Faithful and Welcoming?
And it is certainly not because of what is implied by this seemingly innocuous phrase; but rather it is what is intentionally left unsaid that troubles me.
Sheldon Culver, with whom I have worked and from whom I have learned much of what I write about in this blog, has coined a phrase she uses to describe part of the strategy of these renewal groups: "mirror church."
In attempts to obfuscate, confuse, and subtly steer people into different theological territory, renewal groups like the newly created "Faithful and Welcoming" one borrow key phrases from the group they purport to be renewing and add a twist. Sometimes this is done just to satirize or degrade the denomination under attack. A perfect example of this happened in 2003.
The United Church of Christ was just launching its nation-wide "Still-Speaking" campaign (see stillspeaking.org to learn more about this award-winning ad campaign), highlighting a touching phrase spoken by a dying Gracie Allen to her grieving husband Goerge Burns: "Never place a period where God has placed a comma." In other words, what feel like endings in our lives that we shall never overcome are simply natural pauses beyond which God has more to say and to reveal.
Celebrating not only the wisdom of such an aphorism, but also the ways in which it reflected a fundamental presumption of the United Church of Christ - that `God is still speaking, - the Missouri Mid-South Conference of the UCC invited the campaign's Director , Ron Buford, to be their keynote speaker at their Biennial meeting at First Congregational UCC in Memphis, TN.
In a shameless act of mirroring its own denomination in an attempt to degrade it, the Biblical Witness Fellowship (an IRD sponsored renewal group) held its own conference one week after this one, and the theme of their meeting was "Never place a comma where God has placed a period: The UCC in crisis."
"Faithful and Welcoming" is another such attempt to mirror a movement within an existing denomination. The phrase they are mirroring is "Open and Affirming," an official designation with the United Church of Christ that identifies churches as both open to and fully affirming of all people, regardless of race, color, gender, physical abilities, age, or sexual orientation.
It is the `Affirming' language with which many people have trouble. The term `faithful' is intended to imply that those who are affirming are not; and the term welcoming is chosen as a more `faithful' designation than affirming. In other words, if you are gay you are welcome, but not affirmed.
I write this week about this group because I attended one of the 16 regional gatherings intended as both a coming out party for the newly incorporated IRD related renewal group (January 2006), and a recruiting junket for their National Gathering July 2 - 4.
Two moments in the evening are worthy of note, because they reveal the darker side of an organization whose name implies that they are anything but sinister. I was a mere observer of the first, and much more directly involved in the second.
Brandon Woosley, pastor of St. Paul's Evangelical United Church of Christ in Bloomingdale, Ill. served as the group's spokesperson for the evening. He was articulate and engaging while on point and script for the first part of his presentation, though it became clear that some of his information was less than accurate. (This would be pointed out to him later in the evening). But following his presentation, he took questions from what was predominantly a UCC friendly crowd who had some very serious questions to ask him.
One came from a lesbian women, there with her partner, who asked him what a "Faithful and Welcoming" pastor would say to her ten year old son who had been told by his father that his mother was going to hell. Brandon took a long time not to answer her direct question. When, after some awkward moments (and everyone in the room felt the tension inherent in this exchange) he said he would not talk to a ten year old about hell, the women asked what he would say if her son was fourteen.
After more uncomfortable moments, he pointed out that of course he thought her lifestyle was a sinful one he would not condone. At one time, he said he did not want to answer her direct question, but she pressed him. He would not say that he would tell her son that her mother would not go to hell. After long minutes of tense dialogue between the two, he finally said that he would never make such a judgment but would leave that to God: to which the woman replied "That's all I wanted to hear you say."
This is important, and I pause here for just a second. "Faithful and Welcoming" is more than a mirroring attempt; it is also meant to portray its devotees as warm, loving, and - well - welcoming. One slide shown by Brandon in his power point presentation even highlighted in large and italicized letters "Faithful and Welcoming..... TO ALL!"
But it was clear to all in the room that this is not true. A little later the question was put to Brandon: "Where is the welcome to the gays?" The standard answer, given by him was that of course gays are welcome in our churches. But this is never really true. They are welcome to hear how they are inherently evil; that in fact they are going to hell; that they can come and worship but never serve in positions of leadership and certainly never consider serving in ministry.
The second moment came when I addressed what I see as the most serious problem faced by these renewal groups. In literature handed out by Brandon as folk entered the room and took their seats, it was written that in July of 2005 General Synod delegates "declared their independence from the teachings of Jesus and the authority of scripture" when they voted to pass the Marriage Equality resolution. I asked Brandon to consider the possibility that those of us who support gay rights do so not in spite of what scripture says, but because of it. I asked him, since he had shown a slide quoting an aphorism that means a lot to us in the UCC ("In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity"), what he had ever heard from Jesus that led him to believe that affirming gays was the kind of evil for which readers of his gospel were afforded no liberty.
He first admitted that he was troubled by the phrase I quoted in the literature handed out, and that he did not write it. (I pointed out to him that was irrelevant - he was handing them out). He was unable to answer the question put to him about the teaching of Jesus, saying only that when Jesus quoted the law he did so to make the law harder to follow (if even you look at a woman with lust you have already committed adultery). I followed this by telling him that I thought he and I could engage is some pretty enlivening conversation about how we interpret scripture, but that I had no idea how to begin the conversation when his presumption was that because of what I believe I have "declared my independence from the teachings of Jesus (one's he could not cite) and the authority of scripture."
I thought my response was faithful. I did not feel welcome.
Faithful and Welcoming? | 5 comments (5 topical, 0 hidden)
Faithful and Welcoming? | 5 comments (5 topical, 0 hidden)