WICHITA, KANSAS. — And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs --
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings Wichita, Kansas.-- That verse is from ''God's Grandeur'' by one of my favorite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Although I had read much of his poetry, all I knew of Hopkins' life was that he was a 19th-century English Jesuit priest who was influenced by the Oxford Movement and was accepted into the Roman Catholic Church by Cardinal Newman.
So I was eager to read the new biography of Hopkins by Robert Bernard Martin. There, I discovered that the writer of some of the most spiritual poetry in the English language had, as Mr. Martin put it, ''homoerotic impulses.'' There is no evidence that Hopkins was an active homosexual. But Mr. Martin speculates that same-sex urges helped bring Hopkins and many of his like-minded friends into the celibate Catholic priesthood -- to sublimate their sexuality to the service of God and the church.
It's good to remember Hopkins when considering the debate over sexuality now raging within several American Protestant churches. After all, if a homoerotic bent helped form Hopkins' artistic and religious temperament, the Christian world is better for it.
Last week, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church debated, then rejected, a report that advocated a radical switch from traditional teachings about sex. Its recommendations included ordaining gay and lesbian ministers, recognizing homosexual relationships and moving away from the focus on marriage as the only permissible way to express sexuality.
Next month, the Episcopal Church will consider measures to ordain practicing homosexuals and to bless ''faithful committed relationships'' between homosexuals. A United Methodist Church committee is expected to issue a report in August about homosexuality; in Salina, Kansas, last weekend, the United Methodist Kansas West Confer- ence voted against allowing avowed homosexuals into the ministry. A task force of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America also is working on a statement on sexuality.
The question of human sexuality threatens serious schisms within some of the country's largest churches. Not since the 19th-century debates over evolution has an issue caused such disagreement within many of the denominations.
Much of the controversy stems from the revolution in sexual attitudes over the past generation. It could be argued that the churches are just now confronting the radical lifestyle changes brought by the birth-control pill, the feminist movement and 20th-century psychological insights into sexual matters.
Traditionally, most Christian churches have seen sex mainly as a means of reproduction. Indeed, it wasn't long ago that some of the Protestant churches now debating homosexuality were citing the Bible to oppose divorce and artificial contraception -- a point to ponder for those who claim infallible understanding of scripture in condemning gays and lesbians.
Today, most churches accept the post-Freudian links among sex, emotional intimacy and physical pleasure. In fact, some of the best sex manuals are written by evangelical Christians who recognize the importance of a good sex life to a happy marriage. Likewise, at Vatican II in the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church gave equal standing to the celibate and married life, which many saw as a departure from St. Paul's ideas on the subject.
I think that the same Christian acceptance of non-procreative sex between man and woman will eventually extend to homosexuals. Part of the reason is the basic Christian message that everyone is a child of God. In his infinite wisdom, God included homosexuals in his divine scheme. To deny them full participation in the church -- and full development of their sexuality in a loving relationship -- runs counter to strong, deep religious currents.
Although some Christians are obsessed with moralizing over what consenting adults do in the bedroom, today's most serious sexual crisis isn't who is doing what with whom behind closed doors, but the difficulty of finding genuine affection in a disaffected world.
As evidenced by the explosion in pornography, prostitution and other forms of sexual degradation, many people have separated sex from love. Our society is sex-saturated -- in television, movies, advertising. The instinct that inspired the poetry of the Brownings has deteriorated into the gyrations of Madonna.