Justice and Witness Ministries responds to the call of Christ through public witness, policy advocacy, issue education, and grassroots empowerment to build a more just, compassionate and inclusive world. The UCC Justice and Peace Action Network (JPANet) is our denomination’s grassroots advocacy network composed of individual members and local UCC congregations across the country. Our work is grounded in General Synod resolutions, and formed by a biblical understanding of prophetic ministry.
Join the network and you will start recieving weekly action alerts, like the ones below.
Justice for Arthur Tyler on Death Row
Arthur Tyler is an innocent man on Death Row. Please help!
Week of Witness for Troy Davis
Please join Amnesty International and the NAACP for a week of witness for Troy Davis, to be held June 19-26.
Find information here about the Holy Joe's Cafe Coffee House Military Chaplain Ministry
The UCC Fair Trade Project (formally the UCC Coffee Project) allows your congregation to partner with the UCC and Equal Exchange in building fair trade for small farming communities by serving fairly traded coffee, tea and cocoa, and chocolate, snacks, and olive oil for justice at fellowship hour on Sundays.
The UCC Fair Trade Project is a way for your congregation to join hands with communities in the developing world. As Christians we can address a consumer dilemma by buying coffee and other commodities that are fairly traded. Through the project, small farmers and their families gain more control over their lives, earn a fairer share of income, have access to credit and technical support, and gain a trading partner they can trust, a fair trade organization called Equal Exchange. (See the video Equal Exchange: Who We Are and What We Believe In.) And, through the project, members of your congregation can learn about consumption habits that support small scale farmers and workers throughout the world and encourage careful stewardship of God's creation. At fellowship hour, you will be taking action in a spirit of love.
How to Be Part of the UCC Fair Trade Project
- Serve fair trade coffee, tea cocoa and snacks at fellowship hour, church events, in the office and at home.
- Design congregational fund raising projects featuring fairly traded coffee, tea, snacks, chocolate and olive oil. Give fair trade gift baskets as thank you gifts.
- Order educational resources along with your coffee and make space and time in your congregation for conversation about justice in the global economy.
- Encourage other places of worship or businesses in your community to partner with Equal Exchange's Interfaith Coffee Project.
At Equal Exchange's webstore, remember to log-in as part of the Interfaith Program and the UCC Fair Trade Project. This will ensure you are offered wholesale pricing! For more information about the UCC Fair Trade Project, go on line to Equal Exchange's Interfaith Fair Trade Program at equalexchange.com/interfaith, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 774-776-7366.
Kids love to get chocolate for Halloween. But for children in cocoa-growing countries in Africa, chocolate often means child labor and family poverty. Equal Exchange, our partner in the UCC Fair Trade Project, participates in a fair-trade program to help end the problems of child labor, poverty, and environmental destruction in the African cocoa industry. Buy fair-trade chocolate mini-bars to give on Halloween. You can also order wholesale to sell to members of your congregation; a youth or women’s group could sell the mini-bars as a fundraiser.) Order now. Help end child labor.
Learn More from Equal Exchange
Equal Exchange shares ideas for serving fairly traded coffee.
Explore educational resources about particular fairly traded products:
Your Purchase Counts Twice: UCC Small Farmer Fund
Equal Exchange contributes $0.15 to the UCC Justice & Witness Ministries Small Farmer Fund for every pound of fairly traded products sold through the UCC Coffee Project. Since the Coffee Project began in 2004, Equal Exchange has nearly $100,000 to the UCC Justice & Witness Ministries Small Farmers' Fund.
Small Farmer Fund contributions totaled $7,309.32 in 2014. This money is used to support the Small Farm Project at the UCC Franklinton Center at Bricks. This is one component of the Just Food Project which supports a farmers' market held at FCAB where local small farmers sell their produce and local residents purchase affordable fresh vegetables and fruits. FCAB is located in eastern North Carolina in an area where many people are in poor health, experience food insecurity, and have poor access to healthy foods. The Small Farm Project is part of a comprehensive approach to comm unity economic development, environmental education, social justice, and health.
A Bitter Cup? Facts about Coffee and the Importance of Fair Trade
Coffee is one of the most heavily traded commodities in the world. Americans drink approximately 320 million cups of coffee every day;20 percent of the world's total coffee production. Some 20 million people near the equator depend on coffee for their livelihood, but for many the coffee trade keeps them trapped in poverty. With little access to markets, farmers often sell through middlemen who offer the lowest price possible. With world coffee prices in constant flux, farmers have no guarantee of how much they will receive for their crop.
Equal Exchange is a worker-owned fair trade company, founded in 1986, that offers consumers fairly traded gourmet coffee direct from small-scale farmer co-ops in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Equal Exchange seeks to establish an alternative model of trade, one that benefits small farmers directly through the following fair trade standards that apply to all Equal Exchange products:
- Always pay a guaranteed minimum price to the farmer.
- Work directly with democratic cooperatives of small scale farmers.
- Provide vital advance credit to farmers.
- Encourage ecologically sustainable farming practices.
- Develop long-term trade relations based on trust and respect.
- Offer consumers the finest gourmet, certified organic, shade-grown coffees.
Small Farmers. Big Change, a blog from Equal Exchange
Equal Exchange posts up-to-date resources to inform your congregation about Fair Trade. Check them out.
Fair World Project publishes For a Better World, a twice-yearly publication filled with articles and graphics that examines the issues and challenges in fair trade. It is a free publication with all past issues posted on-line.
Keep Plantations Out
TransFair USA, long a major certifying body for fair trade products, has changed its name to FairTrade USA and withdrawn from FLO International, the International Fair Trade Certifying body. Transfair USA has ceased to practice the original Fair Trade mission—to support small farmer organizations by helping them gain access to the international market. Equal Exchange, our partner in the UCC Coffee Project, left Transfair in the summer of 2010, to affiliate with another certification agency, IMO, the Institute of Market ecology, because, for example, Transfair USA had increasingly permitted products from large plantations to be certified as Fair Trade.
Here is the page on the UCC's economic justice web pages that explains the issues: Keep Fair Trade: Don't Weaken Standards.
Here is the World Fair Trade Organization's response to the Fair Trade USA (formerly TransFair)/FLO split.
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When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
In a world becoming increasingly globalized, more people are leaving their homelands to seek better lives and opportunities in new countries. Their reasons for leaving are diverse and complex: economic necessity, war, or persecution. The U.S. has long been a nation of immigrants and we have consistently been conflicted about this. We gratefully welcome immigrants and their contributions, and we exclude them, discriminate against them and, at times, inflict grave harm upon them.
As Christians, we are called to love our neighbors. The Bible is unambiguous in calling us to welcome aliens and strangers in our land, and to love them as we love ourselves. In these times, let us listen to the voice of the still-speaking God. We will learn how to respond to these new sisters and brothers residing among us.
