What do progressive faith metaphors of a wide open table and a tent for everyone actually mean? If we take that call seriously, who are we compelled to let in and how does that break the “purity” of progressivism we often like to maintain?
As a delegate to this year’s General Synod of the United Church of Christ, I experienced this tension the moment I read Resolution 8 (note that this is the post-committee version. See the red strikes for the original language or the original text here). Immediately, it placed me in a difficult spot between my confidence in UCC values and the need for Church to protect and affirm my personhood. Yet the resolution didn’t sit right with me and here’s why:
- One of the UCC’s core values is autonomy of the local church. This means that the UCC church in your town is not forced to align with whatever stances the wider church takes at General Synod. For example, if General Synod passes a resolution calling for an end to mass incarceration, individual churches are not then required to pour resources, energy, etc. into that specific cause. Likewise, General Synod may affirm that LGBTQ people are made in the image of God and are not sinners by virtue of our love or gender, but this does not require every single church to be open and affirming.
- Despite the very real tension and frustration this model creates, I believe it’s best to let churches and organizations within the denomination to adopt certain social justice stances or ideologies naturally rather than being forced with the threat of losing affiliation.
- This does mean our resolutions lack teeth. But the alternative is a hierarchical model present in other denominations. However, it also means that the UCC makes space for a range of views on a range of issues because the communion table isn’t limited to only those who think the right way about the right things.
- This is why 1/3 of UCC congregations are open and affirming, and why only 1/3 of UCC congregations are open and affirming.
I value this setup. So reading Resolution 8, unsettled me. It directly targeted a tiny faction within the church (around 80-100 congregations) and established a precedent that any group presenting itself in the national setting of the UCC couldn’t dissent from General Synod resolutions. That would work great for me in this case with this specific group, but what if a historically underrepresented group in the UCC didn’t affirm LGBTQ personhood and civil rights? Would that group then be banned from having a display in the exhibit hall? And what would that say about the UCC not allowing that group a space to organize interested members? It gets messy quickly.
What concerned me most about this resolution wasn’t the content, but the context. Once I learned how this resolution came about, I couldn’t support it. The authors of the resolution had no dialogue with the Open and Affirming Coalition of the UCC (ONA) when creating it. While it certainly isn’t a requirement to get input from movements within the church that would have interest in the issue a resolution speaks to, it should be a common sense course of action to simply ask. It seems to me, based on what I’ve heard from ONA leaders, conservative church leaders, and the proponents of the resolution, that no dialogue occurred. ONA wasn’t involved and certainly neither was Faithful and Welcoming Churches (FWC).
In the days leading up to General Synod, I was engaged in direct conversation with ONA Coalition leaders who outlined concerns about the negative impact that this resolution could have on the Coalition’s work. Those views and concerns are found here. Note that this statement was published before the committee did its work in changing the language as you see in the resolution I linked above. FWC’s response is here.
Furthermore, the whereas clauses of the resolution missed some context when quoting content from FWC’s website. I learned this from my direct conversations with ONA leaders who have been in dialogue with FWC. Basically, the language about encouraging churches to change their bylaws to not allow calling LGBTQ ministers was given as an emergency solution to prevent an exodus of churches from the denomination back in 2005 when the marriage equality resolution passed. At that time, FWC formed and was trying to convince churches to stay in the UCC. These bylaw changes, along with withholding contributions to Our Church’s Wider Mission (OCWM, which funds denominational operations), were given as actions that dissenting churches could take. Again, this all goes back to autonomy of the local church. I live in tension with that.
As for why that language was still on FWC’s website long after the moment of its relevancy passed, well, the explanation I got is that FWC is a small organization that rarely maintains its website and once this resolution came about, they removed that content. Make of that what you will. Personally, I want to trust the ONA leaders who told me that they believe FWC when they say that language no longer had any relevance and should’ve been removed long ago. Additionally, despite my very existence being a point of disagreement for FWC, I have had experiences with their leadership that have led me to view them as reflective people who do not organize around harm or exclusion of LGBTQ people from the denomination. Rather, they seem more focused on having their little corner and reminding people that not everyone in the UCC must be progressive in order to be part of the church.
They are conservatives who want to be in communion with a progressive denomination. They want conversation and they value it. I simply don’t see this phenomenon in the secular world. The president of FWC shared a story when he spoke to my caucus one morning during General Synod. He said a mother had come up to him worried that her son was gay. She asked him what she should do and his first response was “Your job is to love your son and make sure he knows this doesn’t change your relationship with him.” He then told us that 10-12 years ago, that wouldn’t have been his response, and he attributed his own transformation in thought to his relationship with ONA and the wider UCC.
I can be at peace with the culture he aims to foster among his group, as he encourages the type of response he gave to that woman. He could very well be shifting even more conservative folks away from much more sinister responses. I also believe he strives for authenticity within his own moral and ideological framework, which is more than I can say for the current U.S. president and the legion of “evangelicals” in the Republican party.
