M-word’ deepens the conversation for Open and Affirming congregations

“In the years that we were going through the process, we never actually talked about gay marriage,” said the Rev. Mike Holland, senior minister. “It certainly was not intentional, but at the time the language we used was about unions and commitment ceremonies. We never actually used the ‘M-word.'”

That all changed this past March, when Holland received a request from the UCC’s Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) Concerns asking that Church of the Foothills (UCC/Disciples of Christ) consider endorsing a proposed resolution – sponsored by the Southern California-Nevada Conference – that will affirm same-gender marriage equality if it is passed this summer by the UCC’s General Synod in Atlanta July 1-5.

In April, the church’s congregation voted to do so, becoming one of 85 UCC churches nationally to formally endorse the so-called “equal marriage” resolution, a number that has Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, interim national coordinator for the Coalition for LGBT Concerns cautiously optimistic that the resolution will be passed by the General Synod.

But as Holland is quick to relate, even in his Open and Affirming church, the vote to endorse the resolution was not as “automatic” as even he might have thought it would be.

“I was a little bit surprised that when we went back to the congregation about supporting the resolution on marriage equality there actually was more concern and opposition than I thought there would be,” Holland said, pointing to the fact that several members chose to leave the church as a result of the vote to endorse the resolution. “It was quite painful for the congregation, and especially for those members who have joined in the last three years since we became an Open and Affirming church. They thought it would be automatic. It turned out that it wasn’t quite so automatic.”

Ultimately, however, about 80 percent of the church voted to endorse the resolution, an outcome that has been replicated at nearly one-fifth of the UCC’s 545 Open and Affirming churches and which has left Voelkel hopeful as General Synod nears.

“I am reluctant to be overly confident or overly negative, but at least the conversations that I have had and that I am aware of having gone on do seem to suggest that there is momentum building,” Voelkel said. “There have been some very positive conversations that have happened, so I would say that I am hopeful.”

For Holland and Church of the Foothills, that conversation – even in the face of opposition – led the congregation to the belief that endorsing the resolution was a necessary part of living out its decision to be an Open and Affirming Church.

“The majority of the church felt that if we were going to be an Open an Affirming church that we had to support this resolution,” Holland said. “I think it is the final and ultimate step. Marriage brings everything together – the spiritual, the community, the social, the legal. It is like the ultimate affirmation. I think we felt that this was the final piece which we didn’t do three years ago. If we are going to be fully affirming of all people, we also needed to be supportive of marriage equality.”

In February, Voelkel and the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns sent requests through the mail to each of the denomination’s Open and Affirming churches asking that they consider voting to endorse the Southern California-Nevada Conference’s “equal marriage” resolution. Along with the request, the Coalition sent several different study guides on the topic of same-gender marriage as well as recommendations of additional resources on the subject.

The primary goal, says Voelkel, was not to round up as many endorsements as possible but rather to inspire local congregations to engage in honest dialogue about the issue.

“To have a name on a list is important,” Voelkel said, “but more important than that is the fact that each of the churches that have endorsed this resolution have gone through an education and discernment process. It was not a decision that was come to lightly. It really was the result of prayer and discernment.”

And it is prayer and discernment that the Rev. Jane Heckles, Southern California-Nevada Conference Minister, hopes is in abundance at General Synod. Even within her Conference, Heckles said, the decision to sponsor the “equal marriage” resolution was not an easy one. But through dialogue, she said, the leaders of her Conference arrived at the decision that offering the resolution to the General Synod was something they were called to do.

“When the resolution came to the floor of our Conference in June 2004, I couldn’t predict the outcome of the resolution in our Conference,” Heckles said. “I don’t feel any better equipped today to take a guess about what the outcome will be at Synod. I do know that the conversations that took place at our annual meeting in June 2004 were transformative in people’s hearts and minds. Many people told me that they had arrived at the meeting thinking that they would vote against it but that the conversation had been transforming and that their votes changed. We call that the Holy Spirit. I am praying for the Spirit at General Synod. The Spirit seems always present at General Synod but I do not presume to know what the outcome will be.”

Categories: United Church of Christ News

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