Charting the sex wars, Pt. I

You know the Episcopalians are in town when insiders do double takes at announcements for "Bishops Outings" or the "Orientation of Bishops and Deputies." Are those scenic "outings" or revelatory exits -- voluntary or involuntary -- from sexual closets? And who would dare ask "orientation" questions these days?

Words are tricky things. Thus, conservatives made a fervent attempt, during the 73rd General Convention of the Episcopal Church, to seize the high ground with a campaign entitled "God's Love Changed Me." It centered on testimonies by people who said they had been healed of racism, alcoholism and various sexual sins, including homosexuality.

But everyone was reading between the lines during the July 5-14 gathering in Denver. Soon, gay, lesbian and bisexual Episcopalians took to wearing shirts that said, "Oppose hate language, no matter how it is disguised." Write it down -- healing equals hate.

The Denver events were par for the course, said writer Larry Holben of San Francisco, author of "What Christians Think about Homosexuality." He is best known for writing the script for "The Hiding Place," a classic evangelical film. But he wrote his meticulously balanced book as part of his own pilgrimage as an Episcopalian who also is gay.

The religious sex wars rage on, but no one seems to be learning much, he said.

"Sure there's homophobia out there," said Holben. "But it has now become a given that any one to the right of center is automatically coming at this from a position of hate and stupidity. ... They're labeled as right-wing demons, which means they can be trivialized and treated with contempt. Nobody has to listen to what they're actually saying."

Meanwhile, conservatives often assume everyone on the left "either doesn't know what the Bible says or don't care what the Bible says," said Holben.

Face it -- these people have honest disagreements about doctrinal issues. Also, liberals and conservatives rarely acknowledge the schisms within their respective camps. This makes it even harder to find common ground or, when necessary, for people of good faith to break communion with one another.

Holben's book covers a spectrum of viewpoints, seeking answers to 12 basic questions, such as "What is the God-given intent or design for human sexuality?" and "What is the spiritual significance of homosexuality?" He never settles for a simplistic left vs. right showdown.

There are, for example, at least three conservative camps, he said.

* The "condemnation" camp notes that the Bible contains zero positive references to homosexuality. Its leaders deny that a unique homosexual orientation exists and insist that homosexuals, at some point, make conscious decisions to sin, which leads to addiction and then to self-fulfilling homosexual identities. Same-sex desires are as sinful as sex acts. Holben said this camp "honestly believes that sexual sins are the worst sins, anyway. ... Then, homosexual sins are the worst of the worst."

* The "healing" camp says homosexual orientation is real, even if its origins remain mysterious. It's crucial that many who take this position can testify that they have changed their "orientation" or at least their "sexual behavior." At the same time, some concede that they continue to experience same-sex temptations and that "healing" is a life-long process. While viewing all sex outside of marriage as sin, they stress that same-sex desires, alone, are not sinful and that homosexual sin is no worse than other sin.

* Many groups, including the Vatican, now believe that same-sex orientation is an imperfection or impairment, but rarely the result of a conscious choice. Since healing does not always occur, many homosexuals face what Holben describes as "A Call to Costly Discipleship." This camp urges homosexuals to live chaste lives and, thus, honor centuries of unbroken Christian tradition that all sex outside of marriage is sinful. This approach emphasizes that life in a sinful, fallen world is often painful and complex.

"We all love magic stories ... where a person was sinful or broken and now they're totally healed," said Holben. "That's one of THE most powerful kinds of magic stories for Christians. ... Yet that's rarely what we see in real life, even in the lives of the saints. We see people struggling to deal with their sins and seeking forgiveness. That's life."