At that caucus meeting, I had the opportunity to ask the FWC president how he believed the churches in his group as well as other conservative congregations in the UCC would respond if this resolution were to pass. He expressed concern that the more ideologically rigid conservatives would double down on their views and that some congregations would certainly leave the church, cutting off whatever dialogue and progress was made. That tracks with what I heard from ONA leadership.
I wonder if the authors of the resolution would have gotten any of this context from FWC’s side or been able to work with ONA’s concerns if they had asked questions of these groups first rather than crafting this resolution so independently–to the point where ONA leadership only found out by coincidence of attending the Michigan Conference that it even existed. I truly wonder why they never sought ONA’s input, even if they ultimately came to disagree. Frankly, I think it’s irresponsible to stir things and go around groups working on a justice matter without talking to them first. All it took from my friend and I was a simple email asking questions because as delegates, we wanted to understand everything we could about this issue. ONA leadership was very responsive to our questions.
There was so much context to this seemingly simple (from a progressive standpoint) resolution that I took every opportunity I had during General Synod to make sure my delegation understood it all, because you get none of this from just reading the text. I wanted every voting person I talked to for more than five minutes to have the same information I had, and at the same time I extended spiritual support to ONA leaders who had been dealing with the stress of this for several months. Just talking about it over and over across the span of a few days became exhausting–I can’t imagine the toll it took on ONA leaders.
So, the committee assigned to Resolution 8 did its work and brought the revised text I linked at the beginning of this post to the voting floor with a recommendation to reject. Debate still happened and I had my one-minute remarks ready to give. Needless to say, my anxiety acted up.
The deliberations were painful. The nature of plenary debate is that you either speak at a microphone marked in support of a resolution or in opposition. This setup made it appear that LGBTQ folks were fighting among ourselves–that those of us who were against the resolution were also, by proxy, not listening to the youth–that “the youth” had a monolithic opinion and experience of FWC. Being under 30, I’m a “youth” by the church’s standards. A couple teenagers also spoke at an opposing microphone. What does the denomination’s tendency to tokenize “the youth” make of that?
The debate carried over into our plenary session the next morning where the first action was a motion to table the resolution and call on the UCC Board of Directors to create a behavioral covenant for the exhibit hall booths, which currently does not exist. I supported this decision and thought it was the best outcome we could’ve had. My anxiety levels sharply declined once it passed, even though I was entirely prepared to speak.
So, here is my one minute, given with all of this background I’ve written that I couldn’t possibly have expressed at the microphone anyway.
As someone in the LGBTQ community, I agree on paper with every word of this resolution. But I support rejecting it because based on my experience with conservative group leaders in the UCC and leaders of the ONA Coalition, I do not believe this particular group is a threat. I believe their dialogue with progressives in the church has transformed them and us, and will continue to do so as long as they are at the table. It is because of graceful engagement that there are over 1500 ONA churches in the UCC. But I do not see this resolution as graceful engagement. I worry that it tells all groups within the church that they can’t be present in the national setting if they dissent on resolutions. We are called to imbue our progressivism with the grace of Jesus that our wider culture rarely affords. UCC stands for “United Church of Christ,” not “United Church of Cancel Culture.” I will continue to guide everyone I know toward only those church that are fully affirming while keeping my peace with the existence of these conservative churches.
And indeed, LGBTQ people and allies should only go to UCC churches that are officially open and affirming if there is one in your area. And FWC must look at the fruit their ideology bears–pain, suffering, exclusion–and ask if it really reflects the love of God. A theology that can be abused, as FWC has admitted and attempted to distance itself from, should be critically examined. Are such beliefs worth having?
And ONA needs to feel more like a movement with history and elders that are here for this generation and less like a reunion of folks who were pioneers in their time but have lost connection with those coming up after them. I don’t know if the teens who spoke and cried at the microphone now see the Coalition as a group they could join or get support from. That saddens me because the Coalition formed in the 70s and existed through the AIDS crisis and has a lot of history to be passed down. At the same time, it’s a strong movement that young people should be excited to get to know.
And the UCC Board of Directors, who is now charged with creating this behavioral covenant, absolutely must have the dialogues that were not had when this resolution was created. I know at General Synod that they already began listening. I urge them to continue to seek input from every corner of the denomination because not all queer experience is monolithic and not all conservative experience is monolithic. There are pressing questions that need deep discernment:
- If the UCC gets money from groups paying for table space in the exhibit hall, should it be okay to receive funds from an organization that limits full participation and validity of specific types of people in the life of some congregations?
- If we’re going to invoke the story of Jesus chasing the money-changers from outside of the temple, should we even have an exhibit hall at all?
- What does every ONA church need to do to ensure that it means what it says when it comes to being ONA?
- How would a behavioral covenant limit or change the way groups call attention to their booths?
This is only the beginning and it’s only a summation of my experience. I’m not the only one with a complex, nuanced story around this issue and I also won’t be the person getting all mad about it but then never communicating with the national setting of the church. I urge the UCC Board to receive everything I’ve said here and to continue receiving.
As for the rest of us, we have to actually communicate.