The United Church
of Christ is poised to become the largest Christian
denomination to endorse same-sex marriage, but as with other
Protestant churches, taking a stand on homosexuality
could come with a price. "I don't think it's possible
to overestimate the prophetic role that the passage of
the resolution would have in terms of the impact on the
religious and secular debate in this country," said the Rev.
Rebecca Voelkel of Cleveland, national interim
director of the UCC Coalition for Lesbian, Gay,
Bisexual and Transgender Concerns.
Yet eight congregations in the liberal
denomination of 1.3 million members believe that
approving the same-sex marriage resolution at the
church's upcoming annual meeting would be a bad idea - even
if they concede the measure is likely to win approval.
The meeting starts Friday and concludes Tuesday.
The Rev. Brett Becker, pastor of St. Paul United
Church of Christ in Cibolo, Texas, and a spokesman for
the conservative congregations, predicted the eventual
collapse of the UCC if the measure passes. "If we're
going to call ourselves Christian and be followers of
Christ, we need to follow his teachings on marriage,"
said Becker, whose group has proposed an alternative
resolution defining marriage as between one man and
one woman. Becker said he and other conservative pastors
should continue to welcome homosexuals into the
church, but encourage them to change their behavior.
A third proposal calls for study, prayer and
discernment on the same-sex marriage issue - though
its proponents said the "one man, one woman"
resolution was discriminatory and backers recently voted to
support "the spirit" of the same-sex resolution. The
resolutions will all be discussed at the meeting
Sunday immediately after worship services.
Becker's group also will put forward a measure
that defines the UCC as a Christian denomination - a
resolution that notes some pastors have strayed so far
from the mainstream that the UCC has earned the derisive
nickname "Unitarians considering Christ."
The church will also vote on proposals to cut
back investments in Israel as protest for that
nation's treatment of the Palestinians, and a policy
declaration to loosen standards for clergy ordination from
the mandatory four years of college and three years of seminary.
Traditionally strong in New England, the church
was criticized last year for its television
advertising campaign featuring a gay couple, among
others, being excluded from a church. CBS and NBC rejected
the 30-second ads. But the church's support for gays
and lesbians is not new. In the early 1970s, the UCC
became the first major Christian body to ordain an
openly gay minister and established a gay caucus. Twenty
years ago, the church declared itself to be "open and
affirming" of gays and lesbians, and since then,
nearly 600 congregations have independently done the same.
"It's important for religious groups that are
supportive of (gay) rights to get out in the public
arena and articulate that there is not a monolithic
understanding of these issues and it's not fair to say that
in order to be a good Christian, one has to be
anti-homosexual," Voelkel said.
UCC churches are autonomous, meaning the General
Synod does not create policy for its more than 5,700
congregations. Still, if the resolution supporting
same-sex marriage passes, it would be "a very disturbing
thing," Becker said.
The Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC president, said he
supports the same-sex resolution. However, he
expressed his disappointment that some congregations
could decide to leave the church if the resolution is
approved. "No church can avoid this difficult discussion in
our current cultural context if it seeks to be
relevant to our society and if it seeks to be faithful
particularly to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and
transgender persons among its members," he said.
Debating the same-sex marriage issue is the next
logical step in the denomination's support of the gay
community, especially in the current political
climate, Voelkel said. "We continue to be very concerned
about the way in which very narrow understandings of
biblical and scriptural tradition have been used in
the political arena to justify a lot of oppressive
public policy," Voelkel said.
No hard data exist on how many gays and lesbians
are in the UCC, but Voelkel said about 2,000 people
are on the mailing list for the coalition, and about
1,000 clergy or seminarians are gay. The denomination
has 10,323 ordained ministers.
The momentum for the same-sex resolution has
encouraged the Rev. Libby Tigner, minister of the
First Congregational United Church of Christ in Long
Beach, Calif., and sponsor of the measure. Tigner said the
proposal was largely a response to "the social reality
of many of our members," many of whom flocked to San
Francisco last spring after the mayor directed courts
to issue marriage licenses to couples, regardless of
gender. Still, Tigner said the resolution is not a mandate
for other congregations and hopes the issue does not
divide the church. "Even if it passes, it doesn't
impose anything on anybody," Tigner said. "Resolutions
speak to the churches, not for the churches. This
invites congregations to dialogue and study." (AP)