Proposed marriage equality resolution faces ‘real opposition’
“The complexity of this particular issue is real, it’s out there – with real opposition,” says the Rev. Steve Gray, Indiana-Kentucky Conference Minister, who worries that a pro-gay marriage equality vote will exact the “cost of discipleship” from the UCC’s national setting – including decreased revenues. “… I just grieve that this issue is so toxic.”
At its biennial national gathering, about 1,000 elected delegates from the church’s 39 regional Conferences and national Covenanted Ministries will debate three different marriage-related proposals. One from the UCC’s Southern California – Nevada Conference asks the General Synod to affirm full civil and religious marriage equality for same-gender couples. If passed, the UCC’s General Synod would become the first mainline Christian body to support such a measure.
A second counter resolution, offered by eight geographically-diverse congregations, asks the Synod to affirm “traditional” marriage as “between one man and one woman.” A third proposal, by the Central Atlantic Conference, calls for a time of church-wide prayer, conversation and study on the issue.
While he has heard little in the way of formal complaints from his 170 congregations, Gray does anticipate more pointed conversations in the weeks leading up to General Synod.
“Some people are waiting to see what will happen on this and use it as an excuse to hammer away at why they should leave the UCC, or why the national church is out of touch with reality,” says Gray, whose Conference includes only five churches that have declared themselves “open and affirming” to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons.
The General Synod declared itself “open and affirming” (ONA) to LGBT persons in 1985 and has called upon all local churches to do likewise.
On May 21, the Penn Northeast Conference held a “day of dialogue” among its 156 churches (including its one and only ONA church) to discuss controversial issues facing the General Synod.
“Of the people who showed up,” says the Rev. Alan C. Miller, Conference Minister, “by far the largest attendance was at the same-sex marriage discussion.”
“Eighty percent of those gathered were against the same-sex marriage resolutions and offered support for the one-man, one-woman resolution,” Miller says. “I think our General Synod delegates were surprised that the reaction – the percentage – was that great against the resolutions.”
Miller says one church already has voted to leave the UCC simply because the issue is being considered. “And we’ve already been informed that three other churches will vote out if this passes,” he says.
The Rev. Marja Coons-Torn, Penn Central Conference Minister, says she has received letters from concerned members about the marriage equality measure, but the tone has been civil.
“We certainly have opposition to it here and I am hearing from people who are opposed to it,” Coons-Torn says. “But I have to tell you that it’s in pretty respectful ways.”
Coons-Torn met with Penn Central’s 31 delegates for a second and final time on May 21. In preparation for the marriage debate, the Conference’s delegates have been supplied with study materials developed by the UCC’s Wider Church Ministries, in addition to a series of pro-and-con articles published earlier this year by The Christian Century magazine.
“If it came to an up-or-down vote on the [Southern California – Nevada] resolution, probably our delegation is not yet at the point where they will be able to support it wholeheartedly,” Coons-Torn says. “Many, if not most people, might be able to support civil unions but can’t go all the way in supporting the word ‘marriage.'”
Coons-Torn, whose Conference of 230 churches includes only three ONA congregations, says her delegation “runs the gamut” on the marriage question. That’s why, she says, “I’m trusting the process, truly. We’re not developing any kind of Synod floor strategy.”
The Rev. Timothy C. Downs, Southeast Conference Minister, says he hopes the General Synod will be able to avoid the typical red-state, blue-state divisions that often mar secular political debate on gay and lesbian issues.
“The question is if we can keep this from becoming as sharp edged as it is in the political realm,” says Downs, whose Southeast Conference – which includes Atlanta – will play host to an estimated 3,000 UCC visitors.
“Can we model a different kind of discourse? I have to believe we can do that, and I’ve seen us do it,” Downs says. “We have to hold on to the conviction that, no matter the outcome, we remain sisters and brothers in Christ.”
Most importantly, the Conference Ministers say, it will be important that all perspectives are heard.
Says Gray, “I want something to happen proactive here. We need to have time to have a reasoned, deep discussion, even though I know that, for gay and lesbian people, it will be excruciating. … Part of the anger of those [congregations] that leave or decrease their money is that they say their voices have not been heard.”
Downs agrees that “all voices must be honored.”
“I will throw myself on the mercy of prayer, and hope that we wind our way through this,” Downs says. “We in the South have passed through race relations, the ordination of women, the inclusion of people of different sexual orientations in our congregations. We’ve faced those issues and we’ve not only survived, but I think we’ve been faithful.”
Miller says the debate’s outcome is hard to predict because, on this issue, people and congregations don’t fit neatly into predictable camps.
“No matter where you think churches will fall on this issue, I find they’re struggling with it, especially the [marriage] language,” Miller says. “I think this is going to stretch some of our delegates in ways that they’ve never been stretched before.”
The 1.3-million-member United Church of Christ was formed in 1957 with the union of the Congregational Christian Churches in America and the Evangelical and Reformed Church. The UCC’s General Synod speaks to, but not for, its 6,000 local congregations.