Institute on Religion and Democracy
February 5, 2001
Activists who want mainline Protestant churches to ordain homosexuals and bless same-sex unions say they will persist in their campaign despite some legislative setbacks for them in those churches
The intensity of their commitment to persist is evident in videotape coverage of a rally of 1,000 pro-homosexual activists in Chicago last August. The tapes were only obtained this Winter, through a third party. These tapes provide fascinating insights into a bold movement that aims to overturn 2000 years of biblical and traditional Christian teachings on sexuality.
Called “WOW 2000,” the jamboree was endorsed by Reconciling Congregations (United Methodist), More Light Presbyterians, Integrity (Episcopal), Reconciling in Christ Program (Lutheran), Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, and the Open and Affirming Program (United Church of Christ).
Funding for “WOW 2000” was provided by, among others, the United Church of Christ Board of Homeland Ministries, the Northern Illinois Conference of The United Methodist Church, Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. (attended by Bill and Hillary Clinton), Dignity (a Roman Catholic “gay” caucus), Voices of Sophia (a Presbyterian feminist group), The Riverside Church in New York City, and the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California.
Speakers included retired Evangelical Lutheran Church in America presiding bishop Herbert Chilstrom, Episcopal Bishop Steven Charleston, General Secretary of the Consultation on Church Union (COCU) Michael Kinammon, United Methodist ecumenist Jeanne Audrey Powers, feminist theologian Carter Heyward, and Presbyterian lesbian “evangelist” Janie Spahr.
Throughout the conference there were far-fetched re-readings of the Scriptures to fit the homosexual agenda. “There was [sic] 40 days between Christ’s resurrection and when the Disciples ‘came out’ into public,” the Rev. Joan Martin told a laughing audience. She is a Presbyterian minister who teaches at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The Holy Spirit ‘came out’ that day,” she continued. “Pentecost is a miracle of ‘coming out.’”
Martin led the opening worship by urging the audience to get on fire and seek power. “The world needs our kind of power…because our power comes from liberation and redemption,” she insisted. “Not only are we the fire, when we ’re under fire, but we have to sit in the fire.”
“To receive the ‘coming out’ of the Holy Spirit is to become on fire,” Martin exhorted. “It’s about power and powerlessness…. We are not powerless, even though often times we feel voiceless.” Thus the affirmation of homosexuality became a kind of sacrament and central act of Christian faith.
Correspondingly, the classic central elements of Christina faith - monotheism, original sin, repentance and trust in Christ - were devalued. Episcopal priest and author Eric Law listed the religions that were present for “WOW 2000.” Besides United Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Episcopalians, he cited “radical fairies,” “goddess and Wiccan friends,” “women church,” Mormons and Southern Baptists.
“Our image of God is the number one way we exclude people,” Law said. “To be inclusive means that different images/experiences of God are held up and affirmed, [although] they may be different, but it is the same God. That’s what makes the flame bright.”
“Inclusivity is the heart of our faith,” agreed Roman Catholic feminist author Mary Hunt. She called the principle that everyone is welcome a “simple, straight-forward Christian teaching” that is as “biblical as you can get” or as “fundamental as a feminist theologian can imagine.”
“The Gospels include no ‘ifs,’ ‘ands’ or ‘buts’ but just a simple heartfelt welcome because you are part of creation,” Hunt continued. “The time has come to say that Christianity cannot have it both ways anymore. Either all are welcome or none are welcome.”
Hunt, who is lesbian, said there are reasons to believe she is not welcome in her own Roman Catholic Church. “But until and unless I affirm my own goodness, my own value, and my own sense of belonging, [then] all of the social change in the world will not be enough.”
“The Divine is welcome,” Hunt concluded. “The Divine, the holy, God, Goddess, whatever term you use to describe this reality is welcome. Though our movement is religious in name, the demands of justice-making can quickly become just one more political struggle.”
Rebellion against Christian sexual teachings easily became a generalized leftist revolutionary posture. Episcopal feminist theologian Carter Heyward added her voice to this struggle by declaring, “I refused to become a patriarchal woman priest…. I refuse to be a lesbian recipient of hetero-sexist privilege.” She also refused to accept ordination in exchange for agreeing not to “change any rules” or “any assumption about what is holy.” Heyward also rejected any acquiescence to the “savaging effects of global capitalism on human and other creatures.”
She wondered how anybody can live “sanely” in the “capitalist USA” when the Book of Acts supposedly commends socialism. “And yet here we are…Annanias and Saphira represent Middle America,” she complained, comparing most Americans to the two New Testament figures whom God struck down for lying about their church giving.
“To be queer is to refuse to accept any injustice,” Heyward concluded. “The denominations, if they are closed to us, should be trembling, because the power of such a [‘queer’] conspiracy will not be overcome.”
Episcopal Bishop Steven Charleston, who is president of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, called himself a “fundamental Bible-believing Christian” who accepts homosexuality. He condemned opponents of homosexuality who are “trapped in the darkness of the tomb” espousing fear and anger. Evangelical Lutheran Bishop Herbert Childstrom, the most senior church official at “WOW 2000,” urged the audience to “claim your full and complete rights as children of God.”
