LEAD: He is known as a "preacher's preacher," and the Rev. James A. Forbes Jr. of the Riverside Church in Manhattan lived up to his reputation last week when he sounded an eloquent call for compassion in advising other ministers how to preach on AIDS.
He is known as a "preacher's preacher," and the Rev. James A. Forbes Jr. of the Riverside Church in Manhattan lived up to his reputation last week when he sounded an eloquent call for compassion in advising other ministers how to preach on AIDS.
"In an existential sense, we all have AIDS," he said, "and the question is how we want to be treated as dying men and women."
But the real lesson of his remarks was in something Dr. Forbes did not say. Nowhere in his 30-minute sermon on AIDS did he either praise or condemn homosexuality. Whether calculated or not, his approach appeared to be effective in getting his message of compassion across to his audience of 80 ministers, priests and rabbis attending a workshop on delivering sermons on social issues held at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
'Stamp of Approval' Opposed
Under questioning, however, Dr. Forbes did discuss his ideas about the propriety of homosexuality - saying that he thought it was a "viable alternate life style for some people" - and, then, he encountered some fierce reactions.
"I was very impressed by your sermon," the Rev. Gloria Gooden Cross, a Pentecostal minister from Somerville, N.J., said, barely holding back her anger. "But I was not aware of the fact that we have to give the stamp of approval to the homosexual life style."
"The trouble with our country," she continued, "is that we are too intellectual and forget that sin is sin. And God hates sin. We as preachers have to keep people's minds clear about what is right and what is wrong."
"God does not like homosexuality," she added. "We can't simply say that people are like they are. Don't we believe in change? Don't we believe in casting out demons?"
'Some People Different'
Dr. Forbes said he was sympathetic with the woman's views and confessed that at one time he shared them. "But we have to look at sin not just in the context of the Bible, but also in the context of the times," he told her.
He said he was convinced that sexual orientation was not something chosen but something given. "In God's workshop, He makes some people different," he explained.
Dr. Forbes, who is black, added, "Homosexuality is given to them as much as my color was given to me."
Later several clerics congratulated Ms. Cross for challenging Dr. Forbes, and several others praised Dr. Forbes for his rebuttal.
The exchange came last Tuesday at the second of eight lectures in a series called "The Art of Crafting Sermons on Relevant Social Issues," sponsored by the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies. In the audience were Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox priests, rabbis of the different Jewish branches and ministers of various Protestant denominations.
Other issues that will be examined in the series are abortion, ethics, drugs, human rights, the environment and politics. All the sessions are being held at the Jewish Theological Seminary, 3080 Broadway, at 122d Street.
Punishment Idea Not Promoted
The discussion at Tuesday's program, and at the lunch that separated Dr. Forbes's sermon and the question-and-answer period, in many ways reflected the thinking of many members of the clergy on the AIDS crisis. No one at the workshop, for example, publicly promoted the idea that AIDS is a punishment from God for sexual deviance.
A recent survey of a wide range of denominational statements on AIDS by J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, found that the idea of AIDS as retribution was widely rejected.
In addition the emphasis on homosexuality rather than drug addiction appeared to mirror the major concern of religious institutions. As Dr. Forbes put it, "Until the church stops and deals with its attitude toward homosexuality, it will continue to serve as the barrier to serious engagement" of the AIDS crisis.
Dr. Forbes was called earlier this year to be the pastor of Riverside Church, an interdenominational church known for its great preachers, like the late Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick. Before joining Riverside, Dr. Forbes was the Joe R. Engle Professor of Preaching at Union Theological Seminary.
Like his father before him, Dr. Forbes was ordained in the Original United Holy Church, International, a Pentecostal denomination. But he was also ordained by the more liberal American Baptist Churches.
Personal Change in Thinking
In his remarks, Dr. Forbes traced the development of his own thinking on homosexuality. When he was a seminarian, he once refused to lead a religious service with a homosexual minister. Drawing his inspiration from the Biblical prohibitions against homosexuality, he said, "I thought that God wanted me to do that," he said.
Over the years, however, as he explored the Bible further, Dr. Forbes said, he found other mandates that compelled him to see the gifts of every person, especially homosexuals. "I found that God's love was unrelenting and all-inclusive," he said.
Still, the preacher did not condemn those ministers who would disagree. "Some are called to uphold the tradition," he said, "and others to interpret the tradition. The Spirit leads us in every age to come to the fountain to drink and to be refreshed thereby. I come to be refreshed."