— meaning he no longer is considered a minister in the denomination. Van Kuiken lost his ordination because he refused to stop performing same-sex marriage ceremonies for gay and lesbian people, even after having been rebuked by the presbytery’s permanent judicial commission in April for doing so and told to stop.
During a three-hour meeting, Van Kuiken told the presbytery that he was following “the highest jurisdiction” — the teachings of Christ to love all people — even if that meant violating the church’s Constitution. “This is not just about a pastor not following the rules,” Van Kuiken said, but about a denomination that’s being torn apart by theological divisions over homosexuality and has in effect adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for dealing with gays and lesbians.
Van Kuiken’s lawyer, Douglas Duckett, a Presbyterian elder, said the presbytery was acting in haste and Van Kuiken was not afforded due process — his appeal of the presbytery judicial commission’s decision still is pending before the Synod of the Covenant’s Permanent Judicial Commission. Duckett accused the presbytery of trying to exercise “vigilante justice” — essentially saying, “Let’s just hang Steve tonight and get it over with,” rather than letting the appeals process proceed.
But Bruce Archibald, chair of the presbytery’s committee on ministry, disagreed strongly. “You are not stripping him of his ordination,” he said to the crowd of about 500 before the vote. Archibald described Van Kuiken as a thoughtful, caring and “in my mind, honest and good man, who by his own decisions has decided to take a path of defiance. It is his decision. It is not your decision . . . I resent any of us going away from here tonight feeling we are guilty.”
One pastor said that “Steve marched right over that boundary on May 17,” when he performed another same-sex marriage after being told by the judicial commission not to. “He sent us a clear message,” she said — and chose himself not to wait until after the synod judicial commission considered his appeal.
“We are a church of a Constitution,’ said another pastor. “It’s not the Book of Suggestions, it’s the Book of Church Order.”
Speaking to reporters after the vote, Van Kuiken said he was surprised the presbytery had acted so quickly to say he had renounced jurisdiction, and said he doesn’t know what he will do next. Van Kuiken said he would consider an appeal of the presbytery’s decision on the grounds that he wasn’t afforded due process. (Martha Cross Sexton, chair of Cincinnati Presbytery’s judicial commission told the presbytery she thought it should wait — that the commission had anticipated that Van Kuiken’s appeal in the judicial case “would run its course” before the presbytery would vote on his renouncing jurisdiction.)
Asked if he thought his defiance was worth the cost, Van Kuiken said, “It was important for me to be true to myself” and to what it means to follow Jesus. “That’s the most important thing in my life. So, yes, it’s worth it.”
The presbytery also voted to give an administrative commission it has established broader powers in working with Mount Auburn. Several speakers alluded to divisions within the congregation and to the pain of what Van Kuiken called a “forced separation.” Melissa Sevier, moderator of Cincinnati Presbytery, told reporters after the vote that “there is no joy in our action tonight, only tremendous sadness and humility.” She urged Presbyterians to pray for Mount Auburn and for Van Kuiken and his family.
As she finished her remarks, a man approached her and quietly said: “This is why I don’t go to church. I don’t go to church anymore. I’ll never come back.”
The gathering was orderly and tightly controlled, but not without drama. Before the meeting began at Lakeside church in northern Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, about 30 demonstrators organized by Soulforce stood outside, as did a handful of law enforcement officers in full uniform. There were comparisons to Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Mahatma Gandhi. Some demonstrators held a banner with the names of a “Cloud of Witnesses” — 902 Presbyterians, including 191 ministers and 55 elders or deacons, who were reported to have signed a statement saying that same-sex covenant relationships should be recognized and blessed by the church and that gays and lesbians “should be ordained and installed to all offices in the church . . . Our actions will be consistent with our beliefs.”
Among the demonstrators was Pam DeFusco, a United Church of Christ pastor from Union, Ky. Why did she come? “We believe God loves everybody,” DeFusco said. “We believe that Jesus meant all the words He said, and exclusion of any kind goes against Bible teaching . . . I pray for a day when we can all do the business God calls us to do, and these divisions won’t be present anymore.”
After the vote which removed him from the ministry, Van Kuiken’s supporters silently surrounded him outside the church, holding candles that flickered in the night.
There also were indications that the troubles won’t end with this presbytery’s decision — that Van Kuiken’s case also reflects ongoing difficulties in the PC(USA). For example:
o Several speakers voiced frustration about Paul Rolf Jensen, a lawyer who lives in Virginia, belongs to a church in California, and has filed about two dozen complaints involving Presbyterians from around the country, including Van Kuiken. “I’m angry and frustrated,” said an elder who made a motion to postpone action on Van Kuiken, and who described Jensen as an outsider whose complaints are consuming the resources of presbyteries and making it difficult for Presbyterians to witness to Christ’s love. “He is creating turmoil and he is doing damage to both conservative and liberal causes,” the elder said. “We don’t even know what he looks like.”
o There were some suggestions — all voted down — that the presbytery stop short of removing Van Kuiken. “We don’t have to be Arabs and Israelis here,” one man from Mount Auburn said. “I believe in proportionality,” one pastor said, adding that she wanted the presbytery to be firm, but a faithful, conscientious pastor making a stand of conscience “should not be cut off.”
