Homosexuality and the Churches

▪ 1994

by Martin E. Marty
      Sexuality, always a troubling issue in religion, has become the centre of controversy in American religious bodies in recent decades. Whereas struggles over civil rights, protest over the Vietnam war, and debate over economic issues earlier tore such bodies apart, the elements of "the sexual revolution"—changes in understanding of gender roles, women's rights, marriage and divorce, abortion and contraception, cohabitation and sexual license—have now become dominant. None has more threatened the peace of churches or occupied more of the attention of their seminaries, task forces, and denominational assemblies, however, than has homosexuality. Churches and synagogues have wrestled with the ordination of announced gays and lesbians to the ministry, religious understanding of homosexual rights, blessing of "gay marriage," and legitimation or condemnation of lifestyles associated with homosexuality.

Controversy Intensifies.
      The intensified controversy resulted from numerous factors. First, acknowledgement of homosexuality was part of the general sexual revolution, about which religious organizations could not be silent. Too, the issue came up in the lives of the members of church congregations and thus had to be addressed. In addition, the scriptures and traditions of all religions had much to say on the subject, and these pronouncements could not be avoided in the face of the social and cultural changes of the late 20th century. Further, activism in gay and lesbian communities found expression in formally organized interest groups in many denominations, and they would not be silent in order to keep the peace in the churches.

      Scientific debates over whether homosexual tendencies are genetically transmitted (and thus part of "fate") or culturally acquired (and thus a matter of choice) also had implications for the religious debate. More conservative counselors often argued that homosexuals can change their orientation and that they must in any case be celibate lifelong. Religious activists saw it to be the duty of churches to address society, but society itself was torn over the homosexual issue. Finally, AIDS, often associated with homosexuality, particularly in the U.S., was manifest in the priesthood, the ministry, and the lay life of congregations, eliciting moral condemnation from some religious agencies and spokespersons but sympathy and alertness from others.

Conservatives and Liberals Disagree.
      As a result, religious bodies were polarized. The more conservative Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant bodies drew upon several biblical texts and historic taboos or proscriptions to denounce all homosexual expression. The more liberal elites in Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism, as in Reform and Conservative Judaism, spoke up for homosexual rights in society, interpreted scriptures more generously, and advocated a more open acceptance of the ministry and participation of declared homosexuals at all levels of religious organization. Between them—as between aggressive pro-life and pro-choice religious forces in the abortion controversy—were the vast majority of church and synagogue members. This majority gave evidence that their minds were not made up; they were in transition, reexploring the texts, reexamining the traditions, watching the scientific and political debates, and trying to do justice both to their own understanding and to the creative challenge represented by fellow believers who were "out of the closet" about their homosexuality.

      At issue for many was biblical interpretation. All sides agreed that both the Hebrew scriptures—the Christians' Old Testament—and the New Testament almost never addressed the subject, even though the religious scene of the ancient world gave the writers reason to do so. The majority agreed that few of the texts (Genesis 18:20, 19:4-11; Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Deuteronomy 23:18; Romans 1:24-27; I Corinthians 6:9; I Timothy 1:10) addressed homosexuality in terms informed by what shows up in modern laboratory or clinical findings or in the social sciences. One side argued that those wary of homosexual expression (often described overly simply and in inflaming terms as "homophobic") were being selective and legalistic in their interpretation of texts. But because such opponents did not seek enforcement of other "Mosaic" legislation from biblical times, it was asked why they should concentrate on a verse or two in Leviticus that seemed to apply here. Conservatives, on the other hand, accused those who would affirm homosexual practice, or who at least would not condemn it, of twisting interpretation of scripture. As they read them, two or three passages explicitly forbade homosexual actions. Especially difficult was Romans 1:24-27, which to conservative interpreters was a simple denunciation of such actions. To bystanders the two parties were fighting to a draw, unable to resolve the issue or even to understand each other.

