The United Church
of Christ's endorsement of same-sex marriage wasn't the
only disagreement Suffolk [Va.] Christian Church had with
the national group. "Although for a lot of people,
that was the straw that broke the camel's back," said
the Reverend Michael D. Halley, minister of the
145-year-old church, which agreed by more than a two-thirds
majority in the fall to leave the 1.3 million-member denomination.
The action was in response to the vote by the
UCC's general synod, a biennial meeting of delegates
from member churches, affirming "equal marriage rights
for couples regardless of gender."
Congregations also were asked to oppose
campaigns that advocate constitutional amendments to
limit marriage according to sex. Virginia is among the
states with such a campaign. If the general assembly votes
again this year, as it did last year, to ban same-sex civil
unions, the measure could go before the state's voters
as a constitutional amendment this fall.
As many as 25 congregations within the UCC's
Southern Conference, which includes eastern Virginia
and all of North Carolina, have left since the vote,
said the Reverend Stephen Camp, the conference's
administrator. Six new congregations have formed in
the same period, leaving the conference with about 230 total.
The synod does not dictate policy to member
churches, and ministers are not required to provide
marriage rites for gay couples.
The synod's action made the church the first
major Christian denomination to endorse same-sex
marriage. The United Church of Christ already was the
only major Protestant denomination to allow ordination of
gay and lesbian clergy.
At Suffolk Christian, Halley said the synod's
decision led some congregants to conclude that their
values diverged from those of the UCC. Some
members questioned whether it was proper for the UCC's
national leadership to take politically themed stands, such
as its opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
"Whatever they do, we have to wear," Halley said. "If
we carry the name out front, people are going to
associate us with whatever actions our national church body
Not every church unhappy with the synod's stance
on marriage equality has quit the denomination. At
Windsor Congregational Christian Church UCC in Isle of
Wight County, the board of deacons opted instead to send a
letter of protest to the denomination's president. The
church also cut financial contributions to the
national church that might be used to promote the
UCC's stand on same-sex marriage.
"We won't turn our back on the UCC," said the
Reverend Basil Ballard, the church 's minister. "We
still feel we're part of it, even though this is one
little portion we can't abide."
At least 16 churches outside the Southern
Conference have quit the UCC, said the Reverend J.
Bennett Guess, the UCC's national spokesman. Guess
said the losses are not catastrophic, noting that the UCC
also has received overtures from existing
congregations and groups of people who are interested
in forming UCC congregations nationwide. (AP)