New York Times, October 23, 1999
By GUSTAV NIEBUHR
Two months ago the Rev. Jerry Falwell, well known for conservative political and theological views, took the unusual step of agreeing with the Rev. Mel White, a supporter of gay rights, to convene a meeting bringing together 200 of each man’s associates.
The goal was simple: a civil exchange of views between two groups that disagree profoundly over gay rights in church and state. The two ministers also promised to avoid harsh language on the issue in the future.
The meeting is to take place on Saturday at Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va.
|photo from PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly|
It has generated controversy for weeks, with plans for protests by some gay rights supporters, who say nothing can be gained from meeting with Falwell, and by some gay rights opponents.
In a telephone interview, Falwell said he thought the gathering significant for its occurring at all, for the fact that conservative evangelicals who believe homosexual activity a grave sin would break bread with gay men, lesbians and their supporters.
"To my knowledge, it’s never happened before," he said, adding that the occasion was so historic it would be "remembered in the same way the formation of Moral Majority is remembered." That was Falwell’s political organization, founded in 1979, a high-profile effort to persuade religious conservatives to take part in politics.
In the 1980’s, Falwell wrote an autobiography, using a ghost writer recommended by his publisher. The writer was White, a former seminary professor and, at the time, a married man. Six years ago White declared that he is gay and said he had come to terms with that after a long struggle.
Since then, he has met with Falwell twice, most recently in August, when he complained that language about homosexuals in fund-raising letters from Falwell’s organizations was so harsh that it could provoke antigay violence.
Falwell, in turn, said he had been a target of aggressive, threatening language, some of it from gay groups.
The 90-minute meeting, to begin at 4 P.M., will be closed to the press but will be followed by a news conference.
Falwell said he would affirm at the meeting that neither he nor his associates would ever change their view that the Bible makes homosexual activity wrong, or ever support legal recognition of same-sex unions.
But although he said he did not believe that language from his ministry had contributed to violence against homosexuals, he acknowledged White’s criticism that the language had sometimes been strident.
"We plead guilty to that, and we will try to do better," he said, "and I will use what influence I have across the evangelical landscape" to encourage others to do likewise.
"Most Christians believe the gay life style is wrong," Falwell said. But "we’ve got to, in the next century, make the world believe we love the sinner more than we hate the sin."
White, ordained but not a church pastor, is chairman of Soulforce, a group devoted to nonviolent action to advance gay rights. In an interview, he said Falwell would "set the pace" today by speaking first.
"And he’s going to say we’re sinners," White said. "And that’s what we disagree on. But what we agree on is, this conversation has gotten out of hand."
White said he would respond by maintaining that his sexuality was a gift from God. And others in his group will also speak: parents and friends of homosexuals, gay men and lesbians themselves, a few of them graduates of Liberty University, where Falwell is chancellor.
"They all loved Liberty," White said, "and they’re going to say, ‘Jerry, you gave us a great education.’ " Both men said they hoped protests would not overshadow the meeting.
"My prayer," Falwell said, "is the good thing that’s happening inside the building will not be lost outside on the sidewalks."
Paper on Antigay Violence
While the Falwell-White meeting has been in the works, another initiative, to rally religious voices against antigay violence, has been undertaken by Bishop Steven Charleston, president and dean of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. On Oct. 1, Bishop Charleston wrote the Cambridge Accord, a statement to circulate among bishops of Anglican churches around the world.
The document has three points: that no gay person "should ever be deprived of liberty, personal property or civil rights because of his or her sexual orientation," that an appeal to Christian faith can never be used to justify such discrimination, or violence, and that everyone is equal in God’s sight and deserves respect.
As of Wednesday, nearly 80 bishops had signed the statement, the best-known of them the retired Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu.
The document is posted on the Web site of the divinity school, www.episdivschool.org.
[Note: Photo from PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly did not appear in New York Times article.]
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