NASHVILLE, Tenn.—A gathering of Southern Baptists here opened this week with Albert Mohler, stalwart head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, apologizing for “denying the reality of sexual orientation,” but saying orientation “can change.”
It closed with a pastor saying “no one goes to hell for being homosexual,” but he added Christians must remind gay friends and family members that “the day of judgment is coming.”
The statements from the largest and one of the most conservative Protestant denominations made waves in the religious and gay communities. Some praised the Southern Baptist Convention for softening its tone and message when discussing homosexuals. Critics complained that nothing really had changed.
But others who attended said a shift was taking place. In private meetings and one-on-one encounters during the week, Southern Baptists and gay-rights advocates said they established relationships they hope will carry both sides through a time of deep cultural change, particularly as the church navigates issues such as the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage.
Southern Baptists remain firmly opposed to homosexuality, citing Biblical authority, and see the legalization of gay marriage as proof of the deterioration of Christian values. Some evangelicals and Baptists outside the SBC have begun advocating change—raising questions about interpretations of Biblical prohibitions, and supporting Christians in same-sex relationships. Though SBC pastors this week, while suggesting greater engagement with gays, reiterated the practice of homosexuality is a sin.
Southern Baptists and gay-rights supporters had clashed before this week, in print and online, but rarely had direct personal contact.
“Everyone’s talking about each other. We needed to start talking to each other,” said Andrew Walker, director of policy studies for the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which hosted the three-day conference.
Though gay-rights advocates and Christians who back same-sex marriage weren’t invited to speak, a small group attended to observe and meet informally with Southern Baptists, including Mr. Walker.
“What’s significant is not the content of the meetings, but that there were meetings at all,” said Justin Lee, executive director of The Gay Christian Network. “It allowed us to humanize one another and form relationships.”