After spending several days together to discuss inclusion of LGBT people and foster ways to collaborate, religious leaders from five mainline Protestant denominations left the UCC national offices optimistic that the meeting will bear fruit as they find ways to work together to advocate for LGBT rights.
The Ecumenical Judicatory Leaders Summit, a gathering which started Sept. 24 in downtown Cleveland and brought together leaders from the UCC, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian and United Methodist communities, was attended by nearly 50 bishops and ecumenical leaders to address welcoming people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in their churches.
A gathering of this type wouldn't have been possible a few years ago, said the Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer, the UCC executive for health and wholeness advocacy. Aside from the UCC, the Episcopal Church is the only other denomination to bless same-sex marriages.
"The values of God's extravagant welcome and radical inclusion for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people continue to advance, even in places where it remains difficult," Schuenemeyer said. "There was a richness in the collegiality that engaged these judicatory executives from our ecumenical partners as they worshiped together and shared their experiences and vision for healing and justice."
The discussion topics and workshops for the event centered on marriage equality, call processes, anti-bullying training, and the paradigm shift of the 21st century church. The planned goals were to build relationships among the ecumenical leaders, to foster a dialogue about the participation of LGBT people and their families in religious settings, and to open opportunities for partnerships.
"Being able to build relationships, and develop from those relationships the kind of trust we need to work across denominational lines on an issue we're all confronted with, has been very helpful," said the Rev. John C. Dorhauer, Southwest Conference Minister for the UCC.
"We left (Thursday) morning with some definitive actions, and we've created a means to hold each other accountable for those actions before we gather again in December of 2013," Dorhauer said.
One example he gave was creating a private Facebook page, where the judicatory leaders can post information about legislation that might require support from other ecumenical partners. "If an event is in Phoenix, I need to know who my Presbyterian and Methodist allies are in Phoenix," Dorhauer said, "so I can post an event on the Facebook page and ask the Methodists in this circle who I need to contact to gain support for this."
The Rev. Mike Denton, Conference Minister for the Pacific Northwest, spoke about other key takeaways from the gathering.
"The clear challenges of folks in different congregational groups became a little bit clearer, both because of polity structure and culture," Denton said. "I think what it starts to points to, which is just as exciting, are some of the ways we might be able to do some work together, some of the resources that we have that where we can be supportive of each other, and some of the opportunities we have to become a more inclusive church."
Denton and the Rev. John A. Deckenback, Central Atlantic Conference Minister, said several of the discussions were beneficial in building new bridges and opening the dialogue on important issues.
"[There are] some issues and priorities that got right at the heart of the matter, like marriage equality," Deckenback said. "There's some outward planning and support, and affirmation across collegial lines."
Denton and Deckenback reside in states that have marriage equality issues on the ballot for Election Day in a little more than a month, as Washington and Maryland will both seek to uphold laws that allow same-sex marriage.