One of the benefits of having friends who attend our UCC General Synod is that they bring me back stuff. Sometimes is is ‘kitsch.’ Other times it is something that stimulates my thinking. That happened this year.

A friend gave me a brief paper written by Rev. Dr. Bob Thompson, president of “Faithful and Welcoming Churches.” This paper was thoughtful, well written, and I suspect representative of the position that many people take on the whole marriage equality issue.

There is very much in it that I appreciate and admire, even if I am not in agreement. While demonstrating a gracious and generous spirit, it is also clear he is writing to give voice to (and for) people who do not support marriage equality.

In this paper, (titled “Rethinking Homosexuality”) I see Dr. Thompson laying down his principle reason for opposition as being based upon the Genesis account.  Some advocates, however, interpret this creation as the need for ‘companionship’ and community.  Much of the rejection of LGBQT has focused on the sex ‘act,’ or procreation.  I would not want to take such a narrow reading of the creation story(s).

That being said, the rest of the document discusses why Christians should not be so absolute in their rejection and condemnation of LGBQT folk.  In citing such not-controversial qualities as self-denial, calling, sins, compassion, unity, humility, and prayer, Dr. Thompson does an excellent job of describing the essential requirements of any Christian community with respect to any divisive issue. He does not take up an affirming position but reinforces ‘welcoming’ as normative.

It is interesting that while he cites John 17 and the unity of the church, his discourse finally comes down to a very pragmatic concern: “…essentially we’re saying to half or more of the world around us, ‘if you want to find a relationship with God and Jesus, don’t come here.’   I have a similar concern about growing intolerance in the UCC for anything but a very progressive theology. As I heard it, the “Faithful and Welcoming Churches” folk wore t-shirts that said on the back, “I am Welcome Here.” I would hope so.

To be clear, I personally support marriage equality and believe that a Christian church should be ‘affirming,’ not just welcoming. And, affirming does not remove one from the realm of ‘faithful.’

I did not come to this position overnight. It represents over 25 years of ordained ministry in the United Church of Christ, much of it during the same period the denomination grappled with the issues of ordination and full inclusion of LGBQT folk. As Dr. Thompson said so well, that as a pastor in the reformed lineage of our UCC “I am always rethinking everything.” I agree with Dr. Thompson who also affirms that there are some absolutes in terms of faith. The reality is, however, that if we insist upon a very narrowly defined dogmatic we ‘ipso facto’ exclude many from the family of faith.

In terms of individual congregations, especially middle to larger congregations, a narrow dogmatic denies the diverse reality in the pew. Forced allegiance is not helpful, in part because issues like these are rarely solved by better theology or better exegesis. Thompson acknowledges: “…Christians down through the years are now almost universally acknowledged to have read the bible wrong on a plethora of topics.” Issues such as this are usually emotional and relational. Dr. Thompson is right on target when he recognizes that “where people make up their minds, slam their opponents, and separate into ever-narrowing cliques of the like minded…” and essential element of the church of Jesus Christ is lost.

Some months ago I attended a training put on by an ecumenical cast of leaders. The Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church, United Church of Christ, and Equality PA, were there to teach about a process called “Building an Inclusive Church.” It was (to me) a great event. I was the only straight, tall, white, CIS, heterosexual, married to the same woman for 34 years, in the room. During the break, one of the leaders questioned me. I think he was concerned I was some sort of ‘plant.’ He asked, ‘why are you here?’ This question helped me frame a little better in my mind, not only why I was in attendance but, why embraced inclusion.

Ironically, I must confess, I do not understand what has come to be called the “gender spectrum.” Either by nature or nurture, I identify in very traditional ways. In terms of attraction, again I identify in very traditional ways. Still, there was and is something that bothers me about assigning a certain ‘gone wrongness’ to others who do not identify as I do.

When I was in high school I was involved in sports. Up the street from where I lived I had a classmate who suddenly ‘disappeared.’ I learned that he was at home in a deep, dark, depression following a failed attempt at suicide. I went to see him. He told me that he was gay. In the mid ’70’s, that was disturbing to me; but not as disturbing as the reality that this athletic, funny, smart, young man nearly killed himself over it. I stumbled through words and actions in the days and weeks ahead that I hoped would demonstrate to him that this did not mean I would cease to be his friend.

Early in my ministry the United Church of Christ voted to affirm LGBQT folks as candidates for ordination. I was a member of my Association’s Committee on Ministry. We labored to create a statement affirming that GS resolution. I was the primary author. The gist of that paper was that a persons identity as LGBQT was but one element of their whole identity. That, any more than a persons identity as a woman, did not immediately exclude them from the ordination process. However, just because you fall into this category or that category qualifies no one for ordination. Still, at every ‘town hall’ meeting we held in the association, I got barbecued.

Once, the Conference asked me to be part of a public discussion held at one of our churches. Another pastor from the conference who opposed ordination for LGBQT folk was also asked to participate. I found myself on the podium at this church with my colleague by my side. He spoke, then I spoke. He answered my questions. I answered his questions. After about an hour of this we wrapped it up. I turned to him and said, “I think that went pretty well.” He said, “I wish you had not said that.” Shortly thereafter ‘all hell’ broke loose and these nice ‘christian’ people were at each other’s throats. Everything but fists were slung in every direction. My colleague, as opposed to one another as we were, slinked out of the building, together.

The central issue that I was supporting then, and now, is that a person’s sexual orientation does not, ‘ipso facto,’ disqualify anyone from ordination. Another more recent example is the Boy Scouts of America’s policy which provides room for LGBQT leaders. I suspect that they enacted this policy with the understanding that there are many qualities that disqualify someone from being a Scout leader. One’s sexual orientation is not one of them.

I would stand with Dr. Thompson; I hope he would stand with me, knowing that I would be Welcoming, Open, and Affirming. If a couple came to me, requesting a wedding in the church, and it was a same gender couple, they would be subject to the same questions and process that every other couple gets from me. Are they members? Is the extended family active members? Are they willing to attend premarital counseling (it’s required). Do you recognize that this is a worship service of the church, and not a ‘production?’ And, in that counseling, are their major relational issues (e.g. violence, abuse, addictions) that would not allow me (in good conscience) to conduct this wedding? To me the issues that are problematic (sinful even?) are not in the realm of identification but are relational.

Not too long ago, a family left our church. I was heartbroken. I met with them and discovered the main reason was that they felt I was ‘pushing the gay agenda.’ So for a couple of hours we talked. I offered a book to them, which they accepted, by Mark Achtemier titled: “They Bible’s Yes to Same Sex Marriage.” Finally, I said, “I wish I could talk you out of leaving.” There was, of course, nothing I could say to change their minds.

See, what I hope to be ‘pushing’ is not the gay agenda, but the Christian agenda. Recently, the lectionary lead me to re-read a letter, written a long time ago, while a pastor was sitting in jail. He said,

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19, NRSV, emphasis mine.)

Paul’s hopes for the Ephesians, a people who were once outside the ‘family of God’ with no way in, and who then through Jesus Christ had access, is the same hope I have for all God’s children. In that, together we may be ‘rooted and grounded in this love that is for all God’s people.’ This ‘condition’ is not an end point or a goal for faithful christians, but a desirable starting point for all we do. I think that is what Dr. Thompson hopes for too.

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