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From the New York Times
July 5, 2005
United Church of Christ Backs Same-Sex Marriage
By SHAILA DEWAN
ATLANTA, July 4 - The United Church of Christ became the first mainline Christian denomination to support same-sex marriage officially when its general synod passed a resolution on Monday affirming "equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender."
The resolution was adopted in the face of efforts to amend the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. It was both a theological statement and a protest against discrimination, said the Rev. John H. Thomas, the president and general minister of the denomination, which has 6,000 congregations and 1.3 million members.
"On this July 4, the United Church of Christ has courageously acted to declare freedom, affirming marriage equality, affirming the civil rights of gay - of same-gender - couples to have their relationships recognized as marriages by the state, and encouraging our local churches to celebrate those marriages," Mr. Thomas said at a news conference after the vote by the General Synod.
The synod's decisions are not binding and the vote will not require pastors to provide marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. Some United Church of Christ ministers already perform such ceremonies.
While the United Church of Christ has not had the widespread divisions other major denominations have experienced over homosexuality, some member churches had said that such a vote could prompt them to leave the denomination, and one group called for Mr. Thomas's resignation when he announced his support of the resolution.
One amendment offered on the synod floor, and accepted, added a phrase acknowledging the "pain and struggle" passage of the resolution would create.
Yet the resolution, submitted by the church's Southern California-Nevada Conference, appeared to have overwhelming support on the synod floor, where the vote was done by a show of hands among the roughly 800 delegates after about 45 minutes of debate.
"Every indication was that it was going to go that way," said Brice Thomas, 42, a United Church of Christ pastor in Lebanon, Ohio, who is gay. "But still, to hear it come to a vote and see it processed in such a positive way to me was transformative."
Some, like Harlan Hall, a delegate from Wisconsin, supported a failed effort to change the resolution to apply to "covenanted relationships" rather than legal marriage. "As a well-over-30-years-old, heterosexual white male capitalist, who seems like he's losing his position in the church - but still can vote, I am in favor of the proposal," Mr. Hall said. "I could find it much easier to sell back home."
But another delegate, Gregory Morisse, who opposed the amendment, said, "Covenanted relationships are not under constitutional threat."
Hector Lopez, a minister from a small Latino church in Southern California, said he was not at first enthusiastic about same-sex marriage. But after officiating at about a dozen such ceremonies in Oregon and seeing the respect and commitment of the couples, he said, "I experienced a passionate conversion."
Several major religious groups permit same-sex unions, but do not give them the same status as marriage, including the Episcopal Church, with about 2.3 million members; the Evangelical Lutheran Church, with 5 million; and Reform Judaism, with 1.7 million.
"Today's word is not the last word in the U.C.C. about marriage," Mr. Thomas said. "It is a crucial and groundbreaking first word in a difficult but important churchwide discussion."
He said the church strove to have "diversity without division, unity without uniformity." His hope, he said, is that "we will not run from one another, because if we run from one another we run from Christ."
There was some evidence that the denomination could comfortably encompass dissenters, in part because the mood after the vote was more conciliatory than triumphant. The Rev. Barbara Headley, pastor at a predominantly black United Church of Christ church in Hartford, said she voted against the resolution and that many blacks were more "orthodox" in their interpretation of Scripture.
"There are those of us who live in the tension of affirming love and relationships for people who have not had enough of that, and feeling like the theological evidence for it just hasn't been presented," she said.
Ms. Headley was with Beverly Deloatch, another black delegate from Connecticut, who said, "I voted for it, and I agree with everything she's saying."
Jeanette Mott Oxford, who described herself as the first openly lesbian member elected to the Missouri House of Representatives, said she was pleased by the "brave prophetic witness" of the vote, but "very concerned about my brothers and sisters who may be hurt by this."
The United Church of Christ prides itself on being in the forefront of human and civil rights issues. On its Web site, the denomination says it and its predecessors were among the first churches to take a stand against slavery, in 1700, the first to ordain a woman, in 1853, and the first to publish an inclusive-language hymnal, in 1995.
Its slogan, "God is still speaking," is meant to suggest that the Bible is not the sole source of divine instruction, and that Scripture must be interpreted in today's context.
The equal marriage rights resolution states, in part, "Ideas about marriage have shifted and changed dramatically throughout human history, and such change continues even today." It continues, "In the Gospel we find ground for a definition of marriage and family relationships based on the affirmation of the full humanity of each partner, lived out in mutual care and respect for one another."
Last year, two major networks refused to broadcast a United Church of Christ commercial that showed two bouncers standing in front of a church, allowing some people to come in and refusing others, including nonwhites and a gay couple. "Jesus didn't turn people away," the text said. "Neither do we."
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
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