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This is the first part of a three-part series: Testing Faith: Homosexuality Divides Churches.

Copyright 2000 Des Moines Register


May 7, 2000 Sunday
SECTION: MAIN NEWS; Pg. 1A
HEADLINE: Congregations in painful split on gay issue
By STEPHEN BUTTRY
REGISTER STAFF WRITER
One side sees holy unions. The other side sees sin.
In church after church, the two sides fight over the most divisive issue in
Christianity today: homosexuality.
In many ways, the religious battle overlaps with the political debate that
resulted in last month's approval of same-sex unions in Vermont, last weekend's
march in Washington, and this year's battle in the Iowa Capitol over protection
of state employees.
In the church debate, though, each side says it is continuing the work of
Jesus: standing up for society's outcasts or standing strong against sin.
The two sides expect one of their fiercest struggles this week in Cleveland
at the worldwide General Conference of the United Methodist Church. Before
delegates arrived in Cleveland, they received more than 100 proposed resolutions
dealing with homosexuality.
Leaders on both sides worry about a schism in the second-largest Protestant
denomination in Iowa and the United States.
"It could lead to a split. I hope not," said David Stanley of Muscatine, a
lay leader of efforts to defend the United Methodist Church's traditional stand
against homosexuality.
In a sense, this week's battle has been building since 1972, when United
Methodist delegates adopted a statement saying the practice of homosexuality was
"incompatible with Christian teaching."
More recently, the debate has focused on same-sex unions. With four
controversial United Methodist union ceremonies, the Vermont debate, and last
weekend's mass commitment ceremony in Washington, the issue has received intense
public attention.
For most gay couples, especially those with church ties, vows are exchanged
privately, if at all.

When Christine Wagner and Susan Hecht, childhood friends from Burlington,
pledged their love in 1989, they invited only a few lesbian friends. "It was so
clearly a good thing to me and a holy thing," Christine Wagner-Hecht recalled.
She kept the relationship a secret, though, because she was studying for the
United Methodist ministry. The church forbids "self-avowed practicing
homosexuals" to serve in the clergy.
Wagner-Hecht said secrecy is fine with the church, which does not have enough
ministers. "The church is taking their gifts as long as they're quiet, using
their gifts, and killing them at the same time," she said.
She was ordained a deacon, the first level of ministry, in 1988 and served in
the early 1990s as associate pastor in Mount Pleasant. In 1994, Wagner-Hecht
gave up her ministerial orders rather than continue to live a double life.
Same-sex unions and ordination are the most contentious issues as religious
groups decide how to address homosexuality. Other debates focus on statements
identifying same-sex relations as sinful, statements welcoming people to
churches regardless of sexual orientation, and ministries that offer "healing
and transformation" for gays.
Hardly a corner of Christendom has escaped the battle, and other faiths are
wrestling with the issue as well.
The Episcopal Church and Presbyterian Church (USA) expect major fights at
national meetings this summer. Controversies over homosexuality also have flared
in the past year in the Catholic Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,
American Baptist Churches, Reform Judaism, Mormon Church and Reformed Church in
America. Together, those denominations have more than a million members in Iowa.
Even evangelical Christians, whose leaders speak strongly against
homosexuality, are not as united as they might seem. Two of the nation's most
prominent Southern Baptists, President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, are
vilified regularly by fellow evangelicals for their support of gay rights.
The issue is so divisive that people on both sides in several mainline
Protestant denominations talk openly of the possibility that their churches
might split, as several did in the 1800s over slavery.
Iowa United Methodist Bishop Charles Wesley Jordan, a veteran of dozens of
controversies and church conferences in 42 years of ministry, cannot remember a
feared worst-case scenario ever happening. "I don't believe the church is going
to split," Jordan said. "That which holds us together is stronger than that
which is dividing us."

Unavoidable losses
Even if churches avoid a major rift, some division is unavoidable, said
Bishop Philip Hougen of the Southeastern Iowa Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran
Church. "We're already losing people because we don't allow ordination of gays,"
he said. Others would leave, though, if the church allowed ordination or
same-sex unions.
Each side says the real fight is not about homosexuality. To gay-rights
activists, the battle is about justice and human dignity. To defenders of
tradition, the battle is about morality and authority of Scripture.
Neither camp sees much common ground, though many Christians in the middle
are reluctant to take sides and simply wish the fighting would stop.
"It irritates me no end," said Janet Stephenson of Ames, one of 22 Iowa
United Methodist delegates in Cleveland. She would rather focus on such matters
as missions and Christian education. "We're letting these two extremes set our
agenda."
The Rev. Sam Massey of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Des Moines said his
congregation, rather than taking sides, is "trying to figure out how not to be
embroiled in the polarization of our denomination."
Each faction says the other mischaracterizes it.
Supporters of gay rights in the church say they are not defying or ignoring
Scripture but reaching new understanding of its meaning.
"I'm rereading the Bible with new eyes and discovering in it depths that I
hadn't seen before," said the Rev. Willa Goodfellow of Coralville, a lesbian who
is an Episcopal priest and rector of St. Luke's Church in Fort Madison.
Most defenders of the traditional church position say they do not hate gays
but pray that they will repent and reform.
"If you do love a person who's involved in homosexual behavior, you must
offer the transforming power of Jesus Christ," said Stanley, the Muscatine
church leader.
Lee Warner, a member of First United Methodist Church in Marshalltown, said
he was transformed "through the grace of God" with the help of Freedom
Ministries in Des Moines, headed by Jack Morlan.
Peace with father

