- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2000

The homosexual rights movement in American religion has its eyes on a prize the wedding declaration: "Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder."

For the past two decades, advocates in churches and synagogues have argued that God will bless unions of homosexuals and perhaps other kinds of adult, consensual combinations.

Since about 1990, some clergy have joined in, presiding at "holy union" ceremonies they deem pleasing to God and as theologically valid as public vows taken before a church assembly.

But no same-sex "wedding" liturgies have been approved by a historic and recognized religious denomination, and actual cases of union ceremonies still are few. To date, only one cleric has been tried and defrocked for the practice.

Yet the debate is growing to a high pitch, invigorated by theological battles inside denominations and the specter of more unofficial "holy union" ceremonies held by defiant clergy. Together with a new Vermont law that after July 1 gives homosexual couples a "civil union" license for financial benefits, it's a recipe for uncivil turmoil in the pews.

"The gay groups are quite open about these weddings, but you can see why mainline pastors have to be secretive," says the Rev. Marc G. Benton of Bethlehem Presbyterian Church in Windsor, N.Y. "It's tearing our churches apart. We have very different views on Scripture, different views on God."

Two years ago, Mr. Benton filed a complaint in his Hudson River Presbytery when he read in New York newspapers that the nearby South Presbyterian Church had conducted 15 same-sex "holy unions" in violation of national church rules.

The highest court of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ruled last month that the ceremonies were not truly marriages, and thus not in violation.

Later this week, the denomination will become only the latest to battle the issue on a church convention floor. The church's General Assembly will decide by vote whether to ban all kinds of same-sex ceremonies by clergy and in sanctuaries.

New Testament scholar Richard Hays of Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C., says that the same-sex union debate will jostle American religion more than the fracas over the ordination of homosexuals, and holds deep implications for religious and biblical belief.

"Ordination is complex, with many kinds of ministry," Mr. Hays says. "But in the debate over same-sex marriages, the issues come into sharper focus for everyone."

If church "weddings" for homosexuals gain ground, he says, "it is going to create, ultimately, a great amount of symbolic confusion. The basis for marriage between man and woman, based on the complementarity of male and female, is deep and profound in Scripture."

No government yet recognizes the legality of homosexual "marriage." The push for such recognition in the United States, in fact, has caused a countermovement. In 1996, Congress established a federal definition of marriage as between a man and woman, and to date 31 states have adopted similar norms. Legislation is pending in 12 other states.

With such political setbacks, homosexual-rights activists hope that they can win their cases in the culture-shaping churches and synagogues of America.

Sanctifying gay 'marriage

The endorsements are being called "services of commitment," "covenant services," "marriages" and "holy unions," says the Rev. Mitzi Eilts, executive director of the coalition for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender concerns in the United Church of Christ.

"There is no consensus on the terms," she says, noting that all four are used in "Blessing Ceremonies," a 1993 book of sample same-sex liturgical services. "We use the different terms purposefully throughout the book. It is all part of building the legal and religious legal groundwork for these to have validity in the future."

Rites of marriage have differed in the biblical traditions down through the ages, but they have always been reserved for heterosexual couples. The rites invariably have cited procreation as essential to the God-given ideal.

In fact, according to "Equal Rites," a 1995 book with gay and lesbian religious rituals, "Debate continues in the lesbian and gay community about whether such ceremonies are 'hetero-imitative,' and therefore oppressive for same-sex couples."

Marianne Duddy, national director of Dignity USA, a homosexual rights group for Catholics, spent more than four years considering with her partner, Becky, a former nun, whether they should "make a public commitment" with formal vows and ceremony.

"We didn't want it to be a pretend marriage," says Miss Duddy, 39, who has a degree in Catholic theology from Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass. "We decided we really needed to call it a 'marriage.' "

Their 1998 ceremony was conducted by a Catholic "priest on leave" in an Episcopal church sanctuary in Boston. "That proclaims it before God, our families and the public," Miss Duddy says.

The first such ceremonies were promoted in the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC), formed in 1968 by and for homosexuals. After the the group's first decade, the Rev. Troy Perry, the founder and a former Pentecostal minister, performed a Christian "wedding" for a homosexual couple at his Los Angeles home.

In 1991, Mr. Perry presided at a blessing of 150 couples, who vowed commitment "as long as love will last." And in April, 1,000 same-sex partners in town for the homosexual rights march gathered for a union ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial.

The assembled couples vowed, "May love dwell between you and me forever," and Mr. Perry intoned that, as a result, "We proclaim together our rights as couples."

