St. Timothy's bucks ultimatum on gays
Church focuses on what unites rather than what divides
Sharyn Mitzo and Patricia Pearson never considered hiding their lesbian relationship at church.
"That wasn't ever an option ... we were immediately embraced," says Pearson, an active member of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Danville.
Having been away from organized religion for 30 years, the couple was a bit uneasy about rejoining a church. For Mitzo, who was raised Jehovah's Witness in Ohio, returning to a congregation prompted a deep fear that God wouldn't accept her. And for Pearson, being away from church for so long left her nervous about getting back into the swing of it.
"I understand being scared. I thought, 'What draw do I have back to the church after all these years?'" Pearson says.
For many gays and lesbians, divorcees, single moms - or anyone who isn't cookie-cutter conventional - joining or rejoining a church can be daunting. At some places of worshop, the people and the pastors exude unspoken judgment, making it rough for people living outside of the archetypal family mold.
In Danville, this prompts a lot of "church shopping," Pearson says, explaining that these potential church-goers tend to make phone calls to pastors to ensure they won't feel snubbed or ostracized when they show up on Sunday.
"At St. Timothy's sometimes the first question is: 'We are two women living together as a couple; is that going to be OK?'" Pearson says.
Gays in church: the world controversy
With the recent worldwide conflict bubbling between the Episcopal Church USA and the bigger Anglican world community over human sexuality, St. Timothy's wants to make one thing clear: Here at their Danville church, everybody is welcome.
"Jesus didn't expect conformity before he healed, sat with them at the table, and gave them his love," says the Rev. Kathleen Trapani of St. Timothy's.
This February, in light of statements by Episcopal Church leader Katharine Jefferts Schori supporting ordaining gays and blessing same sex relationships, the Anglican world community gave the Episcopal Church USA an ultimatum: Stop blessing gay unions and establishing homosexual leaders - or you'll be severed from the Anglican community.
The threat caused highly emotional reactions here in the United States, with some churches standing their ground and others veering toward tradition in order to remain with the Anglican Church.
In Danville, Episcopalians from St. Timothy's responded with a letter to Schori in support of blessing same-sex unions. They sided with her, writing that gay church leaders and loving committed gay relationships do align with the teachings of Christ.
The letter states that "the issue is not only one of tolerance and inclusion, but fundamentally one of justice," and is signed by 13 vestry members.
Devoted St. Timothy's churchgoer Wendy Peterson, who attends with her husband, says the issue is simple. Episcopalians should keep an open mind and display the same unconditional love that Christ did, she says.
"We're not all the same and Jesus didn't discriminate .... We're just asking people not to build walls," Peterson explains.
Other members of the church add that this isn't just an issue about gays and lesbians. It's about inviting in outsiders, minorities and those that may feel alienated from the church.
"Our country has so many laws not to discriminate at work, but the beloved churches are less accepting than the (workplace)," Peterson says.
Mitzo and Pearson, who helped set up for several Good Friday ceremonies last week, are registered as domestic partners and were married briefly in 2004 until it was declared invalid by the Supreme Court. At St. Timothy's, they feel their long-term relationship is not only acknowledged but appreciated.
"Why concentrate on the differences when we have so many similarities?" Pearson says.
Sexuality and religion: an orthodox view
Drive a few hours to the Diocese of San Joaquin, however, and you'll find an entirely different school of thought. The Fresno church has made the decision to cut ties with the Episcopal Church over the issue of ordaining gays.
The Rev. Van McAlister, spokesman for the church, says the Episcopal Church has been straying away from tradition for years and that this liberal view of human sexuality is the last straw.
"Anyone who continuously engages in acts of sin and doesn't repent should not be in a leadership position in the church," McAlister says.
At his church they hold the belief that any act of sex outside wedlock is a sin and therefore homosexual sex acts are always sins. McAlister also explains that he feels, according to the Bible, marriage must be between a male and a female.
"The Scripture is very clear that marriage is between a man and a woman," he says.
