National Council of Churches meeting marked by dissent over ties with gays


When the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell concluded the general secretary's annual report to the National Council of Churches yesterday, shouts of "Shame! Shame!" could be heard above the applause.

It was one more reminder during the council's meeting this week in Baltimore that, while the purpose of the 43-year-old ecumenical organization is Christian unity, its efforts are beset by Christian disunity.

The shouts came from a row of about 15 clergy and lay people standing against the back wall of the ballroom in the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel. They waved a large banner and hand-lettered signs with messages such as "Gay, Lesbian And Bisexual by God's Design" and "Do Not Use The Bible As A Weapon -- It Is A Welcome To All God's Created People."

Their anger was directed at the majority of the 275-member board of the National Council who voted in Cleveland last November to deny a request for official observer status from the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC.)

The UFMCC's central tenet is God's acceptance of all people, including practicing homosexuals, and it blesses homosexual unions.

Yesterday's brief demonstration was followed by a succession of soul-searching speeches by National Council leaders, several of whom said human sexuality is the most divisive issue facing the Christian churches. No one moved to reverse the decision to withhold official status -- either as a member church or as an observer -- from the UFMCC.

United Methodist Bishop William B. Grove referred to "the pain of the last general board meeting" and said it "left us sad and broken."

Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, a United Methodist who has been nominated to be the National Council's president in 1996 and 1997, called for "open dialogue" with the UFMCC in a spirit of "hospitality, courtesy and respect" as well as "justice and love."

Pamela Chinnis of the Episcopal Church said consideration of homosexuality must not be "locked in a legislative process where there are no winners."

But David Choi of the Korean Presbyterian Church in America said that giving approval to homosexual "behavior" would be "very dangerous for the NCC and for the nation."

Four member denominations of the NCC -- Swedenborgian, Episcopal, United Methodist and United Church of Christ -- wanted to accept last year's UFMCC request.

In her report, Ms. Campbell referred to a more general example of disunity: what she called "the scandal of denominationalism."

Echoing an earlier call by the Rev. Gordon L. Sommers for NCC outreach to both Roman Catholics and Protestant fundamentalists, Ms. Campbell acknowledged the need but compared the difficulties to childbirth. "The joy does not make the pain less real," she said.

Dr. Sommers was installed last night as the National Council's 17th president.

Obstacles to any National Council partnership with fundamentalists were demonstrated earlier when Orthodox leaders testified that well-funded Protestant evangelists from the United States and Korea were undercutting hard-pressed Orthodoxy in Eastern Europe.

"The Orthodox Church is flat broke wherever you go" in the former Soviet bloc, Alexander Rondos, director of a Baltimore-based Orthodox humanitarian agency, told the Council's executive board. "If the Orthodox Church were rich, we would worry less about these people peddling their dollars and their weary tracts."

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