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Heaven, hell and heresy.

Bishops Otis Charles of San Francisco

and Walter Righter of New Hampshire

are both champions of gay and lesbian

rights in the Episcopal Church. But the

extent to which their experiences differ is

as great as the geographic expanse that

separates them: Charles is an openly gay

bishop who has been able to work

without intimidation, while Righter, a

heterosexual, was nearly stripped of his

title for daring to ordain an openly gay


Their stories reflect the extremes of

opinion on gay religious issues within

mainline Protestant denominations. No

denomination has yet split over the

struggle, but fissures have become more

and more visible publicly, particularly in

the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches.

Both churches hold national meetings at

which gay issues are high on the agenda;

both have made historic moves on the

question of gay and lesbian inclusion,

with the Episcopalians taking tenuous

official steps toward it and the

Presbyterians slowly backing away.

Those decisions are likely to have a

ripple effect on other denominations,

which find themselves in the midst of

their own rancorous debates. "Whenever

any one denomination does something

big--whether it's for better or for

worse--it can't help impacting the other

traditions," says Charles. "We're all

inextricably related to one another. "

When Charles came out in a letter he

sent to all Episcopal bishops in August

1993, he became the first and only

American bishop to go public with his

sexual orientation. Since then Charles has

retired as the bishop of Utah and is now

the executive director of Oasis California,

the newly formed gay and lesbian ministry of

the diocese of California.

While Charles has received strong

support from the bishop of California, he

says his coming-out, in general, "has been

received politely" by most bishops in the

church. "People seem not to want to talk

about it," he says. Initially he thought the

reason so little fuss was made about his

coming-out was that it was being

accepted. "But it's really just being

ignored," he concludes today.

On the other hand, the actions of

retired bishop Righter on behalf of lesbian

and gay clergy have been anything but

ignored within the Episcopal Church. In

1995 Righter was charged with heresy for

having ordained a gay man who lives

openly with his partner. An ecclesiastical

court eventually ruled 7-1 in Righter's

favor, concluding in a carefully phrased

statement that there is "no core doctrine

prohibiting the ordination of a

non-celibate homosexual person living in

a faithful and committed relationship

with a person of the same sex." While

Righter and his allies declared victory, the

spectacle of the heresy trial caused

wounds within the church that have yet

to heal.

In fact, those wounds seem likely to

break open once again as Episcopalians

prepare for their general

convention, to be held July 16-25

in Philadelphia. James Thrall,

deputy director of news and

information for the

2.4-million-member Episcopal

Church, says two major gay

issues will surface at the

convention. First, opponents

of ordaining gay and lesbian

clergy--particularly gay men

and lesbians who refuse to remain

celibate--will likely attempt to pass a

church law prohibiting it. Second, the

church will debate whether to develop a

rite for gay and lesbian unions.

Most observers believe the effort to

prohibit the ordination of openly gay

clergy will fail. "This struggle is like

pulling on a rubber band," says Charles.

"We've stretched things to the point

where they can never go all the way back

to where they were before." But neither will pro-gay forces in

the church attempt to get the heresy

court's decision codified as church

doctrine. Such an attempt would also

likely fail, as many liberal Episcopalians

privately concede.

While the convention will not enter

into a direct debate on the subject of gay

and lesbian marriage, five dioceses have

asked the church to develop a special set

of rites to be used for same-sex unions.

Charles, who has worked on a proposed

model for such rites, says moving

forward on this front would be tacit

recognition of the validity of gay and

lesbian couples. "We've avoided using the

word marriage," he says, "but it is

nevertheless the joining of two people."

The Episcopalians are not the only

mainline Protestants struggling with the

gay and lesbian question this summer.

The topic loomed particularly large at the

general assembly of the

2.7-million-member Presbyterian Church

(USA), which took place June 14-21 in

Syracuse, N.Y. The national meeting

came hot on the heels of a major setback

for supporters of gay and lesbian


Last October the 171 presbyteries that

make up the church began voting on a

constitutional amendment that requires

all Presbyterian ministers, deacons, and

elders to be either married and faithful or

single and celibate. The hotly contested

proposal, known as Amendment B, was

often winning or losing by a single vote in

some presbyteries. But by March, 86

presbyteries had cast their votes in favor

of the amendment, giving it--just

barely--the simple majority it needed to pass.

Supporters of the amendment say it

sets the same moral standards for all

church members: no sex outside marriage.

But opponents point out that since the

church does not grant gay men and

lesbians the right to marry, Amendment

B was clearly aimed at excluding them

from holding church office as well.

"Amendment B is not at all about sexual

morality," says Scott Anderson of

Sacramento, a former Presbyterian

minister who resigned his ordination

when he was outed in 1990. "It's code for

discriminating against gays and lesbians,

pure and simple."

In the short time since Amendment B

has passed, however, leaders of more

than 50 congregations have already signed

a Covenant of Dissent, vowing to openly

defy the new law and ordain sexually

active gay men and lesbians. And Jerry

Van Marter, director of the Presbyterian

news service, says there are now 82

More Light churches, a network of

Presbyterian congregations that have

pledged to welcome openly gay pastors

and laypeople. Gay and lesbian

Presbyterians and their supporters vow

to continue to fight to have Amendment

B overturned, acknowledging, however,

that the effort will likely take years, even


The immediate concern is whether

those who defy the new law will be

prosecuted in church courts. "I'm dating

and looking forward to finding a partner

and long-term relationship," says the

Rev. Laurene Lafontaine, a lesbian

Presbyterian minister in Denver. She

adds that antigay forces in the church

could move to have her ordination

revoked. "It could happen to any one of

us who is out, at any time," she says.

But Anderson stresses that it is

important for gays and lesbians and their

supporters "to take the long view.

Amendment B was not the last word.

You have to remember that it took us 43

years to win the right for women to be

ordained. We've been working on the

right for gays and lesbians for only about

20. So I suspect we have another

generation to go."

RELATED ARTICLE: Baptists take on Hercules

Walt Disney built his empire around a

heterosexual mouse named Mickey

and the rodent's perky girlfriend,

Minnie--not a lesbian named Ellen.

Although the company's

reputation is steeped in all things

traditional--such as its summer

blockbuster, Hercules--gay people

have always lined up to work there,

long before Disney offered its

employees domestic-partner benefits.

"We have that same love of Disney

that everyone else has," says Robert

Williams, cochair of Disney's gay

employee group. "[The Southern

Baptists] are the ones destroying my

innocence," he adds, referring to the

June 18 boycott called by the

15.7-million-member denomination.

A year ago the church warned

Disney, which owns everything from

theme parks to ABC, to stop "the

promotion of homosexuality." Instead

Disney let Ellen come out.

Kerry Lobel, executive director of

the National Gay and Lesbian Task

Force, says Dumbo, Pinocchio, and

Tigger have taught us that there's a

welcoming family for every child: "I

had hoped [the Southern Baptists]

would vote for America's children to

have a safe haven free from politics,

fear, and ignorance."

Tom Elliff, the newly reelected

president of the denomination, told

the Orlando [Fla.] Sentinel that

Disney is a "purveyor of

pornography." Disney's response to

the boycott

could have come

from Mary

Poppins: "We are

proud that the

Disney brand

creates more family

entertainment of

every kind than

anyone else in the

world. We

plan to continue our leadership role

and in fact we will increase

production of family entertainment."

--David Heitz
COPYRIGHT 1997 Liberation Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church
Author:Dahir, Mubarak S.
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Jul 22, 1997
Previous Article:Keeping the faith.
Next Article:Mass movement.

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