Download the toolkit for Communities Supporting Central American Families Seeking Asylum by Rev. Randy J. Mayer
Week of Faithful Witness at the Border
United Church of Christ churches, clergy and congregants are reaching out with hope and in faith to migrants at our borders and immigrants across the country. Many more are asking what they can do to respond to the government policies that detain and separate families. The Southwest Conference UCC, acting with Justice and Local Church Ministries, has issued two calls to action, one for a faithful witness AT the border, in Arizona at United States border with Mexico August 26-30, and another for a faithful witness FOR the border this fall, in cities and towns across America.
Faithful Witness AT the Border
The Southwest Conference is calling for a week of Faithful Witness at the Border, August 26 – 30, 2018 that will include:
- A humanitarian mission to the Mexican side of the border to visit and take supplies to asylum-seekers in shelters and camped out at the ports of entry due to a slowdown in applications being received.
- Solidarity actions at the detention facilities in Eloy and Florence where parents of kids separated from their families are being held.
- Training and strategy sessions around ‘Being an Immigrant Welcoming Congregation’ and ‘Acting as an Advocate and Ally’ with members from the UCC Washington office
- Conversations with local ministry partners in Arizona - The Samaritans and other immigration ministry groups.
- A visit to Operation Streamline immigration court where parents whose children were taken away are appearing in the hope of finding their kids.
Faithful Witness FOR the Border
We also call congregations and conferences to host their own local Faithful Witness for the Border events that might include:
- Begin the process for becoming an Immigrant-Welcoming Congregation
- Organize and attend town halls and candidate forums and ask questions about how candidates would approach immigration policy. Set up in-district visits with your members of Congress to share your UCC faith witness on immigration. Submit letters to the editor and editorials in your local and regional papers.
- Raise money and collect supplies for humanitarian relief at the border—PLEASE USE THIS VERY SPECIFIC LIST OF SUPPLIES.
- Write letters of welcome IN SPANISH that can be distributed to asylum seekers as missives of love and welcome, an alternative message to the government.
- Fundraise to support living expenses of migrants seeking asylum and who are prohibited by law from holding employment in the US while their case is processed.
- Participate in an immigrant detention visitation program in your area
- Partner with local immigrant rights groups to join/organize a rally at an immigrant detention facility for adults, ICE office, or border patrol station nearby.
- Host a fellowship event with a local migrants/an immigrant group in your community to get to know one another and listen to their stories.
- Contribute to the UCC Neighbors in Need appeal
Keep Families Together
The Administration continues to take significant and dangerous steps that are eroding the foundations of the immigration system and the international law that upholds access to asylum for those fleeing danger and violence. These practices of separating families, increasing immigrant detention, and redefining access to asylum are abhorrent and undermine our values. The Administration recently issued updated policies routinely separating children from their parents. In the past three months more than 2,200 children were forcibly and cruelly taken from their parents. This dehumanizing process puts children at risk and sets our country up to willingly participate in human rights violations on a mass scale. The Executive Order signed by Mr. Trump does not alleviate the problem. The Administration has no plan for reuniting separated families and the zero-tolerance policy remains firmly in place, meaning as more parents are deported more families will be broken apart.
- Act - Tell Congress that, as a person of faith, you oppose the forcible detention and separation of families and want them to support polices that protect and unite immigrant and refugee families. Looking for other ways to act? Download the Interfaith Immigration Coalition's toolkit.
- Give - Donate to the UCC Neighbors in Need appeal
- March - If you are participating in a rally, vigil or witness in your community, download this free art work for your signs, shirts and banners.
- Reflect - Condemning the unconscionable assertion that migrant children should be separated from their parents because of ‘orderly and lawful processes that protect the weak and lawful,' — a Biblical statement used to justify U.S. immigration policies — United Church of Christ National Leadership has issued a pastoral letter, urging the people of the denomination's almost 5,000 congregations to take action now!
- Hear voices on the ground - Rev. Bill Lyons, conference minister for the Southwest Conference UCC, shares a powerful update and call for help from our southern border.
- Pray - Download our Litany for Families Separated at Border by Rev. Tracy Howe Whispelway
- Watch a recording of the webinar: Keep Families Together: UCC Webinar on Family Separation at the Border (June 21, 2018)
United Church of Christ emphatically affirmed an Immigrant Welcoming Church
Underscoring the love of neighbor, with several speakers proclaiming that no human is illegal, delegates to General Synod 2017 overwhelmingly declared itself an Immigrant Welcoming Denomination in July of 2017 and called on all settings of the United Church of Christ to do the same.
'Love will triumph someday' – California pastor opens up about immigrating to U.S.
July 03, 2018
The Rev. Rhina Ramos knows all too well the fear and the struggle facing migrants coming to the United States, hanging on to the hope of building a better life. She lived it.
At DC immigration rally, Traci Blackmon calls on people of faith to live by moral law of love
July 02, 2018
The Rev. Traci Blackmon brought greetings from the UCC to 30,000 people gathered at Lafayette Square across from the White House, site of the "Families Belong Together" rally in Washington, D.C. on June 30, urging them to keep fighting for love.
Voices at DC immigration rally speak up, speak out against family separations
July 02, 2018
People across America, young and old, lifted up their voices at more than 700 'Families Belong Together' rallies on June 30, calling for change in the government immigration policies, and the immediate reunion of migrant families separated at the border.
Heeding the sacred call to give sanctuary to the vulnerable
By Rev. Traci Blackmon and Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner | April 18, 2018
(RNS) — Our immigration enforcement agencies are becoming agents of family separation. Read more.
Dream Act - Stand with Immigrant Youth
- Observe the Dream Sabbath 2017 : Join us to Stand in Solidarity with Immigrant Youth
- Action Alert: Stand with Immigrant Youth
President Trump has announced that he will end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Our immigrant neighbors deserve dignity, welcome, and the opportunity to flourish. As an immigrant welcoming denomination, we are called to speak out now. Tell Congress to protect dreamers!
Building Sanctuary For All... All of Us
"Shouldn’t our sanctuaries offer this same kind of Sanctuary...to anyone? Wouldn’t we want this grace, and do we not call upon this kind of love every Sunday?" Read more of Rev. Julian DeShazier's reflection on Immigrants Rights Sunday and intersectionality.
The resurgence of the Sanctuary Movement works to provide protection in our houses of worship for those facing violence, discrimination, and deportation. We organize as people of faith and moral courage accompanying the most marginalized among us targeted by President-elect Trump's hateful rhetoric and policy proposals. We lift up the prophetic and moral witness of communities of faith against the unjust systems of power and privilege that keep our communities from living with the safety and dignity they deserve as human beings.
Now, more than ever faith communities from different traditions are coming together to take a bold and prophetic stand against President-elect Trump's harsh immigration proposals and threats to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival.
- Sanctuary FAQ - Webinar via UCC Insurance Boards - Heather Kimmel, General Counsel for the United Church of Christ, addresses the current interest of faith communities in operating as sanctuary churches, the legal risks, and ways churches can minister to undocumented persons. Watch the recording. (Note: Although you have to enter your email address and name, the webinar can be viewed by anyone.)
- Sign the Most Recent Pledge - We Pledge to Resist Deportations and Discrimination through Sanctuary
- Learn more about how to engage in this sanctuary movement and download the rapid response toolkit via SanctuaryNotDeportation.org
- For churches offering sanctuary to refugees and immigrants, the ACLU has compiled an FAQ sheet.
