On Oct. 7, 2000, the Eastern North Carolina Association (ENCA) of the UCC's Southern Conference denied standing to North Raleigh (N.C.) UCC.
The decision was based solely on that church's status as an open and affirming (ONA) church, i.e., one that welcomes lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender persons into the full life, leadership and ministry of the church.Needing two-thirds of the ENCA's votes, North Raleigh UCC got less than half, with 95 in favor, 105 against.
The UCC is more open than any other denomination in accepting gay and lesbian persons. In 1983, for example, General Synod voted that the sexual orientation of a candidate for ordained ministry "should not be grounds for denying the request for ordination."
On the other hand, UCC polity grants autonomy to the local church in most matters, including the right to accept local churches into a regional Association of local churches.
The Constitution of the UCC, Article 2, paragraph 40, states: "An Association is that body which determines, confers, and certifies to the standing of the Local Churches of the United Church of Christ within its area."
Local church autonomy
This means that the national setting cannot dictate policy to the regional Association. The Association has the right to decide which local churches may be accepted into the UCC.
Traditionally, southern churches are more conservative on matters of sexuality, and the ENCA reflects some of those same views.
"Scripture says that homosexuality is a sin," said the Rev. Lee Evans on the Dec. 30 National Public Radio program "All Things Considered," "and we accept that." Evans, pastor of the United Church of Christ in rural Eagle Rock, N.C., led the vote against accepting the North Raleigh congregation.
The Rev. Doug Long, pastor of the North Raleigh UCC, has a different perspective. He welcomes all people to his church, regardless of race, religious background or sexual orientation.
"When I meet someone who is gay or lesbian," he says, "they are equally an image of God as I am or any straight person... and I can learn about God from them."
Black churches reluctant
According to the Rev. Beth Kennett, Southern Conference Minister for Church Life and Education, 63 percent of the 132 churches in the ENCA are African-American.
The reluctance to welcome homosexuals may speak more to the conservatism among African- American churches and in the black community in general, says the Rev. James Forbes of the Riverside Church in New York City, the UCC's very first Open and Affirming congregation.
"I would say that it is true that many times black people, who themselves have been stigmatized ... tend not to want the added burden of a position that may be considered to be sinful," Forbes said on that same NPR show. Forbes himself is African American and from North Carolina.
The Rev. Raymond Hargrove, Associate Conference Minister with responsibilities in the ENCA, thinks most people would agree that the North Raleigh church will eventually become part of the Association. "How we get to that point," he says, "is what we have to wrestle with."
The congregation currently averages 120 persons at worship and contributes 150 percent of each Sunday's offerings to ministries outside the church.
A follow-up meeting is scheduled for Feb.10. The Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC General Minister and President, and the Rev. Stephen Camp, Associate Executive Minister of Local Church Ministries, will attend as observers.