Out of the Fold?

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steven pumphrey for time

ONE CHURCH: Pastor Sid Hall, Lisa Dalton, her partner Carolyn Dietrich and Wise, Dietrich's Sunday School teacher

It should have been a celebration of unity, but it turned into a shocking tableau of discord. Louisiana bishop Dan Solomon was presiding over the General Conference of the United Methodist Convention, a contentious but usually joyous quadrennial meeting to plot the future of America's second-largest Protestant denomination. Solomon had proved an amiable and unflappable moderator, but now his voice cracked. "I speak to you with anguish about what is about to unfold," he said. "I bury my head in prayer. I cannot witness what is about to occur." As 5,000 delegates looked on, Solomon's head did drop to the lectern. Minutes later, a squad of uniformed police entered from the wings of the Convention Center stage in Cleveland, Ohio, and arrested 27 gay-rights protesters, including two bishops, charging them with disrupting a lawful meeting. As the protesters filed out, many delegates, even those who had just voted three times against gay-rights proposals, watched in tears. Everyone knew the police had been at the ready and that the activists might force their hand by taking over the stage. But had it actually happened? After all, the Conference's logo is a picture of Jesus' embracing arms and the words of the Apostle Paul: WE WHO ARE MANY ARE ONE BODY.

There is hardly a religious group in America that is not beset by the issue that rent the Methodist meeting in May: the place of gay people in its pews. In March the organization of Reform Jewish rabbis agreed that its members could perform gay-holy-union ceremonies if they chose. The group was then castigated for it by other Jewish branches. Last month the Vatican, which had earlier ordered an American nun and priest to end a ministry to gays and their families because it did not stress the "intrinsically disordered" nature of homosexuality, further prohibited the nun and priest from talking about what they used to do. Even the small Mennonite and General Conference Mennonite churches, for years planning a merger, came within 10 votes of scuttling it, in part because they couldn't agree on the combined church's position on gays.

But the most wrenching expression of the dilemma is playing out in the mainline, a process that will intensify this week as the Presbyterian Church (USA) convenes in Long Beach, Calif. Few expect the Southern Baptists to ordain gays or the Reform Jews to legislate against them, but the traditional liberal denominations are almost violently torn. The three proposals whose passage prompted the civil disobedience and arrests in Cleveland--bans on gay ministers and holy unions, as well as a clause stating that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching"--prevailed by votes of roughly 2 to 1. That kind of majority is satisfying in electoral politics, but alarming in groups that regard themselves as constituting the body of Christ. Mainline Evangelicals and some gay-rights advocates have threatened to abandon their denominations, and the specter of full-blown schism looms in the future. Even in the bosom of the relatively unruffled Episcopal Church, whose representatives will meet in Denver on July 14, the issue can wreak havoc. When a Seattle-area rector told his 300-person Episcopal congregation some time ago that he was a celibate gay, 100 of them walked out.

The issue is impossible to ignore and yet maddening to be stuck on. Says a Presbyterian lesbian who has done hundreds of hours of advocacy on the issue: "This is the church I grew up in and was nurtured in and found my faith in. I can't believe we are doing this to each other. Presbyterians don't talk a lot about [the end of the world], but when the Last Judgment comes ... surely this is not what God wants us to waste our time on." But she cannot let it go.

This controversy is two-sided, and its conservative participants engage it with a passion and a devotion to the Gospel that equals that on the left. Says Claire Dargill, 38, a Presbyterian from Bridgeport, Conn.: "A sin is a sin, and you can't just change that because it's popular or politically correct. I just don't see how we can welcome gays into the church in the face of that." But as these portraits from the left-to-moderate wing of the discussion indicate, the issue is so divisive that it can foster bitterness and, at the very least, soul searching, even among those of apparently like mind.

Tracey Lind: No More Passing
On the day last week when she donned the stole and the chasuble of her new office, on the day when her Episcopal bishop installed her as the dean of Cleveland's grand Trinity Cathedral, the Very Rev. Tracey Lind took a moment to think back on Sunday School, which in her case took place in a Reform synagogue. As a child, she had been half-Jewish, half-Christian, and the rabbi, who was teaching about the Holocaust at the time, glanced up shrewdly and asked, "Tracey, you could have passed. Would you have died for your faith or denied it?"

"You could have passed." The line haunted her in more ways than one. It took decades to settle the rabbi's implied religious query. It was only in 1984 that Lind stood on a Manhattan corner and heard what she describes as "the voice of God" calling her to the Episcopal ministry, into which she was ordained in 1987. But there was a second challenge the rabbi hadn't intended. On that same curbside, Lind promised herself, "I won't let the church use my sexuality as an excuse for not hearing God's voice through me." She was gay. And at that time, in a church with a distinct live-and-let-live-but-don't-rock-the-boat attitude, she felt that a dramatic coming-out would be a distraction. For the noblest of reasons, she was still passing.

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