News: Equal Before God

New pastor, new covenant at Mount Auburn Presbyterian

Janis Hastings

Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church has emerged from the metaphorical wilderness with a new pastor and a new policy for handling commitment ceremonies between same-sex couples. The changes follow a tumultuous period that saw its pastor fired for marrying two women and a protracted debate among the denomination's hierarchy.

The Rev. Susan Quinn Bryan arrived at the church in late November from Houston and was officially installed as pastor in January. She is the first female pastor in the church's 137-year history.

Over the years Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church has developed a reputation for its progressive bent and activism in social justice issues, including its inclusive policy involving the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community. Between one-third and half of the church's roughly 250 members are gay or lesbian.

It's not exactly a place where George W. Bush or Jerry Falwell would feel comfortable worshipping, although Bryan says they would be welcomed.

"This church is open to everyone, period," she says. "It's one of the most welcoming places you'll ever walk into. I don't care who you are or what background you come from, what color your skin is, what you do for a living or who you love.

This is a place where you will be accepted. Hospitality is the gift of this congregation.

"It's not a one-issue church. The folks here are involved in all kinds of social justice issues and concerns. The GLBT thing is one aspect of a justice-loving church, but it's certainly not our only aspect."

Progressive mother ship
The century-old church was thrust into the headlines in 2003 when its former pastor, the Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken, lost his job. The Presbytery of Cincinnati — a group of 86 local churches — removed him as pastor for marrying a lesbian couple. The removal occurred despite Van Kuiken's argument that the denomination's national organization, the General Assembly, had taken an improper stance caused by interpreting the Bible too narrowly on passages related to marriage.

Ultimately, Van Kuiken was partially vindicated in 2004 when the Synod of the Covenant, which oversees Presbyterian churches in Ohio and Michigan, upheld his appeal and reversed the removal order. The synod ruled that the denomination's constitution doesn't prohibit same-sex marriages.

The decision, however, didn't hold much benefit for Van Kuiken. By then, he had accepted a separation deal from Mount Auburn and was working to create his own non-denominational church, The Gathering.

A nominating committee of congregants in the Mount Auburn church spent almost 18 months searching for a pastor to replace Van Kuiken. They picked Bryan, who was pastor at Community of the Servant-Savior Church in Houston and involved in progressive causes such as the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and Voices of Sophia, which examines feminist theology.

Despite the recent controversy, Bryan had no qualms about coming to Mount Auburn.

"This church is almost one of the mother ships of progressive churches in our denomination, so I have known of the church for years," Bryan says. "I have a great deal of respect for this congregation."

By the time that Bryan arrived in Cincinnati, the local church had adopted a policy on blessing the commitments made by couples, gay or straight. The church approved the Statement of Covenant Services, which declares that all people will be treated equally when seeking God's grace on their union and pledge to one another.

The covenant service replaces marriage ceremonies for straight couples and replaces holy union ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples. So far Bryan has performed one covenant service for a heterosexual couple and is counseling a lesbian couple in preparation for their ceremony.

"It's fairly groundbreaking," Bryan says. "What it offers is a third way, being more creative than confrontational. Historically, when you're talking about marriage, there is a marriage that is a state function. Actually that was a state function long before the church got involved in blessing marriages. Couples marry one another, and the state recognizes it as a contract between two people."

Although the Catholic Church considers marriage ceremonies a sacrament, it's somewhat different in Protestant churches, Bryan says. Typically, those ceremonies blur the line between the government's sanctioning the union and the church's blessing the couple's commitment.

"It's interesting when people say, 'Why don't we just call it a civil union?' Well, that's what marriage is, recognition by the state of a civil union between two people," Bryan says. "So all state-sanctioned marriages are civil unions. Basically, marriage is the right to sue one another for divorce if someone breaks the contract, although I don't want to belittle the many other benefits that go along with that."

Bryan, along with the Mount Auburn congregation, believes that gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to marry under the law. But the denomination, like many people outside the church, is divided on the issue.

Is equality enough?
The Presbyterian Church has recognized the right of same-sex couples to be in committed relationships but is split about whether the denomination should perform same-sex marriages within churches.

"It's been perfectly OK to say we'll do other ceremonies, as long as they're not called marriages," Bryan explains.

Until laws change and the denomination decides the issue conclusively, the Mount Auburn church will perform covenant services to ensure equal treatment, she says.

"Our understanding of what the church does for couples is that it's a Christian covenant between two people and a third party, the third party being God," Bryan says. "While two people choose to be together, they choose to be together in a community of faith that recognizes there is a God that's going to help them keep these impossible promises that they have made to one another. I have long distinguished between what the church does and what the state does.

"If someone breaks a contract, you have a right to sue and it's over. In a covenant, when the covenant is broken, it's our understanding that God steps in and helps to enable healing so that the parties can work things out and can stay together."

Most members of the Mount Auburn church are pleased with the policy, and many refer to it as "groundbreaking."

"It's a wonderful model of equality, in line with our mission of treating all people fairly," says Van Ackerman, a gay man who is an elder at the church.

Bill Bogdan, a church member for 12 years who chaired the committee that selected Bryan, says the policy is non-discriminatory because the church is treating straight and gay couples in exactly the same manner.

"Our policy treats all equally," he says. "Regardless of the terminology used, what it's about is two people coming together. The words that one uses (in the ceremony) are not determined or dictated by the minister. The minister merely facilitates the process."

Valerie Bernardino, who has attended Mount Auburn Presbyterian for 10 years, also likes the policy but says more changes are needed in the future.

"It's a good stop-gap for us," she says. "It's an opportunity to perform the holy unions without breaking current Presbyterian doctrine. However, as times change, I feel we need to grow and move to where the rest of the world has evolved on this issue. It's going to take the Presbyterian Church some time to get there."

Not everyone is so effusive. While Van Kuiken couldn't be reached for this article, he has a different view of the church policy. In the past, Van Kuiken — who, like Bryan, is straight — criticized churches that perform other types of ceremonies for gay couples as ducking the issue.

Earlier this year he told CityBeat, "Really what they're doing is a marriage. There's a ring, vows, a unity candle and they're going to have sex. Everybody knows that's what's going on. It's the equivalency of marriage. It forces you to be duplicitous in the Presbyterian Church." (See "Left of Eden," issue of April 12-18)

To remain true to his values, Van Kuiken says he's stopped doing the legal part of straight marriages in protest. He describes the gay marriage ban as a violation of the separation of church and state because it accepts some marriages and condemns others. ©

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