As fictional southern belle and underrated theologian Scarlett O'Hara once said, "I'll think about that tomorrow." And tomorrow—or, in the case of the Episcopal Church, the summer of 2003—ought to be interesting.

Meeting in Denver in early July, the bishops and dep uties of the 2.4 million-member Episcopal Church took their turn tossing about the mainline Protestant hot potato of the summer, homosexuality. Earlier this summer, the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) had taken clear votes in favor of the status quo, refusing to extend church blessings to homosexual unions.

The Episcopalian response was murkier. With a curious resolution that never mentions homosexuality, the bishops joined clergy and lay delegates July 13 in tepid acknowledgement that many church members are not married, but "living in other lifelong committed relationships."

Is that good or bad? Well, the resolution acknowledges "the church's teaching on the sanctity of marriage," but it also acknowledges that "some, acting in good conscience. … will act in contradiction to that position."

It offers "prayer ful support, encouragement and pastoral care" to both sides.

If the Episcopal Church decided to take a middle path on homosexuality in the 1990s, it now appears to be tiptoeing down the painted stripe in the middle of that middle path.

Not all the language was so delicately noncommittal. Along the way, the resolution "expects that such relationships will be characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication"; it goes on to "denounce promiscuity, exploitation and abusiveness."

But if the theology of human sexuality is utterly opaque when it comes to marriage and homosexuality, why does the church assume that monogamy, fidelity, and lifelong commitments are good and promiscuity is bad? Where does revelation or tradition demand careful communication, whatever that might be?

These are not idle questions. Though gays and lesbians are undoubtedly a part of most Episcopal Church parishes, the far larger audience is made up of single heterosexuals, heterosexual couples who never married, divorced men and women, and those who are married but sometimes wonder why. The new resolution must raise for them the question of whether marriage is now a standard, an ideal, or just one available option among many.

And unless the various dialogues and committees set up to address the question of marriage and gay unions before the next assembly in 2003 can come upon a solid theological foundation—a reason to decide one way or the other—how does the church justify the rest of what it says about relationships? One gets the feeling that, far from ending, the controversy is only beginning.

Steve Kloehn is a Chicago Tribune columnist. © 2000, Chicago Tribune. Reprinted with permission.

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