City Church Seeks Ways To Change `Sins' Order

Presbyterian Ruling Forbids Leadership Role To Gays, Others

April 21, 1997|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

A small Presbyterian church in Baltimore is searching in anguish for ways to reverse an order by its national leadership barring homosexuals and other "sinners" from becoming deacons, elders and ministers.

Twenty members and lay leaders of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church gathered last night for soup, bread and a searching discussion of the threat they perceive to the congregation's homosexual minority, and to its own self-determination.

"I've heard Presbyterian lesbians say to me, `I'm ashamed of this church. I don't want to be in this church anymore.' It's a real slap," said member Moragan Happ.

Brown Memorial's pastor, the Rev. Roger Gench said, "I feel terrible about what's happened [but] I'm not going to give up the church to a conservative, reactionary element."

Gench said his congregation has about 250 members and a tradition of inclusiveness. Perhaps 15 percent of the members are gay or lesbian, but they are among the more active members, and "that's significant for this church," he said.

After last night's meeting at the church at 1316 Park Ave. in Bolton Hill, about 120 people attended a "Service of Grief, Prayer and Commitment to Inclusivity." Many voiced pain and defiance.

Brown Memorial's crisis was touched off last month when a continuing vote by the 171 regional church councils, or "presbyteries" of the Presbyterian Church (USA) achieved a majority who favored the order, called "Paragraph B."

It meant adoption of an amendment to the denomination's Book of Order, adding a "fidelity and chastity" requirement for those seeking to be church leaders.

The Baltimore Presbytery, which includes much of Maryland, overwhelmingly opposed the order. Others praised it because it addresses all impermissible sexual conduct, not just homosexuality. A Virginia pastor, the Rev. John F. Sloop, said it will clarify "where the boundaries are." He hopes dissenters will "quietly leave."

The amendment does not mention homosexuality. But it demands church officers "lead a life in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church."

"Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage of a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers. "

The term "confessions" refers to a long list of official "sins," including "homosexual perversion," but also vanity, "unchaste thoughts," "vexacious lawsuits" and "undue delay of marriage."

About half of the 20 people at last night's meeting were homosexual, a member said. The rest seemed to agree they'd be sinners -- and ineligible to serve -- under some part of the "confessions."

One of the possible actions discussed last night was a resignation and re-installation of the congregation's entire leadership -- homosexuals and heterosexuals -- as a united legal challenge to Paragraph B.

Of deep concern to the group was the possibility that some members would leave the church rather than fight the order.

"I'm one of those thinking of leaving," said a church leader who did not want to be named. She fears becoming a test case in an ecclesiastical court. "Life is too short to spend it as a gay Presbyterian," she said.

Pub Date: 4/21/97

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