The largest theological sanctioning of a homosexual union came in 1999, when 96 United Methodist clergy defied church rules and blessed the joining of Ellie Charlton, 63, and Jeanne Barnett, 68, at the Sacramento Convention Center. "O God, our maker, we gladly proclaim to the world that [they] are loving partners together for life," the clergy say.

Many church members protested, but the bishop of the clergy shielded the 96 from reprimand.

The rabbis of Reform Judaism were the first major national body of clergy to allow themselves to preside at same-sex unions. They voted in March to affirm that a "same-gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual," and allowed the development of ceremonies.

The United Church of Christ (UCC), however, had allowed leeway for homosexuals even earlier. It affirmed their ordination in 1983, and in its congregational, or local-ruled, tradition, ministers may do as they like.

For example, in 1995 the UCC's Church of the Covenant in Boston issued a model resolution saying gay union rites "hold the same legitimacy" as heterosexual weddings.

Debate in mainline churches

The two largest denominations in America, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and the Roman Catholic Church, firmly oppose any endorsement of homosexual unions.

The Vatican's "On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons" in 1986 made clear that same-sex attraction "must be seen as an objective disorder." Soon after, U.S. dioceses barred Dignity USA from meeting in parishes.

Similarly, the SBC reacted swiftly in 1992 when Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C., held a same-sex ceremony. The state Baptists shunned the church and the national SBC executive committee revised bylaws so that any church "affirming, approving, or endorsing in any way the active practice of homosexuality" would be deemed "not in friendly cooperation" with the SBC.

Unlike the Catholic Church, a Baptist convention has no authority to discipline a congregation.

In both traditions, however, a subculture backing same-sex union continues such as Dignity USA for Catholics or Evangelicals Concerned for Baptists but the biggest debate rages in the so-called Protestant mainline. For example:

• Last month, the United Methodist Church voted by 2-to-1 to affirm its 1996 ban on "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions" by clergy or in sanctuaries, and moved the ban to the Book of Discipline so it is more legally binding.

• In a surprise move, the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted last month to let pastors conduct "the blessing [of] committed same gender relationships" despite a 1993 ruling by the Lutheran bishops against "an official ceremony by this church for the blessing of a homosexual relationship."

The synod pointed to the bishops' call for "pastoral care," and thus gave local pastors discretion on same-sex unions after "counseling with the couple." The ELCA next meets in the summer of 2001 and may then have its first church-wide debate on national rules for same-sex ceremonies.

• The Episcopal Church panel on liturgy and worship, charged to study "theological aspects of committed relationships of same-sex couples," will advise the church General Convention next month that dioceses should make such policy decisions. Still, floor resolutions to develop a national church "liturgical rite for [homosexual] blessings" are expected.

This ferment in mainline Protestantism often has roots in local urban congregations serving homosexual enclaves, but also in theology schools many of them pro-homosexual rights.

"It is very rare to find a faculty with more than one, two, or three people who support the church's historic stance against homosexual behavior," says one mainline seminary professor who asked to remain anonymous. To oppose the homosexual-rights agenda, the professor says, "is tantamount to shooting oneself in the foot, in terms of being hired or given tenure."

Mr. Hays of Duke says the preponderance of pro-gay faculty "would be true of some [mainline] schools, but certainly not all."

The numbers game

Despite the high-decibel debate, the number of church-sponsored same-sex unions remains small.

The Census Bureau estimates that in 1998 there were 1,674,000 "same-sex partnerships" in the United States. Religious activists, meanwhile, speak only in terms of hundreds of "holy unions" but cite a recent increase.

"The numbers are clearly growing," says Miss Duddy of Dignity USA. "We must get one request a month."

The Rev. Justin Tanis, head of clergy development for the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, has presided over 50 to 75 holy unions since 1990, when he graduated from Harvard Divinity School. "They promise to each other what they want to promise, not what I expect of them," he said.

The stability of such commitments is much debated, though studies tend to show that monogamy is the exception.

The Journal of Sex Research reported in 1997, for example, that among 2,583 older homosexuals surveyed, only 2.7 percent were in a monogamous relationship.

The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches has no data on how effectively holy unions promote monogamy, spokeswoman Maaza Mengiste said. "I know from speaking to the couples they feel a tremendous sense of commitment once they participated in same-sex ceremonies," she said.

Next month, the Rev. Greg Dell will return to Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago after a year's suspension for presiding at a same-sex holy union. He conducted his first "service of holy union" in 1982, he says, and the latest was his 33rd.

So far, Mr. Dell says, the kinds of ceremonies he has done or heard of vary widely. "Services range from a very close parallel to a wedding, to more like a covenant ceremony," he says.

Dignity USA is trying to standardize its same-sex liturgy so that it conforms to Catholic tradition, which would include a presiding priest, Miss Duddy said. "As far as we can tell, there are priests all over the country who will quietly bless the union of a same-sex couple. I'm sure there are all kinds of repercussions for a priest if that should become known."