Warner said he was not close to his father as a boy and "was looking for any
man or any male who would love me." Three gay affairs ruined his marriage, he
said, but group therapy in Freedom Ministries helped him see that he could
change if he "made peace with Dad."
They did, Warner said, and he is now remarried and speaks to religious
gatherings about his transformation.
The Rev. John Palmer of First Assembly of God in Des Moines said even if
sexual orientation is natural, as gay-rights activists argue, same-sex relations
can be sinful.
"I believe that every individual is born in the world with a tendency to
sin," Palmer said. "Some tendencies are stronger in some people than others," he
added, citing other sexual sins and alcohol as examples of temptations that some
people feel more strongly.
Fingers point both ways in assigning blame for the sharp tone of the
rhetoric. Gay-rights activists say religious condemnation of homosexuality
contributes to physical violence against gays. Defenders of traditional church
stands say critics are intolerant of conservative religious beliefs.
"If you say it's a sin, you're a hatemonger, a bigot," said Bill Horn of
Altoona, a leading campaigner against the "gay agenda" nationally and locally.
"You're committing spiritual violence. That's ridiculous."
Horn and Mel White, a nationally prominent gay minister who spoke in Des
Moines last year, tell of matching acts of hatred. Horn said he has had blood,
urine and semen thrown on him. White said he has 100 death threats written on
pastoral stationery.
Palmer said he wants to help heal the rift. "I have a deep concern for people
who are hurting," he said. "A lot of them are hurting because of the way they've
been treated, and treated by people like me."
He believes he can bridge the gap without compromising his view on sin. Last
year, his church hosted minister Reggie White, one of the nation's most
outspoken critics of homosexuality. Yet Palmer also went to Plymouth
Congregational Church to hear Mel White and has met privately with community and
religious leaders who support gay rights.
Palmer said his desire to bridge the gap is motivated by the Bible.
"In Christianity, there's a lot of effort among churches to out-truth one
another," Palmer said. "Evangelical Christians particularly are good at it. What
would happen if we wanted to out-grace each other?"

Gays interviewed for this series of articles said they have felt much more
hostility than grace coming from most churches.
"I consider myself a Lutheran in exile," said John Schmacker, president of
the Gay and Lesbian Resource Center in Des Moines. He grew up Lutheran and was a
church organist before announcing in the 1970s that he is gay.
"I was not welcome to continue as a musician there," Schmacker said.
He knew he was no longer part of the congregation, he said, when the pastor
announced he had achieved his goal of visiting every parishioner. He had not
visited Schmacker. "I shook the dust of the place from my feet," he said.
A few denominations have taken steps toward what is called "full inclusion"
of gays.
The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, which has a
congregation in Des Moines, was founded specifically to minister to sexual
minorities. The Unitarian Universalist Association welcomes gays to the ministry
and performs same-sex unions. The Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ,
American Baptist Churches and Reform Judaism vary by region, congregation or
individual clergy in their approaches.
Pastors' decisions
Officially, the Episcopal Church does not allow gay marriages. But Episcopal
clergy in Iowa are allowed to preside at covenant ceremonies uniting gay
couples. "How pastors choose to pray with the people of their parish in
particular situations is up to them," said Bishop Christopher Epting.
Goodfellow, one of four openly gay Episcopal clergy in Iowa, wrote a liturgy
for a ceremony uniting two women. She said Epting requested only minor changes.
Instead of pronouncing God's blessing on the couple, as she would in a wedding,
Goodfellow asked the congregation to pray for God's blessing.
She and her partner, Helen Keefe, celebrated their own union on Aug. 10,
1996, at New Song Episcopal Church in Coralville.
"For us, this is married," Goodfellow said.
Gay unions are rare but handled routinely at Plymouth Congregational Church
in Des Moines, which voted in 1993 to become an "open and affirming"
congregation. "We treat them exactly the same way we treat marriage requests,"
said the Rev. David Ruhe.

