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Protestants weigh same-sex marriage

Mainline Protestant denominations, many of which have been embroiled in debates about homosexuality for years, are reexamining their views about same-sex couples following the state Supreme Judicial Court's endorsement of gay marriage.

The United Church of Christ, the largest Protestant denomination in the state, appears to be the first denomination in Massachusetts to be making plans directly in response to the court ruling. It is planning to hold seminars about how to perform gay marriages early next year, discussing such subjects as gender-neutral wedding liturgies and premarital counseling for same-sex couples.

The local affiliates of other so-called mainline denominations -- including the Episcopal Church USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the United Methodist Church -- say they are closely following developments in Massachusetts as they try to decide how far to go in celebrating the relationships of the same-sex couples in their congregations.

The exact meaning of the Massachusetts court decision is disputed. Gay-rights groups say the state is mandated to allow gays to marry, while the governor and attorney general have suggested civil unions might satisfy the court. The decision has no legal impact on religious denominations, which remain free to perform marriage ceremonies, or not, for whomever they choose.

But the decision is having an indirect impact on mainline Protestant denominations, which have tended to reflect cultural change more quickly than orthodox denominations, such as Catholicism, which have come to view themselves as proudly countercultural.

The most liberal of the denominations, the Unitarian Universalist Association, has been performing ceremonies it calls "services of union" for 20 years. It publishes a guide that includes nine liturgies for ministers to use when uniting same-sex couples.

"Usually our clergy get trained in performing wedding ceremonies at seminary, or as part of an internship, and at my seminary, in California, the professor's talk about doing marriages was gender-neutral," said the Rev. Keith Kron, the director of the Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Concerns at the Unitarian Universalist Association, a national denomination headquartered in Boston. Unitarian Universalism has Protestant roots, and now includes Christian and non-Christian members.

For seven years, Kron said, the Unitarian Universalist Association has been producing material on premarital counseling for same-sex couples. He said such counseling can address issues not applicable to heterosexual couples, such as how differences in degrees of openness about one's sexuality, or different experiences of homophobia, might affect a couple's relationship.

Kron said that most Unitarian Universalist ministers use the words "spouse and spouse" rather than "husband and wife," and that few other changes to the traditional wedding rites are necessary.

"There isn't a lot of difference between same-gender and opposite-gender couples," he said.

To consider same-sex relationships morally similar to male-female relationships is anathema to the leaders of many religious groups with a presence in Massachusetts, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, Orthodox Judaism, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, and multiple independent evangelical Protestant churches. Those religious groups, or their members, are actively fighting any change in the definition of marriage by the state government and are not considering any form of religious recognition of same-sex couples.

But because many mainline Protestant denominations have taken steps to celebrate same-sex relationships, preparing to perform same-sex weddings is a less dramatic change. At least 47 United Church of Christ ministers have expressed a willingness to perform same-sex ceremonies, and about a dozen Episcopal church rectors in Eastern Massachusetts are blessing same-sex couples, according to those denominations.

The United Church of Christ is scheduling workshops as soon as January to discuss clergy reaction and offer resources for performing same-sex marriages.

"There are clergy who are saying to themselves, `If it's legal for gay people to be married in the state of Massachusetts, I will want to feel free to officiate at those,' and the clergy are asking themselves how to do this," said the Rev. Nancy S. Taylor, president of the Massachusetts conference of the United Church of Christ. "For some people, it will become harder to justify not doing it. It may be easier to justify doing what they have been wanting to do, but didn't feel they had the public policy behind them."

Taylor said that while some UCC clergy are clearly open to performing gay marriages, and others are clearly opposed, many are unsure. She said individual clergy will be allowed to decide how to proceed.

"We will want to have some resources about how to do a gay marriage," she said. "Many of our clergy will not officiate without premarital counseling, so we'll want to know what are the unique challenges for a gay couple. And they're not going to say, `I pronounce you man and wife,' so what are they going to say? We'll talk with people who have been doing this."

Although other denominations have not yet gone that far, numerous Protestant leaders say the court decision has caused them to initiate or intensify conversations about how to respond to same-sex couples, and those conversations make it clear that change is possible.

Bishop Susan W. Hassinger, the top official of the New England Conference of the United Methodist Church, sent a letter to all congregations in the region urging them to talk about same-sex relationships after the court decision. Hassinger said in an interview that she expects the denomination to discuss same-sex relationships at its quadrennial meeting next spring.

"Much rhetoric and legal reactions raise concerns about any future impact of this decision on society at large," she wrote. "Rather than jump to conclusions, I invite local churches to engage in biblical and theological reflection."

The Episcopal Church USA has been embroiled in a heated debate over gay rights since this summer's decision to ratify the election of an openly gay priest, V. Gene Robinson, as a bishop in New Hampshire.

Roy F. Cederholm Jr., one of three Episcopal bishops in Eastern Massachusetts, said the court decision will intensify discussions taking place in the church about same-sex relationships.

"The Legislature needs to do its work, and we need to be in conversations with clergy and laity to explore how this decision is going to affect our understanding of marriage and blessings and civil unions," Cederholm said. "This is an invitation to the church to be in conversation with its members."

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has been enmeshed in a national reexamination of its posture toward gays and lesbians, led by the top official of the denomination's New England synod, Bishop Margaret G. Payne. Payne said that Lutheran pastors are not allowed to bless same-sex couples in church, but that some are honoring same-sex couples with less formal prayer services, and the Lutheran denomination is scheduled to vote in 2005 on whether to bless same-sex unions and whether to ordain noncelibate gay clergy.

"All the issues raised by this court decision, and by Gene Robinson's consecration, provide opportunities for people to be more motivated to reflect," Payne said. "It has no specific impact on what we're doing, but it generates conversation. We're obviously living in a time when so many things are up for discussion, and this is more grist for the mill."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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