BOB ABERNETHY: Nearly 1,000 United Methodist delegates have gathered in Cleveland for their church's quadrennial general conference. Representatives of the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination meet every four years to address church business and set policy. This year's conference opened with a call for unity, but huge divisions are expected, particularly over the issue of homosexuality. Rallies and civil-disobedience protests are planned as delegates debate church policies, including one that forbids clergy to conduct same-sex unions. Some church leaders say homosexuality is the most divisive issue to confront United Methodists since slavery. There's even been talk of schism. We'll have a report from Cleveland next week.
Religious arguments over homosexual unions are frequently centered on individual verses of Scripture, but contributing correspondent Peter Steinfels of THE NEW YORK TIMES reports on other theological views and arguments on both sides.
Protesters (In Unison)" Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame on you!
PETER STEINFELS: This is the all-too-common face of the debate on homosexuality, and within mainline Protestant churches, the debate over gay clergy and gay unions may be lower in volume, but is no less bitter.
Fierce battles over homosexuality have long divided some of the nation's most prominent Christian groups, but do these conflicts all just boil down to shouting matches over the Bible and emotional efforts to mobilize supporters? In reality, positions on both sides of the battle line are often far more complex than people realize and far more deeply grounded in theological reasoning.
Nancy Duff is a professor of theological ethics. She wants the church to ordain homosexuals and affirm same-sex unions, but her theological starting point, in the tradition of John Calvin, is not the freedom of humans to choose, but the freedom of God.
Professor NANCY DUFF (Princeton Theological Seminary): I would like to see the church recognize that God can and does call some individuals into homosexual orientation and into faithful homosexual relationships. I don't agree with those who would argue it's all a matter of human free will. We can choose; you decide who you want to be. You can be homosexual or heterosexual, and as long as it's activity between consenting adults, that's responsible. It's not the freedom of human beings that I emphasize, but the freedom of God.
STEINFELS: Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, a professor of psychology and philosophy, opposes changing the rules on clergy and marriage. Her starting point is the creation of humanity in God's own image as both male and female.
Professor MARY STEWART VAN LEEUWEN (Eastern College, Pennsylvania): We have to look and see what the creation norms are. If the creation norm is heterosexual monogamy, male-female complementarity, which I believe it is, that is an enduring theme in all acts of the biblical drama.
STEINFELS: Both scholars also start with Scripture, the traditional battleground in disputes about sexuality, but each has an interpreted framework for viewing the Bible as a whole rather than relying on isolated passages.
Prof. VAN LEEUWEN: I don't treat Scripture as a flat book the way fundamentalists would do. The authority that Scripture has, for me, as a reformed Christian, is as -- as a cosmic drama.
STEINFELS: Van Leeuwen reads the Bible as both a feminist and an evangelical. To her, the story line of Scripture leads to equality and mutuality between men and women.
Prof. VAN LEEUWEN: I see Scripture as a cosmic drama, where you have to keep the rules -- there's movement in that drama. There's movement towards a much greater gender mutuality.
Prof. DUFF: Those who hold the position that I do, that I would like the church to affirm the integrity of same-sex unions, have to admit that the individual Scripture passages that mention homosexuality do so negatively.
STEINFELS: But, she says, these individual passages must be seen in a larger context.
Prof. DUFF: Scripture, both in commandments and other references in the New Testament, [says] that we're to be faithful to one another in Christ
not to commit adultery. Husbands and wives are to love one another. There are references to how we are to be responsible toward our children. All of that, I think, can be recognized, affirmed, faithfully lived out in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships.
STEINFELS: Despite these differences, both scholars lament the harshness of the debate and don't hesitate to criticize those on their own side of the struggle.
Prof. VAN LEEUWEN: Let's not spend time throwing stones at those so-called sinners, you know, when, in fact, our own track record as evangelicals is so bad when it comes to the support of marriage, when it comes to trying to -- you're trying to mentor people for marriage, when it comes to trying to reverse the high rate of divorce.