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Substitute anti-discrimination proposal preserves congregations’ authority to decide on same-sex marriage (Thursday, Aug.13, 2009)

By David Wilson

Commissioners to the 40th General Council stepped back Thursday from a proposal that would have put the authority of congregations to set their own policies on public worship including whether to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies to a church-wide referendum.

Instead, commissioners approved an alternate proposal that declares the United Church opposes discrimination of any sort in its doctrine, worship, membership and governance policies, and which commits the church to working toward the elimination of discrimination in all aspects of church life.

The original proposal, from Saskatchewan Conference, sought to eliminate many types of discrimination, but it was the implication that congregations could be compelled to conduct marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples if the plebisicite passed that loomed over a long and often-emotional debate. Current church policy allows congregations to decide for themselves whether to conduct same-sex marriages.

Some speakers described their experiences of discrimination in their congregations and urged fellow commissioners to make a prophetic statement about inclusiveness.

Others worried that the proposal threatened the United Church’s conciliar system. Under the system, one church court — in this case General Council — cannot interfere with the constitutional authority of other courts. Congregational Sessions, Boards and Councils are the courts that exercise oversight over public worship such as marriage ceremonies.

Rev. Brian Cornelius of Ottawa said that although he is an openly gay minister who favours same-sex marriage, he could not support the proposal because he was “not willing to negotiate away the core of our church, which is the conciliar system.”

The re-worded proposal commissioners eventually adopted asks the United Church’s general secretary to initiate anti-discrimination education programs and report on progress to the next General Council in 2012. It also puts pressure on Presbyteries to ensure the congregations they oversee are committed to eliminating all forms of discrimination.

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