A new Presbyterian Reformation?

The two men spoke on the same topic, on the same day and at luncheons early in the same gathering -- the 211th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

But Harvard University minister Peter Gomes and ex-gay counselor Joe Dallas found radically different messages when they opened their Bibles.

Right now, said Gomes, the forces of biblical literalism are waging a campaign of "textual harassment" against those who want to welcome gays and lesbians into the ministry and bless same-sex unions at church altars. But progressives must not surrender to those who are bound by "fear and ignorance," he told the Covenant Network of Presbyterians.

"The cause is just," said Gomes, an openly gay Baptist who leads Harvard's Memorial Church. "The experience of the gospel is in your direction. You are sailing with the wind of the Holy Spirit. You are on the Lord's side."

The Covenant Network luncheon Monday symbolized one side in what Presbyterian politicos call the "Battle of the Amendments," which continued all this week at the assembly in Fort Worth, Texas. After a year of debate, the church's regional presbyteries in 1997 voted 97 to 74 to add Amendment B to its Book of Order, stating that ministers must "live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness." A year later, the presbyteries voted 59 to 114 to defeat Amendment A, which would have required "fidelity and integrity in all relationships."

Dallas spoke at a luncheon sponsored by OneByOne, a ministry within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) created to minister to "those in conflict with their sexuality." He stressed that those backing a pro-homosexual view of ordination and marriage have based their arguments on their feelings and experiences, not on scripture.

"The real question in assessing relationships is not, 'Is it loving?', but, 'Is it right or wrong?'," said Dallas, who lived for years in gay relationships before he got married and became an ex-gay leader. "The scriptures on homosexuality are unambiguous in both testaments. The only relationship considered best is a monogamous relationship between one man and one woman."

That's one way to read the Bible, said Gomes. But as inheritors of the Protestant Reformation, he said Covenant Network supporters could believe in the vitality and authority of the Bible without "bowing down to some inerrant text or to some absolute school of exegesis" from the past.

"God speaks in the present tense," said the Harvard theologian. "Now, it is interesting to know what the Spirit was saying to the churches in Antioch, what the Spirit was saying to the churches in Chalcedon, even what the Spirit was saying to the churches in Geneva. But it is equally important to ask, 'What is the Spirit saying to the churches today, in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), in the last year of the 20th Century?' "

Gomes was preaching to the choir. Covenant Network leaders already have portrayed themselves as the true defenders of a tradition that allows each generation to reform earlier interpretations of scriptures, creeds and confessions. As a touchstone, they cite a 1924 document written when other Presbyterians defeated a conservative attempt to enforce "biblical inerrancy" and literal interpretations of the virgin birth, the atonement and the resurrection.

"With respect to the interpretation of the Scriptures, the position of our church has been that common to Protestants," noted the Auburn Declaration. While Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches stress the authority of centuries of church teachings about the Bible, "our church lays it upon its ministers and others to read and teach the Scriptures as the Spirit of God through His manifold ministries instructs them, and to receive all truth which from time to time He causes to break forth from the Scriptures."

Winning this debate over the Bible and tradition remains crucial for the left in today's battles over sexuality, marriage and ordination, said Barbara Wheeler, president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, in a paper circulated by the Covenant Network.

"We must," she said, "develop a clear, compelling demonstration that our understanding of ordination will make the church more Presbyterian than it is now, or we will not prevail."