Delegates to consider affirming relationship with the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries
Written by Eric Anderson
June 30, 2013
Among the UCC’s 5,100 churches are some with roots in the African-American Pentecostal tradition, congregations that have retained the cultural and spiritual traditions of episcopal structure and charismatic worship, but have chosen a theology of radical inclusivity. A good many of these are also part of the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, a multidenominational group that includes churches and ministries in the United States, Mexico, and Africa. General Synod 2013 delegates will be asked to affirm the relationship with the Fellowship, to engage in dialogue with Fellowship leaders, to work on issues of ministerial and congregational standing, and to encourage all settings of the UCC to intentionally learn more about their brothers and sisters.
The Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson, Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, presented the motion of affirmation to delegates at a Sunday night hearing at the Long Beach Convention Center. The Rev. Holly MillerShank, team leader for Ministerial Excellence, Support, and Authorization, and the Rev. Susan Towner-Larsen, minister for conference relations, also attended. But many of the delegates’ questions were directed to Bishop Yvette Flunder, senior pastor of City of Refuge UCC in San Francisco, Calif., and Presiding Bishop of the Fellowship.
The Fellowship, Flunder told the assembly, has been together since 1999, and has resisted the pull toward forming itself as a new denomination. Rather, it serves in part as a bridge. “You need a bridge when you’re coming out of a traditionally conservative background,” she said. “The UCC speaks the heart of what we often talk about among ourselves of what is possible.”
The cultural differences are great and challenging. Many UCCs, particularly from the Congregational tradition, find the Fellowship’s use of the title “bishop” a major stumbling block. Others are uncomfortable with charismatic worship. Others fail to extend mutuality and respect. One young woman in the room, who is approved for ordination pending a call, said directly that her church and ministry committee “put me through hell, because I felt like I had to assimilate.”
Flunder told the story of a pastor who got on a plane and flew to Long Beach to “join the United Church of Christ.” On arriving, she found Flunder and asked where to find the office for signing up.
When the two headed into worship, they were stopped, because while Flunder had her registrant’s badge, this pastor did not. She was flabbergasted. “It’s going to cost $75 to go to church?” she asked. “Yes,” Flunder replied, “and there’s going to be an offering.”
“It’s a different concept,” Bishop Flunder told those at the hearing, “a different understanding of the way to be in the world.”
“There’s an implied perception,” said the Rev. Douglas Anders, South Central Conference Minister, “that new members will join the church and be exactly like us.” He celebrated the arrival of new people who are not “like us,” but share a common commitment to justice and inclusion.
Another delegate stood and confessed some trepidation. “I learned to love the Lord in the black church,” he said, “but I also learned to hate myself there.” He shared his fear that participation in the worship style of his youth would be a regression for him.
Yvette Flunder asked him to hear one thing from her: “I am a woman lesbian bishop,” she said slowly. “Let me say that again: I am a woman lesbian bishop.
“Something has changed.”