Monday, June 23, 2003

Church vows to stay inclusive

By Erica Solvig
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Elder Ellen Muse-Lindeman goes over the morning announcements in the place of Pastor Stephen Van Kuiken, who was ousted by Presbytery of Cincinnati officials last week.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
Their minister may have been removed from the pulpit, but the congregation of Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church plans to carry on with its history of challenging traditions.

After the first of what may be several sermons from guest ministers, members met Sunday to ponder their next steps - including how to provide financial support for the Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken, ousted last week by Presbytery of Cincinnati officials for marrying gays. Also undecided: whether to go forward with a gay wedding that had been scheduled.

What is clear is that the 280-member congregation is not backing down from an all-inclusive ministry policy it has had since 1991.About one-third of the membership is gay and lesbian.

"We've got a cause we've been working on," said Walnut Hills resident John Hancock, a member since 1981. "In some ways, having to do it within the Presbyterian Church is a plus. If we're going to figure out how to persuade society on this, it's good practice to persuade the Presbyterian Church."

Van Kuiken, Mount Auburn's pastor for about 31/2 years, was formally renounced by the Presbytery of Cincinnati and removed from ministry. The married father of two was found guilty in April of conducting same-sex marriage ceremonies in what is believed to be the Presbyterian Church (USA)'s first ecclesiastical trial on the issue.

But this isn't the first time in Mount Auburn's 135-year history that members have been at the forefront of debate on gays and lesbians in the church.

In 2001, it was one of five area churches named among the best in the country in a national University of North Carolina at Wilmington study that considered openness to strangers and progressive ideas.

Mount Auburn Presbyterian has weighed in on other hot-button topics, including in 1997 when it proposed a change in the Presbyterian Church (USA)'s constitution to allow anyone, including the unbaptised, to partake in communion.

That proposal was turned down, but Mount Auburn continued to welcome anyone to participate in the sacrament.

The national spotlight has been on Van Kuiken's case in recent months as Presbyterians - who also ban gay clergy - and other faiths debate the roles of homosexuals in the church. Last week, Canada became the third nation - after Belgium and the Netherlands - to legalize gay marriage.

The Presbytery of Cincinnati's vote to remove Van Kuiken - 119-45, with four voters abstaining - from ministry was a first, locally and likely nationally, officials say.

"We're all kind of numb," Van Ackerman, a church elder, said after the service. "The church is still reeling from this. ... There are so many answers we don't have."

The message continues

Roughly 150 people gathered for worship Sunday morning in an hour-long service that focused on continuing the church's mission. Van Kuiken was not in attendance.

The Rev. Duane Holm, a Presbyterian minister and director of the Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati, delivered a sermon about acceptance and inclusiveness. He concluded the sermon by saying Mount Auburn should continue to "witness in love to the whole church to teach us to be more inclusive."

The congregants applauded.

Several church leaders said after the service that Mount Auburn will keep the inclusive ministry policy, which welcomes all members "regardless of age, sexual orientation, race, ethnic origin or worldly condition."But it is not known whether it will go forward with the planned wedding of two men.

Members met for brunch to ask questions, voice their concerns and discuss a financial package for Van Kuiken. The meeting was closed to the media.

The congregation plans to invite guest ministers to preach each Sunday until the Presbytery appoints an interim minister. A Presbytery liaison is working with church staff to maintain day-to-day operations.

"Certainly, we have some very difficult waters to navigate, but we strongly believe we will be able to do so," the church's leadership wrote in a letter to members last week. "We have a 135-year history to serve as our guide."

Mount Auburn is not sure when a new minister will be chosen nor how long it will continue to financially support Van Kuiken.

"The emotions were a lot deeper today - there were a lot of hugs," Hancock said of Sunday's service. "It's really the community of people that holds this place together. That hasn't changed."



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