Finding Our Voice

The church has a problem.

The trend in American public life over the past few years is undergoing a seismic shift. Acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer people has begun to reach a tipping point. According to a leaked memo by Republican pollster, Jan van Lohuizen, the increase for those favoring something like same gender marriage was steady at 1% every up to 2009. Since 2009, however, support for same gender marriage has gained momentum, increasing by 5% every year. Mr. van Lohuizen’s memo announces that recent polling now indicates a 10% difference in favor of those who support same gender marriage.

For something less controversial than same gender marriage, like acceptance of gays and lesbians, the numbers jump to nearly two-thirds (64%) in favor. Even in a state like Kentucky, with a reputation for being socially conservative, over 8 in 10 people polled agreed that LGBTIQ people deserve workplace protections against discrimination, equal access to housing and public accommodations.

When it comes to the demographics of age, the numbers become even more revealing. Millennials, those roughly between the ages of 18 to 29, 62% favor same gender marriage, compared to 31% of those over the age of 65. 69% of Millennials support the rights of gays and lesbians to adopt, compared with 36% of seniors.

This demographic information is important because Millennials have reached distressing conclusions about the church’s handling of this issue. Indeed, according to the Public Religion Research Institute’s findings, nearly 7 in 10 (69%) Millennials believe “that religious groups are alienating young people by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues.”

The situation is particularly serious for those Christians who care about the mass exodus of young people from the church. The Barna Group, an Evangelical polling organization, asked young people, ages 1- to 29, what words or phrase best describes Christianity. The top choice of 91% of those who self-identified as non-Christian? “Anti-homosexual.” As one might expect, among young Christians, the number who thought the words or phrase that best identified the church as “anti-homosexual” dropped … to 80%.

The church has a problem. While the culture has shown an increasingly amazing ability to adapt to the notion that LGBTIQ folk have every right to live the kind of flourishing lives God created them for as their heterosexual sisters and brothers, the church has, in many cases, not found a way to address this as an issue of justice. In too many cases the church has failed to lead.

More specifically, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) finds itself in the awkward position of wanting to say something, but not knowing how to do so—whether because it feels like opinion is too divided, or because there is no mechanism in place to find the consensus its leadership feels is necessary before advocating publicly for a position—either for or against.1

However, if Disciples are to have a place at the table of justice, we need to Find Our Voice.

If Disciples are to be, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. not the thermometers of culture, but its thermostat, we are going to have to Find Our Voice.

To that end, the GLAD Alliance is sponsoring an endorsement page to allow Disciples the opportunity to begin the difficult process of gathering voices together to demonstrate the shift that is taking place, both within the culture and within the church.

The need for an endorsement page is explained:

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ) people have suffered, often most egregiously at the hands of the church. This suffering has come as a result of outright violence in word and deed and, perhaps just as damaging, through silence in the face such injustice. As a denomination that proclaims itself “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world” the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) must accept a special responsibility in actively finding ways to bring wholeness and offer healing, in particular to those whom the church has had a hand in harming, as well as to those whom the church has failed to stand beside in the face of the harm perpetrated by others.

Unfortunately, our denomination—which has officially engaged in a process of discernment with respect to this issue since 1997, achieving mixed results and no definitive statement—continues to have difficulty finding its voice when it comes to the inclusion of LGBTIQ people in the life and ministry of the church. Because of the congregational polity that characterizes the organization of our denomination’s common life, many have argued that the CCDOC will never speak with one voice about extending hospitality and affirmation to our LGBTIQ sisters and brothers.

Given the nature of that denominational structure, leaders (the General and Regional Ministries, clergy, and laity) among the CCDOC occupy a crucial role not only in reflecting denominational self-understanding, but in helping to shape it. The pastoral role of ministry requires a willingness to stand out front and point the way forward in the presence of divided convictions about which way is more faithful. No one denies that a prophetic stance will be difficult; if it were easy, it would be neither prophetic nor necessary.

Moreover, a prophetic voice has been found in recent times among Disciples, a voice to call us beyond our division and into a more just and equitable future.

At the height of civil unrest in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when the country remained violently divided on the issue of race, Disciples stood up and spoke with a clear voice at the International Convention of Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) in 1968 “to address the sin of racism through resolutions and direct action.”

In 1973, when only 4% of the of professional church workers and 9% of seminarians were women, and congregations were divided over whether women should be allowed in ministry, the General Assembly in Cincinnati, Ohio found its voice and passed resolutions urgently seeking to address the inequities of gender discrimination posed by excluding women from serving the church in the same capacity as men.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is in need of such a voice today to speak courageously against the exclusion of LGBTIQ people from full participation in the life and ministry of the church. However, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has taken shape over the last two hundred years with a particular ecclesiological bias toward the notion that ministry is a function of baptism and not ordination. Consequently, any progress toward a realization of our identity as “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world” that welcomes “all to the Lord’s table” will necessarily derive a great deal of its energy and authority from people who express their passion without benefit of institutional sanction. If things are going to change in our denomination in a way that offers a more expansive welcome to those who have been forced to the margins, it will come as a result of committed lay and clergy voices joining together to speak about the demands of justice and the possibilities of the grace signaled by the coming reign of God.

The question that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) will continue to contend with is the extent to which it can claim to be “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world” that welcomes “all to the Lord’s table,” when in practice it defends or is silent in the face of a brokenness that excludes people from that table.

Therefore, we call on all within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)—those within the General and Regional Ministries of the Church, those clergy, who help to organize and shape the course and direction of ministry, and finally, those lay leaders, who inspire and often provide the passion and wisdom that result in faithful ministry—to find their voices and speak out publicly against the injustices visited upon LGBTIQ persons.

As an aid to gathering together these disparate voices in one place, GLAD offers an endorsement page inviting a public endorsement of a commitment to the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer people in the life and ministry of the church.

If it’s not clear to you by now, I think the church needs to move on this issue. And this is one way to begin the process.

Follow this link to help the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Find Our Voice!

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  1. Once again I find myself having to be clear about how I am framing this plea. If you don’t believe LGBTIQ folks should enjoy full inclusion in the life and ministry of the church, the purpose of this article isn’t to argue you into submission on this issue. If, however, you do believe that LGBTIQ people have been created by God this way and ought to be allowed to bring their gifts to the life and ministry of the church, the purpose of this article is to argue that the need for the church to take a position of advocacy on this issue is urgent. ↩