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New Head of Disciples of Christ Would Permit Gays in Ministry

From Religious News Service

Delegates to the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) overwhelmingly chose the Rev. Richard L. Hamm to head the denomination, overriding misgivings by some delegates about the Nashville, Tenn., minister’s permissive attitude toward ordaining homosexuals.

Delegates gave Hamm 91.7% of the 4,058 votes cast July 17 in St. Louis, achieving the necessary two-thirds majority and avoiding a replay of the 1991 General Assembly, when the single nominee for president was rejected by a slender margin because of similar liberal views on homosexuals in the pulpit.

Hamm, regional executive in Tennessee for the 1-million-member denomination, called on Disciples to exhibit a spirit of peace that could provide the church with a “model of truly creative diversity in which difference is not merely tolerated but appreciated.”

Speaking to delegates the day before the election, Hamm said, “It’s important for members to remain in fellowship despite any disagreements. By remaining in fellowship, we help keep each other honest intellectually and we teach each other.”

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Like most mainline Protestant churches, the Indianapolis-based denomination has been divided in recent years by debate over matters such as the authority of the Scripture and the role of homosexuals in the church.

Disagreement reached a boiling point at the 1991 General Assembly, when delegates clashed over the official nominee for president and general minister, the Rev. Michael Kinnamon. After Kinnamon was narrowly rejected, supporters leveled charges that conservative opponents had manipulated the vote.

“We have tended to turn in on ourselves and to forget that the church was made for the world, that we are called to ministries of witness, reconciliation and justice,” Hamm said in a speech to the assembly July 16.

Hamm called himself “a shalom-maker . . . not just a mediator” but warned that he will avoid trying to bring "(peace) at any cost.”

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Some conservatives at the General Assembly, held at St. Louis’ Cervantes Convention Center, predicted that the election of Hamm will not sit well with some congregations.

The Rev. Ray Brooks of Good Hope, Ga., said his congregation would not accept a general minister and president “who says ordination of homosexuals is something we can live with.”

Hamm has said homosexuals, including those who are “active” and “out of the closet,” should not be barred from the ministry on the basis of their sexual orientation.

Another opponent, John Willis of Derwood, Md., accused Hamm of being “willing to read only Scripture that suits him and his agenda.”

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But others, such as the Rev. Donna Rose-Heim of Odessa, Mo., had praise for Hamm, who will succeed the interim president, the Rev. C. William Nichols, when the assembly ends Tuesday. His term is six years.

Rose-Heim predicted that Hamm’s leadership will give the church an opportunity to “get it together.”

Unlike Kinnamon, who was known primarily as an academic with extensive ties to the ecumenical movement, Hamm has ample experience as a local pastor, and that may have been a determining factor in overcoming at least some of the opposition Kinnamon faced.

Among the greatest challenges facing the denomination, Hamm told delegates, is uncertainty over the church’s mission.

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“We need a clearer sense of our mission and identity,” Hamm said. “In the face of 30 years of rapid social change, we have gotten somewhat confused about what it is God is calling us to be and to do.”

Hamm is a native of Crawfordsville, Ind. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Butler University and a Ph.D. from the Christian Theological Seminary, both Disciples of Christ institutions located in Indianapolis.

He is married with two children.

The Disciples of Christ Church traces its roots back to the 19th Century. The church, known for its intense ecumenical commitment, advocates doctrinal freedom and vests authority in the local congregation.

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