Clergy support gays in church Interfaith coalition works for acceptance as congregants

July 20, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The furor caused by a recent series of newspaper ads placed by conservative religious groups raises a fundamental question: Is it possible to be gay and a good, practicing Christian?

The answer is an unequivocal yes, according to some Baltimore-area clergy who have formed a coalition to advocate the acceptance of gay men and lesbians in their congregations.

The Baltimore Interfaith Coalition of Religious Leaders for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Concerns includes about two dozen pastors and rabbis who began meeting last yearto share ideas, offer mutual support and get out the message that gay men and lesbians can be people of faith.

In the full-page ads, which appeared early last week in the New York Times, the Washington Post and USA Today, conservative Christian groups likened homosexuality to a disease, and called on gay men and lesbians to "be healed" through prayer and by accepting Jesus into their lives.

"The religious right is pretty visible," said the Rev. Roger J. Gench, pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Bolton Hill and a member of the coalition. "But folk that feel more positively, either about the process of discussion or are openly affirming [of accepting homosexuals in churches], our message is not out unless there's a controversy within our respective denominations. And then, when the controversy comes out, then our voice gets out. But I'm not sure our voice is really heard then."

The Rev. R. David Smith, pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of Baltimore in Waverly, which focuses its ministry on gay Christians, said the coalition wants to emphasize that there is a place in the church for those who lead an openly gay lifestyle.

"I think it provides support for clergy who may at times be in congregations that are not as aware of or as supportive on this issue," he said. "So it's kind of a networking opportunity for us."

But the positions advocated by the coalition are not embraced by most mainstream denominations, which are increasingly accepting of a "homosexual orientation," but still bar homosexual activity. Practically, that means they do not ordain non-celibate gay clergy and will not bless gay marriages.

Members of the coalition have taken turns writing a monthly column, which began in November, on religious issues that appears in the Baltimore Gay Paper. The coalition will concentrate on providing educational resources related to gay and lesbian religious and spiritual concerns, and members have not ruled out lobbying on particular issues.

The coalition was launched from the Interfaith Coalition of

Freestate Justice, a statewide group of mostly laity that advocates for equal rights for gay people. Smith said he was one of only two members of the clergy who regularly attended meetings, and the group recognized a need to get more religious leaders involved.

Smith realized that since he led a predominantly gay congregation, "it was my sense that I was not the best person to convene this group. It could be seen as self-serving to me."

Gench was tapped to convene the coalition. He leads a Presbyterian congregation that voted to become a "More Light Church," part of a denominational network of mainstream churches that is publicly welcoming of gays and lesbians.

"It felt to me, as I think it felt to a lot of the groups when we first met, that it was good to have interfaith support, because we were all in our small battles within the denominations," Gench said.

Last year, for example, Presbyterians voted to amend the church's constitution to bar anyone who is sexually active outside marriage from becoming a clergy member, elder or deacon.

Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat who is pastor of Rising Sun Baptist Church in Woodlawn, has been at the forefront of the struggle for civil rights for years. But he draws the line when it comes to gay marriages. In the 1997 General Assembly, he sponsored a bill that would forbid Maryland from recognizing out-of-state, same-sex unions.

Burns said he applauds the coalition's effort to reach out to homosexuals and bring them into the church. But he disagrees "if the group is saying, 'Hey, accept me and I'm right,' rather than, 'I have a problem that needs to be addressed and I'm dealing with it the best I can, and I want to be accepted.' To say 'I'm right and you've got to accept me because I'm right,' I think that pushes the issue too far."

Burns said his opposition to homosexuality is biblically based. "I'm presenting what the Bible says. That's all I'm to do," he said. "The Bible speaks against homosexuality and that's the way it is."

But coalition members point out that there are just seven references in the Bible to homosexuality, and that there is no consensus among biblical scholars as to whether those references should be interpreted to condemn homosexuality.

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