Statement by Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken to Members of the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Cincinnati Presbytery, April 8, 2003

Members of the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Cincinnati Presbytery, Prosecuting Committee, and other interested parties

Sisters and Brothers in Christ:

We are here today because there is a crisis in the Presbyterian Church. While this is a disciplinary trial of one minister, the issue facing us is too urgent to reduce to a mere legal question. The issue is about deep theological differences and a growing intolerance and lack of forbearance of those differences. And, of course, this is about real people — sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers — who deserve love, respect and dignity.

This is a time of great sadness, and I wish I would not need to be here. However, the recent hardening of the PC(USA)’s positions regarding sexual orientation has made this regrettable moment inevitable. The final adoption of the "fidelity and chastity" amendment in 1998 to our Constitution and the 2000 Benton decision of the General Assembly’s Permanent Judicial Commission have made trials such as these impossible to avoid.

I want to be clear at the outset that I do not hold any ill will toward Mr. Paul Rolf Jensen and the Rev. Charles A. Wilkerson, who filed accusations against me. Nor do I harbor any bad feelings toward my Investigating Committee, which has filed the charges and is prosecuting this case. In fact, I have grown to like and appreciate the members of this committee. Nor do I resent being judged by the Permanent Judicial Commission; they have a job they must do. Do not misunderstand me, each bears personal responsibility in the decisions they make. "Just following orders" or "enforcing the law" has never been a valid justification. But I acknowledge that we are all in a difficult position. The problem I have is not with these people; it is with the unfair and unjust provisions in our denomination’s church law.

Indeed, given these provisions, my accusers have preceded in a logical, forthright manner. It is only reasonable to expect that these provisions would be enforced. One might even say that Mr. Jensen and the Rev. Wilkerson are simply calling the denomination to a certain level of integrity on these issues. I agree with them that the words and deeds of the PC(USA) should be consistent. I also call for my beloved denomination to demonstrate its integrity as it proclaims the gospel to the world.

This question of integrity and honesty is the central issue before us, for these provisions have made it impossible for many of us to live with honesty and integrity in the PC(USA) without the threat of prosecution. This trial is about the struggle for the ability to live openly in the Presbyterian Church.

There have been sexually active gay and lesbian people in the Presbyterian Church for years. But in order to serve as elders, deacons and ministers, they cannot be fully open about who they are. Likewise, there are many progressive heterosexuals in the church who knowingly participate in the services of Christian marriage or ordinations of gay and lesbian members. But they, too, have to do this stealthily and cannot be fully open about their actions.

While it is true that living with these secrets is apparently not a problem for some people, there are many who would not choose to live so secretly. For them, this imposed silence is damaging and oppressive. The inability to be open with their brothers and sisters prevents them from living more full and authentic lives. Many experience the forced silence caused by our church laws as diminishing and painful. The message of these church provisions contributes to abuse and discrimination of gay and lesbian people in our society outside the church, as well. I cannot be even partially silent on the matter any longer.

Some have said that it is fine for me to believe as I do but that I should simply not act upon my convictions. This is a false choice. In our Book of Order it says, "there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice" (G-1.0303). Faith requires action. Certainly the question is not whether one should act upon a one’s deeply held conviction. This is a rudimentary aspect of faith; one is expected to put it into action. Not to act upon one’s faith is a denial of that faith.

But this is precisely the situation in the Presbyterian Church today. Many, if not most, of its members believe that homosexuality per se is not sinful, but they are prohibited from acting upon this belief. If there truly is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, then many, if not most, of the members do not rightly belong in the PC(USA), since they cannot fully integrate their faith into their lives with action.

I am here today because I have tried to walk a path that is open, honest, and true to my understanding of the gospel. As a minister in the Presbyterian Church I have tried to follow Jesus’ example of being truthful and letting my "yes" be yes and my "no" be no (Matthew 5:37, James 5:12). I have striven to have consistency between my belief and my actions. This trial is about my struggle to be authentic in the face of unfair and unjust church laws.

I have given the PJC a document of my admissions, dated February 25, 2003. In this document I acknowledge that I participated in the examination, approval, ordination and installation of non-repentant, sexually active homosexual persons for the office of deacon and elder in Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church. Further, I admitted that as Minister of Word and Sacrament I performed ceremonies between same-sex couples that were the equivalent of Christian marriage and ceremonies that were formally designated as Christian marriages.

In addition, I admitted that I endorsed and subscribed my name on multiple occasions to the document, "Statement of Dissent and Non-Compliance," which stated that Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church "has not and cannot comply with Section G-6.0106(b) of the Book of Order." Plus I admitted that I endorsed and subscribed my name to the document, "Statement on Inclusive Marriage," which states that "marriage between two persons, man and woman, or a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, is the same in the eyes of the Session of Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church" and that "Christian marriage services be held in our church for homosexual as well as heterosexual couples."

