The UCC 'lives more in the light than the limelight'

The UCC 'lives more in the light than the limelight'

November 30, 2003
Written by Staff Reports

On All Saints' Sunday in Durham, N.H., the Rev. V. Gene Robinson was consecrated as Episcopal Bishop Coadjutant of New Hampshire. The earth moved a bit.

The seismic shift was subtle even if profound, something like the shift that has taken place in the UCC since we ordained the first openly gay man, the Rev. William R. Johnson, back in 1972.

We, now like the Episcopalians, have been pried open, and more of the gospel's slanted light shows through our slightly-cracked open doors. Perhaps if we, too, had bishops, we could have enjoyed all this publicity! Instead, we get to be quietly proud—which is to say humble—at our initial opening of this history.

There were not 282 news outlets present 31 years ago to cover Bill's ordination, as were present for Robinson's consecration. Now, mind you, one was a bishop and the other just a minister. One a swell, and the other just one of the guys. But still, you'd think the UCC would have enjoyed more of the publicity that the Episcopalians are enjoying right now.

In other words, I am jealous. I think that we, in the UCC, often live more in the light than in the limelight. I know that makes us more Christlike, even if less opportunistic.

The Episcopalians shone throughout this three-hour service, even if they neglected to remove the sexist language from the opening hymns and left in the doctrinal language of a bloody atonement. Still, they handled their liturgical pomp with marvelous ceremony.

The preacher of the day, the Rt. Rev. Douglas E. Theuner VIII, the retiring Bishop of New Hampshire, expanded on my point about notoriety and justice. "Those who say this is the greatest moment in the Episcopal Church's history are wrong," he says. "What ecclesiastical nabobs do in by-invitation-only rooms can only hint at the grace and power of God."

Theuner then revealed the deep motions of the earth's axis, not the transparent ones. He reinterpreted the charge to his successor, saying, "[Robinson] is charged with upholding the faith, unity and discipline of the church. On faith and discipline, [he] should have no problem. On the matter of unity, he could only improve things! Those so long neglected will be brought into the church."

Theuner convinced the congregation that "more of import happens" when "an abused woman comes to a bible study in one of our churches and finds comfort" or "a gay teenager goes to a church that accepts all that he is" or a "slum landowner kneels besides a tenant at the altar and knows he must change."

These shifts in welcome and hospitality are the heart of the gospel. When an openly gay man is consecrated a bishop, that is only one more sign to the outcasts that they can come in. That's all. In other words, let the publicity attend the small people. Then, Christ is followed.

There is nothing deft about Theuner's blessing of the event. It is strong and clear and aware of the costs. "Beware those who try to heal their own brokenness by breaking others," he says. "When we bring in the marginalized, some people in the center have to be displaced."

Theuner poked fun at the gaggle of bishops. In a biblical reference to the need-to-be-seen, want-to-be-heard religious leaders that Jesus rebukes in Matthew's gospel, Theuner says, "Those who say long prayers, wear many robes, sit at the best seats of honor" are right here, right now. Then, in a great red-robed twirl, Theuner swirled himself around and pointed to his fellow bishops and their elegance. "The idea that people like us can control anything of import is absurd."

Interestingly, the UCC has paid the cost of ordaining gays in many towns and cities across the land. The result should be institutional happiness, right? Aren't we as prone as any other denomination to expect the rewards, along with the punishment, that comes from early courage? Even so, as we examine our envy of the Episcopalians, let us also take joy in this new season.

It would seem that the symbolic dove perched on a big stick during Robinson's consecration service processional now has been released. It is flying on its own. The church is dropping its tethers to un-Christlike safety and moving, re-centered, on to a new adventure.

The Rev. Donna Schaper, who attended Bishop Gene Robinson's consecration service in New Hampshire, is senior pastor of Congregational UCC in Coral Gables, Fla.

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