DURHAM, N.C. -- Timothy Feifs, all elbows and knees, is at that tender age when gangly hasn't given way to lanky. His voice has yet to drop. His features are soft and malleable.
To most of the world, he is still a kid.
But to the assembled congregation of St. Philip's Episcopal Church, Timothy Feifs is about to become a man.
One of five 13-year-olds participating in the spring 1991 "Rite 13: A Celebration of the Gift and Challenge of Womanhood and Manhood," Timothy will walk across the front aisle, where he stands with his family, to join friends on the other side. After that short but symbolic journey, he will kneel before the altar for a blessing, the final affirmation of his physical and spiritual transformation.
Later that day, Timothy struggles for words to express his feelings.
"I feel sort of important," he said, his blond head bent and his thin body squirming. "I was sort of moving onward."
The premise of Rite 13, a two-year program developed at St. Philip's, is that children are moving onward -- first to manhood and womanhood, a biological state that is a gift from God, and then to adulthood. The program tackles issues that gnaw at young minds. Who is God? How do I fit in? What happens when I get old? How do I cope with my feelings?
But the most provocative part of the curriculum is a unit on sexuality. The Rite 13 group has heard from a teen mother, a gay church member and a Planned Parenthood counselor -- as well as from advocates of sexual abstinence and traditional morality. Supporters of the program praise its candid discussions encouraging youngsters to speak freely. They also applaud its purpose: making the church relevant to modern realities.
The St. Philip's program is a rarity -- not only in the 2.6-million-member Episcopal Church but also among most mainline Protestant denominations. These denominations have been racked by painful debates between advocates of traditional morality, the belief that sexual expression should be limited to heterosexual marriage, and supporters of a broader sexual ethic that recognizes relationships between gays and unmarried people.
In 1988, a special committee of the Episcopal Church developed a resource curriculum, "Sexuality: The Divine Gift," aimed at creating a spiritual context in which young people and adults could discuss human sexuality. But when critics charged that the material lacked a strong affirmation of traditional morality, the national church chose not to endorse the curriculum.
Afterward, the task of sex education fell to the local level -- where some say it languishes. In Maryland, for example, most Episcopal parishes have yet to adopt thoroughgoing sex education programs.
"Regrettably, issues of human sexuality are not in the forefront of everybody's Christian education program," said the Rev. David Perry, head of the Episcopal Church Office of Education for Missions and Ministry. "That probably reflects the widespread problem of addressing values and sex education."
Four years ago, members of St. Philip's decided to tackle values and sex education head on. They began by re-evaluating confirmation, the rite celebrating the passage from childhood to full participation in the church. Confirmation once signified that children could take Communion, but recent church reforms allow any baptized person to participate in the sacrament.
To replace confirmation, the group at St. Philip's modeled a new rite after the Jewish bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, which celebrates manhood and womanhood at age 13.
"We are saying manhood and womanhood is a gift and you don't have to earn it," said Amanda Smith, a church member who helped design Rite 13. "If you can take gender for granted, you won't feel compelled to prove it in negative ways. Then you can begin on the road to adulthood."
The Rite 13 group started in 1989 with 18 girls and boys. Many of the young people balked at the prospect of joining a church group. Elizabeth Newman, one of the group's three adult leaders, understood that there was limited time to win them over.
"One of the most important things we did was play," said Ms. Newman, describing the arts-and-crafts activities she started with. "Once they were relaxed, we started to talk about things they might have discussed at home or at schools. But we took a different angle."
That angle usually explored the human element. A recovered drug abuser told the group how a few beers at age 14 led to a nightmare of addiction. A teen mother explained what it was like to have a baby. A gay church member talked about the different ways people could express love.
"The group became close enough that they could ask questions they wouldn't raise at school," Ms. Newman said. "They weren't embarrassed by the teen mother or the discussion of homosexuality.
"But when we talked about sexuality, I sometimes got the feeling they were almost offended that we would think they were at that point. As if this was something they would face in the next year or two, and we were assuming too much."
That intuition seemed true, at least, for Timothy Feifs. He seemed embarrassed when asked about the sexuality component of the program.
