "patriarchal" conventions. The report said sexual expression could have integrity between unmarried persons and homosexuals -- as well as married people.

The report, which also recommended ordaining gays and lesbians and blessing their unions, offended many segments of the church. At a press conference, the Rev. Gordon Stewart, moderator of the convention's study committee, said members of the task force who wrote the document had endured "name-calling" and received "letters of enormous cruelty."

But it was churchmembers' concerns, expressed in written and spoken testimony, that convinced the General Assembly Committee on Human Sexuality over the weekend to abandon the 200-page opus in favor of a shorter and more circumspect statement.

The new report reaffirmed scriptural authority and the "sanctity of the marriage covenant between one man and one woman." It also re-endorsed earlier church positions supporting civil rights for gays and lesbians but barring them from ordination to the ministry.

Asking the church to behave as a family, respecting differences but remaining together, it also suggested local churches begin to explore "the significant biblical, theological and ethical issues raised in the church around human sexuality this past year."

Despite strong support for the new report, not everyone was pleased by its passage. During a silent vigil at the end of the day's proceedings, hundreds of churchmembers filed to the front of the convention hall wearing pink triangles -- the symbol for homosexuals in Nazi Germany -- and carrying signs saying "Never Again."

Sylvia Thorson-Smith, a member of the committee whose report was rejected, said the denomination had missed an opportunity to act justly.

"We have heard the voices for whom there is no justice," said Ms. Thorson-Smith, an Iowa laywoman, referring to gays, lesbians and people outside traditional morality. "We need an ethic of sexuality based on mutuality, consent and egalitarianism."

The long day began in the morning with a vigorous demonstration by Christian traditionalists in front of the Convention Center.

"Keep it straight, keep it tight.The world's in darkness, you're the light," chanted about 50 marching members of Northwest Baltimore's Living Word Christian Center. They alternated this chant with another: "Don't compromise the word of God!"

The reverberating word "don't" could be heard through the doors of the hall where the Presbyterian Church leadership was trying to decide what to do with the proposals to redefine sexual morality.

The chanting Living Word members were allied with marching representatives of Presbyterian congregations also urging rejection of all efforts to liberalize the church's stance on human sexuality.

"Justice-Love, Never!" proclaimed one of the signs.

Other signs carried by the demonstators said, "Leave the World Council of Churches," "Adultery is sin" and "Remember why God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah."

The Rev. David Brown, co-pastor of the mostly black, 1,200-member Living Word congregation at Reisterstown Road and Primrose Avenue, said, "We want to demonstrate to the Presbyterian Church that young black males in the inner city do not want promiscuity. If we start to compromise, we feel that there is no hope at all."

A quieter demonstration was conducted by gay and lesbian dTC church members and their supporters who wore pink triangles during the convention to express their support for ordination of active homosexuals and approval of same-sex unions.

The 200-page report had asked approval of same-sex unions and sexual relations outside of marriage in some circumstances. It said: "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."

A spirit of compromise prevailed.

The 67 members of the study committee, wrestling for days with the sexuality report, won final approval for their recommendation that no part of the report be adopted. However, the rejection was tempered with thanks to the authors of the earlier report, "recognition for their hard work and courage" and "concern for the personal pain they have endured in undertaking their work."

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