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Oz church votes in gay priests amid threats of mass exodus

Mary Longmore | July 17, 2003

SYDNEY - The leaders of Australia's third largest Christian denomination Thursday voted to allow homosexuals to become priests - a move that risks splitting the Uniting Church and raising the ire of other faiths.

Those opposed to the change warned it could trigger a mass exodus of followers from the church - an amalgam of the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational faiths.

After two days of heated debate, more than 75 percent of delegates at the Uniting Church's national assembly in Melbourne voted for gays in the clergy.

Individual presbyteries - regional governing bodies with the church -will decide on ordinations on a case-by-case base.

The Uniting Church was formed in 1977 by a merger of the three denominations. The church already has some gay clergy but until now has not formally recognized this reality.

Uniting Church president the Rev. Dr. Dean Drayman said it was "inevitable" that Thursday's decision would cause division, but urged church members to keep an open mind.

"We want our members to read what the proposal is, to see that nothing has changed for their congregation," he said.

Mary Hawks, a spokeswoman for a conservative faction opposing gay clergy, said the church was now "horribly close" to a full-blown split.

"I'm going to be doing my very best to persuade everybody to do absolutely nothing this year except pray and talk and find a way forward," she told reporters outside the meeting.

One retired priest, Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon, who is lesbian, said she was proud to be part of a "very brave church." She called on those threatening leaving it to think again.

"I say please stay. We love you. We respect you and I want to talk to you ... let's just get to know each other," she said.

The vote with the Uniting Church coincides with a long-running debate within another denomination, the Anglican Church, about whether it should also allow gay clergy.

Last month several Anglican bishops in Sydney condemned the appointment of gay bishops in the United States and Britain.

One Sydney Anglican bishop, Peter Tasker, criticized Thursday's Uniting Church decision as being contrary to Christian teachings.

"We view this departure of our Uniting Church colleagues from the teaching of scripture and the ages-old moral tradition of the Christian church with grave concern," Tasker said on behalf of the Sydney Anglican Diocese.

"Homosexual practice is incompatible with scripture," he said. - Sapa-AP

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