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Same-sex marriage
endorsement splits UCC churches

Same-sex marriage
endorsement splits UCC churches

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 in protest. 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 The UCC puts the number at 49, while a group opposed to the stand on marriage says at least 77 churches have withdrawn.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 be married." 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)

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