In admitting to these factual allegations, however, I do not admit that any of this conduct constitutes an offense.

Whether or not the actions I have admitted taking constitutes an offense is the decision before this Permanent Judicial Commission. There has been much debate in our denomination about what G-6.0106(b) and the Benton v. Presbytery of Hudson River GAPJC decision mean. Although I was certainly aware in my own mind that my actions were clearly contrary to the plain reading of these provisions, my state of mind is not the issue before us. The questions that ultimately can only be answered by this Permanent Judicial Commission are these: 1.) Does G-6.0106(b) of the Book of Order categorically prohibit the ordination of self-declared, sexually active, non-repentant gay and lesbian persons, as well as any participation in such ordinations? 2.) Do the Book of Order and the Benton decision categorically prohibit same-sex services of Christian marriage in PC(USA) churches? The entire denomination awaits this decision.

The Book of Order states, "An offense is any act or omission by a member or officer of the church that is contrary to the Scriptures or the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)." But this implies that the Scriptures and the Constitution are always consistent. What if there was an action that is contrary to the Constitution but not contrary with the Scriptures?

And what if there were actions that were constitutional but against the teachings of the Scriptures? For much of our church’s history, the Constitution mandated the subjugation of women and non-white persons, even in support of slavery. Yet today, we would all agree that such codifications were always contrary to the Scriptures. I am certain that we are in the same position with regard to sexual orientation.

Is this possible? Of course, it is possible that the Scriptures and the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church would conflict. Indeed, it is inevitable. We confess our failings and shortcomings not just as individuals but corporately, as well, with the words of the apostle, "If we say we are without sin we only deceive ourselves." To say that we are "always reforming" implies that who we are as a church, including our Constitution, is never totally aligned with the Scriptures.

Would an action that is contrary to the Constitution but not with the Scriptures be an offense? No. In fact, if there is ever a choice between acting consistently with the Scriptures and contrary to the Constitution, or contrary with the Scriptures and consistently with the Constitution, one has an obligation to the former. Indeed, the Constitution itself states that its own authority is subordinate to the authority of the Scriptures (G-2.0200). Our Constitution affirms that "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of [people] which are in anything contrary to [God’s] Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship" (G-1.0301). Any authority that the Presbyterian Church or its Constitution may have is derived from the sole authority of Jesus Christ, who we experience through the Scriptures, and who is "Head of the Church" (G-1.0100).

Therefore, I believe that by disobeying these particular provisions, one can show the utmost regard for our Constitution. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr.,

One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty…in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

First and foremost, my position is one of conscience. I agree with Martin Luther King that "one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws." But I am also convinced that disobeying these unjust provisions is necessary for reform and progress in the PC(USA). Instead of avoiding the conflict that is in our denomination, we need to continually and openly address the root causes of our conflict. King wrote that while not cooperating with unjust laws may cause tension, this is necessary for growth:

We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already there. We bring it out in the open, where it can be dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

Are my actions justified under the highest authority of Jesus Christ experienced through the Scriptures? This is a question for the Permanent Judicial Commission to decide and an issue only it can resolve.

However the Permanent Judicial Commission decides on this matter, I must be absolutely clear: I will not accept a guilty verdict, for I am convinced beyond doubt that that the actions of which I have been accused are not wrong. Nor will I accept any degree of censure, for this would imply my acceptance of a guilty verdict.

In its statement to the Permanent Judicial Commission, the Prosecuting Committee has recommended a censure of rebuke. They make this recommendation out of a sympathy with the position I have taken. They state,

We decided to file the two charges against Reverend Van Kuiken only because we were required to do so based upon the facts and the facial reading of G-6.0106(b) and W-4.9001. All of the members of our committee have serious reservations about these provisions of the Book of Order

While the Prosecuting Committee’s sympathy certainly is not lost on me, if I am found guilty, a rebuke will not bring resolution. Indeed, I am convinced that there will only be more accusations and more charges against me. This will happen because I will continue to participate in the ordinations of "non-repentant, practicing homosexuals," and I will continue to officiate and participate in services of Christian marriage for same-sex couples. This is a position from which I will not be rehabilitated. In fact, I have two same-sex weddings scheduled within the next several weeks. I want to be as clear as possible about this with the Permanent Judicial Commission.

