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News: Whose Law Counts?

Stephen Van Kuiken's trial of faith in Mount Auburn

By Maria Rogers · April 9th, 2003 · News
  Gay and lesbian Christians hungry for acceptance have found it in the ministry of the Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken (with sign), accused of violating denominational rules.
Jymi Bolden

Gay and lesbian Christians hungry for acceptance have found it in the ministry of the Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken (with sign), accused of violating denominational rules.

"The essential problem before the church is not reconciling homosexuality with the Bible, but to reconcile the continuous abuse and condemnation of gay and lesbian persons with the love of Christ."

--The Rev. Harold Gordon Porter, retired pastor of Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church

Cheryl McKettrick's family is accepted at her church. That's something most Christians take for granted, but McKettrick searched 18 months to find such a place.

McKettrick and her partner were the first same-sex couple married by the Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken at Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church. The people he ministers to are looking for a place to worship -- as well as a place of acceptance.

"They come here not because of our location but because of what we stand for," he says.

Van Kuiken stands trial this week before the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Presbytery of Cincinnati. He's charged with violating the denomination's rules against same-sex marriages and the ordination of practicing homosexuals (see Holy Disorders, issue of July 25-31, 2002).

But the minister is anything but repentant.

"I'm justified in breaking them because I'm following a higher law," he says.

Using the M word
While Van Kuiken believes he's doing God's will, his opponents say he's ignoring it.

Marriage is a ceremony of worship that joins a man and a woman -- not a same-sex couple, according to Parker Williamson, executive editor of The Layman, a newspaper serving the Presbyterian Church USA.

"They've redefined marriage in order to sanction the activity," Williamson says. "They've taken the term 'marriage' and they've made it something else. If the church were to allow a behavior that scripture clearly prohibits, then it really has turned its back on God's word, and I think that is more injurious to the people of the church."

Van Kuiken says the Presbyterian Church allows "holy unions" between same-sex partners. But in 2000 the highest court in the church ruled the unions could not be called "marriages" or be regarded as equivalent to marriage, he says.

In holy unions, partners speak the same vows as in a marriage and exchange rings. Van Kuiken continues to call them "marriages."

"We all knew that they were the same thing as marriage," he says. "What gets us in hot water is to use the M word."

The Rev. Bill Pawson of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Canton, Ohio says Presbyterian ministers aren't required to perform holy unions.

"Personally I myself would never do it, because how do you bless something that God said is sinful?" Pawson asks. "How do you bless something that God said is already wrong?"

Van Kuiken says he's supporting traditional values -- the idea of commitment to another person in a monogamous union.

But the homosexual couples who seek marriage don't enjoy the legal privileges that straight married couples have. Gays and lesbians don't want the ceremony because of the tradition but to show their dedication to each other, Van Kuiken says.

Weddings for straight couples have a legal and spiritual side. For gay couples, only the spiritual element exists.

"I really enjoy doing those, especially because they don't have to get married, because they don't have any legal advantages," Van Kuiken says.

He performs a few same-sex marriages a year -- more than the number of heterosexual weddings.

'We know we're equal'
McKettrick knew the state of Ohio wouldn't recognize her marriage to her partner. She thought she'd never be able to get married in a church, either.

"There are a lot of churches who would have been very happy to have us sit in those pews as two friends and have us contribute financially to the church," she says.

At Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church, the couple can walk into the church with their son as a family.

McKettrick, 41, was raised Catholic and says structured religion has always been part of her life.

"We've got a family that's accepted in that church every Sunday," she says. "If you have to hide who you are, you'll never be able to give fully of yourself. For people who are willing to be closeted and willing to sit in the pews and not be active, there's a lot of options."

For those who aren't, the options are limited. McKettrick and her partner visited about a dozen churches before they found Mt. Auburn Presbyterian.

"I'm not trying to take anything away from a heterosexual person who wants to be active in the church or the heterosexual couple who wants to get married in the church," she says. "I think that's great. I'm just asking for the same thing."

Laura Montgomery Rutt and her husband have been married 21 years. She wants to see homosexuals have the right to enjoy such a union.

"My faith makes me a gay rights activist because I think the Bible advocates for non-judgment and equality and justice and love," Rutt says.

Rutt is director of communications for Soulforce, a nonprofit interfaith group visiting Cincinnati to support Van Kuiken during his trial.

The harshest punishment Van Kuiken faces if he's found guilty would be removal from office, barring him from serving as a Presbyterian minister. The lightest possible punishment is what the denomination calls a "rebuke."

Such trials have a negative impact on homosexuals, proving their church doesn't fully accept them, according to Rutt.

"We know we're equal in the eyes of God," she says. "The church just hasn't figured it out yet. The church is alienating thousands of people because of their non-acceptance, and it's negatively impacting people's faith."

Soulforce fights against spiritual violence, which it defines as "the misuse of religion to sanction the condemnation and rejection of any of God's children."

"We consider it a movement," Rutt says. "It's an interfaith movement. We use the principles of nonviolence that were taught by Gandhi and King."

More than religious doctrine is at stake.

"Misusing religion and/or God to support society's bias against sexual and gender minorities also inappropriately justifies psychological, legal and physical violence against them," according to Soulforce's statement on spiritual violence.

One woman found Soulforce after her daughter's suicide. The woman blames herself for her daughter's death, because her religious views wouldn't let her accept her child for who she was, according to Rutt. Today the mother travels the country telling her story.

"Organized religion is the leading cause of suffering for gay and lesbian people," Rutt says. "We're doing this to save lives."

Fundamentalist coup
Same-sex marriage is only part of the charges against Van Kuiken. He's also on trial for ordaining sexually-active gay church members.

The denomination's constitution requires that officers or elders ordained in the church honor biblical standards for sexual behavior -- namely, sex confined to the covenant of marriage, according to Williamson.

"Mr. Van Kuiken has been part of a movement that has attempted to remove those standards from the constitution," he says. "All ordained leaders, including Mr. Van Kuiken, promise to live under that constitution."

But God's law overrules the Presbyterian constitution, according to Van Kuiken.

"I have no intention of stopping what I'm doing, because I don't think it's wrong," he says.

The Presbyterian Church ordains women and people who are divorced.

One-third to half of his congregation is homosexual, Van Kuiken says. Preventing that part of the congregation from being ordained keeps the leadership from reflecting the church's makeup, he says.

"For us, it's like saying half your people can't be in leadership," he says. "It prevents them from growing. Each generation has its own fundamentalist controversy, and the same method was used against women. The same method was used against people who were divorced."

Williamson rejects that analysis.

"Ordination to leadership is not a right in the sense of a civil right," he says. "It's a great privilege. People are called to that position of leadership if they give evidence of a certain quality of life."

Williamson acknowledges Van Kuiken thinks he's doing what God wants.

"I think Mr. Van Kuiken is wrong, but I certainly don't think he's a liar," Williamson says. "I think he quite honestly believes it's the right position."

Van Kuiken says the battle is worth it.

"In many ways, I'm just fighting to be myself in the church -- as kind of a straight, white progressive," he says. "I should be able to say what I believe and act on that belief without fear."

Van Kuiken says Jesus focused on love, justice and compassion, which he believes he's doing by including all of his congregation members equally.

Pawson says anything called "Presbyterian" needs to meet the denomination's standards. Homosexuals living a chaste life could be ordained, he says.

"The standard is we don't ordain practicing homosexual people," he says.

Van Kuiken says it's time for fellow church members to take a stand.

"I really consider the problem the great middle of the church," he says. "The silent majority in the church have just stood by and allowed what I would call a fundamentalist take-over in the church." ©



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