Tuesday, July 05, 2005

UCC deems gay marriages equal before God

From: The Sun

ATLANTA - The United Church of Christ on Monday overwhelmingly declared gay marriages equal to those between a man and a woman.

The statement of the church's voting body was the boldest and broadest a Christian denomination has given in support of allowing gays to marry. It may spur other mainline Prot denominations to advance their acceptance of homosexuality, theologians have said.

Leaders of the liberal denomination hope it catches the attention of Washington, where some politicians, including President Bush promoted a constitutional amendment that would prevent states from legalizing gay marriage.

"On this July Fourth, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ has acted courageously to declare freedom, affirming marriage equality, affirming the civil rights of same-gender couples to have their relationships recognized by the state and encouraging our local churches to celebrate and bless those marriages,' said the Rev. John H. Thomas, the 1.3 million-member church's president and general minister, at a news conference after the high-noon vote.

The marriage-equality resolution passed with the support of what appeared to be 80 percent to 90 percent of the 884 delegates at the church's biennial national gathering.

But it was not without a few voices of strong opposition and harsh criticism.

"This now begins a period of disorder, chaos and confusion in the United Church of Christ,' said David Runnion-Bareford, executive director of Biblical Witness Fellowship, a movement within the church that strongly opposes gay marriage as unbiblical.

"It's a tragic day for the church,' he said.

Congregations are not required to agree with the Synod's decision or change their policies based on it. But it is widely expected of the United Church of Christ's 6,000 congregations will break away.

"There will be a cost as well as a joy,' the Rev. Stephen Gray, who leads the Indiana-Kentucky Conference, said during the discussion that precipitated the vote. "The cost will be members and churches and income.'

It is unknown how many congregations will leave. The church's headquarters in Cleveland had not studied the matter.

No congregations left the Southern California-Nevada Conference after it adopted a similar resolution in June 2004, said the Rev. Jane Heckels, conference minister.

The conference, which includes 17 congregations from San Bernardino and eastern Los Angeles counties, sponsored the resolution "In Support of Equal Marriage Rights for All.'

The resolution asks congregations to adopt wedding policies that don't discriminate against homosexuals and to support legislation that would legalize gay marriage, not only civil unions.

"I'm hopeful that someday I will be able to be married,' said Heckles, a Claremont resident. "My partner and I have been together for 25 years and we would love to be married.'

The church's statement is expected to resonate with other mainline Protestant denominations struggling with whether gays should be allowed to marry or serve as priests.

"I learned a long time ago not to try to predict mainline churches, but it might well be a signal to other churches that they ne at this,' said Philip A. Amerson, president of Claremont School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary.

Next month, the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will vote on a recommendation to allow into the priesthood those "in lifelong, committed and faithful same-sex relationships.'

The Lutheran Church's requirement that gay ministers be celibate caused the Central City Lutheran Mission in San Bernardino to be pulled from the roster of churches after the mission installed a lesbian pastor. The Rev. Jenny Mason resigned in April after one year on the job.

Homosexuality has created a growing divide between the U.S. Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, which is upset with its American church for installing an openly gay man as bishop of New Hampshire.

And every summer since 1978 excusing this year because of a schedule change the Presbyterian Church USA has discussed its policy that "self-affirming, practicing homosexuals are not eligible for election as church officers.'

United Church of Christ leadership argues the Bible says little about marriage and does not forbid homosexuality. However, those who interpret the Scriptures literally believe it is plain as day that God limits marriage to one man and one woman.

They point to Genesis 2:24. "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh,' it states. The passage is quoted three times in the New Testament.

"We follow the intent of the Scriptures: What has it said for the last 2,000 years not what has it said for the last 20 years,' said Koloman Ludwig, a member of the Calvin Synod, an orthodox sect within the church.

Ludwig's comment took a dig at the church's yearlong campaign, "God is still speaking.' Its message has been that God speaks in new ways every day, underlying the church's belief that doctrine and the intent of the Bible are affected by culture and context.

Over time, the church's understanding of how gays and lesbians should be treated has changed, said Thomas, United Church of Christ's president and general minister.

Monday was another marker in the United Church of Christ's long history of crusading for equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

In 1972, it was the first Christian denomination to ordain an openly gay man. Thirteen years later the church declared it is "open and affirming' of gays and lesbians. And long before there were discussions about amending the U.S. Constitution to prevent states from allowing gays to marry as they can in Massachusetts many United Church of Christ pastors performed ceremonies for gay couples who wanted to enter into a covenant relationship.

Today, openly gay ministers lead more than 200 congregations.

One of those pastors is the Rev. Lisa Stedman of Danvers, Mass. In 1987, she and her partner dedicated their relationship in a ceremony before friends and family. Last year, after Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriages, they were married officially.

Holding a marriage license has dramatically improved their relationship, Stedman said.

"Separate but equal has never worked, and equal but different can never be truly equal,' she said. What is the United Church of Christ?

The 1.3-million-member denomination formed in 1957 with the merger of the Christian Congregational Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church.

It is a "covenant' church that allows each of its 6,000 congregations to govern independently. The national body General Synod "speaks to the church, not for it,' says the Rev. Robert Chase, executive director of the Office of Communications.

Because of the synod's direction, the United Church of Christ has a reputation for being among the most liberal Christian churches, though leaders prefer the term "progressive.'

The Biblical Witness Fellowship formed in 1978 as an alternative to the church's liberal leanings. The movement claims the Unite Church of Christ's declining membership is a result of "radical social positions.'

During the past 48 years, the church has rallied behind social and racial causes, working in the South during the Civil Rights Movement. It has since shifted its attention to equal rights for homosexuals.

The national body declared in 1985 the United Church of Christ "open and affirming' to people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. It called on local churches to do the same. About 600 churches, including those in Claremont, Redlands and San Bernardino, have followed.