The ouster of a gay Ohio Methodist cleric this month was the first incident in what may be a controversial summer of soul searching for several mainline Christian denominations. Following the United Methodist Church's recent affirmation that homosexuality was incompatible with Christian teaching, the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches are about to address issues of gender orientation at their general conferences. 90.3's David C. Barnett reports.
David C. Barnett- Columbus native Phil Hart's desire to become a minister in the United Methodist Church was stronger than his misgivings about his sexual identity.
Phil Hart- When I came to terms with the fact that I was gay, and when I was ordained a deacon, I hadn't come to terms with that. I thought this was something that I was going to have to struggle with. I thought, you know, if I find the right woman...then I could get married... Well, I finally realized that just wasn't going to happen.
DCB- The issue of sexual orientation was the most contentious during the United Methodist Church's General Conference in Cleveland, last month. Sit-ins, rallies and arrests of gay rights advocates highlighted the presence of a growing minority within the church. This group is calling for changes in the traditional Methodist stance against the ordination of gay clergy and the recognition of same sex unions. Three weeks after the Conference voted to keep the status quo, Phil Hart was the first clergy member to be dismissed under these reaffirmed guidelines. Ohio Methodist spokesperson Tom Slack says the rules are clear.
Tom Slack- I know it's painful and difficult for him, and it's painful and difficult for his friends and advocates. But in the case of a clergy person, this comes down to a simple Yes or No question. And in this case, the question is "Does he continue as a probationary member after having made this declaration?" And the answer at the clergy meeting was, "No, he does not continue."
DCB- Church policies on issues of sexual orientation are due to be addressed at the 212th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA, which convened in Long Beach, California over the weekend. Similar issues will come up at the 73rd convention of the Episcopal Church, which begins in Denver, early next month. Tracey Lind is Dean of Cleveland's Trinity Cathedral, the central church of Ohio's Episcopal Diocese.
Tracey Lind- I think we're further along in the conversation and the dialog around the issue of homosexuality, and sexuality in general. I think if you were to look among the ranks of Episcopal clergy, you would find a very significant percentage of us are gay and lesbian.
DCB- Dean Lind can be open about her sexuality, because the Episcopal church doesn't force all of its dioceses to tow one official line. This allowance for regional differences was highlighted five years ago, in the aftermath of a heresy trial over the ordination of gay clergy members.
Dean Lind- And in the 1995 heresy trial, it was demonstrated there simply is not a doctrine that prohibits the ordination of gay and lesbian people. And so in some ways, we almost have a local option.
DCB- But that's not official church policy and may become a topic of debate when the General Convention meets in July. Meanwhile, over the weekend, a very different Christian gathering took place outside of Canal Fulton.
A crowd of young people, some with unusual hair-cuts and -colors, sang and clapped along with the musicians on the bandstand of the Alive Music Festival. Others wandered through big tents with tables of CDs, T-shirts and other souvenirs. One such stand featured a selection of newsletters and pamphlets, bearing such titles as "Sexual Brokenness and the Church" and "Can Homosexuality Be Prevented?" This display is sponsored by the Willoughby-based In His Image ministry. The Reverend Brenda Barbarino says it was born out of what she calls her own gender identity confusion.
Brenda Barbarino- And my perception of the church just wasn't doing a real good job at helping people come out. It was more just, "Don't do it. It's wrong." But, how do you get out of it then, if you're telling me not to do something. Tell me how."
DCB- Brenda Barbarino says she was "healed" and finally came out of the gay lifestyle. For the past seven years, she has been offering counseling to others she sees as sexually broken. Rev. Barbarino was standing on the sidelines during the protests at the United Methodist Convention in Cleveland, last month, watching in dismay at the protests outside the convention hall, and the heated debates inside.
BB- It breaks my heart to see any of these mainline churches fight over this. And what really breaks my heart more is that people who really don't know.... some of these Bishops are making decisions...and they really don't know how hard it is. And giving them the okay to live in this lifestyle isn't going to make them happy. But, for the first time, I actually felt like it was somewhat prophetic. I think it's just the beginning. I think it's going to get worse.
DCB- Ousted gay Methodist cleric Phil Hart also sees the debate in his church as a beginning - just not in such apocalyptic terms.
PH- The church has always been, in some ways, led by the culture. There's always been a lag. And the culture is much more willing to take on issues than the church. And as the culture takes on these issues, then the Church is faced with them and then the Church has to address them. And I think that's what's happening.
DCB- And while mainline Christian churches in the U.S. are trying to define the rules of their faith, some congregation members are trying to find their own identities within the church. In Cleveland, David C. Barnett, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.