Church opens its arms to gays

Lauren Gold
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Friday, December 13, 2002 - St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Lake Worth is hardly a radical place.

Built by 15 of Lake Worth's original settlers in 1914, the elegant gray building has seen its share of christenings and Communions and potluck dinners and funerals.

You won't find anyone looking to stir up controversy here -- just faithful worshipers and a warm, comfortable presence near the Intracoastal.

Come for regular evening services on the second Saturday of the month, though, and you will find something a little unusual. The majority of the people in the pews would usually be part of a minority. At any other service they might feel uncomfortable. They would be acutely aware that not everyone around them wanted them in church.

But when the Palm Beach chapter of Integrity Fellowship meets at St. Andrew's, these gay and lesbian Episcopalians feel completely at home.

After the open service, which features the traditional rituals and hymns and sermon, a few parishioners file out of the pews and head home. But about 30 drift from the pews to the social hall next to the chapel. There they fill their plates, exchange warm greetings and settle down at a table.

Evenings like this have been a part of St. Andrew's for just over a year, ever since Integrity Fellowship, a nationwide nonprofit group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people within the Episcopal Church, was invited to St. Andrew's.

There's a lot of laughter and conversation and hearty, home-cooked food. Sometimes a guest speaker joins the group. Other times the parishioners discuss business matters or just enjoy the company and the cooking.

The group's November meeting featured guest speaker Charles Green, an adviser at Raymond James and a spokesman for Lambda Legal, an organization for legal and public policy work to promote civil rights for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community.

In theory, there isn't anything particularly bold about Integrity's concept. It was a long time ago -- 1976, to be exact -- that the Episcopal Church made a simple statement accepting gay and lesbian parishioners and clergy into the fold.

Homosexual persons are children of God, it stated, and have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church.

But it was just last year through Integrity that some dedicated Episcopalians -- like Canon Richard Nolan and Bob Pingpank -- felt truly comfortable as part of a congregation here.

Nolan and Pingpank, both 65, have been together 47 years. They're both lifelong Episcopalians with strong ties to the church.

Pingpank is a retired schoolteacher. Nolan, who knew as a child that he was meant to be a priest, was ordained in 1965 and has served in the church in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and Florida.

But for years, Nolan and Pingpank chose to worship at home rather than disclose their relationship in a church that they felt would tolerate them at best, and shun them at worst.

The couple wanted to go to church. "You need a community of more than two people," Nolan said. But they're not the kind of people who relish stirring up a controversy. They just wanted to live and worship quietly. Together.

And they knew they weren't alone.

Although the Episcopal Church has granted equal rights to gay and lesbian parishioners and clergy, that acceptance has not always made its way down to individual churches.

Some operate on a "don't ask, don't tell" principle. Others welcome homosexuals only if they're celibate.

It's an atmosphere that kept Nolan and Pingpank at a distance. And, according to Nolan, it discourages the gay community -- especially the younger generations -- from exploring Christianity.

"I'm afraid the young community has written the church off," he said. "They think there's nothing there for them; it's dead, like a museum, and at most all they'll see is some old art."

St. Andrew's rector, the Rev. William Hamilton, has given the issue a lot of thought. Last year, he reread the Baptismal Covenant -- Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being? -- and came to a conclusion.

"If I really love God, I am going to treat my neighbor as I would be treated," he said. "We don't have enough time to get to know people. We need to be open to our neighbors and treat each other with dignity."

Hamilton was looking for a way to attract more worshipers to the church. Inviting Integrity to meet there, he decided, was a logical -- and spiritual -- solution.

There are more 55 Integrity chapters nationwide, in addition to chapters in Canada, Australia and Africa. The idea of inviting Integrity to St. Andrew's was brewing in Hamilton's head just as Nolan, Pingpank and others were becoming frustrated with the long drive down Interstate 95 to the nearest Integrity chapter at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale.

"Nobody asked me or put pressure on me to do this," said Hamilton, who has been at St. Andrew's 16 years. "It was a coming together. It was the right thing to do."

St. Andrew's hasn't changed, Hamilton said. The invitation just reaffirms the church's dedication to inclusion and compassion.

Pressure has come, though, from parishioners who disagree with Hamilton. Five couples, some of whom had been very influential in the church, left the congregation in protest.

Hamilton has held firm. "They said, 'They're sinners,' " he said. "I said, 'Yes, they are. I'm a sinner, too.' God loves us anyway. It's important for that to be stressed."

The couples who left are worshiping at another church, Hamilton said. And St. Andrew's has gained congregants -- Hamilton doesn't know how many -- who appreciate the church's decision to let Integrity members meet there. "We're grateful for the fellowship," said Nolan.

Nolan said he doesn't know where the Episcopal Church will stand on the issue in the future, but he's cautiously optimistic.

"We never would have thought we'd see all the changes that have come about," he said. "I hope the Episcopal Church will study the research on human diversity and incorporate those insights... so we can appreciate and affirm and uphold all people."

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Integrity Fellowship meets on the second Saturday of each month at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Lake Worth. Services begin at 6 p.m.; Integrity meetings follow. For more information, call St. Andrew's at 582-6609.

For information on Integrity Fellowship: www.integrityusa.org.

lauren_gold@pbpost.com

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