In the United Methodist Church, a gay marriage is cause for a church trial,
even if it isn't called a marriage. The church has held three such trials in the
past three years, resulting in an acquittal, a suspension and revocation of a
minister's credentials. Disciplinary proceedings were dropped in a fourth case,
resulting in an outcry from supporters of the church's ban on same-sex unions.
The Rev. David Holmes of Council Bluffs, a gay United Methodist minister who
is now retired, participated in two of the ceremonies. He preached the homily at
a 1997 ceremony in Omaha, and he joined more than 70 other clergy in praying at
a lesbian union last year in Sacramento, Calif.
No ceremony
Though he defied church authorities by joining those services, Holmes and his
partner, Jim Wilson, have not had such a ceremony themselves. They might, Holmes
said, "if the church that I gave my whole life to would give me the same
consideration they give everyone else."
The Wagner-Hechts went outside their church, inviting a United Church of
Christ minister and a few friends to a wedding at their home in 1989, when they
lived in Boston.
"With all that I am and all that I have, I honor you," Christine repeated
from memory, smiling and exchanging glances with Susan as they told the story
recently on the porch of their Cedar Rapids home.
They describe their wedding -and that's what they call it -as very
traditional, with flowers, rings, candles and a last-minute near-disaster when
Christine accidentally ripped her dress.
"We're married in the eyes of God," Christine said.
The Wagner-Hechts worship now in the Episcopal Church, but Susan still plays
songs from the Methodist hymnal on the piano at home. One song in particular,
"One Bread, One Body," chokes Christine up every time she hears it.
"We are one body in this one Lord," she said, quoting the lyrics. "That's
what we're supposed to be as the church. I'm not." She paused to swallow and
fight back tears. "I'm not in there. Not for the United Methodist Church, I'm
not."
SIDEBAR HEADLINE: Identity issue adds to a couple's pain
By Stephen Buttry
Register Staff Writer
Like heterosexual brides and grooms, some gay couples who pledge their unity

before God find later that their unions come apart under the stress of life.
Those struggling with sexual identity face added stress.
A lesbian couple whose 1997 union started a firestorm in the United Methodist
Church split last May 14 after one of the women underwent a sex change
operation.
"The love has not changed at all," the transsexual explained. "It's very
painful that we're not together."
Though their covenant ceremony (they never called it a wedding) attracted
worldwide attention after the fact, the couple were never identified publicly.
Jimmy Creech, the controversial minister who performed the ceremony in Omaha,
refers to them by the pseudonyms Mary and Martha.
The Rev. David Holmes of Council Bluffs, who preached the homily at the
ceremony, arranged for an interview with Martha, who now wants to be known by
the pseudonym Martin and lives in Wisconsin.
Therapy, surgery
The sexual confusion Martha faced in 25 years as a woman married to a man did
not end with her lesbian relationship. She eventually decided she was a man
trapped in a woman's body. She underwent therapy, hormone treatment and genital
reconstruction to change from a woman to a man.
That changed the relationship with the lesbian partner. "I became too male
for her, and it was very heartbreaking," Martin said.
"She to this day proclaims her love to me and I for her," Martin said. "That
has not changed."
The two women exchanged vows in 1997 before Creech at First United Methodist
Church in Omaha. Creech was acquitted in a church trial of violating church law
with that ceremony. However, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church
ruled that the church's ban on same-sex unions did carry the weight of church
law.
Last year, Creech lost his minister's credentials after a second trial, for
uniting a gay couple in North Carolina.
The couple repeated their vows publicly before Creech's second trial, but he
always shielded the identities of the women in the first union. They wanted
privacy because Mary feared losing custody of a child.

Fears persist
Martin spoke for this article only on condition that he not be identified;
his current employer is unaware of his past, and he still worries about
endangering Mary's custody. Martha grew up a Catholic girl, suppressing her
sexual desire for women to marry a man who remains "my best friend." They had
three children and stayed together 25 years. Martha was a housewife with a "
'Leave it to Beaver' family."
She never cheated on her husband, Martin said. "I didn't even know what it
would be like to kiss a woman." But she longed to know. After divorcing and
meeting the "love of my life," Martha felt they needed to pledge their love
before God.
"With my upbringing in the Catholic Church, it didn't seem right to be living
with somebody without the benefit of church blessing," Martha said.
They asked Holmes if he could perform such a ceremony. Holmes, who was on
disability leave because of asthma, suggested they join Creech's church. They
did, and Creech agreed to perform the ceremony, assisted by Holmes.
The couple exchanged vows and lit a unity candle. Martin recalled, "We
considered it a holy union."