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Local churches debate sexuality report

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ever since Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church split into urban and suburban branches 30 years ago, they have celebrated their independence.

This morning is no exception.

At their worship services, the two congregations are taking different approaches to a controversial report on human sexuality that tested the solidarity of the 2.9 million-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) last week at its national convention in Baltimore.

How Brown Memorial-Park Avenue in Bolton Hill and Brown Memorial-Woodbrook across the city line in an upper income XTC Baltimore County suburb are now handling the calls for ordaining practicing homosexuals and redefining family values exemplifies the uneasy diversity that exists within Presbyterian unity.

And it shows once again that serious Christians can interpret the same Scriptures variously.

At Park Avenue, Brown Memorial's original location, the pastor and 12 governing elders studied both the majority and the minority reports submitted at the convention by the denominational committee on human sexuality.

The 13 members of the Park Avenue group then voted unanimously to affirm the 200-page majority report and its controversial conclusion that "ethical integrity" can exist in sexual relations outside traditional marriage.

"I don't think any of us thought this was a perfect report," explained the pastor, the Rev. Roger J. Gench, 39.

"It's too long. It's too cumbersome. If it has a fatal flaw, it's that it is too easy to take out of context. It needs tightening up in a big way. But I am most disturbed by the idea that we can't talk about these things."

While the delegates to the national convention rejected both the majority report and the briefer, more traditional minority statement, recommending instead continued discussions at the congregational level of all the issues raised by the committee, the delegates also adopted a pastoral letter intended to be read today in the denomination's 11,500 churches across the country.

This letter, aimed at mollifying Presbyterians in the pews, reinforces "in no uncertain terms" the authority of the Bible -- both the Old and the New Testaments -- and adds:

"We have strongly reaffirmed the sanctity of the marriage covenant between one man and one woman to be a God-given relationship to be honored by marital fidelity."

At Brown Memorial-Park Avenue, Mr. Gench has decided not to read the letter from the pulpit.

"It sounded hierarchical," he said. "The letter will be available. Our people can read it."

Brown Memorial-Woodbrook's pastor, the Rev. Robert W. Lawrence, 55, said he would read the letter from the pulpit but not comment further.

"We hope to take a look at it [the controversial sexuality study] later," Mr. Lawrence said. "We have no plans to do so at this time."

Maria Carpenter, a member of the session -- the elected governing See BROWN, 6D, Col. 4BROWN, from 1Dboard -- at Woodbrook, said its 15 members did not examine the issues the way the comparable group at Park Avenue did because they did not believe there was adequate time to do so before the recent convention.

Since the convention failed to adopt the recommendations of the sexuality committee, she said, there is now plenty of time to look carefully and without haste into all ramifications of its three-year study.

Mrs. Carpenter also noted that, at Woodbrook at least, there was a sigh of relief over the convention's rejection of the more controversial human-sexuality proposals.

Three members of the session had indicated they would resign from the church if the recommendations were adopted, she said.

The Woodbrook congregation has about 400 members.

Many of them are families with children, although the younger ones are not counted as part of the membership total.

The Park Avenue congregation numbers 268 and takes pride in variety. It draws about 75 percent of its members from outside its neighborhood.

"Diversity -- that's one thing we have," Mr. Gench, pastor of the older, urban church with the fewer communicants, said proudly.

"And the integration of this church is such that we don't have to ask whether people are homosexual or heterosexual."

The pastor, whose wife, Frances Taylor Gench, is also an ordained Presbyterian minister and seminary professor, said he considered "the issue of patriarchy, of male dominance of the church and of culture," to be central to future discussions that he hopes the controversial sexuality study will generate.

"Males are conditioned by a culture of violence and competitiveness, that makes intimacy and real friendships more difficult," Mr. Gench said.

"All of us are affected by these issues. Not just women. Not just gays," he said.

He said the controversial study offered sound advice about how to teach morality to teen-agers. "What I hear in this report is that we need values education," he said. "But we need a safe space for youth to talk in. There are a lot of people who want to say, 'Just say no.' That's fine if we also promote an open environment for discussion. Otherwise, we've lost them."

On the subject of homosexuality, Mr. Gench drew general agreement from every age group represented among the elders of the Park Avenue church that "gay and lesbian relationships can be as loving and as just as any heterosexual relations out there."

Said the minister, "We would be much impoverished without their ministry and their presence in this church."

While the Park Avenue and Woodbrook congregations now will be discussing the human sexuality issues from different perspectives and at a different pace in the year ahead, the two ministers will be conducting their own conversations with each other.

They are old friends -- Mr. Gench was once Mr. Lawrence's assistant at a Virginia Beach church -- and they are Bolton Hill neighbors.

Both are concluding the first year with their present congregations. "He is a kind of mentor for me," the younger man said of the older one.

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