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N.J. bishop's talk on sex lures multitude to church


The clamorous debate that has rumbled through Protestant churches and rattled Roman Catholic cathedrals echoed locally last week when a Ellicott City parish grappled with issues of human sexuality.

Scores of listeners came to the old stone St. John's Episcopal Church for four evenings on "An Exploration of Human Sexuality and the Church's Teaching." The series featured the Rev. David Scott, professor of theology and ethics at Virginia Theological Seminary, and Bishop John Spong of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, N.J.

"The modern world is eager to give us sex without guilt. The church is equally eager to give us guilt without sex," Bishop Spong told the packed pews Thursday. "I am trying to find another solution."

Bishop Spong has been articulating that solution in books, interviews, sermons and speeches for several years. The 59-year-old bishop, bete noire of conservatives in the 2.3 million-member denomination, has almost single-handedly forced his co-religionists to grapple with the issues of homosexuality and committed heterosexual unions outside traditional marriage.

These issues, especially regarding the ordination of homosexuals and blessing their unions, have roiled the waters of most mainline denominations in recent years. The gay and lesbian caucuses lobbying for equality among Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists and Episcopalians have been matched by equally fervid conservatives who believe homosexuality is a sin.

In many denominations, the result is a standoff. Dozens of task forces and study groups have been commissioned to study human sexuality in light of Scripture and modernscholarship. This summer, Episcopalians and Presbyterians will engage the debate again as both groups consider proposals to ordain gays and lesbians.

Bishop Spong, whose new book, "Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism," interprets Scripture by seeking the message behind the text, has been a vigorous advocate for the rights of blacks, women and gays.

He has also proposed rethinking the church's sexual ethics to include blessing "non-traditional" unions between committed young couples who are not ready for legal marriage and older couples who are afraid marriage will jeopardize their Social Security status.

Discussing his views at St. John's, Bishop Spong said the sexual ethic championed by the church developed during the Middle Ages. Back then, teen-agers reached puberty later, married earlier and did not have birth-control devices. Moreover, women had limited educational and career opportunities and were not considered equal to men.

Treating women as property and prohibiting premarital sex may have made sense in that world but not today, said the bishop. Instead, today's relationships ought to be based on a peer model, which aims to "enhance the humanity" of oneself and one's partner.

Illustrating the diversity of "affirming, life-giving" relationships, Bishop Spong defended gay and lesbian unions. He cited new scientific research on homosexuality suggesting it is "a perfectly normal part of the human sexual spectrum" that has become distorted by heterosexual fear and discrimination.

"Should gays and lesbians be ordained by the church?" he asked. "That question isludicrous. They have been ordained for 2,000 years.

"The real question is, can gay and lesbian unions be wholesome examples to the flock of Christ? I believe some are and can be."

The bishop, whose wry delivery entertained cynics and supporters, provoked consternation even before he arrived in Maryland.

St. John's asked the diocese to help sponsor the lecture series -- which was originally planned for Bishop Spong alone -- but Bishop A. Theodore Eastman turned them down.

"It would have given a signal that the bishop was trying to ram [Bishop Spong] down people's throats," said Bishop Eastman. "I did encourage them to invite [Bishop Spong], but I also urged them to invite someone who represents a different point of view so people would have a couple of options."

St. John's decided to invite Dr. Scott, who has written extensively about human sexuality and Christianity.

"Dr. Scott represented a traditional view," said the Rev. William Shiflet, the rector of St. John's. "That view is that moral life has its final orientation in God as guided by Scripture."

The presentation at St. John's supplemented the work of a diocesan task force on sexuality that has been charged to study the issues and report back. The task force, which is holding open meetings around the state this spring, attempts to surface issues and clarify questions.

"The Episcopal Church is trying to build a new consensus on a whole raft of sexual issues -- not just homosexuality but marriage, child-raising, family, the new birth technologies," Bishop Eastman said recently. "We need to develop a process by which Episcopalians in Maryland can discuss these issues in a depressurized, non-political way."

But issues of sexuality are difficult to defuse. Bishop Spong said he has received a dozen death threats and is no stranger to pickets and protesters.

His Ellicott City audience reflected the polarization he elicits.

"I heard most of this in the back seat of my Buick on the night of the senior prom," said Sharon Ghassami, a parishioner who wasn't pleased that Bishop Spong has been invited to her church. "What he is espousing is the same thing that society has been espousing after the sexual revolution, and it hasn't worked.

"I don't know why he wants to being it into the church when it hasn't been successful in society."

But Susan and Bill Ewald had the opposite reaction. They were delighted that their church provided a forum for both sides -- although they were particularly impressed by Bishop Spong.

"These are ideas which are a long time coming," said Susan Ewald. "I came from the Catholic tradition, where it was hard for me, as a woman, to continue.

"This man is not threatening. This man is inspiring."

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