Sometimes even homosexual activists have not been inclusive enough, according to some “WOW 2000” speakers. The Rev. Erin Swenson is a Prebyterian minister, marriage therapist, and the first known mainline Protestant clergy person to “undergo a gender transition [i.e. sex change operation] while in ordained office.” She spoke in defense of “transgendered” people,” whose plight is often neglected even by supposed allies.
“We’re not something interesting to watch on television,” she insisted. “Or something to pique sexual energy late Saturday night at your local drag bar.” Instead, she implored that transgendered people can “teach your children, [be] your bankers, hairdressers and physicians. We want to be your ministers. As that is happening we’re becoming a greater threat than we were before.”
Retired United Methodist ecumenist Jeanne Audrey Powers, who has herself come out of the closet, described her own disapproving denomination as “heartbroken, numb, grieving, fearful” and possessed of a “dirty little secret about the extent of homophobia in our church.”
Presbyterian activist Chris Glaser spoke of church conservatives who resist the “wisdom of the Spirit” by not accepting homosexual behavior. Through their “reactionary denominational tabloids” they allege that pro-homosexuality activists are speaking “blasphemous words against Jesus and God.”
In an allegorical story, Glaser compared such conservatives to Jesus’ religious opponents. When today’s Christian conservatives submit legislation to uphold sexual standards or seek to discipline defiant homosexuals in church court, they are just like the ancient Pharisees, Glaser implied. Since these “non-welcoming straight people” are now rejecting the Gospel, Glaser wondered if the Gospel’s light will now shine on the “lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and the transgendered community” who have more truly sustained the Gospel.
During a “WOW 2000” worship service, a Unitarian Universalist “evangelist” named Laurie announced that she brought “good news from all transgendered, transsexual, drag kings and drag queens, inter-sex people, [and] bearded women.”
Laurie was followed by Presbyterian lesbian evangelist Janie Spahr, who shared an imaginary letter from a denominational headquarters, loosely based on the Book of Acts. In the letter, believers are urged to remain vegetarians, to enjoy the “friendship of sexuality,” to avoid “unhealthy relationships” but enjoy the “intimacy of commitments and covenants…[among] friends and partners,” “to treat the earth with care,” and to “challenge every oppressive system of our times.”
“Do you feel the Spirit?” Spahr asked after reading the imaginary letter. “Is this our Pentecost?”
She urged listeners to “fight militarism, nationalism, capitalism, religious intolerance, patriarchy, racism, and all the things that keep us from seeing one another for all that we are.” Spahr specifically condemned the injustice of U.S. sanctions against Iraq. And she criticized the Gospel writer Luke for shaping “his treatment of women in Acts to conform to the Roman Empire view…[in which] women become objects of ministry rather than agents of ministry.”
Spahr gave the selective religious credo for which she evangelizes: We “believe in a church…where the first shall be last and the last shall be first, where mutuality begins with washing one another’s feet, and sharing our food and resources with the poor, the captives, the disenfranchised and the marginalized.” Spahr concluded by saying: “Go out and do the damn work!”
Michael Kinammon leads the Churches of Christ Uniting (COCU), an effort to enforce institutional unity among most of the mainline Protestant denominations. Although almost all of the participating denominations disapprove of homosexual practice, Kinammon is an advocate for the blessing of homosexuality.
He cited St. Paul as an ally in this effort, ignoring the Apostle’s own explicit condemnation of homosexual acts. “As soon as one party begins to claim that it has defined the boundaries of grace, then, for Paul, God’s gracious ‘yes’ to the world becomes a resounding ‘no’ to our pretensions,” Kinammon said.
“If anyone tells you…that persons are acceptable to God by virtue of their race or their sexual orientation or their generosity or their doctrinal correctness or any other human attribute or activity, then they have missed the point and are preaching a different gospel.” Such attitudes, he said, should not be “dialogued with but opposed.”
“Yes, we need the witness of those who see things differently from ourselves - unless the Gospel of God’s gracious love for all persons is threatened,” Kinammon insisted. This narrow litmus test, which excludes the vast majority of Christians in the U.S. and around the world, seems to contradict COCU’s stated purpose of fostering dialogue and Christian unity.
“What an amazing, renewing event,” Kinammon said of “WOW 2000” “If our churches are to find new vitality and direction, then they need to be WOWed!”
Several speakers complained of the lack of racial diversity in the “WOW 2000” audience. A survey showed that only 7 percent of participants were black, Hispanic, racially mixed or Asian. Nearly a quarter of the audience was from the United Church of Christ, the most liberal mainline denomination. Presbyterians and United Methodists comprised 17 percent and 16 percent respectively. Episcopalians made up only 3 percent and Roman Catholics were 2 percent of the audience.
In a survey, 65 percent of the “WOW 2000” audience said they were homosexual, 8 percent were bisexual, 2 percent were transgendered and 27 percent were heterosexual.
Despite the excitement of the crowd and the impassioned pleas of the speakers, “WOW 2000” failed to offer a persuasive argument as to why Christian churches should abandon 2000 years of scriptural teachings to bless homosexual behavior. And many of its speakers confirmed the worst fears of many church members that blessing homosexuality would lead to even more dramatic denials of scriptural authority and historic Christian doctrines.