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Straight Talk Highland Park Presbyterian's Ditching Its Church

Daniel Fishel

UPDATED SEPTEMBER 17 2014:

Last week I wrote an item for our news blog about Highland Park Presbyterian and how they were ditching out of the national Presbyterian Church so they wouldn't have to have gay clergy. As happens, I learn lots more about topics after my items appear.

First of all, no Presbyterian church really has to accept any pastor it doesn't want to accept. I looked that up. Catholic priests get sent to or imposed on parishes by bishops. The Presbyterian Church is more like the Episcopal Church in which I grew up in that a parish hires the pastor it wants.

So after its national denomination voted (again) last year to allow homosexuals to become ministers, Highland Park Presbyterian was never in any danger of getting one for a minister. They just didn't want anyone else to have one.

I knew when I wrote my item that HPPC was never going to admit it was abandoning its own denomination over gay clergy. I saw from their official pronouncements that it was all about weighty theological issues having to do with the "inerrancy" of the Bible, which is sort of not a real word, but there you have it. Oh, no, gay ministers would be fine, but we can't have anybody in the church who might be noninerrant.

Yeah. After I said that was bullshit and it was about gay clergy, the theological thicket just got thicker. One commenter suggested it had less to do with gay clergy than with "penal substitutionary atonement." Say what?

I had been binge-watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix, a series about women in prison. I thought maybe penal substitutionary atonement was something I had just seen those naughty girls doing, but it's not. It's about Jesus dying on the cross for our sins and whether we have to do anything about our sins ourselves since that's already been taken care of at the bank.

The fact remains, as I said in my blog item, Highland Park Presbyterian Church happens to have a long and twisty road behind it on the issue of gayology. During the agonizing debate in the national denomination, Ronald Scates, pastor of HPPC until a year ago, was an ardent opponent of any opening to gay clergy.

He also has been an advocate and activist for programs that attempt to turn gay young people into heterosexuals, a concept so controversial that such programs have been outlawed in some states. The most recent governor to sign a ban on "gay conversion therapy" was Republican Chris Christie of New Jersey.

The reason for the bans is the belief that trying to turn gay young people into heterosexuals is about as damaging and basically crazy-headed as trying to turn heterosexual young people into homosexuals. In fact ... hey ... it's the same thing, isn't it?

In May of 2009, John Wright, then the editor of Dallas Voice, took Scates to task for homophobic speech. Scates wrote to Wright complaining that his characterization of Scates had been unfair. He said in his manuscript note:

"I am not 'afraid of the same' (that is what homophobic literally means), nor afraid of folks who have same-sex attraction. I only want God's best for them. I have been taken into the world of homosexual sex (and heterosexual sex outside of marriage) and have witnessed the self-destructiveness that is rampant whenever we use our bodies contrary to the way God has made us. I hope you will be open-minded enough to read the enclosed. If I didn't think you were a valuable person, if I was truly bigoted, hateful, I didn't care about you ... I wouldn't bother to write.

"There is a way out ... a way back toward the center of God's will ... both for you and for me (because we're both in the same sinful boat). I've witnessed that firsthand as well.

"Don't give up on God's best for your life. I promise you that I won't either. In Christ, Ronald Scates."

Along with this missive, Scates sent Wright a brochure for a ministry he had headed, which was devoted to convincing gay young people that they were wicked because they were gay. Wright published the letter and made reference to the brochure. I said in my blog item that I thought Wright presented the letter in a way designed to lead a reader to conclude that Scates was gay. I have gone back and reread what Wright wrote, and I want to offer here a major revision. But, first:

I reached Scates. He is on sabbatical from HPPC right now in an arrangement that sounds like pre-retirement as he nears 65 years of age. It's a deal he struck with the church a year ago. I asked him about the Wright letter. He wrote back to me by email saying this:

 

"The editor of the Dallas Voice took a comment I made to him in an interview a number of years ago and knowingly and maliciously twisted it totally out of context in order to make it look as if I was somehow latently homosexual. Previous to coming to Dallas, I served for 11 years on the board of Regeneration Ministries in Baltimore (three of those years as president), a Christian ministry for men and women who are struggling to come out of the homosexual lifestyle by seeking new lives in Christ.

