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A church's struggle over gay marriage

The United Church of Christ - famous for setting precedent - considers backing same-sex marriage at its national synod.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 1, 2005

As a federal constitutional amendment on marriage garners growing public support, one American Protestant church could soon go against the grain.

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During its national synod, which begins Friday in Atlanta, the United Church of Christ (UCC) will debate three marriage resolutions - one backing "full marriage equality" for same-sex couples, one defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and a third proposing further study of the issue.

No one is predicting the outcome, but the UCC - a union of Congregational and Evangelical and Reformed churches - has long been a precedent-setting denomination. It is proud of its historic "firsts," which include being the first denomination to ordain an African-American (in 1785), the first to ordain a woman (1853), and the first to ordain an openly gay man (1972).

Other mainline Christian churches are struggling this summer over ordination of gays and the blessing of same-sex unions. If the UCC takes another bold leap, it will be partly because of its organization, members say. The denomination may take strong positions, but individual churches can choose whether or not to follow them.

"In our denomination, congregations have absolute freedom," says the Rev. Timothy Downs, of the UCC Southeastern Conference. "Local churches are to take what [the synod] says with utmost seriousness. But when it comes to clergy performing same-sex unions or marriages, it is up to the local congregation to authorize."

In fact, some UCC clergy in various parts of the US - even in the largely conservative Southeast - are already performing the ceremonies, which others oppose.

"The UCC is one of the only Christian traditions whose clergy can officiate at same-gender ceremonies," says the Rev. Nancy Taylor, pastor of Old South Church in Boston. "But that isn't necessarily changing" the behavior of clergy, she adds.

Despite the UCC's reputation as one of the most liberal Christian churches, the marriage-equality resolution has roused strong emotions and opposition at some regional meetings. A few churches have threatened to leave the denomination.

"I've gotten tremendous support from around the nation, which has been a surprise," says the Rev. Brett Becker, pastor of St. Paul United Church of Christ in Cibolo, Texas, who authored the traditional- marriage resolution in response to the "full marriage equality" proposal.

The Southern California-Nevada conference spearheaded the same-gender marriage resolution, which is similar to one passed by that body a year ago.

"It seemed the time to take a prophetic stance for justice and equal rights," says the Rev. Libby Tigner, associate minister at First Congregational Church in Long Beach, Calif. "We recognize this is a very ... charged issue for a lot of folks, so we are looking forward to careful dialogue."

So far, the UCC hasn't been torn by the deep divisions that Episcopalians, Methodists, and Presbyterians have confronted over issues related to homosexual practice. And members hope they can avoid that this weekend.

The public debate in legislatures, courts, and the media has proceeded at high intensity. Yet mainline Protestant churches have reached across divisions in the attempt to carry on conversations - in what Ms. Taylor calls "holy listening."