o Some spoke of dissension in the Mount Auburn session — a reflection, perhaps, of the difficulty that congregation is having in figuring out whether to disagree with the denomination’s ordination standards (which limit ordination to those who practice fidelity if they’re married or chastity if they are not) or actually to defy them. Britt Harwood, an elder from Mount Auburn, said “Mr. Van Kuiken is not speaking for the whole church” and that about a year ago, the session began work to revise its policies on same-sex unions and ordaining gays and lesbians, to try to bring them into compliance with the denomination’s Constitution. But a minority of the congregation, led by Van Kuiken, has “resisted at every turn” that process, Harwood said. Others may not agree with that characterization — but clearly, the people of Mount Auburn are struggling to determine how to be faithful to their convictions in a denomination with rules about what’s permitted and what is not.
o Gays and lesbians from Mount Auburn spoke of how hard it has been to find a church — any church, in any denomination — where they felt welcomed and where the congregation really believed that all people are worthy of God’s love. One gay man said Mount Auburn was the first church he’d joined in 32 years. Another said he’d just celebrated his 70th birthday, and spoke of seven decades of discrimination. Before Mount Auburn, “the doors of the church were essentially closed to me as a gay person,” the man said, unless he stayed in darkness, in the closet.
o Same-sex couples spoke of the joy and healing that having a formal marriage ceremony brought for them and their families, of the blessing of having their children baptized by Van Kuiken — and of the importance of celebrating a committed, monogamous relationship. On May 17, Van Kuiken performed a ceremony for Meghan Kaskoun and Melinda Tarter — the ceremony that led the presbytery to say he had renounced the church’s jurisdiction. Kaskoun told the presbytery that her pastor helped her find faith again.
Van Kuiken said he’s actually more strict about performing weddings than are many pastors — “I’m actually quite old-fashioned in this regard,” he said — requiring premarital counseling, marrying only those who are active church members, and discouraging sexual intimacy outside of faithful, committed relationships. But there is a growing understanding, Van Kuiken said, that love between a man and a man or a woman and a woman “can be just as real, just as good, just as true” as between a man and a woman — that “it is not second-class.”
And he made a comparison between the changing attitudes towards homosexuality and the Presbyterian church’s changed views, based on new ways of interpreting Scripture, regarding the ordination of women.
The story leading to the presbytery’s decision has been unfolding for years — played out in part within Mount Auburn church’s continuing efforts to be a community of real welcome for gays and lesbians, and of Van Kuiken’s particular role within that struggle. Van Kuiken has contended that his is a position of conscience — that he cannot claim to be a follower of Jesus and exclude from leadership and full acceptance by the PC(USA) those who are gay and lesbian.
But the actions of Mount Auburn and Van Kuiken have been scrutinized by some in the national church — who are as convinced as Van Kuiken is that theirs is the theologically correct position, and that to tolerate dissent of the PC(USA)’s Constitution is to contribute to the unraveling of the denomination itself.
On April 21, the Permanent Judicial Commission of Cincinnati Presbytery found Van Kuiken guilty of performing same-sex union ceremonies at Mount Auburn and rebuked him. The judicial commission told Van Kuiken that the PC(USA) Constitution “does not allow same-sex ceremonies to be called marriages,” and directed him only to perform marriage ceremonies involving a man and a woman. “If you perform services of holy union, you are directed to take special care to avoid any confusion of such services with Christian marriage,” the judicial commission decision stated.
Van Kuiken responded that he would not change his mind, and wrote that “I will continue to officiate and participate in services of Christian marriage for same-sex couples.” Indeed, he later publicly announced that he’d performed a “service of Christian marriage” for two women on May 17.
On May 30, Jensen, the lawyer whose initial complaint led to the Cincinnati Presbytery’s Permanent Judicial Commission decision, filed another complaint against Van Kuiken, based on the new circumstances
That complaint, filed as a disciplinary case in Cincinnati Presbytery, accused Van Kuiken of blasphemy, heresy and acting in willful violation of his ordination vows, and said he’d acted acting in “willful and deliberate violation” of the judicial commission order. Early in June, Van Kuiken was informed that the presbytery would meet on June 16 to consider taking action against him.
The process of renunciation of jurisdiction is spelled out in the Book of Order.
It states that: “When a church officer, after consultation and notice, persists in a work disapproved by the governing body having jurisdiction, the governing body may presume that the officer has renounced the jurisdiction of the church.”
And it says that “Renunciation of jurisdiction shall remove the officer from membership and ordained office and shall terminate the exercise of office.”
In a note to his congregation, posted on the Mount Auburn Web site, Van Kuiken said that if the presbytery voted to remove his ordination, “I would no longer be able to serve as your pastor and next Sunday would be my last.” That note is not dated.
The administrative commission working with Mount Auburn is not seeking original jurisdiction — meaning it will not take over control of running the church, although the presbytery did vote to give it expanded powers “to address emerging circumstances.” Patricia Brown, chair of that committee and a former GA moderator, said, “we want to be as pastoral ourselves as we can possibly be.”