Sunday, April 13, 2003

All His children

Joined in the presence of our God


Fourteen years ago, in a small chapel in Dallas, I attended my big sister Sherry's "union" with her partner in life, a woman she'd lived with for years.

At their nuptials, I was confronted by a sense of strangeness and beauty.

The chapel was dimly lit. Candles around its walls and pews radiated a hallowed intimacy. Sherry and Ezzie, dressed in similar pastel suits, proceeded down the aisle arm-in-arm, all broad smiles and twinkling eyes. They recited vows they'd written.

I felt privileged to be in a place of God, witnessing this important rite with several dozen others.

The minister, a friendly, low-key woman in ministerial robes, emphasized the solemnity of a lifelong vow to be faithful, loving and there for each other, through better or worse.

But she didn't call their union a marriage.

That fact pricks now like a thorn in a rosy memory.

A blessed union

I've been following the case of the Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken, pastor of Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church. The 44-year-old, married, father of two went on trial on April 8 before a commission of the Cincinnati Presbytery of The Presbyterian Church (USA).

His alleged crime: holding marriage ceremonies for couples of the same sex at his church.

The Presbyterian Church follows a biblical definition of marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman. It does not allow same-sex marriages.

But the denomination does allow "worship services" that "celebrate a loving ...committed relationship" between same-sex couples, so long as they're not considered marriages.

Van Kuiken pushed beyond those boundaries. He's also in trouble for ordaining gay people as deacons and elders and not requiring that they make a vow of chastity.

If Van Kuiken is found guilty, he could be rebuked, temporarily suspended or removed from the ministry.

"There have been sexually active gay and lesbian people in the Presbyterian Church for years," he told the commission. "But in order to serve as elders, deacons and ministers, they cannot be fully open about who they are.

"Likewise, there are many progressive heterosexuals in the church who knowingly participate in the services of Christian marriage or ordinations of gay and lesbian members.

"But they, too, have to do this stealthily and cannot be fully open about their actions."

Secret supporters

He was talking about people like me. People who believe that God loves and calls all people to Himself, regardless of their sexuality. People who do little to act on this heartfelt conviction, who don't stand up and stand with these devalued brothers and sisters in Christ.

I remember, at my sister's "union," feeling happy and a little sad. At the reception, some of the guests hesitated to call this a marriage. I wasn't sure what terminology to use, either.

I'm still unsure about how to introduce my sister's partner in life. To me, she's my sister-in-law, a loving and valued addition to our family, one of my children's favorite aunts.

I know life for them has been difficult because they are gay, and yet their relationship is about as steady - and as rocky - as the marriages of my other siblings and my own.

At the nuptials, I felt a little scared for my sister, a teacher at a public school in Dallas at the time. A year or so prior, the school system had fired a teacher for revealing her homosexuality.

My sister wore her wedding ring to school but only vaguely answered questions about her spouse. She kept her secret and her job.

But the times for such secrets should be over.

E-mail or phone 768-8340.

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