Raids Rapid Response: Toolkit for Faith Allies
"As faith allies, we are called to be in solidarity through rapid response mobilization to stop these raids, stop these deportations and support impacted communities. In the face of President Trump's extremist anti-immigrant agenda we must respond with a prophetic and bold voice." Download the toolkit via SanctuaryNotDeportation.org.
UCC advocates put 'bodies on the line' at border wall with Mexico
The push for humane immigration reform brought veterans, clergy, activists and UCC advocates to the border wall dividing the Nogales, Arizona, and Mexico communities, as part of a joint rally calling for a new model of border justice that builds bridges and relationships instead of walls and policies that create fear and division. (Read more.)
115 UCC Leaders Send Letter to Congress
The United Church of Christ works to offer an extravagant welcome to all of God’s children regardless of their national origin or citizenship status. Many of our congregations are working to become Immigrant Welcoming Congregations because we understand we have a moral imperative to welcome the most vulnerable in our midst. Together 115 UCC leaders sent a letter to Congress, urging all members to speak out in support of deferred action for families and pursue commonsense immigration reform; asking them to tell the Administration to stop the raids and end Operation Border Guardian;and calling on them to respect current U.S. asylum law, honor existing protections for victims of human trafficking, and expand legal assistance. Read the letter.
Blood on our hands: Stop the raids - The Hill
By Rev. John C. Dorhauer, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ
Over the last several months, discussions around immigration policies have devolved to extremist sound bytes, with political candidates creating a new wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric to further their own agendas. Sadly, these hateful words have manifested themselves in how the United States treats immigrants. The actions of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are endangering the lives of thousands of asylum seekers fleeing violence, persecution, and devastating poverty in Central America. (Read more.)
UCC Supports Sanctuary Cases to Stop Deportations
In Tucson and Tempe Arizona United Church Congregations Good Shepherd UCC, First Congregational of Phoenix and Shadow Rock United Church of Christ have all offered letters of support to help immigrants facing deportations to stay with their families. Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson has offered Rosa Robles Loreto Sanctuary allowing her to live at the church for proection from immigration authorities while she seeks to win deferred action to stop her deportation order. You can stand with Rosa by signing the Groundswell petition here. Earlier this summer, Shadow Rock UCC had offered Sanctuary to Marco Tulio which helped him win an order of supervision to stay with his family.
Letters of support for Rosa Robles Loreto and Southside Presbyterian Church:
- Shadow Rock United Church of Christ in Phoenix AZ
- First Congregational United Church of Christ, Phoenix
- The Good Shepherd United Church of Christ
Our work on this issue is rooted in policy voted on by our UCC General Synod. You can find General Synod Resolutions on immigration from GS XXXI (2017) GS XXVIIII (2013) GS XXVI (2007), GS XIII (2001), and GS XXII (1999).
Become an immigrant welcoming congregation. The Journey toward becoming an Immigrant Welcoming Congregation involves multiple study and reflection sessions. Download this wonderful toolkit created by our UCC Southwest Conference.
No Longer Strangers: The Practice of Radical Hospitality, a book by UCC pastor Rev. Wendy J. Taylor, explores the lonely and difficult lives of migrant farm workers in Northern California and follows one woman’s compassionate response to their plight.
Behind the Wall
Video by Rev. Art Cribbs. Made possible through a grant by Neighbors in Need.
A Community Resource on Anti-Deportation Education and Organizing - revised May 2010 is a curriculum prepared by the Detention Watch Network, Families for Freedom, the Immigrant Defense Project of the National Lawyers Guild.
Understanding the DREAM Act
The education of immigrant children is not only a smart investment; as an expression of the call to love our neighbors ad ourselves, it is also a moral imperative. The issues of immigration and immigration enforcement affect the children in immigrant families and the public schools that serve those children.
On May 6, 1998, the Massachusetts chapter of Confessing Christ sponsored a colloquy at the Acton (Mass.) Congregational Church on same-sex unions and the Christian faith. The event centered on papers presented by Andy Lang for and by Max Stackhouse against the proposition that the Christian church should support monogamous, vowed relationships between same-sex couples. We present both papers here, plus a list of links to other resources on the subject.
In 1932—while many Americans were reacting to reports of atrocities committed by Japanese forces in China—two leading Protestant theologians debated in the pages of Christian Century whether U.S. military intervention in the conflict would be a "just" or "unjust" war. The theologians were H. Richard Niebuhr of Yale University and his brother, Reinhold Niebuhr of Union Theological Seminary in New York. Both were members of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, one of the UCC's antecedent denominations, and both influenced many members of the first and second generations of UCC pastors who studied under them.
The rising tide of conflict in Asia and Hitler's imminent seizure of power in Germany were stirring renewed fears of war, and motivated both men to reexamine Christian traditions regarding war and its moral consequences. We present these papers because they are relevant to the international debate over terrorism and the use of armed force in self-defense.
H. Richard Niebuhr argued for a principled "inactivity" based on radical trust in God. He wrote: "The inactivity of radical Christianity is not the inactivity of those who call evil good; it is the inaction of those who do not judge their neighbors because they cannot fool themselves into a sense of superior righteousness. ... It is not the inactivity of the noncombatant, for it knows that there are no noncombatants, that everyone is involved, that China is being crucified ... by our sins and those of the whole world. It is not the inactivity of the merciless, for works of mercy must be performed though they are only palliates to ease present pain while the process of healing depends on deeper, more actual and urgent forces." But Reinhold Niebuhr disagreed: "Love may qualify the social struggle of history but it will never abolish it, and those who make the attempt to bring society under the dominion of perfect love will die on the cross. And those who behold the cross are quire right in seeing it as a revelation of the divine, of what man ought to be cannot be, at least not so long as he is enmeshed in the processes of history."
Also linked from this page is the 1985 General Synod pronouncement on "Just Peace"—an alternative to traditional "Just War" doctrine—and UCC theologian Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite on the relevance of the Just War tradition to the war against Iraq.
The UCC Office of General Ministries, which sponsors this page, thanks the Rev. John Deckenback, Conference Minister of the Central Atlantic Conference, and his staff who provided us with the original text of this debate. We also thank you for your congregation's financial contribution to Our Church's Wider Mission, which makes this service possible.
Radical trust in God
H. Richard Niebuhr argues that radical obedience to God requires Christian nonviolence. Any other response would mean distrust in God and God's promises.
In a fallen world, Reinhold Niebuhr replies, Christians cannot act as if the reign of God has already been established, and must sometimes use force to protect the innocent.
A final word
In a letter to the editors of Christian Century, H. Richard Niebuhr sums up the debate.
Turning to Tradition
In making moral judgments about the war in Iraq, says UCC theologian Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Christians can find help from a "1,500-year-old tradition."
The "Just Peace" doctrine commended by the UCC's General Synod in 1985 is distinct both from "just war" theory and traditional Christian pacifism.