What is the problem with the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission’s decision in Benton v. Presbytery of Hudson River? Prior to this decision many ministers, couples and sessions had been performing "holy unions" or "covenanting services" for same-sex couples. The Benton decision said that "ceremonies of ‘union’ between persons of the same sex are governed by the General Assembly’s Authoritative Interpretation of 1991." The 1991 Authoritative Interpretation reads:

If a same sex ceremony were considered to be the equivalent of a marriage ceremony between two persons of the same sex, it would be sanctioned under the Book of Order.

…since a Christian marriage performed in accordance with the Directory for Worship can only involve a covenant between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), it would not be proper for a minister of the Word and Sacrament to perform a same sex union ceremony that the minister determines to be the same as a marriage ceremony.

The Benton decision states further that "ministers and sessions should take special care to avoid any confusion of [same-sex ceremonies] with services of Christian marriage… Such a same-sex ceremony does not bless any specific act, and this decision should not be construed as an endorsement of homosexual conjugal practice proscribed by the General Assembly."

But this is precisely what we had meant with the term "holy union." We had always considered these services to be equivalent of Christian marriage in every important way, including the blessing of sexual intimacy between the couple. Since there was now disagreement about what same-sex ceremonies can mean because of the Benton decision, the Session of Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church responded with its "Statement on Inclusive Marriage."

Again, the primary issue before us is the ability and desire to be open and honest. We cannot hide the fact that when we do same-sex ceremonies, all the parties involved — the pastor, the couple and the Session — understand that we are celebrating Christian marriage.

The current provisions of the GAPJC and the Book of Order impose a double standard in the Presbyterian Church. It is a matter of justice and fairness that Christian marriage be available to same-sex couples. As the Session of Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church has stated,

…marriage [is] an egalitarian institution of faithful commitments by two persons for mutual love and companionship. Its promise is for an enduring relationship through good and difficult times, in joy and sorrow, sickness and health. It is for intimate friendship, encouragement, counsel and support, and it produces many goods, which may or may not include children. All these good things can be and are achieved by same-sex couples as well as heterosexual couples.

As a Minister of Word and Sacrament, I have an obligation to declare, celebrate, proclaim and bless these same-sex relationships as Christian marriages. It is part of my gospel message, my proclamation of the Word. Let me put it as simply as I can: If the child of a gay couple, who have made their vows to each other, asks me, "Are my mommies married?" or "Are my daddies married?" I need to say publicly and clearly, "Of course they are!"

What is the problem with the so-called "fidelity and chastity" provision (G-6.0106b) in our Book of Order? This provision clearly states that if one is to be eligible for ordination, one must "live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness." Those who are not single, but part of a same-sex couple, are faced with three unacceptable choices. They can: 1.) decline the opportunity to be ordained, 2.) give up being part of a couple, or 3.) hide being in a coupled relationship to one degree or another. These choices that many gay and lesbian persons face amount to an unfair double standard in the Presbyterian Church.

Some say that since no governing body or individual has yet to be found guilty of violating this provision, the situation is not so bad. However, I would ask the following questions: How many Presbyterians — elders, deacons and ministers — are living in fear of being "found out" because of this provision? How many persons have been frightened away from serving as an officer in the church? How many have been unable to follow God’s calling and fully live out their faith? How many have left the church altogether? How many have internalized a toxic guilt for living in a faithful, caring relationship? How many continue to be wounded by the message of this provision? Whether or not this provision is ever legally enforced, its very existence does violence to persons in the church.

The problem with these provisions regarding marriage and ordination in the church law of the Presbyterian Church is not about how they are applied. The problem is that they codify a literalistic and narrow interpretation of the Scriptures on this single issue. These laws impose a single interpretation upon the entire denomination much in the same way that fundamentalists tried to do in the early twentieth century. At its root the question is whether there is room for more than one view of the Scriptures on this issue in the Presbyterian Church. The problem is not just about fairness for gay and lesbian persons; it is about religious liberty and freedom of conscience within the PC(USA).

I love the Presbyterian Church. Historically, there has always been a progressive or liberal voice in this denomination. From the earlier New Side and New School struggles through the fundamentalist controversy in the 1920’s, this wonderful tradition has maintained that "people of good characters and principles may differ." Back when some conservatives tried to impose a narrow method of biblical interpretation upon the entire church, they were turned back by many faithful Presbyterians such as Henry Sloane Coffin and Charles Erdman.

Today, this traditionally moderate denomination uses broader methods of biblical interpretation on many issues such as evolution, women’s roles and divorce. But we are locked into a narrow and literalistic interpretation regarding sexual orientation. We are facing a new wave of fundamentalism in the Presbyterian Church. This trial is about whether there is room in the Presbyterian Church for interpretations of the Bible that do not regard the practice of homosexuality as sinful.

A statement by 33 professors of Bible at our Presbyterian seminaries reads:

We would encourage the church at this time to interpret particular passages of the Bible in light of the whole Bible, and in the recognition that Jesus Christ, the Redeemer, is the living Word of God. It is the gospel of Jesus that invites gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to full communion in the church.

