Sarah Kreutziger is swamped with reading these days, apartfrom the literature that goes with her job as an assistant professor inthe Tulane University School of Social Work in New Orleans.

A delegate to the United Methodist Church's General Conferencemeeting in Cleveland in May, she is awash in a torrent of theology,commentary, pleadings and lobbying urging her to turn this way, thenthat -- to approve or disapprove of men pledging spousal fidelity toother men, to envision lesbian Methodist clergy leading the liturgy, toconsider pronouncing a historic new acceptance, Christian and Methodist,of homosexuality itself.

``I've been in prayer with all this material for weeks,'' she said.

And that's only the half of it.

At one level, the debates about to break out again in her Methodistchurch and three other American denominations in the next few weeks areabout sexuality and gender. Their outcomes are deeply important to gaypeople of faith, determining whether houses of worship will be open tothem on the terms of their own sexuality.

But the debates cut much deeper than that, to places where allpeople of faith, no matter their sexuality, derive their most basicideas about God, self and the world.

``What we're going to be talking about, really, is where is ourcenter: What do we believe in, and on what authority,'' Kreutziger said.

So the debate is nothing if not passionate.

``Over the years, we've found our perspectives so divergent theremay not be a way they can be harmonized,'' said the Rev. Phil Granger ofMuncie, Ind., chairman of the board of Good News, a conservativeMethodist movement lobbying against gay-rights issues in his church.

``There is this underlying fear that this United Methodist Church, thismother church, may get fractured. And nobody wants that.''

By a quirk of timing, the same general debates are about to be airedfour times in quick succession on the national scene.

Between now and mid-July, denominations representing 15 millionAmericans -- Reform Jews, United Methodists, Presbyterians andEpiscopalians -- will go into their major national meetings to facequestions about blessing same-sex unions, gay ordination and, for some,the acceptability of homosexuality itself.

Reform Judaism seems poised to lend its official blessing to thesanctification of same-sex unions when that movement's rabbis voteWednesday (March 29) at the annual meeting of the Central Conference ofAmerican Rabbis in Greensboro, N.C.

If it happens, it will be another step toward ``doctrinalincoherence,'' according to Elliott Abrams, a former assistant secretaryof state and president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center inWashington.

``The Reform Movement is once again responding not to Jewishproblems but to the political zeitgeist,'' he wrote in a columnpublished on Beliefnet, an Internet religion and spirituality site. ``Itseems liberal, advanced, progressive, enlightened to jump toward gaymarriage, so that's where the Reform movement feels compelled to go.''

True or not, the remark points toward the heart of the debate.

Do modern Christian and Jewish faith communities locate right andwrong by reference to their Scripture and centuries of tradition, orwith one foot in Scripture and tradition and the other in therevelations of modern psychology and the social sciences?

For traditionalists, Scripture discloses the unchanging nature ofboth man and God, and a fixed standard of right and wrong to guide humanconduct, said the Rev. Jeffrey Siker, a Presbyterian minister and editorof ``Homosexuality in the Church,'' a collection of essays on both sidesof the question.

``Others contend that as cultures change, people develop evolvingunderstandings of what it means to be truly faithful and righteous,'' inwhich Scripture ``is read by the light of how you think God continues toreveal himself now,'' he said.

``And, of course, each side says its own view is backed by divinewarrant, so every statement seeks to be the ultimate statement,'' Sikersaid. ``Makes the debate a piece of cake, right?''

For Christians and Jews, the clearest traditional admonitionsagainst homosexuality are found in the Bible's 18th and 20th chapters ofLeviticus and for Christians especially in the first chapter of Paul'sletter to the Romans.

``But the Bible is not always going to provide clear and satisfyinganswers,'' said Rabbi David Goldstein of Touro Synagogue in New Orleans.Goldstein said he will vote Wednesday to approve same-sex blessings forgay Jewish couples.

But even if not taken literally, Scripture and 2,000 years ofWestern tradition beg to be honored, wrote a Jewish study committee thatrecommended against approving same-sex unions.

``Not even we, with all our liberality, have ever done thisbefore,'' the committee wrote. ``To do so now would be a revolutionarystep, one which would sunder us from all Jewish tradition, including ourown, down to the most recent times.''

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