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

A delegate to the United Methodist Church's General Conference meeting in Cleveland in May, she is awash in a torrent of theology, commentary, pleadings and lobbying urging her to turn this way, then that -- to approve or disapprove of men pledging spousal fidelity to other men, to envision lesbian Methodist clergy leading the liturgy, to consider 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 Methodist church and three other American denominations in the next few weeks are about sexuality and gender. Their outcomes are deeply important to gay people of faith, determining whether houses of worship will be open to them on the terms of their own sexuality.

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

``What we're going to be talking about, really, is where is our center: 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 there may not be a way they can be harmonized,'' said the Rev. Phil Granger of Muncie, Ind., chairman of the board of Good News, a conservative Methodist movement lobbying against gay-rights issues in his church.

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

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

Between now and mid-July, denominations representing 15 million Americans -- Reform Jews, United Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians -- will go into their major national meetings to face questions 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 the sanctification of same-sex unions when that movement's rabbis vote Wednesday (March 29) at the annual meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Greensboro, N.C.

If it happens, it will be another step toward ``doctrinal incoherence,'' according to Elliott Abrams, a former assistant secretary of state and president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

``The Reform Movement is once again responding not to Jewish problems but to the political zeitgeist,'' he wrote in a column published on Beliefnet, an Internet religion and spirituality site. ``It seems liberal, advanced, progressive, enlightened to jump toward gay marriage, 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 and wrong by reference to their Scripture and centuries of tradition, or with one foot in Scripture and tradition and the other in the revelations of modern psychology and the social sciences?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

``But, as a Reform Jew, I also look to modernity,'' said Rabbi Robert Loewy of Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie, La. ``I ask, what does modernity have to teach me as I apply it to the particular issue? It teaches me openness, willingness to understand that homosexuality is part of God's creation. And it allows me to consider the possibility of performing a same-sex ceremony.''

In Reform practice, where autonomy is important, individual rabbis have been free for some time to perform such ceremonies, although without a framework of support from the faith, they have been rare.

With 84 years in the rabbinate among them, Goldstein, Loewy and Rabbi Ed Cohn of New Orleans' Temple Sinai have done one.

Cohn said he blessed a gay union about five years ago and finds himself ``110 percent for it.''

``It's just the logical next step'' for a denomination that accepts gay and lesbian rabbis and embraces predominantly gay and lesbian congregations in some parts of the country, he said.

If it sanctions same-sex blessings, Reform Judaism, which already accepts noncelibate gay and lesbian rabbis, will reinforce its image as one of the most liberal faith traditions on the American scene.

More conservative Protestant denominations where the same questions are in play have been wracked by debate since the 1970s, producing inconsistencies -- or defiance -- that have been more or less painful, depending on the groups' ability to live with dissent.

-- In the Episcopal church, for instance, priests in some liberal dioceses bless same-sex unions under the jurisdiction of a few sympathetic bishops, although Episcopal tradition does not permit it.

-- In only the most recent act of calculated provocation, 68 Methodist clergy in 1999 conspicuously solemnized a same-sex union, apparently intent on pushing their church toward a decision.

-- And in the Presbyterian Church (USA), some conservatives this summer will propose a so-called ``take a hike'' resolution, in effect inviting liberal congregations who support gay ordination and same-sex unions to take their church property and leave the denomination. It is not expected to pass.

``All this is the cultural strain coming through from the various `rights' movements of the last few years,'' Kreutziger, the United Methodist delegate, said. ``We're in a post-modern culture where the emphasis is more on constructing your own reality, rather than having a shared normative experience everyone is supposed to live by.''

Especially in times of great cultural transition, ``With churches there is this idea, do you conform to society, or do you transform it?'' she said. ``The answer, I guess, depends on whether you go more with Scripture and tradition, or reason and experience.''

Or put another way, Siker said, the issue is what to jettison and what to keep, and how to know the difference.

``The whole debate is about what's the baby, and what's the bath water.''

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