"Most of the Regen staff were/are homosexual/lesbian oriented folk. I said, 'If I'm going to serve on this board with wisdom, faithfulness, and compassion, I need to understand the homosexual lifestyle beyond the mere anecdotes and caricatures that currently inform my knowledge and understanding of the lifestyle.'

"This was in 1989, so I asked some of the male Regen staff to 'take me into their former world' by driving me around Baltimore during the daytime and showing me key sites of homosexual activity while telling me about what actually goes on in those places. I certainly had my eyes open to the self-destructiveness of that lifestyle.

"That is what I clearly told the editor of the Dallas Voice so that he would understand that I made an intentional attempt to move beyond homophobia and to truly understand what the lifestyle entailed. After he published his purposely twisted version of what I said and meant, I called him on the phone, to ask him why he would do such a thing, and he reacted with a 'too bad for you' attitude.

"For 13 years as Sr. Pastor of HPPC, my goal for everyone in our congregation was merely to preach and teach only what the Scriptures clearly reveal to be God's best for any and all people in all areas of life, including the realm of human sexuality, which is fidelity in marriage between one man and one woman, and chastity in singleness, whatever one's orientation, and to do so in a compassionate and non-condemnatory way as part of the Gospel of grace. That's the whole story."

After that statement appeared in the blog, Wright commented on it:

"John Wright here. I've sent Jim an email with my cell so he can call me, but basically here's my response: Ron Scates is completely full of shit. He never called me to explain what he meant by 'taken into the world of homosexual sex.' If he had, I certainly would remember it, and I certainly would have reported on it. Do you really think I would pass up a chance to do another post about Scates? No way! The last communication I had with Scates was his handwritten letter. Furthermore, I never twisted Mr. Scates' words to suggest that he was a latent homosexual or had been through an ex-gay program. Go back and look at my post."

I wrote to Scates again pointing out that Wright had accused him of inventing the story about a snippy phone call, and I invited him to respond. Scates said he had no comment.

But I also went back and looked at Wright's original item, and here is where I have to eat my own bit of crow. Wright's original story included a reproduction of Scates' actual letter. But Wright is right: He himself said not one word to characterize it or to suggest that Scates was a homosexual. I nevertheless picked up a certain ambiguous vibe when I read the story the first time. The second time around, I decided the vibe had nothing to do with anything Wright wrote, everything to do with Scates' letter.

"I have been taken into the world of homosexual sex ..."

I do not know what that means. It does not mean "I am a homosexual." But nor does "taken into the world of homosexual sex" mean "I rode around a gay neighborhood with some gay guys." He describes his safari into the gay jungle as a motorized trip through Baltimore during daylight hours. How much of the "self-destructiveness of that lifestyle" can you see from a car? What was going on inside the car?

Why does any of this matter? It matters because it's all the same kind of weirdly suspicious obfuscation whether it's Pastor Scates speaking in tongues about his trip to Gayland or the parishioners of Highland Park Presbyterian ditching out of their own denomination just when it admits gay clergy but insisting it's all about penal substitution.

Have you ever noticed? These people who are so brave and bold and direct talking about everybody else's sexuality get all squishy shy and oblique whenever the spotlight spins to them? So does that mean they should have to spill their guts about their own sexuality? Oh, God, I truly hope not.

 

Maybe as society withdraws from the baseball-bat wielding expression of homophobia, we can all return to the more normal rules of civilization by which other people's sex lives are nobody else's damn business. The rule we really need to hope for some day is, "Don't ask, don't ask." Unless you belong to HPPC.


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