Conservative Episcopalians continue to threaten a split over this week's confirmation of Gene Robinson as the church's first open gay bishop. At the Episcopal Church's convention in Minneapolis, some of those opposed to Reverend Robinson walked off the floor in protest of his election. The debate over his confirmation is the most recent manifestation of divisions among religious movements over gay issues that date back to the 1960s. As more and more people of faith come out as gay or lesbian, religious groups are having to clearly articulate their stands on gay clergy.
Most religious faiths and movements in the United States ban clergy who engage in same-sex sexual behavior. For some groups, including Orthodox Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and the Southern Baptist Convention, the prohibition is long-standing and has traditionally gone unchallenged. Bill Merrell, a Southern Baptist spokesperson, sees a similarity among churches that struggle with the issue.
"Those denominations that have departed from under the umbrella of scriptural authority are the denominations where this struggle is taking place over homosexual behavior," he explained.
Southern Baptist teaching says that homosexuality itself is, quote, "a sickness that needs to be healed and a sin that needs to be forgiven." Similar views are held by other evangelical Protestants such as the Assemblies of God.
But some mainline Protestant denominations distinguish between sexual orientation and sexual behavior, and bar only sexually-active gay clergy. Both United Methodists and the Presbyterian Church USA allow pastors to consider themselves gay, but unlike straight ministers require gay clergy to remain celibate. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or ELCA has a similar policy, but spokesperson John Brooks says that stance has been under official review since the church's 2001 convention.
"The assembly voting members asked for a church-wide study on homosexuality," he said. "Specifically, they asked that that study address ordination of gay and lesbian people who are in committed relationships."
The final ELCA sexuality study is due in 2005. A similar study is also forthcoming from within Conservative Judaism. While that movement continues to struggle with the issue, Reform Jews have come to resolution. They're decisively on the side of full inclusion.
"Our movement has always seen itself as welcoming the stranger," said Rabbi Elliott Kleinman is a spokesperson for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. "Our movement sees itself as being as inclusive as possible and we have as an organization and as a movement worked to create those tools for congregations to help them be inclusive, to help them welcome people."
Gay clergy are also allowed by Unitarian Universalists as well as the United Church of Christ. UCC spokesperson Ron Buford says his liberal protestant church has long been at the forefront of inclusion even before it officially welcomed gays and lesbians into congregations in 1985 and into ordained ministry in 1991.
"There's always a risk when you're early and prophetic," he said. "If you look at the history of this church for example on one of its issues related to slavery in 1700 or ordination of women in 1853. All of these issues were very divisive and there were people who left as a result of them. But early truth telling has its costs and there will be some people who reject its message."
The one religious group in which gay clergy has never been an issue is the Metropolitan Community Church. It was founded in 1968 by gays and lesbians who felt unwelcome in the churches in which they were raised. And that denomination has no rules against straight clergy.