An Arlington church volunteered to host a funeral Thursday, then reneged on the invitation when it became clear the dead man's homosexuality would be identified in the service.
The event placed High Point Church in the cross hairs of an issue many conservative Christian organizations are discussing: how to take a hard-line theological position on homosexuality while showing compassion toward gay people and their families.
But the dispute between High Point Church and the friends and family of Cecil Sinclair has left confusion and hard feelings on both sides.
Mr. Sinclair, 46, died Monday. He was a native of Fort Worth, a Navy veteran who served in Desert Storm helping rescuers find downed pilots, and a singer in the Turtle Creek Chorale, said his mother, Eva Bowers. He did not belong to a church.
His brother, Lee, is an employee and member of High Point, a nondenominational mega-congregation led by the Rev. Gary Simons. Mr. Simons is the brother-in-law of Joel Osteen, nationally known pastor of Houston's Lakewood Church.
When Cecil Sinclair became ill with a heart condition six years ago, church members started praying for him out of love for his brother, Mr. Simons said Thursday. And when Mr. Sinclair died of an infection, a side effect of surgery intended to keep him alive long enough for a heart transplant, a member of the church staff was immediately sent to minister to the family, he said.
Both the family and church officials agree that the church volunteered to host a memorial service, feed 100 guests and create a multimedia presentation of photos from Mr. Sinclair's life.
But the photos that the family selected alerted church officials that there might be a problem with the service, Mr. Simons said.
Not OK with photos
"Some of those photos had very strong homosexual images of kissing and hugging," he said. "My ministry associates were taken aback."
And then, he said, the family asked to have its own people officiate the service. "We had no control over the format of the memorial," Mr. Simons said.
Family and friends discovered the church had withdrawn its invitation Wednesday evening, when Lee Sinclair called to tell his mother, she said. Ms. Bowers said that her older son is developmentally disabled, with hearing and vision problems.
Nobody from the church called her or Mr. Sinclair's partner, Paul Wagner, to discuss possible changes to the service, Ms. Bowers said.
"We could have reached a compromise," she said. "That was never attempted."
At least some theological questions could have been worked out, she said. For instance, the family was willing to allow the church to issue an "altar call" asking people to accept Jesus at the end of the service.
But it's not clear where the two sides could have found common ground on the central issue. High Point Church opposes homosexuality, and there was no way the church could host a service that appeared to endorse it, Mr. Simons said.
"Can you hold the event and condone the sin and compromise our principles?" he said. "We can't."
The issue was not so much that Mr. Sinclair was, from the church's perspective, an unrepentant sinner, he said. It's that it was clear from the photos that his friends and family wanted that part of his life to be a significant part of the service.
The pastor said that he could imagine a similar situation involving a different sin. Perhaps a mother who is a member of the church loses a son who is a thief or murderer, Mr. Simons said. The church would surely volunteer to hold a service, he said.
"But I don't think the mother would submit photos of her son murdering someone," he said. "That's a red light going off."
"Knew it, accepted it'
Mr. Sinclair's family and friends reject any such comparison between homosexuality and criminal behavior. Mr. Sinclair came out officially to his family shortly after his service in the Gulf War, his mother said.
"We all knew it," she said. "We knew it and accepted it."
After the church decided it would not host the funeral service, it offered to pay for another facility, Mr. Simons said. The family declined and found a local funeral home to hold the event Thursday night.Even so, the church sent over food and the video – minus the images church officials found to be offensive.
"Some of our people will be there at the memorial service," Mr. Simons said. "We tried to do the very best of our ability to express the love of Christ."
Figuring out how to walk that line is not easy, said the Rev. Bob Stith, the recently retired pastor of Carroll Baptist Church in Southlake who is now the national strategist for gender issues for the Southern Baptist Convention. His new job is to help churches negotiate conflicts like the one faced by High Point.
The best system is to work out procedures ahead of time, he said. For instance, he tells Baptist churches they should have clear guidelines that they can give to families at the start of funeral planning. But even that can't prevent every possible awkward situation, he said.
"I know because this is such new ground for a lot of churches and pastors, you get caught off-guard and you get reactive and not proactive," he said.
A familiar situation
If so, that kind of reaction is all too familiar to survivors of the AIDS onslaught of the 1980s, said Ed Young, a charter member of the Turtle Creek Chorale. Back then, having churches turn down funerals of gay men was not uncommon, he said.
"It may be surprising to younger gays, because most gays think that doesn't happen any more," he said. "But it's still there."
Was there a way to avoid this conflict?
"I don't know if there is any way to prevent something like that," Mr. Simons said. "Whenever there is a matter of principle involved, each side thinks that it is right."
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