When the last
votes were counted, some members of Pilgrim United Church
of Christ in Toledo, Ohio, hugged and applauded the decision
to end their 45-year affiliation with the
denomination. Others wiped away tears and walked out
The United Church of Christ's endorsement of
same-sex marriage, a lone stance among the largest
Christian denominations, has stirred debate and
divided dozens of its churches. Some have stopped sending
money to the church's national office; others have
left the denomination. "It has caused people to really
think hard about their faith," said the Reverend
Stephen Camp, administrator of the church's Southern
Conference, which includes North Carolina and eastern
Virginia. "I think we're on the right side of
history," said Camp, who backs the denomination's
position. "We're seeking to be faithful to what Jesus Christ
is saying, that we should all be one."
The Cleveland-based church has a tradition of
support for gays and lesbians, becoming the first
major Christian church to ordain an openly gay
minister in 1972. Some conservative congregations, however,
were angered by a UCC television advertising campaign
that started about a year ago to reach out to gays.
Some of those same conservatives say leaders of the
church crossed the line this time by supporting same sex-marriage.
Same-sex marriage "isn't what we preach, it
isn't what we teach, it isn't what we believe," said
Lawrence Cameron, the pastor at Pilgrim UCC.
It's not clear how many churches have left since
the denomination's rule-making body in July endorsed
marriage equality. The UCC puts the number at 49,
while a group opposed to the stand on marriage says at
least 77 churches have withdrawn. And although either number
represents just a fraction of the denomination's 5,725
churches, the same-sex marriage issue has sparked
debate and divisiveness in many more congregations,
especially conservative ones in the South and Midwest.
"The leadership knew this would divide the
church up and down, inside and out," said Bryan Moore,
pastor at Shepherd of the Hills Church in
Bechtelsville, Pa. "How could they not know that?"
Members of the church in eastern Pennsylvania
have spent time at retreats debating whether to remain
in the denomination and fight against the same-sex
marriage policy or start anew. For now, they won't give any
money to the denomination, sending it to orphanages or other
charities instead, Moore said.
"We're not going to support a direction that we
feel is away from the Bible and away from the
direction of where the people in the pews are at," he
said. "There are so many churches that are in the process
of weighing this."
Members of the Bradford Congregational Church in
Zephyrhills, Fla., voted to leave the denomination
within a month of the same-sex marriage endorsement.
"As soon as I got back to my church, they met me at the
door," said the Reverend James Owens, who attended the UCC's
meeting in Atlanta, where the marriage resolution was approved.
UCC leaders, he said, should have surveyed the
churches before voting on such an important decision.
"If you go to the congregations, you'll find them to
be much more conservative than the denomination," he said.
Owens said his church is open and welcoming but
that its members believe that Scripture clearly says
marriage is between one man and one woman. "Don't
misunderstand me, we love gay people," said Leatha Stone,
78, a member of the church. "We just don't think they should
Some churches are sticking around to fight.
About 30 churches are part of a group called Faithful
and Welcoming Churches of the United Church of Christ.
They plan to meet next month at regional meetings to discuss
their strategy. "By emerging from obscurity, we can affect
the agenda of the national church, " said Bob
Thompson, pastor at Corinth Reformed Church in
Hickory, N.C. "Christians that differ should be able
to stay together and work together."
His church is waiting until November to vote on
staying or leaving. "We didn't raise this issue," he
said. "We responded to it because I don't think
passivity is the right response."
United Church of Christ leaders say they grieve
the loss of any church. They add that most of the
churches that left were distancing themselves from the
denomination in recent years, including some that had been
withholding money from the national office. The church says
23 new congregations joined last year, some because of
the marriage decision.
That issue, though, does not define the
denomination, said Barb Powell, a spokeswoman for the
UCC, which has 1.3 million members. "We knew that
going in there was going to be a need for broad discussion,"
she said. "I don't think it's really a distraction.
One issue won't shape any denomination, ours or another."
The church's national office said it hasn't
noticed a significant drop in donations that support
its operations. The Southern Conference, however, has
felt the impact of fewer donations in recent years, forcing
it to cut staff positions and reduce scholarships for
seminarians, Camp said.
Individual UCC churches make their own decisions
on whether to accept recommendations from church
leaders and can decide whether to withhold money from
the national office. They also own their own buildings,
which makes it easier for them to leave the
denomination and look for a new church to join.
Members of Pilgrim Church in Toledo spent two
months debating whether to stay in the UCC before
voting twice on the question. The second vote, taken
last month, was 156-77 in favor of leaving, just the
required two-thirds majority needed. Cameron had
offered to resign if members had decided to stay in
the denomination. He said it would have been unethical
to remain. "Permission by silence is still permission," he said.
Bill Bradish, a member of the church for 42
years, wanted to remain with the UCC and now plans to
leave the church where his three children were
baptized, confirmed, and married. He said the debate over
same-sex marriage became divisive and angry. "That
made it easier for us to make our decision that we
were not welcome," he said. "There were some people
quoting Bible scriptures. I kept trying to say, 'Look at the
whole Bible, don't just look at certain scriptures.'" (AP)