As a federal constitutional amendment on marriage garners growing public support, one American Protestant church could soon go against the grain.
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."
For Christian churches, unity is a deeply held value. But during years of grappling with how to follow Christian teaching while embracing gay church members, a central question has been whether this should be a church-dividing issue.
It has become so within the Anglican church (which includes the Episcopal Church in the US). Anglican leaders elsewhere have threatened to split from the Anglican Communion, the federation of autonomous national churches, unless the US and Canadian churches either repent their actions in ordaining a gay bishop and approving rites for same-sex unions, or are ousted. Some Episcopal dioceses have formed an orthodox network and wait for the church leadership to be disciplined.
Last week, the two North American churches were invited to explain at a global meeting of clergy and lay people held in Britain how their actions could be seen as theologically faithful to Christian teaching.
The Episcopal delegation presented its case for ordaining practicing homosexuals who are committed to fidelity and who meet all other church-leadership expectations. Some church leaders in the developing world remained unconvinced, saying that the actions defied biblical teaching and exposed them to ridicule in their cultures.
The largest US Lutheran denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), has taken a unique approach in its bid to sustain unity. After two years of discussion among local congregations and a national task force, a church assembly this August will consider recommendations that would provide wiggle room and more time for study. They would uphold current church teachings while essentially giving pastors some flexibility in performing unions, and create a process that permits some exceptions for ordaining individuals in lifelong relationships.
"I don't know how [the assembly] will go, but people are talking with one another and learning that the other person can be just as faithful, yet disagree," says Bishop Margaret Payne, who heads the New England Synod. "People in the church have strong yet different views on abortion and it has not divided us; I don't believe this has to divide us either."
In the nonhierarchical UCC, people are counting on their historical flexibility to carry them through the weekend debate. "The outcome may not conform with current political sensibilities," says Mr. Downs. "But I think God has called us to a unique ... role within Christendom, and we've lived that calling out with great integrity over the years."
As churches consider their positions on same-sex marriage, some national and state governments have also been weighing in:
• THE NETHERLANDS - Legalized in 2000. Same-sex couples also have the right to adopt children, either within the Netherlands or from abroad.
• BELGIUM - Legalized in 2003. Gay couples cannot adopt children, although that is being discussed by lawmakers.
• SPAIN - Legalized on Thursday. Gay couples have all the rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples, including to adopt children.
• CANADA - The House of Commons passed legislation Tuesday that would legalize gay marriage by July 31 as long as the Senate also passes the bill, which it is expected to do.
• UNITED STATES - Massachusetts is the only US state that allows gay marriage. Vermont and Connecticut have approved same-sex civil unions.
Source: The Associated Press