News analysis: Does an 'open' church's embrace have limits?
- CALLED OUT INFORMATION SERVICE
From the United Church of Christ's news service
Tuesday, July 17
News analysis: Does an 'open' church's embrace have limits?
By Hans Holznagel
Can a church that strives to be "inclusive, open and affirming and
accessible to all" welcome people whose definition of "openness" is
That question came into sharp focus July 15 and 16 at the General
Synod of the United Church of Christ, which met alongside the General
Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) July 13 to 17
at the Kansas City Convention Center.
UCC members who believe the Synod's long-standing positions on
sexuality and reproductive choice are against God's will�and who came
to Kansas City to say so�said they typically do not experience the
welcome accorded to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians
in wider UCC circles.
Meantime, Synod delegates who listened to and spoke with the
dissenters felt placed in an awkward position. They wanted to assert
their own faith-based, welcoming positions, and those taken by past
Synods. They felt compelled to do so by the dissenters' proposed
resolutions, which called for yes-or-no votes. Yet many were saddened
that this would cause anyone to feel excluded or unwelcome.
"I have always been supportive of same-sex unions and of a woman's
right to choose," said the Rev. Ken Lockwood of San Luis Obispo,
Calif., in a committee hearing where the dissenters presented their
resolutions. "But I'm also mindful that we call ourselves diverse and
that there are certain conservative viewpoints that we cannot
embrace. I feel a need to affirm their struggle in their faith walk,
even though I disagree with them. It pains me that they're not going
to feel included."
The committee of 60 delegates unanimously opposed the two
resolutions, which would have distanced the UCC from a 1999
interfaith declaration on human sexuality signed by 2,300 religious
leaders, including UCC General Minister and President John Thomas.
The resolutions asked Thomas to recant his support for the
declaration and Synod to reverse its long-held positions on
homosexuality and reproductive choice.
"The General Synods have spoken over the years," said the Rev.
Jonathan Morgan, a pastor from the Boston area, to representatives
from the Pennsylvania church that brought the resolutions to Synod.
"I think you guys knew that when you drew up the resolutions. Are you
feeling judged and pushed out of the tent of the UCC? And if so, is
there a way to address that?"
"The people I have talked to that have come to General Synod in past
years don't ever want to come back," said Rick Ott, a lay leader at
St. John's UCC, Sinking Spring, Penn. "They feel that their opinion
doesn't matter. They feel marginalized. What happens is that
conservative voice goes away, and all you have left is people who
agree with your positions."
"It seems to me that conservative ideas are not welcome in a
so-called inclusive church," said the Rev. Bill Miller, the pastor of
St. John's. "That is the attitude we're hearing."
Yet UCC members from the regional body where the Sinking Springs
church is located said the resolutions�though not adopted�were taken
seriously there. "I think we have to be realistic about the larger
church," said the Rev. Norma Koenig of Havertown, Penn. "There are
people who are conservative in the denomination. As a result of the
two years of dialogue at the Sinking Spring church, we had a helpful
dialogue in the Pennsylvania Southeast Conference."
"We need to look at this as a matter of polity and how we get along
with one another," said delegate and committee member Susan
O'Shaughnessy of Fort Wayne, Ind. "It would behoove us to look at how
we govern ourselves, and how we educate the public about how we
govern ourselves and get along with one another. We have autonomy,
but also respect for one another. We agree to disagree. I hope that
however we come down on this resolution, we would continue the
dialogue and spread the good news of our polity."
"Two years ago, similar issues were brought before the Illinois South
Conference," said the Rev. Robin Keating, a delegate from Columbia,
Ill. "Out of nearly 90 churches, 42 or 43 participated in a study
process. In my church, unfortunately, it was forced to a vote, which
meant that there were winners and losers and the losers left very
angry. Unfortunately, this process [at General Synod] is also going
to create winners and losers."
"Unfortunately, I'm a member of a church that pulled out of the UCC
specifically because of these issues," said Don Duchow, a delegate
from Potter, Wisc. "I hope that we can feel as we wish as individuals
and churches and still be part of the whole United Church of Christ."
"How can we be pastoral with resolutions that are asking for a
definitive, black-and-white decision?" asked Penn Northeast delegate
Stephanie Anne Thompson of Riegelsville, Penn.
Between delegates and dissenters, little common ground existed on
such matters as interpretation of scripture, freedom of conscience
and the relationship of science to faith.
"On the one hand, we don't want the conservative people in our
denomination to feel unheard or left out," said South Dakota
Conference delegate Marcia Siestra of Sioux Falls. "On the other
hand, there may be limits to tolerance." She quoted a philosopher's
dictum that "tolerant people cannot support that which is actively
intolerant." "Conservative positions often push for intolerance, and
I cannot embrace that," Siestra said. "So there is a real impasse
here on the part of both conservatives and liberals."
"I appreciate the thoughts about a pastoral statement honoring
everybody," said the Rev. Cynthia Maybeck of Northborough, Mass. "But
if we want to do dialogue across lines of theological disagreement,
homosexuality and abortion are not the place to start."
Though the Synod nearly unanimously rejected the resolutions on July
16, some delegates still expressed a wish to include dissenters who
view the wider UCC's positions as sinful. "I oppose these resolutions
with all my heart, but please understand we are a community of God,"
said Geoffrey Brace of Laurys Station, Penn., during the floor
debate. "We are called to be witnesses of that love which God
represents. Defeat or support, but please remember, brothers and
sisters in Christ, we sit at the table together. Do not alienate."
United Church of Christ
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