WASHINGTON, Nov. 17 (RNS) -- The general secretary of the National Council of Churches withdrew his support for a new ecumenical statement supporting marriagebecause of concerns the document "may be used by some as a pretext forattacks on gay and lesbian persons."

The statement, co-signed by Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders,expressed dismay over rising divorce rates and pledged a recommitment tostrengthening traditional marriage.

The Rev. Bob Edgar said several of the NCC's member churchesinterpreted the document as a "condemnation of same-sex unions ratherthan an affirmation of marriage," Edgar said in his letter. Edgar saidhe did not want to be associated with such sentiments.

"I am concerned that in our dangerously fragmented and violentsociety, misinterpretation of the declaration may be used by some as apretext for attacks on gay and lesbian persons," Edgar wrote, addingthat a "number" of NCC member churches expressed concern about thestatement.

The rare joint statement, "A Christian Declaration on Marriage,"described marriage as "a holy union of one man and one woman in whichthey commit, with God's help, to build a loving, life-giving, faithfulrelationship that will last for a lifetime."

It encourages churches to work harder to support married couples andreduce the nation's divorce rate.

Although the statement made no direct reference to same-sex unions,Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention used a Tuesday press conference to reaffirm his church's opposition to gay marriage.

"We certainly don't shy away from asserting that God ordainedmarriage and that God ordained marriage as between a man and a woman,"said Land, president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and ReligiousLiberty Commission. "It is a covenantal, lifetime relationship betweenone man and one woman, not between two people of the same sex."

Edgar was not at the press conference because of the NCC's generalassembly meeting in Atlanta. In an interview with RNS, Edgar said it was"irresponsible" for Land to make the document into a politicalstatement.

"It inflamed a situation when the framers of the document wanted itfocused on how churches might heal relationships, but it ended up apolitical document for someone like him to use to attack persons withlanguage that is irresponsible," Edgar said.

Edgar said he should have gotten the entire NCC's approval beforesigning the document, and said he has learned "incredibly important,helpful and painful" lessons.

The marriage statement was seen by many as a sort of ecumenicaltrial balloon in an area where the NCC, Catholics and evangelicals couldperhaps find some common ground. The NCC is in the process ofreinventing itself to attract the participation of Catholics andevangelicals.

Edgar said the flap over the marriage statement does not precludethe three camps from working together in the future. He cited poverty,elderly health care, homelessness and after-school programs as areaswhere all Christians could agree.

The marriage and same-sex unions question has proven to be deeplydivisive in many of the NCC's 36 member churches, with Methodists,Episcopalians and Presbyterians especially torn on the issue of whetherto bless same-sex unions.

Edgar said it was "inappropriate" for him to try to speak for theNCC when its own member churches could not agree among themselves.

"On something this important where these churches are dealing withthese issues, it was harmful and hurtful for me to have run off in thisdirection without more consultation," Edgar said.

In addition to Land and Edgar, the statement was signed by BishopKevin Mannoia, president of the National Association of Evangelicals,and Bishop Anthony O'Connell, chairman of the Committee on Marriage andFamily Life of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.