Our worldview and understanding has changed significantly from that of the biblical writers. For example, we no longer believe in an earth-centered universe. About forty years ago this denomination moved beyond a literal interpretation of a few biblical texts that said, "Women should be silent in the churches" (1 Cor. 14:34f.) and "I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man" (1 Tim. 2:12). And we now recognize that women have the authority, ability and calling to serve as teachers, elders and ministers in the church. In the same way the church moved beyond literal views regarding slavery even though it is written, "Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything" (Col. 3:22). And it has moved beyond a condemnation of divorced persons even though it is written, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her" (Mark 10:11). My point is that it is a double standard not to be able to use similar methods of biblical interpretation when it involves our gay and lesbian members and their gifts for love and leadership.

My understanding of the life and ministry of Jesus is pivotal as I read the Scriptures. Jesus, in whom "there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female" (Gal. 3:28), set aside cultural, gender and ethnic barriers in his welcome to all. He broke down the "dividing walls of hostility" between us (Eph. 2:14). In fact, the religious leaders accused Jesus of associating with the wrong kind of people (Matthew 11:19), and they were scandalized that Jesus did not make the appropriate distinctions. Jesus identified especially with the "least of these" of our world, those who are abandoned and excluded (Matthew 25:34 ff.), and he suffered for those "outside the camp" (Hebrews 13:12).

More importantly, in countless actions and parables, Jesus challenged and replaced a religious worldview based on purity with one based upon compassion. He made contact with and affirmed those who were unclean — lepers, Samaritans, the women "with a flow of blood." He talked of the "weightier matters of the law" (Matthew 23:23) and openly disobeyed religious laws when he healed on the Sabbath. Since homosexuality was a purity issue in ancient Judaism, it follows that in Jesus’ view, homosexual behavior should therefore be evaluated by the same criteria as heterosexual behavior. So same-sex unions that are the same as marriage, for example, reflect Jesus’ ethic of compassion because they encourage faithful, committed relationships.

Finally, the provisions, G-60106b, W-4.9001 and Benton prevent me from following my call as a Pastor and my vows of ordination as Minister of Word and Sacrament. These provisions prevent me in my life to "seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ;" they prevent me from "serving the people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love;" they prevent would prevent me from "proclaiming the good news in Word and Sacrament, teaching faith and caring for people"(G-14.0405b).

You have received copies of many, many written letters and statements of members of my current and former congregations that I have submitted as evidence. These are voices that have long been silenced in the church, and I urge the Commission to read them carefully. When I read them I am reminded of why I am here before this court. Their words illustrate that the actions, for which I am being charged, are an integral part of my ministry. Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church’s inclusive policies were among the very reasons why I accepted this congregation’s call. Since then, my life has been deeply enriched by many beautiful, gentle souls. And there are the children, some have two mothers, two fathers or, like my family, one of each. We are bound together in love and ministry, and as their Pastor, I cannot and will not forsake them.

You can read the letters from a mother and a son. He was a young man when I knew him, struggling with his sexual orientation and his faith. She had never seriously questioned the denomination’s condemnation of homosexuality. Today he is in seminary, studying for the ministry, and she is his strongest advocate. Their story is one of a struggle for acceptance and affirmation. If I have had some small role in their story, I would count it as a joy and honor.

You can read the letters from Jennifer and Cheryl, the first couple for whom I performed a same-sex marriage. I was amazed by their tenacity and determination to find a congregation that would accept and affirm them when they had experienced judgment and rejection time after time. Being able to baptize their beautiful children and help acknowledge the sanctity of their relationships was an incredible experience of grace for me.

And you can read of another lesbian couple, who tragically lost their prematurely born baby girl. The kind of love, tenderness and devotion that I witnessed in those incredibly intimate moments reminded me that they were, indeed, fully and utterly married as anyone could possibly be. I was standing on holy ground, and my heart grieved for their loss but rejoiced for their relationship.

I borrow the famous words of Martin Luther when he was arraigned for heresy in 1521: "Here I stand, I can do no other." I stand for freedom to interpret the Scriptures, for diversity of views and for theological tolerance in our church. I can do no other. I stand for the care, the love and the dignity for gay and lesbian persons and their families. I can do no other. And I stand for the gospel message of compassion and justice that I experience in Jesus. I can do no other. I simply have no choice if I am to be true.

And so I stand before you, the Permanent Judicial Commission, the Prosecuting Committee and the Presbyterian Church. But more importantly, I stand before God, in whom alone I find my comfort and my joy.

A. Stephen Van Kuiken
April 8, 2003