But that notion leaves gay Episcopalians in an incredibly difficult situation.
As a homosexual Episcopalian at the Diocese of San Joaquin, you have a couple of choices. You either never have sex, or you marry into a heterosexual relationship - and pray to become straight.
"I'd counsel (gays) the same way I'd council alcoholics," McAlister says. "I'd encourage them to be in prayer and conciliation with their pastor and to seek help on an issue-to-issue basis."
He added that the church could have a "recovering homosexual" as a leader, the same way it could have a recovering alcoholic. While he insists that his church welcomes gay people, there are few to no openly gay members.
Trapani chalks these views up to varying interpretations of Scripture. And Pearson says she guesses the belief stems from the desire to cling to what is familiar and comfortable.
"To some degree it's probably a fear of the unknown," she says.
St. Francis of Assisi Anglican Episcopal Church in Danville, a small congregation that meets at the Danville Women's Club, did not return phone calls in time to comment.
The root of the problem
When it comes to Scripture, how is it possible to read the same words and see an issue completely differently? Ultimately, within this sect of Christianity it's all about how you understand the Bible, Trapani says.
"There are some people who point to particular phrases and others look at the big picture," Trapani says.
She notes that even at her church, there is still some disagreement on the subject. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing, she says.
"We welcome the conversation," Trapani says.
At St. Timothy's, pastors teach a "three-legged stool" - tradition, Scripture and reason. They encourage members to apply Scripture in a way that fits with the world around them and contemplate how it makes sense morally today.
"We are very much a thinking church," Pearson says.
The Bible has been read and understood in a range of ways, from totally literal to the completely allegorical.
The literal, orthodox interpretation usually points to the act of homosexuality as a sin. These churchgoers have been known to point to Leviticus 18 in the Old Testament, which states a man shouldn't "lie with mankind as with womankind."
But those who say Christ didn't differentiate when it comes to loving, monogamous relationships argue that taking Leviticus 18 literally is absurd. The same chapter declares that touching pigskin and consuming shellfish are prohibited - making eating crab and tossing around a football as much of an abomination as sex between two men, some Christians say.
"Jesus broke a lot of rules, he ate with sinners and tax collectors," Peterson says, adding that back then, those were the most despicable people.
When searching for truth in any religion it's important to use both your mind and your heart, say St. Timothy's members.
Accepting this division within the worldwide church has been difficult, but St. Timothy's plans to stick to its guns and not give in to the Anglican ultimatum.
"We are deeply grieved, but my guess is that we will be forced to live out the Scripture the way we interpret it," Trapani says, without being part of the Anglican community.
Thirty years ago, a similar controversy was sparked in the Episcopal Church USA over the ordination of women. Back then, the hot debate was about putting women in high leadership positions within the church.
While some conservative Episcopalians still oppose the leadership of women, it is a small-but-vocal portion that have recently rejected the first female presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori.
Since the 1970s, the majority of American Episcopalian churches have come to accept the change as an evolution within their religious sect.
"There's a difference of opinion even among those that are theologically conservative," McAlister says, over the ordination of women.
Even some orthodox churches have steered away from the idea that leadership in church is solely for men.
In looking at the history of the church, many gay Episcopalians hope 30 years from now the same will be true for homosexuals.
"People have lines that can be crossed and those lines change over time. The biggest thing that prompts change is knowing gays and lesbians," Pearson says.
More often than not, people in same-sex relationships stay closeted when involved in their church. If they do decide to be open about it, Pearson says the most common response is that members of the church simply pretend it's not there.
Pearson recalls that gay fathers, friends of hers who attend church in San Ramon, have noticed church members refuse to acknowledge their relationship.
In Danville, though, she says she and Sharyn are just another church-going couple seeking to connect with God.
"In all the time I've lived here I've only heard one negative comment and it was done in a very loving way," Pearson says.
This is all the couple says they could ask for: that people focus on what binds, rather than what divides.
"If you're not coming to church because you're afraid you'll be ostracized, give us a try," Pearson says.