DURHAM, N.C. -- Timothy Feifs, all elbows and knees, is at that tender age when gangly hasn't given way to lanky. His voice has yet to drop. His features are soft and malleable.
To most of the world, he is still a kid.
But to the assembled congregation of St. Philip's Episcopal Church, Timothy Feifs is about to become a man.
One of five 13-year-olds participating in the spring 1991 "Rite 13: A Celebration of the Gift and Challenge of Womanhood and Manhood," Timothy will walk across the front aisle, where he stands with his family, to join friends on the other side. After that short but symbolic journey, he will kneel before the altar for a blessing, the final affirmation of his physical and spiritual transformation.
Later that day, Timothy struggles for words to express his feelings.
"I feel sort of important," he said, his blond head bent and his thin body squirming. "I was sort of moving onward."
The premise of Rite 13, a two-year program developed at St. Philip's, is that children are moving onward -- first to manhood and womanhood, a biological state that is a gift from God, and then to adulthood. The program tackles issues that gnaw at young minds. Who is God? How do I fit in? What happens when I get old? How do I cope with my feelings?
But the most provocative part of the curriculum is a unit on sexuality. The Rite 13 group has heard from a teen mother, a gay church member and a Planned Parenthood counselor -- as well as from advocates of sexual abstinence and traditional morality. Supporters of the program praise its candid discussions encouraging youngsters to speak freely. They also applaud its purpose: making the church relevant to modern realities.
The St. Philip's program is a rarity -- not only in the 2.6-million-member Episcopal Church but also among most mainline Protestant denominations. These denominations have been racked by painful debates between advocates of traditional morality, the belief that sexual expression should be limited to heterosexual marriage, and supporters of a broader sexual ethic that recognizes relationships between gays and unmarried people.
In 1988, a special committee of the Episcopal Church developed a resource curriculum, "Sexuality: The Divine Gift," aimed at creating a spiritual context in which young people and adults could discuss human sexuality. But when critics charged that the material lacked a strong affirmation of traditional morality, the national church chose not to endorse the curriculum.
Afterward, the task of sex education fell to the local level -- where some say it languishes. In Maryland, for example, most Episcopal parishes have yet to adopt thoroughgoing sex education programs.
"Regrettably, issues of human sexuality are not in the forefront of everybody's Christian education program," said the Rev. David Perry, head of the Episcopal Church Office of Education for Missions and Ministry. "That probably reflects the widespread problem of addressing values and sex education."
Four years ago, members of St. Philip's decided to tackle values and sex education head on. They began by re-evaluating confirmation, the rite celebrating the passage from childhood to full participation in the church. Confirmation once signified that children could take Communion, but recent church reforms allow any baptized person to participate in the sacrament.
To replace confirmation, the group at St. Philip's modeled a new rite after the Jewish bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, which celebrates manhood and womanhood at age 13.
"We are saying manhood and womanhood is a gift and you don't have to earn it," said Amanda Smith, a church member who helped design Rite 13. "If you can take gender for granted, you won't feel compelled to prove it in negative ways. Then you can begin on the road to adulthood."
The Rite 13 group started in 1989 with 18 girls and boys. Many of the young people balked at the prospect of joining a church group. Elizabeth Newman, one of the group's three adult leaders, understood that there was limited time to win them over.
"One of the most important things we did was play," said Ms. Newman, describing the arts-and-crafts activities she started with. "Once they were relaxed, we started to talk about things they might have discussed at home or at schools. But we took a different angle."
That angle usually explored the human element. A recovered drug abuser told the group how a few beers at age 14 led to a nightmare of addiction. A teen mother explained what it was like to have a baby. A gay church member talked about the different ways people could express love.
"The group became close enough that they could ask questions they wouldn't raise at school," Ms. Newman said. "They weren't embarrassed by the teen mother or the discussion of homosexuality.