Gays find most churches unwilling to accept them Attitudes are changing, but slowly

March 07, 1993|By Angela Winter Ney | Angela Winter Ney,Staff Writer

Like the early Christians, gay and lesbian believers today live a stealthy, subterranean existence. They meet secretly; they identify one another warily.

Unlike the gay population as a whole, which has moved from a disdained minority to a politically powerful special interest group in the past decade, many gay Christian church-goers remain underground, fearing exposure and reprisal if their identities are known.

Nationally, homosexuals have made significant progress toward cultural approval of the gay lifestyle. Since the gay liberation movement rose in the late 1960s, about 130 gay rights laws have been passed, reports the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

In December, St. Louis adopted one of the strongest such laws, barring discrimination in housing, credit, employment, education and public access on the basis of family status or sexual orientation.

Even the Christian church, which for centuries taught that homosexuality was morally wrong, is rent by argument over whether, and to what extent, it should change its theological position to accept gays and lesbians.

In spite of this, the closet doors -- and often the church doors -- stay shut in the lives of many gay Christians.

One Maryland family left the Lutheran church they'd attended for more than a decade after their gay son attempted suicide and their clergyman reportedly commented: "He should've succeeded, because he's sinning against God and he'd be better off dead."

Another gay Christian, reared a Presbyterian, simply left the faith when he concluded he was gay at age 27. "It's really tough. You don't know where to turn," says Jack Huizenga, a 53-year-old editor.

Some gay Christians deal with religious hostility by hiding their identity at church.

Robert Williams, 31, and his companion Anthony Floyd, 28, who live in southern Anne Arundel County, occasionally visit Roman Catholic parishes, hoping not to draw attention to themselves.

But they are uneasy, in an atmosphere pervaded by the church's condemnation of homosexuality as aberrant behavior.

The Vatican in a July 1992 letter to U.S. bishops reaffirmed its stand that homosexuality is an objective disorder, calling it a "tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil."

Although many U.S. Roman Catholic bishops are less stringent in their opposition to homosexuality, the two companions usually drive more than an hour to attend a service at Baltimore Dignity, an unofficial Catholic gay group, where they can be certain they won't be rejected.

"When we leave church, I feel more like a real couple than any time of the week," says Mr. Williams. "You filter all week everything you say and do. It's nice to go to church and be one with God and just be happy."

Still, they yearn to be mainstream.

Says Mr. Floyd: "I would like to find a regular church that I'm comfortable with."

Or, says Mr. Williams, "a regular church that's comfortable with us."

Many churches have altered their position regarding gays.

While most denominations still have laws on the books condemning homosexuality as immoral or unnatural, they also have churches that openly welcome gays.

Dignity, one of the largest Christian gay organizations, has about 6,000 members nationally.

Presbyterians have More Light Churches; Methodists have Reconciling congregations; Episcopalians have Integrity.

A former chairman of the Baltimore Dignity group talks about changes since the days of the group's infancy in the early '70s, when members met clandestinely in a priest's basement.

Since then, the Baltimore chapter group has received approval from the St. Ignatius parish council to meet on the church premises on North Calvert Street.

About 90 priests within the Baltimore Archdiocese have said Mass for Dignity over the years.

"It appears that priests at the parish level, at least in the Baltimore area, are pretty warm and supportive. They tend to be a bit ahead of their parishes and the hierarchy of bishops," says the former chairman, who asked not to be named for fear of employment difficulties.

One Baltimore City parish passed a resolution in 1988 saying gay Catholics were welcome.

"That kind of thing wouldn't have happened 10 years ago," adds the former chairman.

In denominations such as the United Methodist Church, the controversy has progressed from discussing whether gays should be welcomed as members to whether gays should be ordained and whether gay unions should be officially blessed.

Many ministers oppose such "progress," asserting that acceptance of homosexuality does not, in fact, help gay people.

The Rev. Richard Lipka, for 17 years the priest of St. Mary's Episcopal Church on Roland Avenue in Baltimore, says he believes the church's model should be that of Jesus, "sheer love for people caught up in that lifestyle. With the woman caught in adultery, his love poured out to her -- and he didn't condone the fact that she did something contrary to the will of God."

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