Divided flock

The love that dare not speak its name is tearing local church congregations apart

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church head pastor Raymond Hess supports gay marriage, and as a result, 20 families have left the church.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church head pastor Raymond Hess supports gay marriage, and as a result, 20 families have left the church.

Photo By Ted Cox

Last year, Raymond Hess, head pastor of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on the northern edge of Elk Grove, thought that his church should reach out to the surrounding community.

After studying the demographics of their community, church members saw that their congregation didn’t reflect the diversity of the neighborhoods around them. Guided by a new outreach plan, called ReVision!, members formed a committee to draw new worshippers into Sunday services: Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans and young people.

Soon, though, a difficult question emerged: Should the church reach out to gays and lesbians as well? Hess, and a handful of other members, believed they should.

Hess felt that openly gay men and women should be welcomed into the congregation. “I don’t see myself on the far end of either end of the spectrum,” explained Hess. “But I’m certainly not on the way conservative end of the spectrum.”

But not everyone agreed. Hess said that some of the more conservative members of the church didn’t share his viewpoint.

Early last summer, over a period of two or three weeks, about 20 families left St. Mary’s church. Some of them joined a newly formed congregation in the conservative Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin, led by one of St. Mary’s former deacons. The diocese, which serves congregants from just south of Sacramento to just south of Bakersfield, recently voted to split from the national Episcopal Church and align itself with the conservative Diocese of the Southern Cone, headquartered in South America. Other parishioners left because they were tired of the bickering and hoped to find a church where people didn’t argue over homosexuality.

“I’m not sure that you can find that place,” said Hess.

Indeed, what’s happened at St. Mary’s is happening in churches both locally and nationwide. The issue of the acceptance of homosexuality in the church is forcing believers to take sides, sometimes ripping churches in two. In some cases, entire congregations have split from their national denominations.

For the Episcopal Church, the private fight went public in 2003, when Gene Robinson was ordained as the church’s first openly gay bishop. At St. Mary’s, the outreach program and last year’s heated debate over Proposition 8 ripped open those old wounds.

But the questions over homosexuality and religion certainly aren’t limited to the Episcopal Church. Mainstream Protestant ministers from all over Sacramento recently told SN&R that on a national level, church governments will decide on major policy positions in the coming months.

Pastor Carl Hoppman of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church said his national church will soon vote on various aspects of human sexuality, including what kinds of relationships are acceptable for church leaders and other members. But he said he doesn’t see any Lutheran congregations splitting up in the near future.

“We’re being very careful in conversation, in sharing and respect. That’s my take on it,” said Hoppman. “That’s not to say it won’t happen one day. But right now we’re trying to be very careful.”

Dr. Donald Baird, pastor at Fremont Presbyterian Church, said in the past 12 months the Sacramento Presbytery lost four congregations—about 4,000 members—because they felt the denomination was too liberal on the issue.

“They have said, ‘I’m tired of fighting over something that should be a consensus,’” explained Baird.

Speaking out about congregations that have left the area may have gotten one pastor in trouble. Last week, The Sacramento Bee reported that an oversight commission had been sent to Westminster Presbyterian Church, home of the outspoken Rev. Dr. David Thompson.

Thompson, who won last year’s Building Unity award, told SN&R that while the issues that brought the commission to Westminster are complex, he feels that the underlying reason is his vocal opposition to Prop. 8 and to conservative members breaking away from the Presbyterian Church.

But Carolyn Knight, stated clerk of the Sacramento Presbytery, told SN&R that Thompson’s views on Prop. 8 were “never a part of the decision to put the commission there.”

“It’s not a political move, nor is it a punitive measure,” explained Knight.

Instead, Knight said the commission is investigating matters relating to “finance, personnel, worship and ministry of healing and reconciliation,” and declined to elaborate further on the matter, calling it an ecclesiastical matter that should stay within the church.

Parting ways doesn’t necessarily put an end to the differences. Some church splits spill over into the court system. In January, the California Supreme Court ruled that when a congregation splits from its national denomination, they can’t take the pews with them. The case involved St. James Anglican Church in Newport Beach. After St. James split from the Episcopal Church in 2004, St. James sued for the right to keep what they felt was their property. The court disagreed, saying the local churches held the property in trust for their denominations.

National denominations celebrated the decision and hoped it would deter congregations from parting ways in the future. Church members who had decided to change their spiritual affiliation were upset that buildings that they had raised funds for were not theirs to keep.

But the question of homosexuality in churches, according to Baird, is only a manifestation of a deeper issue. The bigger question, he says, is how much authority do believers give the Bible?

For Baird, the Bible is clear on the issue of homosexual acts: They’re expressly and repeatedly forbidden. He believes that to say that homosexuality is OK is to say that the Bible is wrong.

“And the minute you say the Bible is wrong about this particular issue, then it raises the whole question of what else is it wrong about,” said Baird.

Nor is the question of biblical authority a recent problem—it dates back to the very roots of the Protestant Reformation, said Baird.

“For 2,000 years Christians have not ordained self-affirming, practicing, unrepentant homosexuals. For 2,000 years, we didn’t even have this conversation,” said Baird. “Why? Because the Bible’s very clear.”

Hoppman feels that while biblical authority is one piece of the equation, it’s not as simple as pointing at what the Bible actually says.

“That’s always our concern as Christians. What does the Bible say? That’s the underlying issue,” said Hoppman. “But how do we look at the Bible? Is it something that is black and white? Is there any wiggle room? Is there any way we can be together from different perspectives?”

Hess feels what a person believes about the Bible is influenced by their own experiences, prejudices and life experiences.

“The presenting issue is human sexuality, and then underneath that—right underneath—are issues about biblical authority, how does the church decide issues like this and then how do we work with the Bible,” explained Hess. “What we’re talking about are the theological, biblical issues, and many people have this other stuff going on underneath that maybe they don’t even recognize.”

Meanwhile, services continue at St. Mary’s, albeit with fewer people in the pews. Hess realizes that when it comes to homosexuality, the issue is far from resolved, and it affects people both inside and outside of the church.

“This is not some sort of ‘out there’ issue,” said Hess. “It touches everybody at some level.”