Atlanta--With about 80 percent of the vote, the biennial General Synod of the United Church of Christ on July 4 approved a resolution favoring equal marriage rights.
The United Church of Christ, which has its headquarters in Cleveland, is perhaps the most progressive Christian denomination.
�The biblical call to justice and compassion (to love one�s neighbor as one�s self) provides the mandate for marriage equality,� the resolution states in a section labeled �Theological and Biblical Foundations.�
�There are also many biblical models for blessed relationships beyond one man and one woman,� it continues. �Indeed, scripture neither commends a single marriage model nor commands all to marry, but rather calls for love and justice in all relationships.�
The resolution encourages individual congregations, which act autonomously, to adopt wedding policies that accept the unions of same-sex couples, and to support legislative efforts to extend marital rights to same-sex couples.
While a few more conservative congregations have threatened to leave the denomination over the matter, most in the UCC hierarchy are not worried about a mass exodus.
�I don�t think some churches leaving will be a problem because many more will want to come in,� said Rev. David Bahr, minister of Archwood United Church of Christ in Cleveland and one of the delegates at the General Synod who voted for the resolution. �It�s better for us all to be working towards the same goal of justice than try to accommodate those who are fearful.�
While Bahr, who came to Archwood in January 1993, was far from the first openly gay minister in UCC history, his presence has been important to his congregation.
Eleven years ago, members of the church pushed him to make the congregation an �open and affirming� one, welcoming all people regardless of sexual orientation.
Now, half of his members are LGBT people and one-third of his congregation is African American, illustrating the openness of the United Church of Christ. The church first ordained an openly gay man, Rev. William R. Johnson, in 1972. Johnson is now the vice president for member services of the UCC's Council for Health and Human Services Ministries in Cleveland.
The 1.3 million member church traces its history to the Pilgrims of Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was officially formed in 1957, when the Evangelical and Reformed Church merged with the Congregational Christian Church.
Members and ministers of the denominations which merged to form UCC ordained the first African American minister in 1785 and the first woman in 1853. They were responsible for the first anti-slavery tract in the nation and other instances displaying an early commitment to civil rights.
This latest instance is one that Bahr will never forget.
�I got to be a part of those who voted,� he said. �When it was over, we had a prayer, the president of the UCC led us in prayer, and I realized I was feeling weepy.�
�When the prayer was over and we started leaving the convention floor, I started crying like I hadn�t cried in 20 years,� he continued. �I was literally bawling. I couldn�t believe the vote was so overwhelming.�
�I couldn�t believe what I saw,� he said of the vote. �It wasn�t even close to being close.�
Bahr believes that the vote is quite literally a defining moment for the denomination.
�I think it�s going to have a very positive impact because it�s clear now who we are as the United Church of Christ,� he noted. �It feels like we�ve turned a corner. Even people who were not sure about this knew that it was right and voted for it. I just think that it makes the denomination stronger.�
�I�m really proud to be in the UCC,� he concluded.
The General Synod also passed resolutions dealing with other social justice issues, including one opposing the wall Israeli security forces are building to separate the budding Palestinian state from the rest of Israel and a resolution declaring the UCC the first �fair trade� denomination.
While the Anglican Communion, which includes the Episcopal Church in the United States, and the United Methodist Church, among others, continue to debate gay unions and same-sex marriage, the UCC is now the first mainline Protestant denomination to fully endorse same-sex marriage.
The United Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, which is a predominantly LGBT Christian denomination, also fully endorses same-sex marriage.
The Unitarian Universalist Association gave same-sex unions the nod in 1996.
The Central Conference of American Rabbis, one of the principal bodies of Reform Jewish rabbis in the United States, has issued a number of resolutions on same-sex marriage. CCAR called on its members and their congregations to oppose attempts to restrict civil marriage to opposite-sex couples, and in 2000 adopted a resolution calling for rabbis to officiate at same-sex unions, if their consciences allowed it.
CCAR�s position is murky, but pro-gay, as previous reports and resolutions have differed on whether same-sex couples should just have their relationships honored or actually be considered married.
In terms of civil marriage, only Massachusetts allows for full same-sex marriage, while Vermont, New Jersey and California have wide-ranging civil union or domestic partner laws.
Internationally, much of Europe has laws covering the rights of same-sex couples, while the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain allow for full same-sex marriage. Canada is expected to finish passage of a gay marriage law later this month; it has passed the House of Commons and is now before the Senate, which is controlled by the party that introduced the law.
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