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Gay Mega Church Boosts United Church Of Christ Membership In The South

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Gay Mega Church Boosts United Church Of Christ Membership In The South

by The Associated Press

Posted: November 25, 2006 4:00 pm ET

(Dallas, Texas) The acceptance of a predominantly gay Dallas megachurch into the United Church of Christ means that about a quarter of the mainline denomination's members in Texas and Louisiana attend the same church.

The North Texas Association of the Cleveland, Ohio-based UCC voted 32-9 last month to admit the 4,300-member Cathedral of Hope after a yearlong courtship. (story) The cathedral bills itself as "the world's largest liberal Christian church with a primary outreach to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people."

The cathedral, which became the fourth largest church in the denomination, was spurred to affiliate with the UCC after its controversial decision last year to endorse gay marriage. It is the largest Christian denomination to do so.

"They are a progressive denomination, and they have taken progressive stands all along," said the Rev. Michael S. Piazza, the cathedral's national pastor and dean. "When they took that vote, it really made it clear that was our home."

About 140 churches in the 5,700-church denomination left the UCC. The Puerto Rico conference of the denomination, which has about 60 churches, also has decided to depart, though some individual churches may stay, said the Rev. Bennett Guess, UCC spokesman.

That number has been partially offset by 65 churches that have expressed interest in joining, the most since the UCC was formed in 1957 by the union of the Congregational Christian Churches in America and the Evangelical and Reformed Church.

The Cathedral of Hope is part of a "continuing drumbeat of new churches" since the denomination's rule-making body overwhelmingly approved a resolution in July 2005 endorsing same-sex marriage, Guess said.

"The future of the UCC is much brighter because they are on the right side of history," Piazza said. "The future generation has no homophobia. They won't tolerate people who won't accept their family and friends."

In the early 1970s, the 1.3 million-member UCC became the first major Christian church to ordain an openly gay minister. The church declared itself to be "open and affirming" of gays and lesbians 20 years ago.

"The UCC is clearly going after a certain niche in American society who are very liberal and have a particular religious vision that includes inclusiveness," said John Evans, associate professor of sociology at University of California, San Diego. "They are becoming the religious brand that is known for this."

The long-term effects of that strategy remain to be seen, Evans added.

Eighty percent of the Protestant denomination's members live in the Northeast or industrial Midwest, but it seems to be making increased inroads as an alternative in the South, where conservative evangelical churches dominate. Four years ago, the 5,500-member Victory Church in Stone Mountain, Ga., became the UCC's second largest church.

Before the Dallas cathedral's application was approved, the denomination had only 13,648 members and 85 churches in Texas and Louisiana.

"I hope that we help initiate a dialogue about what it means to be a vitally alive, vibrant congregation in terms of worship and vision. I think that's a direction the UCC is seeking to go," said the Rev. Jo Hudson, senior pastor of the cathedral, which gives away $1 million a year in community assistance.

The cathedral separated from the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 2003 after a dispute regarding Piazza's financial management. The congregation voted a year ago to seek affiliation with the UCC, although ties with the denomination go further back.

Piazza said a 1997 congregational vote authorized exploration of denominational affiliation with the UCC. But the potential union met obstacles including a resolution preventing the North Texas association from "knowingly" ordaining gay or lesbian ministers. The resolution has since been repealed.

Times have changed, said John Vigus, the association's parliamentarian.

"I think people have more of any understanding that instead of condemnation of one's lifestyle, that maybe we don't agree with them, maybe we wouldn't live the gay lifestyle ourselves, but we shouldn't be condemning it," he said. "Maybe that was wrong. We've been doing it in the past, but maybe we were wrong."

©365Gay.com 2006

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