"It was interesting, but I don't think I could use it until I get married," Timothy said, staring down at his hands. "The church supports any feelings you have -- almost. I guess they want you to have responsible relationships."
Timothy was no more comfortable explaining how the group tackled spirituality. Ms. Newman said she encouraged exploring the divine through art projects, group prayer and meditation. During a retreat in the North Carolina mountains, group members spent time alone in the woods thinking about God and Bible passages that were meaningful to them. When they reassembled for worship, they talked about their feelings.
By allowing the young people to experience God not just in church but everywhere -- and by treating sexuality openly and respectfully -- group leaders hoped to show that sexuality is a divine gift.
They seem to have succeeded.
"After one of the sessions on sexuality, one of the girls came to me and said, 'I never knew sexuality was a beautiful thing. I always thought it was something bad,' " said Ms. Newman. "That's what we were trying to say: It's powerful and beautiful, and you have to have respect for it."
Jonathan Feifs, who celebrated Rite 13 last year, was a little more comfortable than his younger brother, Timothy, discussing sexuality. He said the church group expanded on what was taught at school.
"I guess most churches would not have explained all this because they expect we wouldn't have sex until we got married and then it would be to have children," he said. "This was more helpful because it gave us a wider range of options and explained them to us.
"I don't think they were giving us permission. But they want us to be knowledgeable when the time is right. They helped us to feel proud of our bodies and that only we can decide what to do with them."
Nancy "Sky" Rusciano said the group helped her understand when sex was appropriate.
"They said it could be good when you are old enough to deal with it," she said. "They tried to get it through our heads that it could be right or it could be wrong, but right now it's wrong."
The Rev. C. Thomas Midyette, St. Philip's rector, said the 1,000-member parish supports Rite 13. Ms. Newman said she received parental approval before beginning discussions on sexuality.
"We are holding onto heterosexuality and monogamy as the way to go, but we are not dealing with marriage in this program," said Mr. Midyette, whose congregation is a racially and economically mixed group of professionals, Duke University personnel and working people.
"The program deals with what people are being exposed to. I want to help young people establish their sexual identity so they are not insecure. I think most sexual problems occur because people feel insecure -- they feel sexuality is something they have to prove."
But some church leaders say sexual problems are also caused by the denomination's reluctance to take clear moral stands.
Whether the Episcopal Church is ready yet to take a hard stand will be debated during the General Convention this week in Phoenix, Ariz. Delegates will hear the results of a three-year study on human sexuality that recommends that local bishops ordain whom they deem appropriate -- leaving the issue of gay ordination to each diocese. A counter-initiative seeks to change canon law to make heterosexual marriage the only sexual expression the church recognizes.
This confusion over moral standards is one reason that Lisa Kimball, youth ministry coordinator for the Diocese of California, says stabs at sex education are stymied. Some adults don't know what they believe, or what they believe is different from what they practice. Others think they can protect their children by not keeping them from any kind of sex education.
"Most young people are living in a more experimental and explicit sexual arena than the church admits," said Ms. Kimball. "They are genuinely people of faith, but they have little experience affirming their sexuality in an open way. They see a division between their sexual realities and spirituality."
One option for the church is to speak practically about sex, says the Rev. Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse, a priest and a psychotherapist.
"Most kids today know the physical facts, but they don't understand the relationship of sexuality to the rest of their personhood," said Ms. Barnhouse, who practices in Dallas. "You have to learn what people are really like. That's a good reason not to be sexually active until you are at least 18."
By the time members of the Durham group are 18, they will have completed three two-year cycles of study and ritual. If the program goes as planned, group members will have learned to accept the gift of sexuality, the responsibility of adulthood and the role of the individual in community.
L Members of the group have mixed feelings about the process.
Luke Barber says he would rather play soccer.
Sky Rusciano admits it's better than doing homework.
Timothy Feifs says it ranks right up there with basketball.
"I definitely thought it was great," said Timothy, describing his feeling after Rite 13. "But the hardest part now is people expect you to act more mature."