This special supplement to the Theology Page is a resource for congregations and seminaries using the 1648 Cambridge Platform as a tool for study in U.S. Christian history and polity. The Cambridge Platform was a transforming event in the life of 17th-century Congregationalism and is relevant to serious issues that concern all Christian churches today. In a global church that is becoming increasingly congregational, non-hierarchical and fragmented by culture wars, how do churches maintain bonds of love with each other? How can we resolve the tensions between unity and freedom, tradition and modernity, the integrity of community and the rights of the individual?
Papers at the Cambridge Platform 350th Anniversary Conference in Cambridge, Mass., explored these issues in depth. We are able to invite you to this feast of theological reflection through the courtesy of the Congregational Library in Boston, which granted us permission to reprint the conference papers. Also included are six audio files of an unprecedented conversation between leaders of the four communions that can claim descent from the Cambridge Platform—the Unitarian Universalist Association, the United Church of Christ, the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches and the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference. These groups represent the left, center and right of the American religious spectrum, and show how a defining moment 350 years in the past can produce strikingly different results. The audiotape was provided through the courtesy of the First Church in Cambridge, United Church of Christ. Papers are linked below.
Elizabeth C. Nordbeck writes that the heritage of the Cambridge Platform "heritage is immensely powerful, immensely compelling and still capable of shaping the present and future."
Social and Spiritual Roots
Francis J. Bremer explores the Platform's roots in the social and spiritual values of New England's Puritan community.
Relevance for Today
Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe asks what the Platform can teach divided and often warring churches in the 21st Century.
Looking Back, Forward
Harvard University chaplain Peter Gomes preaches the concluding sermon at Harvard's Chapel.
Order these resources from UCC Resources or calling 800-325-7061
Annual Stewardship Theme Materials
Newly designed every year, these colorful, coordinated materials based on scripture can greatly help your congregation with its annual stewardship effort. Materials include full-color poster, four motivational bulletin inserts (including giving chart), worship folder, letterhead and envelope, note card, and commitment cards. Check out these NEW materials: 2019 Stewardship Theme Materials & Supplemental Campaign Resources
Not Your Parent's Offering Plate: A New Vision for Financial Stewardship, a completely revised edition of J. Clif Christopher’s classic. Written with the needs of pastors and stewardship teams in mind, Not Your Parents’' Offering Plate provides immediate, practical guidance to all who seek to help God’s people be better stewards of their resources.
Stewardship for Vital Congregations, by Anthony B. Robinson Theologically and biblically informed, it offers particular strategies and "how-to's" relating to money and giving. Stewardship for Vital Congregations includes questions for reflection, discussion, and action in each chapter.
Are You Ready to Talk about Money in Your Church? is a humorous quiz that takes a light approach to the serious subject of money. A great ice-breaker for stewardship conversations! Format is small, 8-page pamphlet, suitable for distribution in pews or to groups. From the Stillspeaking Writers' Group.
The Gratitude Path: Leading Your Church to Generosity, by Kent Millard. A new approach for local church giving that is accessible, achievable, and effective.The Gratitude Path is a five-session study designed for use by churches, leadership teams, and small groups. This step-by-step guide helps congregations grow in generosity by focusing on gratitude for God's blessings.
Local Church Planned Giving Manual, 4th edition. From wills seminars to church endowments and more, you and your church can explore theological, rational, and hands-on worksheets enhancing your ministry through the stewardship of planned giving.
Funding Your Future: A Capital Campaign Manual from the United Church of Christ
A capital or major fund campaign can be the greatest faith-raising experience in the life of your church!The more challenging the campaign goal, the the more heightened the experience for your congregation.
God's Gifts, My Gifts
Teaches that God is the source of who we are and what we have, and is our model for being generous and faithful. Elementary-age children will have fun in class or at home using these five colorful and snappy foldout sheets with individual and group activities, including scriptural texts and prayers to reinforce the church; personal decisions, loving God, self, and others. Use for confirmation and new member classes. Set includes five active lessons: Share Love With Your Offering (available as a single sheet for $.75 each), Seek God with Your Whole Heart, Rooted in Love, Love is the Greatest, Dare 2BU. Set of all five activity sheets plus stickers: 1-10 sets, $5.00 each; 11-25 sets, $4.50 each; 26 or more sets, $4.00 each.
A Stewardship Resource for the Local Church
This resource looks at ways to understand and approach money and mission realistically, given the changing conditions in congregations of the United Church of Christ today. Intended for use by lay leaders as well as clergy, it includes the theological background on the motivation for giving, as well as four programmatic approaches to fundraising in the church.
The Gifting God
This compact, 5-session group study based closely on the Bible will break open the subject of giving for everyone-no matter how much or how little they are currently giving. Excellent for small groups, for ysing one session at a time with committees (especially stewardship or finance committees, and trustees). Also very effective as a personal Bible study/devotion. Available in print or as downloadable PDF, $1.50 each.
What Scripture Says about Giving
This brief brochure for distribution to all church members looks at the question of how much to give to the work of the church and why. Also available in Spanish. $3.00/50.
Written by Andrew G. Lang
A few years ago the Ramsey Colloquium—a group of Christian and Jewish scholars—published a sharp critique of "the gay and lesbian cause" which they titled "The Homosexual Movement." 1 As they predicted, their declaration was denounced as "a display of homophobia." "Such dismissals have become unpersuasive and have ceased to intimidate," they wrote. "Indeed, we do not think it a bad thing that people should experience a reflexive recoil from what is wrong." This "reflexive recoil" from homosexual behavior is not homophobia, they said, but the instinctive reflex of those who know that homosexuality violates God's natural law.
Among the authors were several academics at liberal strongholds like Amherst, Princeton, Oberlin, Yale and Hebrew Union College. It hardly needs to be said that entering the debate in this way exposed the Ramsey Colloquium to angry denunciation and was, for some of its members, an act of courage.
My purpose is not to criticize the declaration's reasoning but to draw your attention to one paragraph as the starting point for our conversation:
We believe that any understanding of sexuality, including heterosexuality, that makes it chiefly an arena for the satisfaction of personal desire is harmful to individuals and society. Any way of life that accepts or encourages sexual relations for pleasure or personal satisfaction alone turns away from the disciplined community that marriage is intended to engender and foster. [Italics added.]
This is a profoundly counter-cultural vision of human sexuality and one that can be helpful as we struggle with the moral question that is before us: should the church affirm faithful relationships between same-sex partners?
Calls Sexual Revolution into question
The Ramsey Colloquium, rightly in my opinion, calls into question the ethic of "sexual liberation." Thirty years after the Sexual Revolution, our culture still understands sexual freedom as freedom from constraint, namely, from the boundaries of discipline, order and structure. And who could be opposed to freedom? We always live in the tension between personal freedom and social discipline, so we want to liberate ourselves from this tension and live in the light of a pure freedom that never says "no" to human possibility. Defined in this way, freedom is the doctrine of personal sovereignty, the private property of the ego that has to be seized and defended. So words like "discipline," "order" and "structure" also provoke a "reflexive recoil"—the recoil of the individual ego when we encounter boundaries that limit our freedom of action. Naturally, in a culture that defines individuality as self-determination and self-assertion, discipline is at best suspect, at worst oppressive.
