By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The Presbyterian Church's Book of Order is causing great disorder within the church.
A Cincinnati minister became the first to stand trial for violating a provision in the church's Book of Order - or constitution - last week, even as the entire Presbyterian Church is embroiled in a nationwide controversy over the rights of gays and lesbians to lead congregations and marry under church law.
Pastor Stephen Van Kuiken of Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church could face discipline for marrying same-sex couples. Here he gets a hug from a member of his congregation during a recent Sunday morning service.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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People on both sides of the issue said it is a topic that threatens to tear the church apart.
Clifton Kirkpatrick, leader of PresbyteryUSA, said a theological task force is studying the issue and is to report its findings and recommendations to the church's General Assembly in 2006.
"Certainly, we're at a point of deep tension and disagreement for the church, and nowhere is that more evident than in Cincinnati," Kirkpatrick said from his Louisville office.
The law in question is the so-called "fidelity/chastity" ordination standard, which states that people elected to be church leaders must "live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness." Persons refusing to repent of their sins are not allowed to be ordained as deacons or elders.
The controversial passage from the Book of Order has led dozens of Presbyterian churches across the nation to openly defy their constitution, and that has pitted churches against one another, sometimes within the same Presbytery - or regional grouping of churches.
More than a dozen churches, including the Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, have signed statements of defiance to the law and have vowed to continue ordaining sexually active gays and lesbians as church leaders.
The controversy peaked last week when Stephen Van Kuiken, pastor at Mount Auburn, stood trial for violating the rule. Although more than 20 such complaints are pending nationwide, Van Kuiken is the first to face trial over the issue. He could lose his ministry if found guilty. A verdict is expected in about a week.
"My bottom line is, the covenant that holds us together is our constitution, which does two things: It provides for right of dissent - there is no requirement that everyone think alike," Kirkpatrick said. "But it does establish a framework that ought to be abided by, even by those who dissent."
That's not happening.
In addition to ordaining gays and lesbians, some ministries are rebelling against a ruling by the Presbyterian General Assembly's highest court that homosexuals cannot be married within the church. The rule, named "The Benton Rule" after the pastor who brought the complaint against a New York pastor who was performing same-sex marriages in 1991, allows for "holy unions" between homosexual people but says they cannot be considered "marriages."
That smacks of hypocrisy to homosexuals and ministers who say the unions are exactly the same as heterosexual marriages. The ruling also doesn't sit well with the people on the other side of the issue, who believe the church should not condone homosexual unions at all.
Marc Benton, pastor of the Bethlehem Church in New York who brought the New York complaint, said the ruling was a political compromise that has done more to divide the church than bring it together.
"The ruling was a farce that was trying to appease both sides," Benton said. "They've consistently tried to do that, and the problem is you can't, with this sharp a difference on an issue like this.
"Unless these two issues are settled in a way that assures the majority of the church that we're serious about maintaining our historical stand on these things, the church will implode."
Van Kuiken also stands accused of performing homosexual marriages. He says calling them anything but marriages is a lie that he doesn't want to be a part of. Van Kuiken performed a marriage on Saturday between two men. He agrees the church is in a deep crisis.
"I think the biggest danger is to keep pushing this off into the indefinite future," he said. "We need to have a sense of urgency and that people are hurting now, and there is a lot of suffering going on now that needs to be addressed."
There have been three attempts over the past 10 years to repeal the chastity/fidelity rule in the Book of Order. Each time, the repeal effort failed by progressively larger margins when it was brought to a national vote of all Presbyteries.
A handful of the pending complaints against pastors for violating the rules governing homosexuals in the church have been tossed out on technicalities. Benton believes that happened because individual Presbyteries are sympathetic to the ministers in defiance of church law.
Rev. Joseph Gilmore, senior administrator at South Presbyterian Church in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., has a complaint similar to Van Kuiken's filed against him. He was the minister performing same-sex marriages in the Benton complaint.
Gilmore says a lot is riding on Van Kuiken's trial.
"An adverse ruling will be one more indication to the radical evangelical right that, until the constitution is changed, they own the tennis court," Gilmore said. "Steve, in his body, represents the dilemma. ... He is choosing the authority of the Bible over the authority of the constitution. An unjust law is no law. An unjust law has no moral authority."
For his part, Van Kuiken is worried about providing for his family if he should lose his ministry. But he says the issue is worth fighting for.
"I have so many friends, seminary professors, ministers, elders, who have just given up on the church," he said. "It's a sad state of affairs that all of this is happening - people filing charges against one another. But I also think it's important to help bring this to the attention of the larger church. It's something important to do."
But if the church's law is changed, and homosexuals are allowed to be married and ordained, won't the church lose good people on the other side of the issue?
"Maybe," Van Kuiken said. "But the difference between us and them is we don't want to kick them out."
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