Controversy takes church on journey

Ordination of gay deacon leads Baptists to heritage

Author: Christy Hoppe

June 7, 1998

Page: 48A

A winter of discontent and adversity seems to have warmed into a summer of renewal for the University Baptist Church.

In February, the church was ostracized by the Baptist General Convention of Texas for ordaining a gay man as deacon and for failing to regard homosexuality as sinful.

The disassociation amounted to a public censure of the small church, which already had been booted from the Austin Baptist Association for the same reason.

Within its own walls, members struggled over the Gospel's meaning and the church's purpose, pastor Larry Bethune said.

The theological debate over the inclusion of gays and lesbians began for the church in 1994, when Hans Venable, a Sunday school teacher and choir member, was elected deacon. His ordination upset the beliefs of some members, who felt the church was affirming something that should be condemned. About 100 worshipers - a quarter of the membership - left the congregation. "We've been on a real journey about it," Dr. Bethune said.

What has unfolded along the thorny path has come as somewhat of a surprise: a church that has reclaimed its heritage and rediscovered its fellowship, he said.

Especially in the past few months, new members have joined the church, about a block from the University of Texas campus. The congregation has been re-energized, and many members have become more active. "Certainly the spiritual energy at this point is the highest it's been in the 11 years since I've been here," Dr. Bethune said. "The church has taken a clear step of conscience."

Dr. Bethune said the inclusion of gays and lesbians follows a cornerstone philosophy of the church, which for decades has opened its doors to those outcast by others. The church integrated in 1948 and added women to its ministerial staff in the 1950s. "We've reinherited that history and a gospel that everyone is welcome," Dr. Bethune said.

Donna Rene Johnston said she joined the church two years ago, not fully aware of the controversy. She remembers walking in that first Sunday and being surprised to see a woman in the pulpit. "I'd never seen that before," she said.

Ms. Johnston said University Baptist reaffirmed for her the feeling that "church is there to do the right thing."

She said she views the senior members of the church as heroic for embracing tolerance and exuding acceptance. "I wouldn't be going to church if it weren't for that," she said.

Dr. Bethune said often lost in the retelling of the dispute is that University Baptist, by-and-large, follows traditional Baptist theology. And the church did not seek this issue. The issue arose because "we had a person among us who was a caring, ministering person, and our congregation ordained him as a deacon. We said we recognize God's call in you," Dr. Bethune said. "It's not about ideas. It's about people we know," he said.

With the external pressure from the Austin Baptist Association and the Baptist General Convention, the congregation learned the feelings of exclusion and shame, Dr. Bethune said.

And in true Baptist tradition, the church asserted its independence to follow what "God has told us to do," he said.

He said he regrets that 90 years of partnership with the General Convention has been terminated. And he still feels the loss of members who have left. "We'll never make up for that. People aren't exchangeable. Each took a set of gifts and relationships we'll never recover," he said.

He also regrets that a message was "sent out to a lot of people beyond the church that was damaging to homosexual people."

As the dust and the summer settle in, Dr. Bethune said he hopes the philosophy of University Baptist is what lingers. "We're hopeful," he said, "that in all the publicity that came from this, they also saw that our church heard a different kind of message, and that the doors of some churches are always open and that God loves all of them."

Christy Hoppe is based in the Austin bureau of The Dallas Morning News.

Copyright 1998 The Dallas Morning News Company
Record Number: 1025405