But this is not the church's traditional vision of freedom or individuality. Freedom, according to Christian tradition, is not only freedom from but also freedom for. Karl Barth saw it as "freedom for obedience" to the Word of God. Particularly in the witness of the Reformed churches, freedom cannot be understood as my self-liberation but only as the sovereign gift of God who, despite my opposition, rushes to my side and creates the right order that I have abandoned. So God places me in "disciplined community," as the Ramsey Colloquium puts it, or in a "community of disciples" who follow Christ as their Lord and whose lives are oriented towards this Lord as the source of their freedom and the measure of their behavior. It is in this community, and nowhere else, that God meets me through Word and Sacrament, and where I learn the boundaries and, paradoxically, the unlimited possibilities of the freedom that is mine only as gift, and never as self-determination.
The tradition defines God's sovereign gift of freedom in words that are familiar to all of us: covenant, election, justification, vocation, and sanctification. These are words I want to explore as we attempt to understand the morality of same-sex relationships among members of our church.
What is God's word on this subject? To begin with, I need to understand with you what we mean when we say that a "word" is addressed to the church, because there are many words to which you or I could appeal for authority. There are the words of psychology, sociology and genetics. There are the words of natural law and tradition. But all of these words are subject to the one Word whom we worship as Lord and to whom we owe obedience. So, in the familiar text of the Barmen Declaration:
Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scriptures, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death. We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and beside the one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths as God's revelation. 2
Jesus Christ is the one Word of God! Belonging to this Word, according to the Heidelberg Catechism, is our "only comfort, in life and in death." But what do we need to know, the Catechism asks, to "live and die in the blessedness of this comfort?" Three things:
First, the greatness of my sin and wretchedness. Second, how I am freed from all my sins and their wretched consequences. Third, what gratitude I owe to God for such redemption. 3
"Sin"—another counter-cultural word! But without the consciousness of sin the Gospel itself makes no sense. There can be no productive discussion of marriage and homosexuality, or really of any other moral question, unless we can agree that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."
Sin threatens our relationships with death. In the self-assertion of the ego against God not only our relationship with God but also every human relationship is brought into disorder. There is, in fact, no human covenant that is not wounded by our collective and individual rebellion against God's sovereign claim on our lives. This is certainly so in all the greater and lesser injuries that we inflict on each other—in heterosexual marriage, in celibate life, and in the partnerships formed by gays and lesbians. Sin distorts our life together as the Body of Christ, so that no contentious issue in the church can possibly be discussed without anger and mutual recrimination—particularly an issue like sexual morality, which exposes our deepest fears of alienation, loneliness and chaos. Sin distorts all of our relationships. Left on our own, we cannot live together as God intended.
But—thanks be to God!—God does not leave us alone. The Heidelberg Catechism affirms that we do have this "comfort, in life and in death," that we belong not to ourselves but to our "faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil."
Covenant: God's bridge to humanity
This brings us to covenant, defined by the Westminster Confession as God's "voluntary condescension" which bridges "[t]he distance between God and the creature." 4 "Covenant" is a critical concept in Reformed ethics, as you all know, and I cannot possibly say much about it a few minutes. But I agree with Max Stackhouse that "it is likely that nothing less than an understanding of and a commitment to covenantal mutuality under God can bring moral and spiritual coherence to what is otherwise experienced as a seething, chaotic mass of dominations and arbitrariness." 5
Moral and spiritual coherence! These are not empty words! We all sense that the scattered and broken pieces of our lives (and our relationships) belong together but we simply don't know how to re-build the structure we have demolished. But the Reformed tradition affirms that the coherence that eludes our best efforts has already been established definitively in Jesus Christ. How? Through the covenant of Baptism, our primal covenant, in which Christ's obedient "Yes" to God becomes our own "Yes"—and this is the starting point for our lifelong journey from chaos to coherence.
The self-disclosure of God in the covenant of Baptism reveals that God's being itself is covenant. In the reciprocal relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we learn that God's nature is not solitude, but communion. God's inherent nature is to be with others. The Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar says it better than I can:
God is not a sealed fortress, to be attacked and seized by our engines of war (ascetic practices, meditative techniques, and the like) but a house full of open doors, through which we are invited to walk. In the Castle of the Three-in-One, the plan has always been that we, those who are entirely "other," shall participate in the superabundant communion of life. Whatever we regard as the ultimate meaning of human life, be it giving, creating, finding or being given, being created and being found; all this is fulfilled in the original prototype: in the life of the eternal "With." 6
The triune being of God is therefore the primal form of all of our covenants. Here, God chooses not to be alone but with and for the humanity God created. Here, God elects humanity to be God's covenant partner. Here, God's love cannot be contained but pours itself out with incomprehensible majesty into the creation and reconciliation of humanity. Christian covenants must participate in this Trinitarian structure, so that the order broken by sin and restored by God's sovereign decision in Christ becomes an order of being "with" others.
The form of covenant
From our participation in this divine self-disclosure—as Christians who have been incorporated into God's Trinitarian being through Baptism and who meet the Triune God again and again through Word and Sacrament—we can begin to describe the form of Christian covenant:
First, God chooses each of us for covenant, calls us into covenant life and uses covenant to complete God's work of conversion and sanctification in our lives. Election, vocation, conversion and sanctification! Nothing less is at stake in Christian covenant than the overcoming of our opposition to God! So every Christian covenant is a means of grace that draws us into the covenantal life of the Trinity. God works through covenants to convert us to a life with God and with others.
Second, Christian covenants are accountable to the community, and therefore must be sealed by public vows. In contrast to the secular theory of "contract," in which two independent persons with equal rights enter into an agreement, Christian covenants are accountable to the Lord who comes to us in Word and Sacrament, that is, in the realized life of the Body of Christ in the Christian community. Jesus Christ is the Lord of every covenant, but the Covenant Lordship of Christ is mediated through his Body, the church. Therefore, covenant promises cannot be a private contract between two solitary persons but always a public demonstration of vows in the presence of the community.
Third, the community is accountable to the covenants made by its members. Because we are sinners, our covenantal relationships are always threatened by moral disorder. Covenant partners will turn again and again to the church which, as the Body of Christ, will call us back into relationship.
Fourth, Christian covenants create new life. Just as the triune life of God is not enclosed within itself but creates life in all of its forms, human covenants must also be creative. This is seen most clearly in the covenant of marriage, where (if it is God's will) a woman and a man extend life through the birth and care of children. But this creative vocation must be seen in all of our covenants. In some way, every Christian covenant must extend the boundaries of life. Every Christian covenant must be generative and generous. Every Christian covenant must say "Yes" to life.
Marriage: the oldest of human covenants
Heterosexual marriage is the oldest of human covenants, and every other relationship descends from this encounter of a man and woman in marriage. This is obviously so because we are born in families and we owe our existence to heterosexual parents. But the tradition also says that in the marriage of a man and a woman we have a type, or an image, of the covenantal love of God for Israel and Christ for the church.
