United Church of Christ endorses gay marriage

Synod vote is not binding, but some churches say it could prompt splinter


ATLANTA - The United Church of Christ became the first mainline Christian denomination to officially support same-sex marriages when its General Synod passed a resolution yesterday affirming "equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender."

The resolution was adopted in the face of efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban gay 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 Fourth, 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," Thomas said at a news conference after the vote.

The synod's decisions are not binding, and the vote will not require pastors to provide marriage ceremonies for gay 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 fold, and one group called for Thomas' resignation when he came out in 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 engender.

Yet the resolution, submitted by the church's Southern California-Nevada Conference, appeared to have overwhelming support on the synod floor, where the vote by a show of hands came after about 45 minutes of debate.

"Every indication was that it was going to go that way," said the Rev. 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, such as Harlan Hall, a delegate from Wisconsin, supported a failed attempt to change the resolution to apply to "covenanted relationships" rather than legal marriage.

"As a ... 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," 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 initially enthusiastic about gay marriage but, after officiating at about a dozen such ceremonies in Oregon and seeing the respect and commitment of the couples, "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 Lutherans, with 5 million; and Reform Jews, with 1.7 million. "Today's word is not the last word in the UCC about marriage," Thomas said. "It is a crucial and groundbreaking first word in a difficult but important churchwide discussion."

There was some evidence that the denomination could comfortably encompass dissenters, in part because the mood after the vote was more conciliatory than triumphant.

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.

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