Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

An Ally Down the Aisle: The Presbyterian Church USA Forbids Stephen Van Kuiken to Marry Gay Couples, but the Cincinnati Pastor Promises to Stand His Ground. (Religion)

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

An Ally Down the Aisle: The Presbyterian Church USA Forbids Stephen Van Kuiken to Marry Gay Couples, but the Cincinnati Pastor Promises to Stand His Ground. (Religion)

Article excerpt

For the past 3 1/2 years, Stephen Van Kuiken, pastor at Cincinnati's Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church, has done what religious leaders everywhere often do: He's married people.

And for Van Kuiken, a 44-year-old straight married man, that practice has included marrying about 10 same-sex couples with exactly the same religious ceremony his church uses for heterosexual marriages. There's a certain inevitability to it, he says. After all, about 40% of Van Kuiken's 300-person congregation is gay or lesbian.

But this practice recently run afoul of religious conservatives in the Presbyterian Church (USA), who said Van Kuiken was violating biblical law and the church constitution. They demanded that he be charged for marrying homosexuals and ordaining "unrepentant" sexually active gays and lesbians as church leaders. And on April 21 a church court found Van Kuiken guilty on the first charge.

Though his sentence--a public rebuke--is the mildest punishment he could receive, the very fact that there was a trial at all underscores the obstacles same-sex couples continue to face when consecrating their relationships through any institution, spiritual or otherwise. Furthermore, the trial also is a reminder that the pitched conservative battle against equal marriage rights on the civil front is mirrored on the ecclesiastical front.

"When I do Christian marriages for GLBT folks, it's obvious we can't do the civil aspect, and that is a matter of injustice," says Van Kuiken, who has appealed the verdict against him. "Just as when a straight couple gets married in the church it is an expression of faith, the same thing ought to be available for GLBT folks. It is a matter of fairness and justice and love and affirmation."

With 2.5 million members, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is one of the largest and most powerful denominations in the country. Though it has had a long history of tolerance and advocacy on issues such as women's rights and the abolition of slavery, experts say there are fault lines running through the denomination, pitting right-wing evangelicals against more moderate elements.

"Homosexuality is just part of the story; there is a larger struggle going on within the PCUSA right now," says J. Terry Todd, an American religious studies scholar at Drew University in Madison, N.J. "There is a hard-right-wing insurgency within the church determined to roll back the clock on the Presbyterian Church's historical social justice witness."

The issues of gay representation and gay marriage in the church are at the center of that struggle. In 1997 the denomination amended its constitution to stipulate that in order to be ordained as a church leader, a person must live in a committed heterosexual relationship or be chaste.

Then in 2000 the church ruled that pastors could perform "holy unions" for same-sex couples but that those ceremonies must be distinct from marriage ceremonies. That meant pastors could use none of the liturgical language associated with marriage when performing holy unions. It also meant that many of the traditional customs associated with marriage--the kiss, the exchange of vows and rings, and anything that might refer to a sexual union, for example--had to be excluded from holy unions, experts say. …

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