There is much discussion about whether same-sex relationships also should be called "marriage," and, as you all know, this is a subject on which the church is deeply divided. There can be no question, however, that the Jewish and Christian traditions set heterosexual marriage apart from all other covenants. In my view, the confusion of marriage with other relationships can obscure the priority of heterosexual marriage in God's creative design and the Bible's orientation towards marriage as an analogy of God's passionate and faithful love for creation. And although I intend to argue that the church must grant equal dignity to same-sex relationships lived under vows—an argument I will save for the end of this paper, if you will be patient with me—I am not yet convinced that "equal dignity" is the same as "objective equality." In other words, heterosexual marriage and same-sex relationships are not objectively the same thing but each has its own inherent moral dignity.
In any case, the marriage rites of all Christian churches testify to the tradition that marriage is a covenant between heterosexual partners. So does the only gay and lesbian denomination, the Metropolitan Community Churches, whose rite for blessing same-sex couples is called "union," not "marriage." In its "Order for Marriage," the Book of Worship of the United Church of Christ reflects this ecumenical consensus:
The scriptures teach us that the bond and covenant of marriage is a gift of God, a holy mystery in which man and woman become one flesh, an image of the union of Christ and the church. 7
As the first human covenant revealed in scripture and the only human covenant present at the origin of the human race, I believe marriage has a privileged claim on the ministry of the church. Through the tradition's use of marriage as an analogy of God's covenant with humanity, marriage is prior to all other covenants but one—our primal covenant of baptism.
But although heterosexual marriage is unique, it also participates in the Trinitarian structure that is common to all Christian covenants. Marriage, if I may borrow from St. Benedict's well-known image of the monastery as a "school for sinners," is the school where those called into this covenant learn how to be with another and not alone. It is a means of grace, through which God calls a man and a woman away from the terrible solitude of the alienated self into a life of self-giving love. Like other covenants, marriage is not closed in on itself but open to others, first, to the gift of children and family, second, to the church whose liberating boundaries encompass every Christian marriage. Like other covenants, marriage is accountable to Christ, who is the Covenant Lord of the married partners and of their family.
The covenant of celibate community
Marriage is also a vocation, which means that to be a Christian marriage, God must summon a man and a woman into this relationship. But throughout its history, the church has also held an honored place for women and men who were called into a different covenant, but one by which they nevertheless were liberated by God to live a life with and for others. That covenant is celibacy, and to this we will now turn.
We are immediately in trouble here because most of us in this room are Protestant and we have had virtually no tradition of organized celibate community for more than 400 years—with a few exceptions, including one Augustinian monastery in Germany that transferred its allegiance to the Lutheran Reform in 1558 and somehow survived until 1675. 8
The disappearance of vocational celibacy, along with the organized structures without which any covenantal life is impossible, ought to be a serious concern among us. Luther's reaction to the abuse of monastic vows was so extreme that at one point he wrote that chastity is impossible outside of marriage. Calvin was equally contemptuous of the monastic way of life, writing that "the cloisters, the cells, the holes of the monkeries smell of nothing but excrement." 9 So there was no reform of celibate community in Protestant Europe, only a relentless attack on the monasteries that led to their dissolution.
Our break with 1,400 years of vocational celibacy has led us to believe that marriage is normative for all men and women, that is, the only vocation of relationship to which Christians can aspire. But it was not so in the apostolic church, as Karl Barth reminds us:
It is obvious that in the New Testament community marriage can no longer be an obligation. . . . This is the fact, too lightly ignored by Protestant ethics in its glad affirmation of marriage . . . , that Jesus Christ himself, of whose true humanity there can be no doubt, had no other beloved, bride or wife, no other family or domestic sphere but this community. Certainly, He expressed Himself very definitely about the divine basis, the indissolubility and the sanctity of marriage (Mk. 10:1-12, Mt. 5:27-31.) He did not command anyone to abstain from it in practice as He Himself did. . . . [But] there are those for whom entrance into the married state is not only not commanded but temporarily or even permanently forbidden. We certainly cannot say, in the light of these sayings [of Jesus], that entrance into marriage is universally the higher way, the better possibility. . . . Our true point of departure is that for Paul marriage is always a way (beside which he knows another and better) by which the Christian, becoming one body with his wife, does not deny the truth that he is one spirit with the Lord, but in his own way maintains and expresses it just as much as he who chooses a different path. 10
This "different path" is celibacy. So it is a mistake for us to see celibacy as either a compromise or a curse for those who, because of their sexual orientation or their situation in life, are unable to enter into the covenant of heterosexual marriage. Celibacy is a gift in which the person called into this life becomes fully human. Those who hear God's call to this life are not half-human. We cannot say they are incomplete because they have not fulfilled themselves in a union between a woman and a man. Nor should we understand celibacy as "asexuality" or merely as "abstinence" from a sexual relationship. Instead, celibacy is a particular disciplining of sexuality that liberates sexual energy for communion with others. We only have to look at the ecstatic visions of Roman Catholic mystics like St. John of the Cross or St. Therese of Avila, or the extraordinary creative energy of the Shaker communities, to see how sexual identity was not negated by celibacy but channeled into an intensely unitive relationship with Jesus Christ.
Celibacy therefore conforms to the Trinitarian structure of covenant. It is a life with and for, not a life apart from others. Like the covenant of marriage, it should be sealed by vows. We have no time to examine the arguments of Luther and Calvin against monastic vows, but by definition there should be no Christian covenant—including baptism, marriage and ordination—in which public promises are not witnessed by the community. By abolishing the vow of celibacy, the Reformers also abolished the possibility of celibate life as a normative vocation alongside heterosexual marriage. The result impoverished the church and denied any structured expression for those Protestants who were not called into marriage. A church without a covenantal vocation to celibacy is a church that is not fully oriented towards Jesus Christ—who, as Karl Barth reminds us, lived his life for others but not in the covenant of heterosexual marriage! Barth cannot be ignored when he writes that in Jesus "[t]he great example of a powerfully exercised freedom for celibacy is before us all." 11
On the other hand, the Protestant revolt against priestly and monastic celibacy was not groundless. Men and women like the monk Martin Luther and his future wife, the nun Katherine of Bora, were living under the burden of an enforced celibacy to which they were not truly called by God. We will take up this point again in a few minutes, because it will be a critical one in our discussion about same-sex relationships.
Are same-sex relationships a means of grace?
Do same-sex relationships conform to the Christian tradition of covenant? Can they become a means of grace through which God calls homosexual men and women to a life of conversion and holiness?
