Written by Daniel Hazard
Marriage equality measure wins delegates' broad support
General Synod 25 took an historic step on July 4 when it overwhelmingly passed a resolution in support of same-gender marriage equality. It marks the first time that a mainline denomination in the U.S. has expressed its support of marriages for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons.
Delegates wrestled with the resolution for about an hour before casting a decisive vote in favor of the resolution that had been refined and recommended the day before by a 54-member Synod committee.
On the plenary floor, the document was altered with just one amendment, which delegates readily accepted, that acknowledged the "pain and struggle" the resolution's passage could engender.
When debate was closed — with only a whimper of opposition — a hush fell over the plenary hall of Atlanta's Georgia World Congress Center. The Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson, executive minister of Justice and Witness Ministries, then asked moderator Eric C. Smith, who led the proceedings, for a moment of collective prayer. Delegates prayed silently.
Moments later, when voting began, a horde of raised hands — holding green voting cards — signaled that the resolution had passed overwhelmingly. Afterwards, instead of loud applause, there was a dignified moment of stillness broken only by the voice of the Rev. John H. Thomas who offered a prayer from a floor-level microphone.
"Lord Jesus …We give thanks for your presence, especially here this morning," the UCC's general minister and president prayed in a soft, pastoral voice. "We have felt your warm embrace, stilling us as we tremble with joy, with hope, with fear, with disappointment. … Let us use our hands not to clap, but to wipe away every tear…"
As the plenary adjourned for lunch, the mood remained as one would expect after a service of worship, rather than a session of earnest debate and serious deliberation. The most demonstrative sights were those of couples of all ages and genders locked in tearful embraces of thanksgiving, something Thomas would later refer to as "freedom."
During a press conference that followed the vote, Thomas acknowledged that it was not lost on the gathering that this historic stand was taken on the nation's Independence Day.
"On this July Fourth, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ has acted courageously to declare freedom, affirming marriage equality, affirming the civil rights of same gender couples to have their relationships recognized as marriages by the state, and encouraging our local churches to celebrate and bless those marriages," he said.
Thomas also acknowledged that the issue of marriage equality is "the source of great conflict" not only in society but also in the churches. The UCC, he said, "is no exception" and "there are clearly great differences among our own members over this."
Synod action, he added, "does not presume a consensus of opinion among our members or our local churches, which are free and responsible to come to their own mind of this as on any other (issue). The General Synod speaks to and not for our local churches."
During the plenary debate, an amendment to, in effect, change "marriage" to "covenantal relationship" elicited a lively exchange for a few minutes but did not come close to approval because the body felt it substantially changed the focus of the resolution. Another proposed amendment — that garnered only a handful of voice votes — would have postponed action until the 2007 General Synod in Hartford, Conn.
The full text of the marriage equality resolution, as well as Thomas' prayer and press statement, can be found at ucc.org.
Middle East 'leverage' favored
The use of multiple nonviolent strategies, including economic leverage, to promote peace in the Middle East was approved overwhelmingly by General Synod delegates on July 5.
Delegates also approved a resolution calling on the state of Israel to tear down a massive separation wall built on Palestinian territory that has reportedly forced many Palestinians from their homes.
Curtis Rueter of Westminster, Colo., and chair of Wider Church Ministries' board of directors, explained that the resolution "does not target Israel but affirms the Synod's continual opposition to all violence."
The action specifically reaffirms the UCC's commitment to Israel's "safe and secure existence within internationally recognized borders" and neighboring "an independent Palestinian state."
"We seek to use various forms of economic leverage to end all forms of violence," Rueter explained.
The Rev. John Deckenback, the UCC's Central Atlantic Conference Minister, who has been involved in interreligious dialogue concerning the resolution, urged that a comprehensive and balanced resolution be developed.
"We need to be advocates for peace, for both Israel and Palestine, using a full range of strategies," Deckenback said.
Possible economic strategies mentioned by the resolution include conversations with corporate executives and possible shareholder actions against companies that appear to profit from conflict and violence in the Middle East.
