A study commission of the Episcopal Church has recommended that the church adopt a national policy to permit ordination of homosexuals if they lead a "wholesome" life.
The report of the commission, appointed three years ago to study human sexuality, also suggests easing some of the church's traditional codes of sexual morality, including the ban on premarital sex for engaged couples.
The commission's report on homosexuality, which will come before the church's national General Convention in Denver for action in September, is widely expected to be even more controversial than the church's long battle over ordination of women. Opening the priesthood to women three years ago resulted in a number of parishes and individuals splitting from the church.
The question of ordaining homosexuals, which has already shaken several other major church bodies, is particularly volatile in the Episcopal Church where, as the report delicately puts it, "it is already suspected" that the priesthood includes homosexuals.
Some estimates put the number of homosexuals in the Episcopal priesthood at 10 percent, although it is clearly an area in which no accurate statistics are available. Some dioceses, the level at which candidates are accepted for ordination, have a set policy of not ordaining known homosexuals; others do not.
Whatever action the General Convention takes in September, it will be the first time the church has attempted to set a national standard.
The recommendations of the commission, which was headed by Bishop Robert R. Spears Jr. of Rochester, N.Y., state that "there should be no barrier to the ordination of those homosexual persons who are able and willing to conform their behavior to that which the church affirms as wholesome."
The required "wholesome" behavior is not spelled out in the recommendations.
Further recommendations urge that the fitness of a candidate for the priesthood be dealt with at the level of his or her diocese as has been the practice in the post, and that "the General Convention should enact no legislation which singles out a particular human condition and makes it an absolute barrier to ordination."
Such a local-option stance is similar to the one taken two years ago by a comparable study commission of the United Presbyterian Church. But that church's national body, under threat of schism if the position were adopted, rejected it for a tougher policy against ordaining homosexuals.
The Episcopal statement calls on clergy to give "compassionate and understanding pastoral care to homosexual individuals, but not to promote or foster a homosexual adaptation as a generally acceptable alternative for Christians." The injunction is generally understood to bar priests from officiating at or blessing so-called marriages of homosexuals.
The report suggests that homosexuals both "in the closet" and out "should be welcomed to the [church] and [its] ministry if they also are competent." But it draws the line, as far as ordination is concerned, at those "who want to go further and 'avow' their homosexuality, join the cause, demand 'gay' rights and seek the church's blessing on their 'marriage.'"
While the church should "understand that option, too," and welcome such persons into membership, "we believe they are not competent and qualified to be ordained, nor be seen as an authentic alternative sexual model," the report said.
The study commission disavows the civil rights analogy that is used by gays and even by the Episcopal Church itself in opposing discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing or other areas of society. "The church must differentiate behavior, even that behavior that stems from psychological conditions which the person has not willed, from conditions of being," the report says. "All human beings are equal before God; their actions are not."
At the same time, it calls "the persecution of homosexual persons a very serious sin," and adds: "The church has much of which to repent in this regard."
The controversy over ordaining homosexuals was raised to white heat in the Episcopal Church two years ago when Bishop Paul Moore of New York ordained the Rev. Ellen Barrett, an acknowledged lesbian. Moore was severely criticized for his action and barely escaped formal censure by his fellow bishops.
If the commission's recommendation to permit ordaining acknowledged homosexuals is adopted, it will be the most liberal stance of any mainline denomination on the homosexual controversy which has raged as strongly in churches as in society at large.
In a related development, an influential ecumenical church journal, Christianity and Crisis, is devoting its entire next issue to homosexuality and the church. In it, the Rev. Carter Heyward, one of the first women priests in the Episcopal Church, publicly acknowledges for the first time her homosexuality.