Statement by Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken to Presbytery of Cincinnati – June 16, 2003

Madame Moderator, Members of the Presbytery, Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

We are here to decide not just whether I have broken a rule. You are being asked not just whether I have disobeyed the orders of the Permanent Judicial Committee. The real question before you is whether I have acted in obedience to Jesus Christ.

There is a collective wisdom in our Book of Order that we should honor and respect. The authority of our church government needs to be obeyed. However, there are rare circumstances when the decisions of the governing bodies of the church may conflict with the spirit of Christ.

As Presbyterians we always acknowledge this possibility, since we are aware of human depravity and our total reliance upon grace. As good as our rules are, they are not perfect. We know that there will be occasions when our rules inevitably conflict with the word of God. For the ultimate jurisdiction is Christ, and Christ alone.

If it is possible that I am following the call of Christ in my heart, then I have not renounced the jurisdiction of the Church. Indeed, I would be following the Church’s highest authority.

This is a very sad day. I grieve for my congregation, for this Presbytery and for our denomination. I wish that I were not here before you, and many of you do not want to be here, as well. We are caught up in something much larger than ourselves. This is not just about a pastor not following a rule. This is about a deep theological division in our church, a division with which we have been struggling for years. Simple majority votes have not resolved the issue of homosexuality and biblical interpretation. We need to acknowledge this.

It is an amazing contrast that earlier last week the Episcopal Church elected its first openly gay bishop and Canada now legally recognizes same-sex marriages! How can we say that this issue is settled?

Judicial and administrative actions such as the one before us tonight are premature. For this issue is far from settled in our church. Instead, these punitive actions will only exacerbate our pain and open the wounds in our body even more. Clearly, this is one example of when "the letter of the law kills." Tonight I urge us to seek the "spirit, which gives life."

The Presbyterian Church is caught in a terrible bind. Many, if not most, of its members believe that homosexuality per se is not sinful. But it is saddled with unjust laws that are based on the false premise that homosexuality is sinful. The Presbyterian Church is faced with enforcing laws it doesn’t wholeheartedly believe or want.

Because of this, the PC (USA) has settled on the unofficial practice of "don’t ask, don’t tell." And it appears that my offense is not what I have done; holy unions that are the same as marriages are being done all the time. No, it appears that my offense and the offense of my congregation is that we simply have been open and honest about what we have done. I am here because I’ve freely told others what I’ve done.

Some will view this as arrogance, an intentional flouting of the law. I assure you this is not the case. I have suffered greatly in all this, as have my family and congregation. I do not welcome an uncertain and harsh future. But for me, this is a matter of honor and integrity. I would feel dishonest not to tell. I really do believe that we should be truthful and let our "yes" be yes and our "no" be no, even if that should put us at personal risk.

Many of us in the church have found that we can’t live any other way. "Don’t ask, don’t tell" is a crushing, suffocating weight upon us. If I kept my actions secret simply to stay out of trouble, I would find it difficult to face myself in the mirror. To me, hiding these actions would be a form of lying, a sin of omission, that I could not bear.

Some have said that I have only brought this upon myself by being open about my actions and that I am disrupting the peace and unity of the church. But the peace from an imposed silence is false and superficial.

Performing same-sex Christian Marriage services is only our attempt to be truthful. This Presbytery’s PJC told me that we should be satisfied with holy unions for same-sex couples. However, according to the Benton decision of the General Assembly’s PJC in 2000, both same-sex marriage and holy unions that are considered to be the equivalent of marriage are prohibited. Currently in the PC (USA) holy unions are not only second-class, they aren’t even in the same league as Christian marriage. With Benton the Presbyterian Church told gay and lesbian members to "get to the back of the bus."

If we are honest, even if we were to use the term "holy union" for our ceremonies, we would still be in violation of church law, because we consider them to be the equivalent of a marriage ceremony. The issue has not been about just what we call our same-sex ceremonies. It is what we believe them to be and how we communicate this belief.

We at Mt. Auburn Church have always seen same-sex ceremonies as the same or the equivalent as marriage. Years before our "Statement on Inclusive Marriage," our practice, initiated by the former pastor, was not to distinguish between holy unions and marriages but list them all together in the Session minutes under the single category of "marital unions." We have always seen them as essentially the same, and this is why we cannot pretend to do the kind of holy unions that are allowed by Benton.

In Benton it says,

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

…it would not be proper for a minister of the Word and Sacrament to perform a same sex ceremony that the minister determines to be the same as a marriage ceremony.

But it would simply be dishonest to say that we don’t view them as the same. The PJC of Cincinnati ordered me to pretend that the two ceremonies are not the same. I can’t do that.

The Benton decision is explicitly based upon the premise that homosexual practice is sinful. Any ceremonies or pastoral care that we offer out of this context is shallow and damaging. In my heart, it would be contrary to the spirit of Christ. I quote again from the decision:

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.

We have always considered these services to be equivalent of Christian marriage in every important way, including the blessing of sexual intimacy between the couple. 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 Benton decision states that there needs to be a theological and liturgical distinction between same-sex ceremonies and services of Christian marriage and one cannot confuse the two. It says,

Ministers should not appropriate specific liturgical forms from services of Christian marriage… in the conduct of such ceremonies.

But when we do same-sex ceremonies the liturgy is identical with that of Christian marriage — the same vows, the same exchange of rings, the same pronouncement. And so our congregation issued its "Statement on Inclusive Marriage" as a direct response to Benton and in an effort to be clear about what we believe these services to be.

Today, I am facing the removal of my ordination because I have implemented this policy of my congregation and performed Christian marriages my Session has approved. I am faithfully fulfilling my role as their Pastor.

When it comes to marriages, I am more strict that most of my colleagues. I usually only do them for active members, since I insist that a Christian faith commitment be evident. I require several premarital counseling sessions, using a professional inventory, which I became certified to administer. I take this pastoral role very seriously. I’m actually quite old-fashioned in this regard. I believe that sexual intimacy should occur within the covenant of marriage and that the bond of matrimony is something that couples need for the health of their relationship. As a pastor, I discourage casual cohabitation, and I encourage faithful, committed, permanent relationships. And as a Minister of Word and Sacrament, I have an obligation to declare, celebrate, proclaim and bless these same-sex relationships as Christian marriages.

Again, the issue before us is much larger than whether a single pastor has disobeyed a rule. It 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.

From a biblical perspective, if we can ordain women, we can marry same-sex couples. It is exactly the same process of interpretation; it is the same logic. The Bible clearly says that women are not to teach or have authority over men, and in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 an elder "must be the husband of one wife," an elder must be male. When the Presbyterian Church decided to move beyond the literal level of those passages and ordain women, it didn’t call that ordination by a different name. It didn’t use a second-class ceremony.

What happened? The words of the Bible didn’t change, but our understanding of the world and women changed the way we interpret those words. Women were considered less than men. They had lower status and derived their identity from the male to whom they were attached. They were the property, the possession of the man. They were second-class. But that view has changed and so has our biblical interpretation.

In the same way, the Bible refers to marriage as something between a man and woman, and many feel it is time to move beyond the literal level of those verses. Just as women were considered second-class, so were same-sex relationships. There is a growing understanding today that the love between two women or two men can be just as real, just as true, just as good as the love between a man and a woman. It is not second-class, but it is fully blessed by God.

As a Christian, as a Pastor, as a Presbyterian, I pray for the freedom to proclaim this.

Stephen Van Kuiken (allotted 10 minutes to speak)
June 16, 2003