From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Texas forum offers a model dialogue on sexuality
18 Apr 2000 15:40:11
Texas forum offers a model for future of difficult dialogue on
by Carol E. Barnwell
(ENS) More than 700 persons gathered at Camp Allen in Texas
on April 8 to discuss ordaining practicing homosexuals and the
blessing of same-sex unions, two issues that continue to cause
great friction in many denominations today.
"I came with great trepidation," one participant from
Austin said, "but found a safe place to meet and speak with
others who believe differently than I do."
Professor Charles Alan Wright, chair of the group that
organized the forum, acknowledged that most participants
probably wouldn't leave with their positions on the issues
changed. "Whatever your position, being able to talk in a
courteous fashion with other Episcopalians who feel differently is
important. All of us have learned from each other, and it has
been a great thing for the Church," he concluded following the
The forum was planned by a special executive board task
force in response to several resolutions referred at the 149th
Diocesan Council in 1998. After more than a year in the
planning, Bishop Claude Payne called the Forum "a watershed event
" for the Diocese of Texas--"an endeavor to engender respect. . .
perspective. . .and understanding." It was not a day to vote.
Instead the day provided an opportunity for the diocese to
gather and "explore ways in which we can differ on issues
and simultaneously be united in mission," Payne said.
Pristine blue skies and a cool breeze greeted
participants who began the day with worship at All Saints
Chapel set in the pine forest near Navasota. A presentation
from two Houston attorneys who hold opposing views
established a model of collegiality for the forum and outlined
possible future encounters among participants.
Bishop Robert Ihloff of Maryland and Bishop Edward
Salmon of South Carolina received warm responses to their
presentations on the sexuality issues. After lunch, 28 separate
groups met with trained facilitators, talked and shared their
stories, then reconvened for concluding remarks. The forum was
moderated by Mike Amis and Laura Allen, members of the Ministry
of Conflict Transformation, based in the Diocese of Dallas.
"I recognize that I am the designated liberal for this
particular symposium," Ihloff began lightheartedly. He then
offered an outline of how to read scripture. "All Holy Scripture
is written for our learning," he said, but he admonished against
"wrenching a phrase or a story out of context" to support a
certain ideology. He said that scripture must be read in context
with an understanding of its original meaning and purpose.
He rejected the tendency of some to interpret scripture literally.
"In reality, there are no Biblical literalists, only select
literalists" who choose to highlight what will support their
position, Ihloff said. Citing the prohibitions against
homosexuality in Paul's letters, Ihloff pointed to the vastly
different cultural milieu of the time. "Paul also condones slavery. . .
and declares that women should not speak in church," he pointed
out. Summing up the epic of Paul, Ihloff enumerated the gifts
of the spirit which he said "transform our lives. . .and
ultimately judge our ethical behavior."
Ihloff pointed out that Jesus made a special effort to
commune with the disenfranchised, "people who to the religious
people of their time were branded as sinners," he said, adding that
"Jesus was intent on proclaiming a new ethic which he speaks
in the Great Commandment. . .to love others as you love me."
This love is that which "transforms lives. . .builds up community. . .
and becomes the guiding principle for Christians," the bishop said.
The seven passages he considered in his statement, he
explained, "were very complex" and neither a simplistic nor a
literal approach to them could fully convey the guiding
principles for Christian moral behavior.
Ihloff compared scripture to a lens "through which we see
our life." Very familiar scripture, he explained, may at times
"become new in some exciting way," informed by personal
A personal journey
He outlined his personal journey from the early 1960s when
he, as most of the culture, held the Freudian assumption that
"homosexuality was a result of an arrested stage in early
childhood development," that could be "cured" by therapy. As
an unseasoned priest, Ihloff said, he once heard the "tortured
confession of guilt and despair" from a man "who loved the Lord.
" Ihloff recalled, "I assured him of God's love and forgiveness
and suggested he seek therapy in order to become
heterosexual. Not too surprisingly, he left the congregation
In his ministry since then, Ihloff said, he has become familiar
with homosexual couples who care for one another, who love
the Lord and are serious about their Christian walk in faith
"Knowing such persons, more than a study of scripture,
changed my heart and my attitudes about homosexual practice."
Acknowledging that blessing same-sex unions is "the
thorniest part of the problem," Ihloff said he hopes the church will
offer that opportunity in the near future. He suggested the church
first needed to grapple with the nature of Christian marriage in a
culture where half of the marriages end in divorce, and he pointed
out that same-sex relationships must not be defined in the same way
heterosexual marriage is defined.
A more traditional stand
Salmon used secular culture's focus on sex as well as
scripture to anchor a more traditional stand on the sexuality issues.