Marriage and the Bible

Biblical marriage rituals go back to the wedding of Isaac and Rebecca in Genesis. The Hebrew idea of "two becoming one flesh" as the marriage of man and woman runs from Genesis to Christ and the Apostle Paul.

The Catholic Church made marriage a divine and holy "sacrament" in the year 1139 and likened its permanence to Christ and his church-as-bride, much as the Hebrews likened Israel to being the wife of Yahweh.

The Protestant Reformation dropped the "sacramental" view of marriage, and in 1529 Martin Luther declared it a civil contract sanctioned by public vows before God and the church. The reformer John Calvin emphasized the "covenant" between man and woman.

Attempts to reshape the marriage tradition for homosexuals has raised the church debate on several fronts. These include the Bible's prohibitions on same-sex genital relations, the claim that the church honored "unions" in the past, and new discussions in science about the cause of homosexuality.

Mr. Dell says his "dynamic" view of the Bible, with its calls for love and justice, compels him to provide same-sex ceremonies. He says his critics have a rigid view of Scripture. "Their arguments about slavery and ordination of women are the same as their argument against homosexuals," he says. "It's all a fear of the slippery slope."

Similarly, Bible scholar Walter Wink of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City has argued, "The Bible knows only a love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are dominant in any given country, or culture, or period." Christ, he says, "is the end of the law" and trumps Old Testament laws and St. Paul's bans on homosexuality.

The more conservative scholars say this overlooks the plain language of Bible texts, such as what one Presbyterian Bible professor called the "the universal silence in the Bible regarding an acceptable same-sex union."

New Testament scholar James B. De Young, author of the forthcoming book "Homosexuality," says the Bible gives no support to the homosexual movement's claim that gays and lesbians have a God-given homosexual "identity" that directs their behavior.

The Bible's only concern on homosexuality, he says, is to proscribe sexual behavior.

"The Bible says the sin is the act, not the thought, in terms of church discipline," says Mr. De Young of Western Seminary, a Conservative Baptist school in Portland, Ore.

The Hebrew Bible was the first ancient text to curb homosexuality, but other cultures eventually did likewise, he says. "Biblical morality is a common morality. It has proven to improve society over the ages."

Meanwhile, the homosexual rights movement also has galvanized around the 1994 book, "Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe," which claims that early Latin and Byzantine ceremonies blessed homosexual bonds. The author, Yale historian John Boswell, a convert to Catholicism who died of AIDS, cites the ceremonies as a basis for modern church policy but concedes that he cannot prove they condone sexual activity.

Mr. Hays of Duke says the Boswell scholarship has been "fairly savagely criticized." What Mr. Boswell found were "Christian ceremonies blessing 'brotherhood' between individuals, sort of like making blood brothers," Mr. Hays says.

Those who favor same-sex "holy unions" also argue that homosexuality is genetically endowed, not chosen. But church thinkers such as social psychologist Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen of Eastern College, an evangelical institution, argues that this is thin evidence on which to ignite an ecclesiastical revolution.

"Why would the church want to change centuries of teaching based on flimsy scientific grounds?" she asks. "Scientists vastly disagree."

If traditional Bible interpreters argue that bans on homosexuality and endorsement of heterosexual fidelity are "perennial" set down for all time, not just for ancient Hebrews they also put "love thy neighbor" in that category.

This requires a response to homosexuals and lesbians who attend church, where they may hear that Christian sexuality is not to be promiscuous. To encourage such fidelity, the Rev. Marcia Cox of Augustana Lutheran Church in Washington, D.C. will give "blessings" to homosexual commitments, much as clergy bless homes or seafaring ships.

"I will be happy to ask God's blessing on that, but I will not do anything that apes a wedding," she says. She will not offer her prayers in a church, but has given "several" blessing in homes or parks.

"I think [homosexuals] can be as faithful as heterosexuals," she says. "It depends on the person and has nothing to do with sexual preference."

Enlarging the debate

The time is coming when bisexual and transgender people also deserve holy unions, says Miss Eilts, the United Church of Christ coalition leader. "We need to be talking about, and not presume, that heterosexual and homosexual are the only forms of family to be sanctified."

Mr. Dell, the Chicago pastor, says that while he would be extremely cautious about blessing bisexual or interfamily relations, his dynamic view of the Bible bars him from making any "absolute statement" against them. "I cannot view myself as conducting a wedding for a brother and sister. I would be very reluctant about a threesome."

Nevertheless, as a pastor he would feel called to "explore what these relationships meant, and help them understand the challenge of their relationships."

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