If such actions fail, church officials could decide to sell their stocks in such companies.
UCC Middle East executive Peter Makari (r.) and General Minister and President the Rev. John Thomas address the media following Synod action on economic leverage in the region. Randy Varcho photo.
The Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC general minister and president, foresees that the UCC could choose to invest in development projects to help build a viable Palestinian economy, as well as invest in groups in Israel and Palestine that are working for peace and against violence.
The adopted resolution came as a substitute motion by Rueter, who offered a new proposal instead of offering multiple amendments to a version that came out of a General Synod committee.
The substitute included the call for continued interreligious dialogue and a more-detailed description of the multiple strategies to be used, according to Peter Makari, the UCC's area executive for Middle East and Europe.
On the plenary floor, a paragraph from the committee's version of the resolution was added as a friendly amendment to the substitute. It asked for materials to be developed that would help local congregations and other UCC organizations become involved in economic leverage to support the development of Palestine and Israel as two independent, secure and economically viable states.
The economic leverage resolution calls for continued conversations with Jews, Muslims and other Christians in efforts to achieve peace in Israel and the emerging state of Palestine.
At a press conference that followed the vote, Thomas emphasized that the General Synod action does not call for a boycott against the state of Israel and does not call for divesting from all companies doing business in Israel. He also said that General Synod "has not equated the Occupation with apartheid in South Africa."
The Synod action also recommended that church leaders and members advocate for a reallocation of U.S. foreign aid in order to constrain what they called "the militarization of the Middle East."
"Our vision is of a shared future for Israel and Palestine, symbolized by the sharing of the city and holy sites of Jerusalem as a capital for both states," Thomas said.
Thomas acknowledged that conversations between the UCC and leaders of the U.S. Jewish community had been intensive and at times difficult.
"We have been helped by those discussions and are encouraged by the possibility of building a stronger and more honest dialogue in the future," he said.
'Multiple paths' to ordination
On July 5, General Synod delegates approved a pronouncement calling for the church to adopt "multiple paths of preparation" for forming and preparing its ordained ministers.
In the face of changing realities for the modern church — including increasing numbers of small, isolated congregations that do not have adequate resources to hire seminary-trained clergy — the UCC now will begin studying and developing some new paradigms wherein preparation for authorized ministry could occur.
With its approval, General Synod formally affirmed that regional training and mentoring can be effective models, in some settings, for edtcating people for ordination.
"I believe that our seminaries can broaden their perspectives and we can broaden our ideas about what ministry is all about," said Sharon MacArthur, pastor of Sycamore Congregational UCC in El Cerrito, Calif. and the newly elected chair of the UCC's Executive Council.
The General Synod's nearly 900 voting delegates approved the pronouncement overwhelmingly. A "pronouncement," as opposed to a "resolution" is a weighty statement that calls the church to its highest levels of conversation, action and implementation.
Like most mainline Protestant denominations, the UCC has predominately adhered to a European model of educating its clergy: four years of college followed by three years of seminary. But, as argued by many of the pronouncement's proponents, that model is not effective in many instances.
In the South Dakota Conference, for example, 28 percent of its ministers have been educated in alternative educational models, according to the Rev. Gene Miller, Conference Minister.
"And they are excellent alternative models, I might add," Miller said. "I would like nothing more than to go home and tell these people not only are their educational experiences welcomed but affirmed."
Despite the limited debate and opposition, however, some remained unconvinced that the pronouncement effectively creates new, diverse paths toward ordination.
Loren McGrail, a student at UCC-related Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts and member of First Congregational UCC in Amherst, Mass., said the pronouncement fails to adequately affirm seminary as the primary means of theological education.
"While we recognize the need to critique the European-based M.Div degree program, we also express the hope that seminary campuses continue to be seen as the meeting place where various cultures, traditions and denominations can learn with and from one another," McGrail said.
Reporters Tim Kershner, Will C. Matthews, Irwin Smallwood, Bryn Smallwood-Garcia, Martin Bailey, William Winslow and Editor J. Bennett Guess contributed to this story.