It is important to begin by acknowledging that homosexuality is most often experienced as inherent, as a "given," not a "choice." I know that some of us do not believe that the "givenness" of homosexuality is at all self-evident. But even the Ramsey Colloquium concedes—although rather reluctantly—that "some scientific evidence suggests a genetic predisposition for homosexual orientation," although it argues that there is no moral distinction between homosexuality and a predisposition towards "alcoholism or violence." The official Roman Catholic teaching on homosexuality is somewhat more generous. According to the U.S. bishops' Committee on Marriage and Family:
[I]t seems appropriate to understand sexual orientation (heterosexual or homosexual) as a fundamental dimension of one's personality and to recognize its relative stability in a person. . . . Generally, homosexual orientation is experienced as a given, not as something freely chosen. By itself, therefore, a homosexual orientation cannot be considered sinful, for morality presumes the freedom to choose. 12
But basing its argument on natural law, the Roman Catholic church prohibits the expression of love in a homosexual relationship because "only within (heterosexual) marriage does sexual intercourse fully symbolize the Creator's dual design as an act of covenant love with the potential of co-creating new human life." In the Roman Catholic view, a homosexual relationship is therefore "disordered" because it does not express the sexual encounter of a man and a woman and because it cannot be open to the procreation of children. For these two reasons, the church requires that gays and lesbians remain celibate.
The Roman Catholic teaching, in my opinion, is a reasonable attempt to struggle with a difficult problem in a way that does not dishonor or condemn the gay and lesbian members of the church. We can be grateful that the Church of Rome has broken decisively with the now widely-discredited model of homosexuality as a "disease." Instead, the church accepts that homosexual orientation is, at least generally, an inherent dimension of the human personality of gays and lesbians. The Roman magisterium therefore implicitly calls into question the ethics of so-called "transformation ministries" or "restorative therapies" that promise to convert or "cure" homosexuals into heterosexuals.
But the implications of the Roman Catholic teaching go deeper. Before 1975, Roman Catholic ethics assumed that homosexuality was a vicious choice. It did not acknowledge the concept of "sexual orientation." Since the only right expression of sexuality was either in heterosexual marriage or in celibate vocation, then every sexual relationship between two women or two men must have been a conscious act of rebellion against the will of the Creator—a rebellion, in other words, of persons who were naturally heterosexual but chose same-sex partners in violation of nature. This is clearly what Paul has in mind when he writes in Romans that "their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another." (Rom. 1:27 NRSV). Note the verbs "exchanged" and "giving up!" Paul clearly is condemning men and women who have a choice. The Romans described by Paul had freely chosen to "give up" what was natural to them for what was unnatural. 13
But Paul is not describing the homosexuals who are the subject of Roman Catholic ethics. Here, sexuality is not "chosen," but "given." One therefore has to ask who "gave" this orientation, and what is the nature of the gift?
One gift of homosexuality, from the Roman Catholic viewpoint, could be a consecrated life of celibacy. Since that church continues to maintain an entire infrastructure of organized celibate communities, it can at least offer this alternative with some credibility. But Protestants have less credibility when we impose celibacy on our gay and lesbian members. Our churches support virtually no institutional forms of celibate life and seem to have returned to the idea of permanent celibacy merely as a backdoor solution to the disturbing presence of openly homosexual Christians in the ordained ministry. Confronted with the ecumenical consensus that homosexuality is not chosen, some Protestant churches have rediscovered the vocation of celibacy several centuries after it was abandoned by Luther and Calvin. But the rediscovery lacks moral conviction, and the spectacle of married bishops and ministers—who have no personal experience of vocational celibacy and have never considered this vocation valid for themselves—imposing permanent celibacy on others is problematical, at least.
But enforced celibacy for homosexuals is equally problematical in the Roman Catholic tradition. Fundamentally, it violates the dignity of celibate life as vocation. There is no evidence in either scripture or tradition that God created an entire class of human beings who sui generis must enter into covenants of celibate community. Celibacy in the Catholic tradition is always seen as a gift, a way of life to which God elects and calls some, but not most, men and women. As any Roman Catholic vocation director will tell you, to live a life of enforced celibacy when that man or woman does not clearly hear the divine calling to this covenant is almost always destructive. Celibacy in the absence of God's call to celibate community is not necessarily a moral choice.
Protestants should know this well enough from our own history! One of the motors that drove thousands of Catholic priests, monks and nuns into the arms of the Reformation was the legal requirement of celibacy in the absence of a real vocation to this way of life. Eberlin von Gônzburg, a Franciscan friar who converted to Lutheranism in 1522, was speaking for the generation of Luther and Calvin when he described the moral agony of a celibate life divorced from vocation. Celibacy, he wrote, was
. . . a daily nagging of conscience and unrest of mind, by which all joy becomes suffering, all consolation saddening, all sweetness bitter. . . . [It] dulls and deadens the human senses, hardens the heart, and restrains natural honesty, leaving one in the end in so uncivil and inhumane a state, and so guilt-ridden and remorseful, that one hates salvation and the good in one's life and longs for misfortune. 14
Protestants should remember the spiritual and mental anguish of our own celibate ancestors before legislating permanent celibacy for lesbians and gays who may not be called to this exceptional (and demanding) way of life. Nevertheless, some homosexuals are called to the covenant of celibate community, and so are some heterosexuals. The Roman Catholic church acknowledges the presence of both sexual orientations in its ordained ministry. But we should recognize with Karl Barth that celibacy is a "special vocation" and it would be a serious error to prescribe it when the vocation is absent. When celibacy is imposed not by God's call but by ecclesiastical discipline on gays and lesbians, the result is precisely what Gônzburg described: the senses are dulled, the heart is hardened, honesty is restrained so that, in the end, one is left is "so incivil and inhumane a state, and so guilt-ridden and remorseful, that one hates salvation . . . and longs for misfortune." Today, we would describe this condition as a state of deep melancholy, depression or despair—and why should we be surprised? What else could be the result when a man or a woman who is capable of giving himself or herself to another in love is sentenced by the church to a life of solitude? This was obvious enough to the Reformers 475 years ago and it should be equally obvious to the church today.
The vocation of gays and lesbians in the church
So, if not celibacy, then what? Is there a vocation for those gays and lesbians God has not called to either heterosexual marriage or celibate community?
Like all other women and men, lesbians and gays are called by God to live a life not for ourselves, but for others. We are called to covenantal relationships in which our lives correspond to the inner life of God who is self-in-community, who in God's own being is self-for-others.
Gay and lesbian unions are covenantal relationships if they conform to this Trinitarian structure. Like heterosexual marriage and celibate community, these relationships are "schools for sinners," in which two partners learn how to live in the paradox of freedom that is unlimited precisely because it is limited by the other. The partner in a same-sex relationship is truly "other"—not through the complementarity of a man and woman, of course, but in the mutuality of two persons who in freedom choose each other and delight in being chosen. God creates these relationships because within the limits of our given sexuality we are always called out of isolation into community. Always. Always! Through these relationships we learn what it means to be truly human, to care for another as much as we care for ourselves, to learn that a life enclosed on itself is death, but a life opened to other lives is God's gift and command to those who believe.
Neither same-sex relationships nor celibate community are objectively "equal" to heterosexual marriage. The marriage between a man and a woman has its own distinctive and privileged character. But neither are they "second-class" marriages. They are moral relationships and they have a specific claim on the ministry of the church.