      Despite the deadlock, the issue continued to receive publicity. Roman Catholicism, already stung by revelations of child abuse by priests, was sometimes charged with exacerbating the situation by insisting on an all-male celibate clergy and too often of attracting men of abnormal sexual proclivities. Those who advocated more liberal views of homosexual expression charged that such an accusation was unfair to gay men since, after all, heterosexual men in the clergy of Protestant denominations, where ministers were free to marry, sometimes abused women and children. The death of a number of clergy from AIDS brought visibility to the presence of gay priests and observations that there were an inordinate number of closeted and uncloseted gays drawn to the priesthood in a church whose leadership condemned the homosexual outlook and lifestyle.

      In Protestantism, warfare was carried on through books and pamphlets, and there was conflict among caucuses on all sides, debate over what was taught in seminaries, and heated and open controversy on the floor of denominational conventions. When Paul H. Sherry, president of the United Church of Christ, joined caucuses from mainstream Protestant churches and the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (a gay-based group) in a gay and lesbian rights march in Washington, D.C., on April 25, 1993, the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Christian Coalition, headed by Pat Robertson, condemned the participants outright.

Denominational Responses to Homosexuality.
      A sampling of denominational actions shows the depth of feeling. The largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Houston, Texas, on June 15-17, issued vehement and unprecedented condemnations of Pres. Bill Clinton and Vice Pres. Al Gore, both members of the Convention, because the new administration gave signs of supporting homosexual rights in the military and elsewhere. The ultraconservative Presbyterian Church in America, in its summer Assembly in Columbia, S.C., showed an extremely rare kind of intrusion into another body's life when it asked the Christian Reformed Church, also quite conservative, to repent of its "departure from the Scriptures in doctrine and practice" over issues like tolerance for homosexuality.

      At the General Assembly of the larger and mainstream Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), held in Orlando, Fla., on June 2-9, no other topic attracted as much notice and heat as did homosexuality. In 1991 the church had said in an "authoritative" statement that homosexuality is "not God's wish for humanity." The statement was not strong enough for the antigay forces but was violently denounced by those on the other side. The flagship Presbyterian school, Princeton Theological Seminary, did not clarify the situation when it issued two competing documents. One, signed by the president and a hundred others, opposed homosexual expression, while the second asked for "rethinking," keeping open the possibility of changing the church body's view. Presbyterians have analogues to the militant secular ACT UP movement, Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns (and even one called Presbyterian ACT UP), who pressed for the licensing of openly practicing gay and lesbian ministers for ordination. The delegates responded by chartering a churchwide study.

      It could be said that the only denominations to escape controversy in the summer of 1993 were those that did not meet—not all do every year—or that evaded and postponed the issue through resolutions to rethink it. Nowhere were there signs that the issue was quieting. It is also useful to note that the movement to ordain gays and lesbians and the endorsements of homosexual lifestyles had originally been chiefly promoted by elected and appointed officers, seminary professors, task forces, and denominational elites. When lay reaction, and even strong backlash, developed against their expressions and moves, there was muffling and retreat in the leadership, which feared denominational schism or at least disruption at a time when all groups were already suffering some membership losses for other reasons.

No Easy Answers.
      To the homosexual rights forces, such strategic delay and reconsideration looked like a denial of the religious message. Using analogies to the civil rights movement, comparisons that nonactivists were less ready to make, they argued that the prophetic voice of church and synagogue dare not count ballots or listen to polls but rather must respond to the divine call and reinterpret the ancient texts. They were met by others who were sure that the call did not include affirmation of homosexuality—though "we must love the homosexual persons"—and that the religious texts were too clear to be reinterpretable.

      Between those two camps were the majority of members. Some of these believers gave signals that they wished the issue would simply go away. Many followed the quiet promptings of their hearts, no matter what partisans or texts might say. Still others voted for rethinking and hoped the result would be that which would serve the will of God and the rights and needs of people. What the results of reconsiderations, postponements, confrontations, and rethinking would be no one could foresee. They could know only that some day there had to be reckoning and resolution. The new moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), David Lee Dobler, said, "I believe that the middle will hold on this." He and his kind would be given little peace by activists—"voices on the edges," he called them—on both sides, who were not to be satisfied by a middle way.

Martin E. Marty is Fairfax M. Cone distinguished service professor of the history of modern Christianity at the University of Chicago and a senior editor of The Christian Century.

* * *

Universalium. 2010.

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