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Conservative, moderate Baptists speak out on Wake Forest homosexual union

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (BP)–A homosexual ‘marriage’ performed at Wake Forest University’s Wait Chapel has raised the collective eyebrows of conservative and moderate Baptists in North Carolina and across the nation, while the Baptist minister who performed the ceremony called the ‘marriage’ a blessing and an issue of the priesthood of the believer.

The same-sex commitment ceremony was held Saturday, Sept. 9 in the university’s Wait Chapel between lesbians Wendy Scott and Susan Parker. Parker, 42, is a second-year student at the Wake Forest Divinity School. Richard Groves, senior pastor of Wake Forest Baptist, was one of six ministers who officiated at the non-binding ceremony.

A spokesperson for the university noted that the church has no ties to the school and simply uses the chapel for worship services. Trustees for the university did not support the ceremony and had asked the church not to perform it in the chapel.

“In September 1999, on the recommendation of a special committee of the Wake Forest University Board of Trustees, Wake Forest declined to schedule such a ceremony in Wait Chapel, citing its desire not to become involved in a church policy issue,” the spokesman said in a prepared statement. “Although it asked Wake Forest Baptist Church not to use the chapel for such purposes, the university made it clear that it would not interfere with church ceremonies and practices.”

Even some church members at Wake Forest expressed outrage at the ceremony, according to Groves.

“We were not in agreement as a church body with the same gender ceremonies,” he told Baptist Press. “We were quite divided on the issue.”

One issue the church was in complete agreement on was whether or not practicing homosexuals can be members of the church. Groves said the church has been supportive of that issue for the past 10 years.

“First, this was a blessing ceremony,” Groves said. “The couple had been together for 19 years. It was not a wedding. They are members of our church and have been for about five years.”

So if the couple is not legally married, are they living in sin? Groves said no.

“I don’t think they are living in sin,” he said. “There has been no category in our thinking for this (homosexual unions). We can only think in terms of are you married? Are you living in sin? The church hasn’t grappled with the issue of homosexuality and what that means for Christians who are homosexuals.”

Paige Patterson, president of nearby Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, disagrees. “First, I want to be absolutely certain that everyone knows that this happened at Wake Forest University and not Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest,” Patterson said.

“Second, I would say that for anybody who even remotely cares about the word of God and the will of God, this event serves to differentiate between what Bible-believing Baptists believe and do and what all of our critics among Baptists believe and do.”

“I do not suggest that everyone who disagrees with the Southern Baptist Convention promotes homosexual unions,” Patterson added. “But I do mean that we have come to a day when the word conservative needs to be defined, not just by affirmation, but on the basis of what one will tolerate.”

Wake Forest Baptist Church left the Southern Baptist Convention and the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina about three years ago, according to Bill Boatwright, director of public relations for the state convention.

The church maintains affiliations with the Alliance of Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, an organization that also lists Wake Forest Divinity School as a partner-theology entity.

Telephone calls to the CBF in Atlanta for comment about the same-sex union were not returned.

However, in a May 9 interview with Baptist Press, CBF Coordinator Daniel Vestal said he does not support homosexual unions.

“I believe homosexuality is wrong and contrary to Scripture,” Vestal said. “I believe marriage is holy before God and I’m not going to do anything that will undermine the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.”

David Currie, of the Mainstream Texas Baptist group, also questioned the same-sex ceremony. “That’s a crazy thing to do,” Currie told Baptist Press. “I wouldn’t support it (the wedding).”

Bruce Prescott, of the Mainstream Oklahoma Baptist group, agreed. “Mainstream Baptists obviously agree with that,” Prescott said. “Others would speak much more forcefully about the issue. The church has to minister to homosexuals but I’m not sure that’s the way to do it.”

Boatwright said the same-sex union could have a damaging impact on the relationship between Wake Forest and the state convention.

“It’s certainly not going to help the relationship,” Boatwright said. “Our relationship right now is fraternal. We don’t give them any money except for a few scholarships. To be honest, I’m not sure what we’re going to do about this.”

The relationship between the two organizations is up for review later this year, he said.

Under the current state Baptist constitution, the convention does not provide any financial assistance to Wake Forest and has no control over appointing trustees.

“I don’t think this will help the relationship,” Boatwright said. “It’s just one more thing. Even though the trustees were against the ceremony, it did happen on campus so the university has some responsibility.”

The Wake Forest divinity school found itself the center of controversy last year when Parker was accepted as a student. Bill Leonard, dean of the school, defended the policy of allowing homosexuals into the program.

“I’ll die on this floor of non-discriminatory admissions,” Leonard said in an April 25 meeting in Atlanta. “The university has a policy against discrimination, and that includes race, creed, sexual orientation or other factors. We needn’t be afraid of homosexuals.”

Leonard was not present at the Sept. 9 ceremony.

The union capped a three year struggle for the couple, who had to convince first their church, then the university to participate in the ceremony, Groves said. “And yes, we did have people leave the church over this issue.”

Grove said there were two important areas of concern for his church.

“First, we don’t believe as human beings that we can bless anything,” Groves said. “Only God blesses and that’s what happens at heterosexual marriages. We also respect the individual rights of believers as their own priests before God and we respect the right of individuals to participate as they feel led.”

In other words, technically the church has decided not to take a position on same-sex unions — even though the church hosted and allowed its staff to participate in one.

For Groves, the same-sex union is a test of autonomy. “My understanding of Baptist polity is that it is a voluntary association with autonomous bodies,” Groves said. “That is critical. The trustees at the university said they don’t agree and they had wished we hadn’t performed the ceremony. But they respected our right as an autonomous body. That is Baptist government at its best.”

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  • Todd Starnes