Same-sex relationships are broken by the same powers of evil that threaten heterosexual marriage. All relationships are wounded by sin. That is why God gave us covenants and why Christ is the Lord of each covenant. When the church offers its ministry to same-sex partners it is affirming the reality of sin and therefore saying "no" to the false doctrine that there was no fall from grace and no need for the Cross. We often speak about "affirming" or "celebrating" same-sex unions but I am convinced the real pastoral need in the gay and lesbian community is the ministry of the church when our relationships are broken by sin. Like heterosexual couples, we are adrift in the ethical chaos of a society that exalts freedom over commitment, selfishness over self-sacrifice, and the fulfillment of personal "needs" over mutual responsibility. The church needs to be a safe harbor for these relationships—encompassed by ethical boundaries, discipline, accountability and tradition. In other words, gay and lesbian couples need structure, and we need just as much structure as heterosexual couples.
Same-sex couples therefore have a claim on the pastoral care of the church. The church must not abandon us to the moral disorder of a fallen world that is in rebellion against God. But the church's pastoral concern for these couples necessarily requires the public, liturgical expression of the vows that bind them together. Pastoral care without the public recognition of their vows would undermine the moral accountability of same-sex couples to each other and to the church. The congregation cannot legitimately expect conformity to ethical norms for same-sex partners if it is unwilling to witness the vows in which those partners commit themselves—in the presence of the community—to fidelity and mutual obedience. If a congregation permits pastoral care but denies the public rite of union it is saying, in effect, "we expect you to honor your covenant but we don't want to hear about it outside the pastor's office." "Don't ask, don't tell" is a cruel way of life for same-sex couples and if that constraint were imposed on heterosexual partners, I doubt many marriages could survive. "Private" promises of fidelity apart from the community are like New Year's resolutions, easy to break. Moreover, the alienation of same-sex unions from the liturgical life of the community plays into the hands of the secular ideology that covenants are only private contracts between individuals who are accountable to no one but each other.
Conversion and sanctification
Ultimately, the purpose of same-sex covenants, like the covenants of heterosexual marriage and celibate community, is conversion and sanctification. Through these relationships we cooperate with God's design for human life. They are a means of grace, and we could not be fully human without them. St. Irenaeus, who heard God's call to the covenant of celibacy, says this about God's work of sanctification:
If you are the handiwork of God, await the Artisan's hand patiently. He does everything at a favorable time, favorable, that is, to you, whom He made. Offer Him your heart, pliant and unresisting. Preserve the form in which the Artisan fashioned you. Keep within you the Water which comes from Him; without it, you harden and lose the imprint of His fingers. By preserving the structure, you will ascend to perfection; God's artistry will conceal the clay within you. His hand formed your substance; He will coat you, within and without, in pure gold and silver; He will adorn you so well that "the Sovereign will delight in your beauty" (Ps. 44:12). But if you harden and reject His artistry, if you show Him your displeasure at being made a human being, your ingratitude to God will lose you both His artistry and His life. Making is the property of God's generosity; being made is a property of human nature. 15
What a glorious vision, for all of us! God is an artisan who will adorn our lives "in pure gold and silver." But you and I cannot ascend to this perfection alone. Not alone. Not alone. God takes us by the hand and leads us through the terrors of life, giving us companionship so we can learn how to live not for ourselves, but for others. Through these relationships of community and family, of heterosexual marriage, celibate love and homosexual partnership, God converts us towards the "life for others" that is the primal nature of the Trinity, towards the majestic generosity and creative power of the Three-in-One into whom we were incorporated through Baptism, and we know this is true because Jesus Christ has been revealed to us as the first of many chosen, justified, called and sanctified by God.
2. "The Theological Declaration of Barmen," United Church of Christ Web site at http://www.ucc.org/believe/barmen.htm.
3. "The Heidelberg Catechism," in The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ, v. 2 (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1997), 329.
8. François Biot, The Rise of Protestant Monasticism (Baltimore and Dublin: Helicon Press, 1963), 65-67. At this point the vocation of celibacy-in-community disappears from Protestant history until the first deaconess community was founded in 1836. Crossing the Atlantic with German Reformed and Lutheran immigrants, the deaconess movement spread to the United States, and its memory is preserved in the many "Deaconess Hospitals" affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the Lutheran churches. But today the deaconess movement in North America is only a memory. In Europe, there has been a modest revival of Protestant monasticism—most notably the ecumenical Taizé community in France. Unlike the deaconess movement, Protestant monks have met a cool reception in the United States, at best. The only alternative for North American Protestants called to this vocation are the small Anglican communities that are closer in spirit to Rome than to Wittenberg or Geneva.
12. Committee on Marriage and Family, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, "Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministers" (Washington, D.C.: National Catholic News Service, Oct. 1, 1997).
13. Karl Barth at one time shared with Paul the belief that homosexuality is a choice, not a "given" condition. The two or three pages he wrote in Church Dogmatics on homosexuality assumed that gays and lesbians despise the opposite sex and choose partners of the same sex as a substitute for the woman or man they have rejected. Barth nowhere addressed the issue of sexual orientation or proposed an ethical response to it. Barth's assumptions were not unusual in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when he wrote his brief comments on homosexuality, and could have been a response to a pre-war homosexual movement in Germany that exalted the male as superior to women—not a popular motif in the male homosexual movement today. But it is not widely known that Church Dogmatics was not Barth's last word on the subject. "In light of conversations with medical doctors and psychologists," writes Barth scholar George Hunsinger, "Barth came to regret that he had characterized homosexuals as lacking in the freedom for fellowship. In the end he, too, found it necessary to interpret the plain sense of Scripture in light of advances in modern knowledge." George Hunsinger, "Thinking Outside the Box, Part 4: The Voice of 'Progressive Traditionalists'," The Presbyterian Outlook, March 13, 2002, online journal at www.pres-outlook.com/hun031302d.html.
About the author
Andrew G. Lang, who is a homosexual, is the theological reporter for the Proclamation, Identity and Communication Team, Office of General Ministries, United Church of Christ, and manager of the UCC's website at www.ucc.org. This paper was presented at a conference May 6, 1998, at the Acton, Mass., Congregational Church sponsored by the Massachusetts chapter of Confessing Christ. The views are those of the author. Copies of this paper are available at the United Church of Christ website, or call the UCC at 216-736-2173.
Last revision: Oct. 24, 2002
"To offer sexuality education in a congregation is to acknowledge that human sexuality is simply too important too beautiful and too potentially dangerous to be ignored in a religious community." - Rev. Lena Breen, Mt. Vernon, WA
We live in a culture that is deeply conflicted about sexuality.
Our religious heritage compels and guides us in creating a safe environment where people can come to understand and respond to the challenges facing them as sexual beings. As faith communities, we promote justice for all people and we affirm the dignity of every individual, the importance of personal responsibility, and the essential interdependence of all peoples.
The United Church of Christ holds that sexuality is a God-given gift, and offers the following resources:
- Our Whole Lives/Sexuality and Our Faith: Our Whole Lives is a series of sexuality education curricula for six age groups: grades K-1, grades 4-6, grades 7-9, grades 10-12, young adult, and adult. The program and its religious companion books, Sexuality and Our Faith, provide an opportunity for children, youth, and adults to learn about sexuality in the affirming and supportive setting of our faith communities. Learn more.
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