ATLANTA – The United Church of Christ is poised to become the largest Christian denomination to endorse same-sex marriage, but as with other Protestant churches, taking a stand on homosexuality could come with a price.
“I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate the prophetic role that the passage of the resolution would have in terms of the impact on the religious and secular debate in this country,” said the Rev. Rebecca Voelkel of Cleveland, national interim director of the UCC Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns.
Yet eight congregations in the liberal denomination of 1.3 million members believe that approving the same-sex marriage resolution at the church’s upcoming annual meeting would be a bad idea – even if they concede that the measure is likely to win approval. The meeting concludes Tuesday.
The Rev. Brett Becker, pastor of St. Paul United Church of Christ in Cibolo, Texas, and a spokesman for the conservative congregations, predicted the eventual collapse of the UCC if the measure passes.
“If we’re going to call ourselves Christian and be followers of Christ, we need to follow his teachings on marriage,” said Becker, whose group has proposed an alternative resolution defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Becker said he and other conservative pastors should continue to welcome homosexuals into the church, but encourage them to change their behavior.
A third proposal calls for study, prayer and discernment on the same-sex marriage issue – though its proponents said the “one man, one woman” resolution was discriminatory and backers recently voted to support “the spirit” of the same-sex resolution. The resolutions will all be discussed at the meeting Sunday immediately after worship services.
Becker’s group also will put forward a measure that defines the UCC as a Christian denomination – a resolution that notes that some pastors have strayed so far from the mainstream that the UCC has earned the derisive nickname “Unitarians considering Christ.”
The church also will vote on proposals to cut back investments in Israel as protest for that nation’s treatment of the Palestinians, and a policy declaration to loosen standards for clergy ordination from the mandatory four years of college and three years of seminary.
Traditionally strong in New England, the church was criticized last year for its television advertising campaign featuring a gay couple, among others, being excluded from a church. CBS and NBC rejected the 30-second ads.
But the church’s support for gays and lesbians is not new. In the early 1970s, the UCC became the first major Christian body to ordain an openly gay minister and established a gay caucus.
Twenty years ago, the church declared itself to be “open and affirming” of gays and lesbians, and since then, nearly 600 congregations have done the same independently.
“It’s important for religious groups that are supportive of (gay) rights to get out in the public arena and articulate that there is not a monolithic understanding of these issues and it’s not fair to say that in order to be a good Christian, one has to be anti-homo- sexual,” Voelkel said.
UCC churches are autonomous, meaning that the General Synod does not create policy for its more than 5,700 congregations.
Still, if the resolution supporting same-sex marriage passes, it would be “a very disturbing thing,” Becker said.
The Rev. John Thomas, UCC president, said he supports the same-sex resolution. However, he expressed his disappointment that some congregations could decide to leave the church if the resolution is approved.
“No church can avoid this difficult discussion in our current cultural context if it seeks to be relevant to our society and if it seeks to be faithful particularly to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons among its members,” he said.
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