While debates and deliberations on gay rights in mainline Protestant churches have become standard fare at their conventions, this summer’s denominational gatherings showed some unexpected turns. The decision of the liberal United Church of Christ to approve gay marriage was not a surprise, but the move was widely viewed as being not so much a bellwether of the future as much as a singular event in a unique denomination.
A sign that the UCC’s move may not be part of mainline trend was evident at the August conference of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, when the denomination somewhat unexpectedly rejected measures that would have allowed the ordination of gays and lesbians and approval of same-sex unions. Observers were expecting the measures to pass — though only by a close margin — and even a schism to possibly break out over the issue.
The liberal measures may have failed because of the numerous conservative groups and caucuses (such as Word Alone and Solid Rock) that emerged in the ELCA during the past five years while the sexuality statement was in preparation. The Lutherans appear to be engaging in a similar pattern of coalition-building and denominational activism — on the left as well as the right — that has been thriving among the Episcopalians , United Methodists and Presbyterians for the last decade. The American Baptist Churches’ (ABC) convention also showed signs of conservative activism, with three regional groups threatening to withhold their contributions if the denomination does not take a clearer position against homosexuality, according to Baptists Today (August).
It seems to be the case that the actions of the UCC, ABC and ELCA confirm the existence of a tri-party system in American Protestantism (and, in fact, in Judaism) consisting of liberals, moderates and conservatives The Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ (and the Reform Jews) have long comprised liberal Protestantism, but their positions on homosexuality (and abortion) are not likely to be widely accepted by the moderate Protestants, consisting of the American Baptists, ELCA, United Methodists and Presbyterians, short of serious schism. Rather, these denominations may continue to be deadlocked between a liberal leadership and clergy and a more moderate and conservative (and increasingly activist) laity.