BOSTON — THE debate over sexuality at this week's General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Baltimore is the most visible manifestation to date of a controversial issue sweeping through mainline Protestant denominations in the United States. The assembly, which sets policy for the 2.9-million-member church, voted 534 to 31 to reject a report from the denomination's Special Committee on Human Sexuality that challenged the traditional Christian position that sexual relations are permissible only between a married man and woman.
``Where there is justice-love, sexual expression has ethical integrity,'' the report said. ``That moral principle applies to single ... [and] married persons, to gay, lesbian, and bisexual ... [and] heterosexual persons.'' The report also called for ordination of practicing homosexual elders, deacons, and ministers.
The document set off an uproar among Presbyterians. Eight former church moderators (the denomination's presiding officer) and more than half the presbyteries, or district councils of the church, called for its rejection. The assembly reaffirmed the sanctity of marriage and restated the denomination's position that homosexuality ``is not God's wish for mankind.''
The assembly was a significant one for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the result of a 1983 merger between Southern and Northern Presbyterians.
The meeting adopted a new statement of faith that elevated sexual equality and environmental concerns to the level of church canon. It joins 10 other statements dating back to the church's 16th-century Reformation roots.
The Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church are all wrestling with sexuality questions. Episcopalians plan to debate the issue of ordaining homosexuals at their July General Convention in Phoenix.
That discussion received new impetus from two recent ordinations of practicing homosexuals by diocesan bishops. In December 1989, the Rev. John Sprong, bishop of Newark (N.J.), ordained a homosexual man as a priest, later suspending him after the priest publicly criticized Mother Teresa and monogamy. Last week the Bishop of Washington, the Rev. Donald Haines, ordained a practicing lesbian as a priest. He said, ``I am not persuaded that one's homosexuality ... should ... be an absolute bar to ordination in all cases.''
While a 1979 General Convention resolution says ordination of practicing homosexuals is ``not appropriate,'' Episcopal canon law leaves ordination questions up to the diocesan bishop.
The Phoenix convention will consider two proposals intended to clarify the matter. One, from a commission headed by Bishop George Hunt of Rhode Island, would affirm that decisions on ordination of homosexuals are up to the diocese. The other, proposed by Bishop William Frey of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambler, Pa., would establish a church law placing clergy ``under the obligation ... to abstain from sexual relations outside of Holy Matrimony,'' thus effectively barring ordination of prac ticing homosexuals.
In other denominations:
The Methodist Federation for Social Action is pressing the United Methodist Church's May 1992 General Conference in Louisville to remove both a church ban on ordaining practicing homosexuals and a statement in the denomination's Discipline that terms homosexuality ``incompatible with Christian teaching.''
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will consider conducting a study on ordination of homosexuals after 1993, when separate studies on the ministry and human sexuality are due, according to the Rev. Craig Settledge of the ELCA's ministry division.
The Southern Baptist Convention endorsed a traditional position on sexuality at its Atlanta conference last week. It approved a statement calling upon ``all Christians to uphold the biblical standard of human sexuality against all onslaughts.''
With 14.8 million members, Southern Baptists make up the largest Protestant church in the US and the largest US Baptist denomination. But they have been split by disagreements between moderates and conservatives over denominational policy and theology.
The conservatives, who stress biblical inerrancy in science and history as well as in religion and morals, have gradually gained control of the denominational apparatus. Moderates, who stress the ``priesthood of all believers,'' or the right of each member to interpret scripture for himself, have succeeded in removing several important Southern Baptist seminaries, including those at Baylor University in Texas and Furman University in South Carolina from the fundamentalists' grasp.
After a decade-long struggle, moderates did not contest the denominational presidency this year, instead forming the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in May. But they have not yet broken formally with the larger body.
Last week's conservative-dominated conference voted to cut off funding for the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, an inter-Baptist lobbying group on church-state issues that opposes school prayer and state aid to parochial schools. It also called upon President Bush to fire the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, John Frohmeyer, and cut off money to the agency unless it changes its policies.