Sunday, August 31, 2003

Church divided, still stands

Contingent breaks away in wake of Presbytery's ruling on gay wedlock

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] The Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken, formerly of Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church, holds a marriage ceremony for Ken Farmer and Kim Roots at Saint John's Unitarian Church in Clifton Aug. 22.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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Those who God has joined together, let no one separate.

On the evening of Aug. 22, as the setting sun streamed through the windows of the sanctuary of St. John's Unitarian Church in Clifton, the Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken blessed the union of two men, Kim Roots and Ken Farmer of Price Hill.

The words Van Kuiken used were familiar to anyone who has ever stood before an altar to exchange wedding vows, or sat in a congregation to witness.

The bulletin passed out to the 100 or so friends and family who gathered at St. John's that Friday night called what took place there "a Service of Christian Marriage."

Despite all the trappings of a typical wedding, it was not what Roots and Farmer expected when they began planning months ago. They are not Unitarians; St. John's is not their church. They are Presbyterians and longtime members of Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church.

But that church has no sacrament of marriage for gay men, a fact made crystal clear in June, when Van Kuiken was renounced by the Presbytery of Cincinnati for continuing to perform same-sex marriages at Mount Auburn, where he was pastor.

Since that time, a breakaway group of that church's membership has been meeting in each other's homes for worship. Roots and Farmer are among them, and that is why for this ceremony, the couple found a temporary church home.

But the rituals were all familiar:

• An exchange of wedding bands (Farmer wore his on his right ring finger, after the fashion of gay married couples. Roots chose the traditional left-hand ring finger).

• The vows to love and honor, so long as they both shall live.

• The "best men'' (Farmer's friend and Roots' brother).

• The pastor standing before the congregation, arms outstretched to the beaming newlyweds to proclaim them "life partners.''

"I am following the will of Christ in this," said Van Kuiken, who was given an $80,000 severance package from Mount Auburn Presbyterian and suddenly found himself without a job and with a wife and children to support.

"I have to be true to myself and my beliefs."

Break in the church

Mount Auburn Presbyterian, with its substantial gay population, had been a warm and comforting place for members like Farmer and Roots - until June 16. That's when Van Kuiken was renounced by the Presbytery, meaning he could no longer serve as minister and would lose his church membership.

For about 40 members of the 280-member Mount Auburn church, it was the last straw. The group, made up of both gay and straight people, began holding its own church services, continuing to follow the form of Presbyterian worship.

"It started with people who met with each other to comfort each other after what happened June 16,'' said Erna Olafson of North College Hill, a psychologist who had been a member of Mount Auburn Presbyterian since 1996.

"We were hurting; it was not easy," Olafson said. "We have no anger toward the people who stayed. We still love them. But we could not be part of a church that would not sanction the marriage of people like Ken and Kim, people who obviously love one another.

"It was a matter of conscience."

The fact that there are still strong ties among the people who left and the people who stayed at Mount Auburn Presbyterian was evidenced among wedding guests, with near-equal portions of both.

"People are still hugging each other when we meet; we're still friends," said Josh Beran, a wedding guest who stayed at Mount Auburn after Van Kuiken's ouster. "It's been really tough. I stayed because Mount Auburn is where I belong. Other people decided not to. That's just the way it is."

So while Beran and others ride out an unsettled period at Mount Auburn, listening to a stream of visiting pastors, the breakaway group holds it Sunday services and plans for the future - a future they hope will someday include a church building.

Van Kuiken and his wife, Debbie, often attend the services, but he is not the leader of the group. He doesn't preach the sermons; he doesn't read the liturgy. He sits in the congregation with the others, singing the hymns and praying the Jesus Prayer.

Everything but the building

Last week, on a bright and sunny Sunday morning, the service was held in the Edgewood, Ky. backyard of Dea Jones and Sharon McLeod, who live with their dog, Blaze.

Summer vacations cut the attendance to about 25. The worshipers pulled their cars onto the couple's tree-shaded street, dropped off their pot-luck dishes on a dining table set up in Jones and McLeod's garage and filtered onto the back porch, where a couple dozen mismatched lawn chairs and metal folding chairs were arranged in a semi-circle.

The newlyweds, Roots and Farmer, were there, along with Bill and Gert Roots, who had come down from Michigan for the Friday wedding of their son.

Blaze, tail and tongue wagging, darted in and out among the legs and chairs as the congregation sang its first a cappella hymn, "Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee," to the tune of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."

Jones conducted the service, talking about the impact of Van Kuiken's ouster on her life and the lives of all of those there.

She had been through a separation with a spiritual home before. Today, she is a family counselor at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, but she had at one time been a Catholic nun, living in a convent for 14 years.

The convent, she said, "was a heck of a place to come to the realization that I am a lesbian."

Ultimately, the church forced her to choose between her calling and her her love for another woman.

"I had to be what I am," Jones said. "I tried to explain that I didn't really think I had lost my vocation."

After leaving the Catholic Church, she said, she found Mount Auburn Presbyterian, which, for her and her life partner, Sharon, "was a place to grow and evolve."

Then came the ouster of Van Kuiken.

"June 16 was a day that will live in infamy," Jones said. "It shook my internal compass."

In the weeks that followed, Jones and McLeod hosted the first Sunday worship meetings of the splinter group. "I will never forget watching people coming into our home who were lost, who were heart-broken."

In the months since the split, the group has begun planning where it will go next. Already, they are looking for an area church that will allow them to use its building on Sundays.

They also have been laying plans to quietly get the word out to the people who are still at Mount Auburn Presbyterian that they are welcome to join them.

"This is not a clique," said Olafson, sitting in the backyard after Sunday's service. "All are welcome."

For Van Kuiken, who hopes to be hired some day by another church, what is happening with the breakaway group is "awe-inspiring."

"I sit among them, and I can sense something special," Van Kuiken said. "The birth of a new church, perhaps."


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