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The Rev. Kim K. Crawford Harvie greeted David Wilson, center, and his partner Rob Compton yesterday at Arlington Street Church, where she will join them in marriage May 17. (Globe Staff Photo / Matthew J. Lee)

Unitarians prepare to marry gays

Denomination set to 'make history'

At a time when many of the major religious denominations of the United States are riven by divisive debates over homosexuality, a small Boston-based denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association, is preparing to supply ministers to officiate at large numbers of weddings of same-sex couples.

A Cambridge minister is going to City Hall as licenses are handed out to let gays and lesbians know she is ready to marry them. Three Unitarian Universalist congregations, two in Boston's Back Bay and one in Lexington, have placed ads in a gay weekly, Bay Windows, signaling their desire to perform gay weddings; one ad invites couples to "come make history."

On May 17, the day same-sex marriage becomes legal in Massachusetts, the denomination's president, the Rev. William G. Sinkford, will officiate at the wedding of Hillary and Julie Goodridge, the lead couple in the lawsuit that led to the state's Supreme Judicial Court ruling that the state cannot deny the benefits of civil marriage to same-sex couples. The Goodridge wedding is being held at the Unitarian Universalist Association's historic headquarters, 25 Beacon St., which overlooks the State House, where Governor Mitt Romney and various lawmakers have tried to block gay couples from getting married.

That same day, the senior minister of Arlington Street Church, a 275-year-old congregation whose members previously agitated on behalf of the emancipation of slaves and women's suffrage, plans to perform the wedding of another of the plaintiff couples, David Wilson and Robert Compton, on a live broadcast of ABC's "Nightline." A third plaintiff couple, Gloria Bailey and Linda Davies, is to be married that day at First Parish Brewster, a Unitarian Universalist congregation.

The denomination is posting on its website sample liturgies for use by clergy officiating at same-sex weddings and has asked retired ministers to volunteer to help at churches overwhelmed by the volume of same-sex weddings. The Unitarian Universalist Meeting House of Provincetown, which has more than 30 same-sex weddings scheduled, has authorized parishioners to officiate at some in order to manage the workload.

Arlington Street Church is devoting Thursday, May 20, to marrying gays and lesbians, scheduling marriage license-signing ceremonies in 20-minute intervals. So far, 30 couples have signed up, starting at daybreak with the wedding of the church's senior minister, the Rev. Kim K. Crawford Harvie, who will be married to her female partner, and ending at 9 p.m. with the wedding of a congregant.

"It's just exquisite to be alive right now," said Crawford Harvie, who said she and a rabbi on her staff, Howard A. Berman, will sign as many marriage licenses as they can that day, standing at the chancel once occupied by Unitarianism's most famous preachers as they invite the same-sex couples to say their vows, and then sitting at an antique Communion table as they sign the documents that make the couples legally married. "We've worked really long and hard for this."

Multiple Unitarian Universalist congregations are planning celebrations May 16, the Sunday before gay marriage becomes legal, or May 23, the Sunday following. On May 16, First Church Unitarian in Littleton is holding a "Freedom to Marry Sunday" with a trumpet fanfare and testimony from gay couples about their relationships.

On May 23, First Parish Brewster is posting pictures of affianced gay couples around its sanctuary and having a choir sing "If We Only Have Love" by Jacques Brel, while First Parish in Cambridge is having a wedding cake for all of its gay and lesbian couples.

Unitarian Universalism, an unabashedly liberal denomination that proudly proclaims its lack of a shared creed, is one of a handful of American denominations that fully support same-sex marriages. The Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish movements have also endorsed same-sex marriages, and a large number of United Church of Christ ministers are willing to marry same-sex couples.

But Unitarian Universalism is unusual in its near unanimity on this issue -- denominational officials say they are unaware of any of its ministers who would decline to marry same-sex couples -- and because its lack of theological constraints. Most rabbis who will marry gay couples will do so only if at least one partner is Jewish; most Christian ministers who will marry gay couples expect to do so in a Christian context.

By contrast, many Unitarian Universalist ministers will marry any couple. Several pointed out that Unitarian Universalists have long married interfaith couples who could not get married in their own churches or synagogues.

"I've indicated to members of the congregation that I would be available to do weddings for anybody who would like to get married," said the Rev. Mary J. Harrington, parish minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Marblehead, who flies a rainbow flag over her church's doorway. She has invited all Marblehead gays and lesbians to a worship service on Sunday and has seven gay weddings scheduled so far, including one for her religious-education director that is to be attended by children of the church.

The Rev. Alison Hyder, senior minister of the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House of Provincetown, said "virtually none" of the 15 couples her congregation will marry during the first week are Unitarian Universalists, but "I feel it's part of our mission as Unitarian Universalists to affirm the inherent worth and the integrity of all people."

The Unitarian Universalist Association is tiny on the scale of American religion. The denomination says it has 225,000 adherents nationwide, including 35,000 in Massachusetts.

By contrast, the Roman Catholic Church, the nation's largest religious denomination, says it has 65 million adherents nationwide, including 3 million in Massachusetts, though the numbers attending Mass regularly are much lower.

The nation's largest religious denominations -- the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention -- adamantly oppose same-sex marriage, as are the leaders of Islam, Orthodox Judaism, Orthodox Christianity, and Mormonism.

Many established Protestant denominations -- such as the Episcopal Church USA, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the United Methodist Church -- have for years been engaged in divisive, and unresolved, debates over whether to bless gay couples or ordain gay clergy.

The Anglican Communion has confronted a possible schism after the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire last summer elected an openly gay priest as bishop; the United Methodist Church's top legislative body voted last week to retain the denomination's position that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching.

Homosexuality was a matter of controversy within Unitarian Universalism through the 1970s. The denomination's general assembly in 1970 passed a resolution opposing discrimination against homosexuals and bisexuals. In 1984, it passed a resolution affirming "services of union" for same-sex couples. In 1996, it passed a resolution supporting a right to marry for same-sex couples.

"We have been hard at work on this for 30 or 35 years, and have managed to settle it among us, unlike much of the rest of the religious world," the Rev. Sinkford said. "This issue is one which actually helps to bring us together, and helps us to understand our religious identity, rather than tearing us apart."

Sinkford said he believes the denomination, which is well known and sometimes mocked for its ardent liberalism, has benefited from its support for gay rights, because progressives have been drawn to the denomination. The weddings can also be a source of revenue for congregations, which do not charge fees to members, but generally do charge nonmembers a rental fee for a church and an honorarium for a minister.

Denominational officials and individual ministers say many of the ceremonies they perform in coming weeks will be brief, because many couples have had religious weddings in Unitarian Universalist congregations, so now they are just seeking civil marriages for legal recognition. Clergy say they also expect to waive or minimize premarital counseling for many couples, because they have been together for so long.

Hyder, the Provincetown minister, said that many gay couples previously chose to have commitment ceremonies on the beach or in a garden, but this year many are seeking to schedule their weddings inside the church, because "they want the public recognition, and that formal and more sanctified feeling."

Michael Paulson can be reached at 

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