Presbyterians hold emotional debate on sex


Hours of heartfelt testimony yesterday on a Presbyterian document redefining sexual morality turned the church's national convention in Baltimore into a confessional on a mammoth scale.

Equal numbers of supporters and opponents filed to the microphones and they were equally intense and emotional. But the more formal statements received from congregational groups around the country were unanimously opposed.

Typical of the dozens of opponents of the new report among the clergy and lay people given three minutes each to unload feelings during hearings at the Baltimore Convention Center was a man who declared: "Adultery is a sin, promiscuity is a sin, homosexuality is a sin, no matter what the committee says."

And typical of the supporters of the document was a man who said he was proud to be gay. He compared the opponents to the Pharisees who "were into the law, not into Christ's love of the prostitutes."

This speaker, one of many avowed homosexuals who praised the report, said: "I am not a pervert, and I do not abuse children. We have to break down these stereotypes."

Generating this debate is a report recommending that the church accept new definitions of the family, including same-sex unions, and approve sexual relations outside of marriage in some circumstances.

While it condemns sexual misconduct by the clergy, the report proposes such departures from traditional morality as sex for teen-agers based on "mutuality and consent" and masturbation experimentation for women to increase their sexual enjoyment.

All 86 presbyteries -- governing boards of the local churches -- who submitted resolutions on the report were opposed to it in one way or another, said Marj Carpenter, a spokeswoman for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Ms. Carpenter said a statement of support from one presbytery was received after the deadline for the submissions, called overtures. She said the 86 negative appraisals were the largest number ever recorded on one subject in the history of the Presbyterian Church.

Interest in the 200-page report has been so strong that several printings were required. As of yesterday, about 42,000 copies had been sold by the church for the non-profit price of $5.

The Rev. Herbert D. Valentine of Baltimore, elected Wednesday to the top post of moderator of the national church, expressed satisfaction with this outpouring of interest and the discussions of moral values generated. He said nine other Presbyterian reports on human sexuality had been approved by the church since 1970, and he doubted that more than 50 copies of any of them had been sold.

During the hours of testimony yesterday, Chris Glaser said he was "openly gay" but understood "the pain of those disturbed by the radical nature of the report." He compared this pain with that of homosexuals who have experienced discrimination. "I don't hear of Presbyterians' difficulties getting or holding a job because of their opposition to this report," he said.

The Rev. Charles Gyle said that he worked with alcoholics, but that none had ever "asked me to change the drunk-driving laws. The homosexual community is asking me to accept its lifestyle. It wants total acceptance. . . . We have to get back to the owner's manual of life. My Bible tells me not to have sex with anyone outside of marriage."

The Rev. Gordon Stewart, chairman of a 67-person committee charged with synthesizing all the comments and making a recommendation on what to do with the report Monday morning, said, "We have been listening, listening, listening, trying to keep open ears."

As to his efforts to be evenhanded and encourage mutual respect, Mr. Stewart said, "I'm here to try to keep them [those on both sides] in conversation."

Because of some concerns about possible disruptions at the convention, security was beefed up slightly.

"We know individuals are concerned and upset [about the sexuality issue] and precautions have been heightened minimally," said Deborah Davies, a church staff member. "We've received information that some groups intended to make their presence known, but we have not gotten what I would call threats."

Arnold Lovell, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va., is one of many volunteers helping to keep order at the convention, which has attracted about 5,000 Presbyterians, including family members of the 2,600 registrants. He said the church's aim was to open its doors to everyone.

Sign-carrying demonstrators for and against the sexuality report stood side by side at the entrance to the Convention Center meeting hall yesterday.

One of them was the Rev. Howard B. Warren Jr. of Indianapolis, who said, "I'm ordained and I'm gay. Gays and lesbians are full members and citizens in the Presbyterian Church. Hallelujah!"

Near him stood Wayne Albrecht, an Ellicott City lawyer and member of Granite Presbyterian Church in Randallstown. He held up two large black-and-yellow signs proclaiming, "Presbyterian Ph.D.'s re-write Bible. They say -- 'If it feels good, then do it.' Satan is alive and well in the Presbyterian Church."

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