News: Holy Disorders

Presbyterian reformers face judgment day

Jymi Bolden

the Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken could lose his job for fully welcoming gays and lesbians into the church

Equally loving and welcoming all God's children might damn the Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church.

An administrative commission assigned to investigate the church and its pastor, the Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken, will make a recommendation to the Presbytery of Cincinnati in January 2003. In addition, a disciplinary procedure has been initiated against Van Kuiken and former pastor Harold Gordon Porter.

At issue is the denomination's belief that homosexuality is a sin. For Mt. Auburn Presbyterian, homosexuality is a lifestyle to be accepted and embraced with the same respect as heterosexuality.

"The conservatives would say that we are not obeying the constitution of the church," Van Kuiken says.

He doesn't deny it; his beliefs differ slightly from those of the presbytery, or local governing body for the denomination. Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church has ordained gays and lesbians as elders and deacons, and Van Kuiken unites gays and lesbians in marriage.

"It's more than just we do that," Van Kuiken says. "We do that and we're very open about it."

The general rule in the Presbyterian denomination is gays and lesbians may not be ordained. But the local church decided otherwise.

"We see ourselves as part of a larger whole that needs transformation," Van Kuiken says. "We feel called to help the Presbyterian Church change. It's important for us not just to be a safe haven but to be a change agent, a voice for justice."

In the house of stone and light
Founded in 1868 in a then-suburb of Cincinnati, on what would become William Howard Taft Road, Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church's had its roots in a "healthy conservatism," according to Porter. A stone foundation fortifies this house of God. Down the road, University Plaza shrinks in its shadows. The church parking lot, hidden behind, is a much-needed afterthought to the original structure.

The dual set of colossal, wooden double doors, much like a castle, prove regal and foreboding; but standing wide open, they're inviting. The south wall's stained glass windows provide a warm glow over the church interior.

Ten minutes until a service begins, only a dozen people line the pews. By the time Van Kuiken delivers the day's sermon — "Never Far Away" — almost 200 people are in attendance.

"We come to you, because we need you," he prays, his soft-spoken voice and conversational tone adjusting to the new sound system. "We know that God is everywhere, always with us, yet we continue to pray like this."

The heat is stifling. Next to the Bibles and books of hymns are hand fans. Electric fans do their part; there is no air conditioning. Shorts and sandals are appropriate attire here.

Despite the temperature, more than one couple sits closely snug. A woman, her blonde hair styled like a Dixie Chick, places her arm around her female partner. A man and a woman quiet their baby with a bottle. When it comes time for "Sharing the Peace," gays and straights, men and women, young and old turn to one another and say, "Peace of God be with you."

"That's the thing that is so special — is you get this glimpse of what it could be like," says Julia Arosteguy, an elder and clerk of session at the church.

Many gay and lesbian parishioners tell Van Kuiken they have the same interest: " 'We don't want to be a part of a gay church. We just want to be part of a congregation where we're seen as full human beings,' " Van Kuiken says.

The reputation of justice
Michael Adee, national field organizer for More Light Presbyterians — a network of individuals and churches working for the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the Presbyterian Church — didn't mean to lead the way when he joined Mt. Auburn in 1991.

"I had been in Northern Kentucky for about a year, and I had been looking for a welcoming church to bring all of me and be honest about who I was," Adee says. "I wasn't having much luck finding a welcoming church in the Cincinnati area."

A coworker who attended a different church recommended Mt. Auburn Presbyterian.

"One of the things that I still find striking is that she did not invite me to her church," Adee says. "I think she knew her church wouldn't welcome me, and she recommended Mt. Auburn. She knew of the reputation of justice at Mt. Auburn."

An earlier pastor, a pacifist, had spoken out against World War II. The church allowed groups such as the League of Women Voters, Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union to share its space.

In 1991 Mt. Auburn Presbyterian adopted its "Policy on the Inclusion of Gays and Lesbians." The congregation denounced the ban on ordaining gays and lesbians — officially forbidden because "practice of homosexuality is sin."

It would be more than a year before the policy was tested when Adee became the first openly gay man to meet the requirements for elder.

"I remember when I got the call from the chair of the nominating committee," he says. "He was very clear to let me know that I was nominated on the merits of my character and my faith and my service within the church. I was not to understand this as some kind of token nomination."

Although Mt. Auburn Presbyterian was under investigation over the Inclusion Policy, Adee was permitted to serve as elder.

"The congregation has been one to be serious about removing any barriers between persons and God," he says. "I think you noticed in how they interact. There is an enormous mix of friendships. I think you did see a sort of rainbow in the pew. That really is the nature of the congregation."

He hopes the administrative commission investigating Mt. Auburn comes with open hearts and minds.

"This is the church that gave me my faith back," Adee says. "It's a church that deserves full respect for who it is and how they try to administer to the community."

'This is mean'
Van Kuiken is frustrated.

"The Presbyterian Church as a denomination has always been known as a forward thinking and open-minded church," he says. "And that's why it's pained me so much to see this conservative backlash within our community. I don't know why some churches are resisting change. I think fear has a lot to do with it."

Mt. Auburn Presbyterian isn't preaching for anyone else to change, but only doing what's right for its congregation, according to Arosteguy.

"We're not telling anyone else that they have to do what we've done," she says. "We don't expect people to take the position that we take."

The Presbytery of Cincinnati will decide what to do after receiving the administrative commission's recommendations. One scenario sees Van Kuiken's removal.

John Oxner, a member of the congregation for seven years, says removing the pastor would be divisive.

"I don't believe we as a congregation would stand for that," he says. "I know I as an individual won't stand for it. If they throw him out, they better come and take the building, too."

That's another possibility. The presbytery could claim original jurisdiction, taking control of the congregation's property and assets. Or the local church could be forced out of the presbytery, but retain rights to the property, the equivalent of an amicable divorce.

During a congregational meeting April 28, Mt. Auburn Presbyterian passed a resolution that it "cannot recognize the removal of Stephen Van Kuiken as its pastor while he is faithfully executing the mission and policies of the Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church session."

Despite unified support from his congregation, Van Kuiken isn't taking the investigation lightly.

"I think it's very serious," he says. "I would like not to worry about it all the time. I don't know how it's going to play out. Some would say that this denomination is headed for a train wreck, that this just might be the beginning of all the progressives being forced out.

"Another possibility is that the moderates in this church will wake up to what is happening and say this is not Christ-like, that this is not in the spirit of Jesus, and this is in fact mean," he says.

Van Kuiken doesn't doubt himself, or God, but he is subject to fear for the future of the Presbytery, Mt. Auburn Presbyterian and himself.

"I've got to be honest. I do have my moments of anxiety. That does get to me. I don't want to put a brave face on things," Van Kuiken says. "A part of me says that somebody has to stand up to them — and if it's not Mt. Auburn, if it's not us, I don't know who can." ©

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