PlanetOut News Staff
Wednesday, July 5, 2000 / 12:07 AM
SUMMARY: For the third time this year, gays and lesbians get locked up to convince a major denomination not to lock them out of the church. The ten-day 73rd General Convention of the 2.4-million-member Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA) began July 5 in Denver, and gay crusader Reverend Mel White’s Soulforce group got things rolling the day before by being arrested in a peaceful civil disobedience action demanding equal treatment for gays and lesbians within the U.S. branch of the global Anglican Communion.
The triennial General Convention is the denomination’s final authority on matters of policy and canonical law. One proposal before the Convention, nicknamed "the local option," would codify the current Episcopal practice of allowing each diocese to determine whether to ordain sexually active gays and lesbians or bless same-gender couples — yet there are both liberals and conservatives who fear that doing so could result in schism, and the Convention may decide to make no move at all. Conservatives are now campaigning for programs purporting to change homosexual orientation to heterosexual.
One to two hundred lesbians/gays/bisexuals/transgenders and their allies, many in T-shirts reading "Stop spiritual violence," rallied on the steps of the Colorado Convention Center in 90-degree heat for speeches, prayer and songs in Soulforce’s third civil disobedience protesting at a major denomination’s national assembly this year. White said, "For 30 years they’ve been discussing this. We’re asking them now to resolve it." Non-gay Jimmy Creech, stripped of his United Methodist ministerial credentials last year after his second church trial for blessing same-gender couples, said, "We are here to say to our sisters and brothers who are Episcopalians to stop the debate! It is time to open your arms in full inclusion. Open your doors. Open your hearts. Welcome all God’s people."
As discussed in advance with police, those prepared to be arrested linked arms or held hands in five groups of about fifteen each to silently block the entrance and did not respond to three police warnings to disperse. Police arrested 73 according to Soulforce (some other sources quoted as many as 80) on charges on trespassing and failure to obey a lawful order. A police sergeant asked the protesters about hand and shoulder problems that might be exacerbated by handcuffs; the fifty officers involved gave protesters a choice between being cuffed with their hands in front of them or behind them. Police had prepared to process the arrests around the corner of the building in the shade, and as photos were taken of each arrestee and arresting officer together, sometimes both smiled.
The maximum penalty for the charges is a year in jail and a $1,000 fine, but Assistant Denver City Attorney Jim Thomas assured the Rocky Mountain News that the actual sentences would not be likely to approach the maximum. Sheriffs’ buses transported the arrestees to jail, but they were released after about an hour.
One of those arrested was Episcopal Bishop Otis Charles, who publicly identified himself as a gay man after his retirement. He said, "For about 20 years, I thought God would deliver me from this, but then I realized that wasn’t going to happen." He said gays and lesbians "pay a price" when as he did they lack "the courage to live the truth of my life," adding, "I know the cost of that." He said that, "the time has come to say that we are fully a part of the church. We refuse to be silent; we refuse to be invisible." Charles is the only openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church.
Another rally speaker was Leanne Bryce, who has filed a discrimination lawsuit June 13 against Boulder’s St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church for firing her from her post as youth minister after learning of her commitment ceremony. She said she had been put through "a public inquisition," called "debased" and "demonically possessed," and been heartbroken by the intolerance of the church she loves.
There were no counterdemonstrators against Soulforce, although police had arranged an area for them. Adding to the voices of protest was esteemed Reverend Dr. George Regas of Pasadena, California, who wrote in a letter to all the Convention participants that, "The debate on the homosexuality issue has become a primary source of suffering for millions of lesbian and gay people. The fact that bishops, priests and laity are at this General Convention to debate once again whether gay and lesbian persons are acceptable is obscene!"
The Episcopal Church’s own 25-year-old gay and lesbian network Integrity was able to discuss the action with Soulforce in advance, and Integrity president Reverend Michael Hopkins declared his group was happy White’s group was there "to speak on the outside to the church." However he explained that Integrity’s own focus "remains on the inside of the Convention" in their own tradition of working within the church’s institutional structure. He said, "We’re not here to fight a battle or win a war. We’re here to tell the Good News, trusting that if our telling is the truth, it will set us free."