Saturday, April 5, 2003

Minister makes stand for gay marriages

Presbyterian Church puts area pastor on trial

By Erica Solvig
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church pastor Stephen Van Kuiken embraces church member Yana Keck at the end of a Lenten service Wednesday.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
The national debate over homosexual rights in church will focus on the Tristate on Tuesday when the minister of the Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church faces a disciplinary trial for marrying same-sex couples and ordaining gays and lesbians.

As the Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken prepares to face the Presbytery of Cincinnati's Permanent Judicial Commission, he says he hopes the trial will raise the issue's profile nationally - and bring understanding and acceptance. The commission is made up of seven members - three ministers and four elders.

"Part of all this is about the ability to be honest and open," said the 44-year-old father of two. "That certainly applies to gay and lesbian people. It also applies to progressive straight people like me."

The pastor faces two ecclesiastic charges:

• Ordaining deacons and elders who "refuse to repent of self-acknowledged practice(s) which the Confessions call sin" and which violate the Book of Order;

• Officiating Christian marriage services for same-sex couples.

If he is found guilty, Van Kuiken could be removed from the ministry.

Presbyterians define marriage as a union between a man and woman, said the commission chairperson, Rev. Martha Cross Sexton. The Book of Order has been interpreted by many to prohibit the ordination of persons who are gay and lesbian and are sexually active, according to the Presbytery of Cincinnati.

"The purpose of disciplinary actions in the Presbyterian church is to nurture and reconcile and build up the church, its members and pastors," Sexton said. "It's not revenge or anything like that."

Removal of Van Kuiken from his ministry is a punishment the 280-member congregation has said it won't recognize.

How some denominations stand on the issue of same-sex unions:


Unitarian Universalist Association

United Church of Christ

Central Conference of American Rabbis, Reform Judaism


Roman Catholics

Southern Baptist


Orthodox Judaism

Discussing the issue:

Conservative Judaism

Episcopal Church

Evangelical Lutheran Church

Enquirer research

"In good conscience, I cannot abide by these laws because I feel that God is calling me to act in a different way," said Van Kuiken, Mount Auburn's pastor for more than three years. "These laws are based on a shallow, narrow interpretation of the Bible and they force this interpretation on the rest of the church.

"We're fighting not just for fairness for gay and lesbian people,'' he added. "We're fighting also for the freedom to interpret the Bible in different ways."

The congregation, which is about one-third homosexual, has had an inclusive ministry policy since about 1991. An investigation into the church, as well as a previous pastor, Harold Porter, is on hold until Van Kuiken's trial is over.

Despite talks among some members of stepping back from its policies, the congregation has repeatedly - as recently as late March - reaffirmed its statement of inclusion. Members also have rallied behind their pastor, praying for him in church, speaking with him individually and writing letters in his support.

Van Kuiken, a minister for 19 years, is using those letters, as well others from supporters across the country, in his defense Tuesday.

Church member Jennifer McKettrick of Mason hopes to attend the trial.

The 37-year-old ordained deacon and her partner, Cheryl McKettrick, were wed by Van Kuiken in 2000. Their 2-year-old son was baptized in the church.

"Our church accepts all types of families," Jennifer McKettrick said. "Members of our congregation feel very strongly about the issue. Our church is 110 percent behind Steve."

Members of Soulforce, a national interfaith group supporting gays and lesbians in religion, also are attending the trial and holding a candlelight vigil.

The trial is expected to take one or two evenings. A ruling by the commission could take weeks because it involves so many theological issues, Sexton said.

Presbyterian Church USA does not track how often such trials occur, a national church official said. The church had its national conference in Columbus last June, but did not discuss the Van Kuiken case.

In January, conservatives in the Presbyterian Church USA failed in their bid to force the denomination into a showdown over enforcing a ban on gay clergy.

Thirteen people who had signed a petition for a historic national meeting on the issue withdrew their names. That left conservatives short of the minimum number of signatures required under church law to call the meeting.

Should Van Kuiken be found guilty, punishment could range from telling him not to perform these services again to temporary or permanent removal from the pastoral office.

"We're all committed to Pastor Steve," said John Tallmadge of College Hill, a 56-year-old father of two who has been a church member for 15 years.

"We're an open-minded community promoting an inclusive ministry,'' he said. "Our position stems from our interest in social justice."


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