Ways things change
Theories of change vary widely. Does progress arise from
countless participants, working in countless places and ways? Does it require
an organized movement? How critical are public, influential leaders? At what
point is there a need for precedent to be set from the top down?
The civil rights movement in this country required all of
the above. No one really disputes this; debates about it are largely of the
chicken/egg variety. These questions come up not out of idle speculation but
because Christians see that there is yet work to be done.
In many churches, the civil rights movement has been the
defining analogy as we explore issues of sexual identity and practice.
Intersections International--a multifaith, multi-ethnic group--has put
considerable effort into trying to inspire and sustain change in this area. Its
"Believe Out Loud" campaign is a coalition of clergy and laypeople from many of
denominations who hope to encourage those who support full inclusion to speak
The campaign recently released this video:
There was some controversy this week when Sojourners declined to run the video as
an online ad. But what's more interesting to me is this comments-field conversation about the ad itself. Who is this
ad for? Is it shooting its cause in the foot by suggesting that the average
church's laypeople are downright inhospitable? Can a welcoming pastor's
presence override other factors?
The Reconciling Ministries program in the United
Methodist Church encourages and cultivates leadership among laypeople. An
itinerant pastor's beliefs may not be in line with the congregation's; lay
leadership also increases ownership of the process. So when a UM congregation
adopts a "reconciling statement," this comes from an effort within the
congregation, not something imposed on it.
But as important as it is for a congregation to express
its welcome to all people, in the UMC we do not ordain "self-avowed, practicing
homosexuals"--and our clergy are not allowed to officiate at same-sex weddings,
civil unions or commitment ceremonies.
That's increasingly difficult for me to bear. My home
state recently adopted a law recognizing civil unions, and
now the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has ratified its constitution to allow for the
ordination of gay folks. Yet my beloved church continues to fail to fully
welcome everyone. As welcoming as I or my parishioners might want to be, I
still feel I'm failing my LGBT brothers and sisters.
How will change come? In the UMC, lay representatives to
annual conferences have voice and vote--and these votes are based on membership
numbers. So policy change will require numerical growth among reconciling
But clergy have to get involved, too. A friend of mine--a
Roman Catholic and a lesbian--knows that there are allies within her parish,
but she wants to know that the priest welcomes her, too. She wants to be
assured that she won't be turned away from the table or made to sit through a
demeaning homily. She wants to know she'll be safe at church.
One reason clergy allies might remain closeted is fear of
consequences. When I bemoaned the fact that I am forbidden to perform same-sex
unions, my husband reminded me that I cannot afford to commit a chargeable
offense: I have a marriage. I have young children. There are reasons that Jesus
admonished his disciples about the cost of following him.
But though I'm convinced that both grassroots and
top-down efforts are needed, I'm also aware of the limitations of political
change as an analogy. The church is a voluntary institution. Our work will
never involved coercion; the National Guard isn't going to get involved. Our
only tool, finally, is persuasion.
And our denominations are not merely populated by
opposing caucuses. That's why it's so important to be humble and loving even as
we try to speak truth. I found this to be the most powerful witness of the churchwide letter from the PCUSA
The feelings on both sides run
deep. However, as Presbyterians, we believe that the only way we will find
God's will for the church is by seeking it together - worshiping, praying,
thinking, and serving alongside one another.