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Episcopal Bishops’ Panel Completes Study on Gay Issues : Policy: Findings acknowledge current ban on ordaining non-celibate homosexuals. House of Bishops will consider matter this month.

TIMES RELIGION WRITER

Should the Episcopal Church bless committed and monogamous same-sex unions? Should the church ordain non-celibate gay men and lesbians to the priesthood?

After three years of intensive behind-the-scenes study, a committee of the nation’s Episcopal bishops has completed a proposed pastoral teaching on human sexuality that is likely to leave neither liberals nor conservatives satisfied.

The issue--one that has confronted the American Baptist Churches, United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, among others--is expected to come to a head Aug. 24 when the church’s House of Bishops convenes in Indianapolis for the denomination’s triennial General Convention--the highest policy-making body of the church. The bishops are scheduled to vote on whether to make the draft a pastoral teaching, which would guide the denomination’s 2.5 million members.

On one hand, the draft acknowledges the current ban on ordaining non-celibate gays and lesbians, and upholds heterosexual marriage as the church’s historic standard. As in the Roman Catholic Church, homosexual orientation in itself has not been a bar to ordination.

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At the same time, however, the draft proposes eight guidelines for continuing the sometimes wrenching dialogue that could someday lead to a change in the Episcopal Church’s position on homosexuality.

“There is no common mind in this church, theologically or practically speaking, on homosexuality,” said a member of the drafting committee, the Rt. Rev. Richard L. Shimpfky, bishop of the Diocese of El Camino Real, which includes San Jose and Monterey.

To liberals, especially gay and lesbian advocates, the guidelines fail to go far enough in honoring committed same-sex relationships and affirming the gifts that non-celibate gays and lesbians can bring to the priesthood.

To conservatives, the draft softens the church’s traditional teaching that sexual morality means absolute faithfulness in marriage and sexual abstinence apart from marriage.

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Last week, for example, 18 bishops from Province VII of the church--which includes Arkansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and parts of Missouri and Louisiana--warned that the guidelines “would signal a substantive change” in the church’s teaching.

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The charge is denied by the Rt. Rev. Richard F. Grein, Bishop of New York City and chairman of the drafting committee. “This pastoral teaching is not intended to offer a particular solution or some new unusual perspective on the issues, nor have we changed the present teaching of this church on any of these issues,” Grein wrote.

In the meantime, anticipating what could be a contentious debate, the bishops stress that as vexing as sexual issues can be, they do not touch on the doctrinal core of Christian faith and belief and should not be allowed to disrupt the unity of the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

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The guidelines reflect the bishops’ dilemma.

The first guideline acknowledges a 1979 policy that says the church will only ordain those who, among other qualifications, can be a “wholesome example to all people.” In essence the earlier policy allows the ordination as deacons, priests and bishops of celibate gays and lesbians who are otherwise qualified.

The question then arises over whether a non-celibate gay or lesbian can be a wholesome example. To some bishops the answer is yes. To others the answer is clearly no. It is up to the local bishop and his or her local Commission on Ministry to decide.

Thus, a liberal bishop like the Rt. Rev. Shelby Spong of Newark, N.J. has ordained non-celibate gays and lesbians, while other bishops steadfastly refuse.

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“Who defines ‘wholesome'--that’s what we’re dealing with,” Shimpfky said. “Historically it has always been the bishop and people of the diocese that have made that determination. But now . . . there are a lot of people who are saying they don’t like that. They want what’s wholesome in Iowa to be what’s applicable in New York City. That becomes a flash point.”

The only major denomination with a clear policy permitting the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians is the United Church of Christ.

The second issue involves whether to bless same-gender unions. The term marriage is never used.

In its proposed guidelines, the bishops committee appears to hedge the issue.

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First it says it recognizes that the New Testament standard is a lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual union.

But four paragraphs later, the draft substitutes the words “mature adults” for man and woman.

“We believe sexual relationships reach their fullest potential for good and minimize their capacity for ill when in the context of chaste, faithful, and committed lifelong unions between mature adults. There are those who believe this is as true for homosexual as for heterosexual relationships and that such relationships need and should receive the pastoral care of the church,” the draft declares.

The Rt. Rev. Chester Talton, Suffragan (assistant) bishop of the Los Angeles Episcopal Diocese, said the draft teaching is trying to face reality.

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“The pastoral attempts to lift up before the whole church that different things are happening in different parts of the church,” Talton said. “I don’t think the pastoral attempts to say that the teaching of the church is changed. It’s just to acknowledge that the way we are living together as the church is evolving and changing and expressing itself in different ways and different places.”

Episcopal priests in the Los Angeles diocese are divided. The Rev. George Regas, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, caused a furor among some priests when he began blessing same-sex unions in 1992. That same year, Rabbi Allen I. Freehling of University Synagogue in Los Angeles, a Reform congregation, performed what he called a same-sex marriage of two men.

Will the guidelines make any difference to bishops and local parishioners? Jim Solheim, a church spokesman at national headquarters in New York, thinks it may to those in the middle.

“For those on the far right who in sweeping gestures dismiss the whole process it obviously is not going to make any difference at all,” Solheim said. “For the liberal bishops who have already made up their minds it’s going to mean absolutely nothing. But when you lop off the right and lop off the left, you have a central core of bishops who take the process seriously and would like the church to wrestle with this until they come to some kind of agreement.”

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Findings Include Guide on Sexuality

Here are some of the guidelines the Episcopal bishops committee on sexuality is recommending:

* “While our sexuality is a very important part of who we are. . . .

* “The standard found in the New Testament of lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual union as the setting intended by God for sexual relationships . . . is the foundation on which the church’s traditional teaching is built.

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* “We continue in study and dialogue, seeking to reconcile, to the extent possible, discontinuities which may exist in . . . human sexuality between Scripture, tradition and informed reason on the one hand, and our human experience on the other.

* “It is necessary for the church to articulate appropriate moral and ethical guidelines for homosexual as well as heterosexual Christians.

* “Sexual relationships reach their fullest potential for good . . . in the context of chaste, faithful and committed lifelong unions between mature adults. There are those who believe this is as true for homosexual as for heterosexual relationships. . . .

* “We view as . . . morally unacceptable sexual behavior which is adulterous, promiscuous, abusive or exploitative in nature, or which involves children or others incapable of informed, mutual consent and understanding. . . . “

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