AIDS, gay-related issues trouble many denominations
By JUDY L. THOMAS - The Kansas City Star
The Roman Catholic church, with nearly 60 million U.S. members, may be the nation's largest denomination, but it isn't the only one grappling with the issues of homosexuality and AIDS.
"This has hit just about every denomination and just about every family," said the Rev. Fritz Mutti, bishop of the United Methodist Church in Kansas, who himself has lost two sons to the disease.
But none of the other major denominations sees AIDS among its clergy as a significant problem. And none demands celibacy of its clergy, as does the Catholic Church.
The deaths have forced religious denominations to confront the uncomfortable reality of homosexuality within their ranks.
Homosexuality is one of the deepest issues dividing churches today, threatening to split some denominations as members refuse to budge on their beliefs.
Attitudes toward homosexuals range from calling them to repentance and conversion, a view espoused by the Southern Baptists, to ordaining noncelibate gays, a position of the United Church of Christ.
Most large denominations fall somewhere in between.
"It is described by the Scripture as being sinful, aberrant, a perversion of ordinary sexuality, and it has been given the value judgment by God himself as being an abomination."
Merrell said the church calls homosexuals to repentance and believes homosexuality "can be overcome." He added that the Scriptures also assert that all kinds of sin, including homosexuality, are forgivable.
In November, Georgia's Southern Baptists voted to expel two churches that allowed homosexuals to serve as leaders. The national convention expelled two North Carolina churches in the early '90s on similar grounds.
AIDS among Southern Baptist clergy, Merrell said, "is fairly rare, but anecdotally, I've known of a person or two that were in ministry in Baptist churches that ended up with AIDS."
The church does not ordain sexually active homosexuals, and it prohibits same-sex unions.
Like others, the church is in turmoil over the issue. In 1997, a pastor in Omaha, Neb., presided over a ceremony uniting two lesbians. He was tried by a church jury, acquitted and placed on leave. In November, he was defrocked for officiating at a marriage of two men.
In January 1999, 68 Methodist ministers blessed the union of two lesbians in Sacramento, Calif. A bishop in California has filed a complaint against them. And in March 1999, a minister in Illinois was suspended for blessing the union of two Chicago men.
The Methodist Church also has lost clergy to AIDS -- including a former bishop of the Texas Annual United Methodist Conference who died in 1987 at 70. After his death, it was discovered that the bishop was a closeted homosexual who had been leading a dual life for at least 35 years.
"He never told anybody," Mutti said.
Mutti said he knows that other Methodist ministers have died of AIDS, "but I don't believe anybody in our conference has."
The issue of whether to ordain sexually active gays and lesbians came up at the church's national assembly in August, but the assembly declined to change its policy.
Church spokesman John Brooks said some Lutheran clergy have died of AIDS.
"That's a really difficult thing for a congregation to deal with," Brooks said.
At the annual meeting of the 2.6 million-member denomination in June, delegates defeated an attempt to strike a constitutional clause prohibiting single, noncelibate heterosexuals or homosexuals from being ministers.
The church also prohibits same-sex marriages.
This year, the church's highest court will hear appeals on three homosexuality disputes from its Northeast region.
Church officials acknowledge that some ministers have died of AIDS.
"I'm personally aware of a handful," said Jerry Van Marter, director of Presbyterian News Service.
A resolution passed at a general convention in 1979 said it was inappropriate to ordain practicing gays and lesbians, said church spokesman Jim Solheim.
"But the church has been arguing ever since then just how binding a resolution is," Solheim said.
Because attempts to write some kind of policy into canon law have failed, Solheim said, each diocese does what it deems appropriate. He estimated that one-fourth of the Episcopal dioceses now ordain openly gay men and women.
As for same-sex unions, Solheim said, "not only are we missing a policy, as a liturgical church, we have no ceremony, no rite, for doing so."
He added, however, that "it is happening quietly on the local level, sometimes with the tacit approval of the bishop."
The Rev. Canon Ted Karpf, congregational and clergy development officer for the Diocese of Washington and co-founder of the National Episcopal AIDS Coalition, said the church has lost priests to AIDS.
"[e]If you looked at the AIDS quilt in 1996 when it was spread out on the national Capitol Mall, there were at least 20 Episcopal priests identified on that," he said.
Karpf said the Episcopal Church has had a national policy on clergy with HIV or AIDS since 1988.
The policy prohibits discrimination against clergy with AIDS in areas of hiring, care or insurance.
"We haven't had any movement in our church to ordain a homosexual," Anderson said. The church's position, he added, is that human sexuality is for procreation. "We reject homosexuality as a normal lifestyle."
Anderson, who is former president of the World Council of Churches, said few A.M.E. clergy have died of AIDS-related illnesses.
"I've known a couple of younger friends who died with the virus who were clergy," he said. "But they were more than a dozen years ago. I've not seen or heard of any incident in recent years of any of our pastors dying of or being infected with AIDS."
Anderson said, however, that he is concerned with recent figures released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing a shift in AIDS demographics. In 1998, African-Americans accounted for 49 percent of the total AIDS deaths in the United States while making up only 13 percent of the U.S. population.
More than 150 openly gay and lesbian clergy have been ordained in the UCC, said the Rev. Bill Johnson, who handles gay and lesbian issues for the denomination.
Johnson said the decision of whether to officiate at a same-sex marriage is left to the local pastor.
On the issue of clergy dying of AIDS-related illness, Johnson said, "Like every religious body -- even the most conservative -- the United Church of Christ has lost both ordained and lay ministers to HIV disease."
Homosexuals are not required to be celibate to become rabbis, Zedek said, but responsible relationships are encouraged.
The total number of Reform Jews is difficult to estimate because many aren't associated with a synagogue, but one organization of Reform Jews, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, has 1.5 million members.
Zedek said some rabbis have died of AIDS-related illnesses.
"I know of some tragic circumstances where that has happened," he said.