Presbyterian sexuality panel head welcomed, for a change


As the chairman of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) special committee that authored a controversial report on human sexuality, the Rev. John Carey generally meets stony silence when introduced to fellow church members.

Not so yesterday at Govans Presbyterian Church, where Carey gave the sermon at the two morning services and also spoke to Govans members in the church hall during the break between services.

Stepping to the podium and acknowledging the warm applause of about 1,000 people in the hall, Carey joked that it was "nice to hear people clap when I get introduced."

Carey and his committee have won anything but a friendly

reception with their 200-page document, "Keeping Body and Soul Together: Sexuality, Spirituality and Social Justice." The study has been the object of spirited discussion at the church's 203rd General Assembly, which opened last week in Baltimore and continues through Wednesday.

The report has been criticized by many in the 2.9 million-member church for endorsing sexual freedom for responsible unmarried people, including teens and homosexuals, as well as for married couples.

Critics also say the report ignores biblical teachings on morality. They say it bases its guidelines on contemporary mores rather than on ancient wisdom.

At today's assembly session, about 600 commissioners of the denomination were to decide whether the report should be approved for further study by the church's 171 presbyteries. The report was expected to be soundly voted down.

Carey, an official of the Atlanta presbytery and the chairman of the Bible and religion department at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., explained yesterday that the denomination has produced 17 reports on human sexuality during the past two decades. The church decided in 1987 to craft a definitive report that would build on past reports and yet transcend them.

"So we had a broad mandate," Carey said of his 17-member committee. "That's why we covered so many issues. We looked at sexuality as it relates to women, teens, the handicapped. We looked at AIDS, sexual violence, reproductive technology. We went beyond any previous church report on human sexuality."

The committee "resisted making this a one-issue report" and sought to examine the concerns of more than one social group, he added.

He mentioned single people as a significant group that has been largely ignored by the church.

"One-fourth to one-third of our church members are single, and yet none of our previous statements have said anything to singles about their sexuality. It's as if there's only been one way for God's gift of sexuality to be affirmed, and that's for married people," he said.

The committee tried to "offer ethical sexual guidelines for singles. We wanted to say that a single person is not merely a half-self looking for another half-self in order to become whole," Carey explained.

Of the 17 committee members, 13 signed the Carey-led report. The other four wrote a 70-page document that takes a more traditional, Bible-based view of sexuality.

Joining Carey at Govans were two members of the special committee -- Sylvia Thorson-Smith, a church official in Iowa, and the Rev. Marvin Ellison, a professor of Christian ethics at Bangor (Maine) Theological Seminary.

Thorson-Smith spoke passionately in favor of the "justice-love" concept upon which the report is based.

"We cannot have love without justice," she declared.

Ellison said the report takes a strong stand on modern sexual issues because other, more conservative religious groups have appointed themselves spokesmen on such issues.

"I have a fear that we have become self-preoccupied and gotten away from speaking our word to society. As a result, we have allowed fundamentalist Christians to speak on human sexuality. But with this report, we're breaking our silence. We cannot keep our faith with God and remain silent," Ellison said.

Among those who questioned the speakers yesterday, one man asked if it's proper for the document to offer new interpretations of the Bible.

"Since the Reformation, we've been reinterpreting the Bible, and now we're doing it on the issue of human sexuality," Ellison declared. "We say it's not necessary to quote specific chapter and verse on moral matters, but instead we should see what the Scripture says in general about what it means to be loving and just."

Ellison added, "When in doubt, look at what is essential to the Jesus story -- graciousness, inclusivity, hospitality, justice and love, for everyone."

In his sermon, titled "The Church of Yesterday and the Church of Tomorrow," Carey aimed some subtle barbs at his detractors. He noted that he was recently criticized at a church gathering by a man who said Presbyterians should return to the tradition-bound "church of my childhood."

Carey then described yesterday's Presbyterian church as "exclusive," with members who were almost all white, all married, all belonging to the same social class, "all smugly Protestant."

The church of 20 to 60 years ago had "no concern for blacks, no contact with Roman Catholics and was suspicious of Jews," Carey added.

But the world and the church have changed drastically, he said, citing the burgeoning numbers of blacks, Asians, and Hispanics in the United States and among the Presbyterian ranks.

"We cannot go back to that church of yesterday," but rather must accept and reflect the growing ethnic and cultural diversity of the nation, he said.

To create the "church of tomorrow," Carey stated, Presbyterians must develop "a positive sense of human sexuality and become more ecumenical, more flexible, more egalitarian, more compassionate than the church of yesterday."

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