The nation’s mainline Protestant denominations have quarreled for years over the role of gays and lesbians in church life, but those debates promise to grow even more intense this summer.
The conflicts, which come as several states wage legal fights over gay marriage, could well influence whether some of the religious denominations remain intact or splinter into smaller factions.
California’s Supreme Court is expected to rule today on the constitutionality of the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. For the faithful in a number of American churches, the legal battle over civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples runs parallel to religious struggles that are strikingly similar and often just as heated.
One of the most visible denominational skirmishes will occur in July, when leaders of the 2.2 million-member Episcopal Church consider proposals at their national convention to sanction a religious rite for blessing same-sex unions and ease restrictions on the ordination of gay and lesbian bishops.
If approved, the steps could further alienate theological conservatives, giving them reason to join four Episcopal dioceses and hundreds of parishes that split away in 2008 to form a separate church.
The country’s largest Lutheran denomination, meanwhile, is scheduled in August to consider a statement on human sexuality that among various elements says that Christian tradition recognizes marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman.
Even as they acknowledge deep divisions over homosexuality, members of the 4.7 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will decide at their meeting whether they should allow local congregations to recognize same-sex unions and allow “practicing homosexuals” in committed relationships to serve in ministry.
Other Protestant groups are embroiled in similar struggles, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Methodist Church. Another, the American Baptist Churches USA, is scheduled to hold its biennial convention in June but is not expected to consider any action related to gay marriage, a spokeswoman said.
But scholars are watching Episcopalians and Evangelical Lutherans closely, seeing them as a gauge for other denominations. The scholars are waiting to see if the intensified debate and turmoil leading up to the national conventions produce any consensus on issues that have long divided U.S. Protestants.
“What has been emerging for the last several years is becoming even clearer now: We’re on a trajectory toward the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people,” said the Rev. Jay Johnson, a professor of theology at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif., and director of academic research at its Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry. Johnson added: “It may mean, when there are breakthroughs in these churches, we see more breakaways.”
Dissent and diversity
U.S. Christians remain stubbornly split over homosexuality. One recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 56 percent of mainline Protestants believe it should be accepted by society. Just 26 percent of evangelical Protestants felt that way.
Few denominations have been as torn by the issue as the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion, a 77 million-member fellowship. Theological conservatives are a minority in the Episcopal Church but a large majority among Anglicans worldwide.
The conflict between church liberals and conservatives escalated in 2003 with the consecration of an openly gay priest, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire. Episcopal leaders agreed at their last General Convention in 2006 to urge local church authorities not to consecrate any bishop “whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church.”
Still, 700 conservative parishes in the United States and Canada defected in 2008 and formed a new church affiliated with overseas Anglicans. Conservative Episcopalians say liberal policies not only will alienate U.S. parishes but add further strain to the church’s already troubled relationship with church leaders in Africa and elsewhere.
But the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, said she believes the U.S. church and its global partners can coexist even if they disagree on the rights of gays and lesbians in the church. “We’re not afraid of people watching over our shoulders,” Jefferts Schori said. “We live with diversity on issues that get people charged up.”
Room for debate
Evangelical Lutherans are weathering an equally emotional debate as they prepare for their Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis, a gathering that many predict will expose deep divisions over homosexuality and biblical authority.
Denomination leaders will vote on a lengthy statement that has been eight years in the making and identifies marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Such statements are intended to guide church members in setting policy and forming judgments about social issues, officials have said.
Lutheran leaders also will consider a policy that asks whether the church “should commit itself” to find ways to allow local congregations, if they choose, to recognize “life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships.” Another policy asks whether the church should find a way to allow gay people to serve in ordained positions. Current Lutheran policy bars “practicing homosexuals” from ministry.