A quiet rebellion in the nave of Riverside Church last Sunday brought into the open a widening controversy in this prominent Manhattan congregation over the issue of homosexuality in the church.
After the Rev. Channing Phillips preached a sermon that day calling homosexuality a sin, a worshiper led some 200 others attending the service up to the communion table to protest the minister's sermon during the closing hymn.
At the center of the debate is a "Statement of Openness, Inclusion and Affirmation of Gay and Lesbian Persons," prepared by the church's Adult Education Task Force and now awaiting a congregation-wide vote for possible adoption on June 2.
(In the Washington area, the National Capital Union Presbytery this spring postponed for one year action on a similar statement.)
Phillips, Riverside's minister of planning and coordination, took to the pulpit Sunday in the absence of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, senior minister, who was out of town. Coffin later said that he was not aware that Phillips planned to preach on homosexuality.
Coffin termed the issue "explosive" and said he will address the matter from the pulpit tomorrow.
Phillips, former pastor of Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C., is considered a leader among church members who oppose adoption of the task force statement. He took the unusual step, prior to the service, of "insisting" that a statement by the Church School Committee, opposing adoption of the gay/lesbian statement, be inserted into the Sunday church bulletin. Sources at the church said other officials ordered the insert removed before the service, but that some worshipers received bulletins containing it.
Reports of the controversy continue to circulate around the halls of the church. On Wednesday, staff members gathered for a lunchtime viewing of an edited videotape of last Sunday's service. The tape showed the Phillips' sermon followed by the dissenters.
On hand for the viewing was Coffin, who sat quietly making notes. The former Yale chaplain and antiwar activist declined comment until after his sermon tomorrow.
Some church officials say Phillips' opposition to the gay rights statement puts him in a minority among the church's senior staff members. Communications staffer Joan Bacchus said Phillips is "coaching" opponents of the liberal statement on homosexuality.
Although most church staff members contacted have asked not to be quoted by name, most have been willing to discuss the controversy. Some even seemed to welcome the flap, saying it will help clear the air in the "best of the Riverside tradition," as Bacchus put it. She also praised the church's commitment to a "free pulpit."
A free pulpit means something else to Mary Ida Gardiner, former chairwoman of the church's Board of Deacons. "We have an open pulpit, and no matter what the minister says in his sermon, we do not have the right to disrupt the service. They should have dealt with it after the service, outside somewhere."