"We live in a culture that says 'without sex, you are a nobody,'"
he said in his address. To prove his point, Salmon said
he reviewed the airport magazine stand on his way to Houston
and counted 37 publications whose covers featured sexual
subjects. "We, as a culture, are engulfed in it [sexual expression]
and as Christian people, we need to live in a way to make
a witness to that culture," he added.
The 18th chapter of Leviticus, he said, is the foundation for
the universal rejection of same-sex intercourse in Judaism.
"In Corinthians, Timothy and Acts, those same prohibitions
are assumed on matters of sexual morality," he added
Salmon explained that Paul defined the character of the
Gospel as an "active manifestation of God's power" and
suggested that the human race had disregarded God's efforts
and turned on a "massive scale to idolatry."
"Romans says the notion that we are free moral agents to
choose what we want to do is an illusion," said Salmon. "What
we choose is a reflection of our idolatry and our lawlessness,
and God is leaving us to our choices.
"One of the difficulties we have as Episcopalians in our
debates about homosexuality is in self-righteousness to rise above
each other," he further stated. "There are not categories of sin,
where one is better than another. We have a tendency to see
moral choices as free moral choices and some folks as worse than
others. We've lost the Christian understanding of who we are
and what we are as God's people," Salmon said, explaining that
any dialogue about sexuality needs to be done in this context.
He also said that the means and the end of Christian theology
must overlap and be congruent, although "we have lived as if
the means and the end are not related….Scripture doesn't believe
we can have private, personal acts that don't affect the health of the
community," he said. "Our culture is dramatically affecting who we
are as Christian people and we have not gotten our act together."
He explained that love of God is more important than any
human love and that scripture sees human sexuality as of
secondary importance. "My interest is that we find a way to
affirm life without colluding with it," said Salmon. "Question what
is fundamental and what needs to change," he admonished, "and
do those things with great trepidation, and trust that the Holy
Spirit will help us do it."
Salmon urged the audience to "be about the fundamental work
of the Gospel," instead of being about "the fundamental matter
of trying to kill each other over issues."
Challenge to stereotypes
Long-held stereotypes sometimes unraveled in the small
-group sessions, where people spoke freely and with mutual
respect. More than 56 facilitators had been trained to convene
the 28 groups and kept notes on each of the discussions.
These will be published with the task force's final report on
the forum and made available to interested persons.
"It's a justice issue, not a holy issue," said a gay man from
Houston who does not support ordaining practicing
homosexuals or blessing same sex unions. He felt the church
should also look closely at the entire issue of marriage. A man
in his 70s told his small group that his experience as a
physician led him to believe homosexuality was not a choice
and, he said, "No one should be excluded from fully
participating in the life of the church."
"My picture of Christ has open arms," stated another gay
man. "I've been able to witness to my friends that my church
has not forsaken us like the fundamentalist churches have.
"Yet another person asked, "Is the church a reflection of God's
word or the culture it finds itself in?"
If some minds were changed by the day's conversations,
others remained steadfast. Several speakers reiterated their
traditional positions to the reconvened audience following the small
-group time. Andrew Jackson, a member of St. Paul's in Katy,
Texas, spoke to the authority of scripture. "Do we believe what
the Book says or not?" he asked. "I'd rather go with what God
designed than what man thought he did."
"The issue before us in not sexuality, it is what is our c
hurch's doctrine with regard to marriage," another stated. "This
needs to be addressed before we move to devising trial rites
for gay unions."
"I can't imagine anyone choosing to be gay and be faced
with the hostility society dishes out," said John Touche. He
said he felt that "people who condemn gay people usually don't
know very many."
After a number of three-minute presentations, the moderator
asked the audience, "Where do we go from here?" Responses
included "hit our knees in prayer," and "don't isolate anyone,"
but most seemed to agree that continuing the dialogue was
essential in the life of the church. One speaker urged
participants to "speak to people who disagree with you" while
calling for the conversation to continue in congregations.
These suggestions were further supported by facilitators
who met after the forum. "I was amazed at how quickly people
opened up and were willing to be vulnerable," said
a woman from Austin. Most agreed that the format had worked well
and provided a safe place for people to come together and talk,
a place where their stories were honored. There was a clear
consensus for continuing the dialogue.
The Rev. Larry Hall, a member of the task force who designed
the day, felt the forum was productive. "There was a lot of listening
and hearing with a degree of care and compassion," he observed,
adding that he believes the difficulty lies in "where we go from here."
"As long as people find value added to their lives and are touched
by the Holy Spirit, you cannot keep them out of the church,"
concluded Bishop Payne. "We have the power of the Holy Spirit
which is with us even through the anxious and ambiguous times.
It gives us confidence and hope for the future."
--Carol E. Barnwell is communications coordinator for the
Diocese of Texas and editor of The Texas Episcopalian,
the diocesan newspaper.
For more information contact:
Episcopal News Service
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