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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Are We in a Post "Open and Affirming" Church Age?

A new approach to being a congregation welcoming of LGBTs is being embraced by many churches today. But first, a little background.

The major mainline denominations in America have organizations within them to encourage gay acceptance and affirmation. In my Disciples of Christ denomination, it's GLAD, Gay and Lesbian Affirming Disciples. Each organization has its procedures for becoming officially Open and Affirming.  Most of them include a rigorous study and discernment process that should include the whole congregation.  This normally takes many months to complete.  It's comprehensive, well thought out and works. The process ends with a vote.  If the congregation votes to become "Open and Affirming," it is listed as such in denominational records and can begin to advertise itself as such.  The idea is to insure that congregations understand the issues fully and enter the gay community with no reservations.

My experience with congregations that have completed the process and became O & A is that they begin by being open while wanting to (eventually) become affirming.  Some make the transition successfully, others never do.  Here's the question that I put to these church's leaders: "Have you had any gay weddings? And if not, why not?" This question identifies the truly affirming congregations.

When I was actively engaged in consulting with congregations on O & A issues, I often ran across congregations which believed they were open and affirming without having to go through the process. Not one of them would allow gay weddings.  Why did I insist that this is the defining act of O & A? Because if you don't offer gays the very things you offer straights, you are not affirming. This extends to church leadership, including calling gay pastors.  Therefore these churches were simply fooling themselves.  The harm in this comes when LGBTs hear that one of these churches is safe, so they visit and soon learn it is not.

Lately, I've noticed a remarkable change. In my hometown there are two congregations that are not officially Open and Affirming, yet hold gay weddings. Having visited them on several occasions, I know they have made the transition to affirming without the benefit of the official process.  This phenomenon can be observed in cities across the USA.  What's going on here?  Are we in a post O&A age?

America, by osmosis, has become a majority Open and Affirming nation. Most of this was accomplished by two forces, the coming out of LGBTs in large numbers and the effective gay rights campaign. In 2004, just 36 percent of Catholics favored gay marriage, along with 34 percent of mainline Protestants. Now it's 57 percent of Catholics and 55 percent of mainline Protestants. Even among white evangelical Protestants support has risen from 11 percent in 2004 to 24 percent in 2013.  The more we've gotten to know LGBTs, the more we have taken their side.  Naturally, this spills over into our congregations who find themselves moving steadily into an affirming mode.

So, do I think there is no longer a need for O&A study and discernment as advocated by our denominations? Certainly not.  It would be tragic to use this as an excuse to subvert the process. This will still be useful for many a church, especially where there is overt opposition or remaining reluctance.  But I will now be willing to admit, as I haven't been until recently, that some churches have arrived there without the benefit of the process. Or, perhaps, better, became truly affirming by participating in the ongoing drama of justice-seeking in America.

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