‘Congregations in Conflict: The Battle Over Homosexuality’ by Keith Hartman | Interview

In the world of gay and lesbian publishing, you can often judge your success by the number of death threats you have received. Author Keith Hartman says since his book Congregations in Conflict: The Battle Over Homosexuality (Rutgers University Press) hit stores, he has received a grand total of zero, zip, zilch, nada, death threats.

“A friend of mine told me, ‘your publisher should be shot, they aren’t doing their job,'” he laughed.

Hartman should be getting death threats by the ton. Congregations in Conflict strikes at the very heart of the message that the religious right doesn’t want to get out. It depicts congregations, torn over the issue of homosexuality, and how they prayerfully, thoughtfully and faithfully approached, and solved the conflicts they faced. Granted, none of the congregations had an easy time, many lost long time members who left on bad terms, but they all grappled with a deep issue of faith and came out better congregations and individuals for the journey.

It’s those struggles that most impressed Hartman.

“You have people who really viscerally disagreed on an issue who would normally be throwing rocks at each other. But nonetheless were bound together in a community of faith and had to deal with each other and work through this issue and arrive at common ground,” he said.

Each story is moving in its own way. A Methodist minister taken to task for participating in a gay pride parade, a Quaker meeting seeking God’s guidance on whether or not to perform a same sex union, two Baptist churches removed from their denomination because of their acceptance of homosexual members … and ministers receiving death threats.

One of those threatened was Rev. Jim Lewis, the priest of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Charleston, West Virginia. In 1976, police guarded auditions for the musical 1776 because Rev. Lewis was trying out for the part of Thomas Jefferson.

“…the police were there to make sure that nothing happened to [Lewis]. A couple of weeks earlier they’d been warned that a group of fundamentalist Christians was planning to assassinate the priest or murder his children.”

Rev. Lewis’ troubles began in 1974 when he supported the school board’s decision to adopt multicultural textbooks. Two years later he opened his church to a group of homosexuals who needed a place to meet. Shortly thereafter, a male couple asked him to perform a wedding ceremony. After much soul searching and prayer Rev. Lewis came to a startling conclusion.

“‘I have prayed over legislature, hot food at banquets, beauty contests, athletic events, prayer breakfasts, new homes, and dozens of other events … I know some history which reminds me that the Church has blessed certain wars and even christened battleships and troops marching off to war.’

It occurred to Reverend Lewis that if he could bless an omelette, he could certainly bless two people’s love.”

News of the marriage rocked the church, and brought threats on Rev. Lewis’ life … and threats of his removal from the pulpit. Rev. Lewis’ story has a happy, if bittersweet, ending … as do most of the stories in this book.

The Quakers in Durham, North Carolina faced a tough challenge in the form of Don Markle. When the meeting was asked to decide whether or not they would perform same-sex marriages, they tried to discern the will of God, but found an immovable obstacle in Markle.

Markle came from a fundamentalist background and believed the Bible to be the inerrant word of God. He had little tolerance for the process Quakers use to arrive at “clearness” on an issue. Friends believe that God is in everyone and that you must carefully listen to every person. Quakers believe no one sees the whole truth, but individuals see only part of the truth. By coming together, you see the whole picture.

Markle became the meeting’s lone holdout over the issue and eventually left the meeting.

They arrived at clearness on the issue of same sex marriage, but Hartman observed, “For the Quakers it was a mission of failure. They like to believe that diversity is their strength so they can incorporate divergent points of view, but that is premised on the belief in the system itself which Don lacked. Don believed an open mind was an invitation to sin so he did not try to incorporate other ideas.”

That seems to be the attitude of the mainstream church at large. New ideas, new ways of seeing God’s kingdom and welcoming others into it, are taboo.

“You can compare this issue to how the churches reacted to slavery,” Hartman said. “Some churches drug their heels. The Southern Baptist denomination was largely formed as a way to come up with a religious defense of slavery. On the other hand, the Quakers were running underground railroads and were ahead on abolition. You’re going to see that all over again. Denominations will split over this issue, but they are all moving slowly in the direction of more inclusion.”