Editor’s note: The following text was written in 2012.
25 Years, Where are we now?
Last week a colleague of mine in the US wrote this post. And in reading it I was reminded that 25 years ago this summer the 32nd General Council meeting of the United Church of Canada dealt with what many in the church now simply refer to as "the issue".
More specifically, the Council voted to receive and adopt a report titled Ministry Membership and Human Sexuality (MMHS for short), which stated that sexual orientation was irrelevant where full membership in the United Church was concerned -- and with full membership comes the right to be considered for membership in the Order of Ministry.
And then all hell broke loose.
By the time of the next meeting of General Council in 1990, hundreds of petitions had been written calling on the church to reconsider this decision. The grounds of opposition were based on tradition and on interpretations of Scripture. (As it happens one of the results of this process was a church-wide study on the Authority and Interpretation of Scripture as the debate leading up to and following from MMHS had amply proven that there were a variety of approaches to Scripture in the UCCan — though really we knew that already). The church of my childhood and the church where I am currently in ministry were among those who expressed their disagreement (although it was not well publicized in my childhood congregation that this was being done by the Board). People were sent to the meeting with strict instructions to “fix” the horrible mistake that had been made [in ordaining gay and lesbian people]. Congregations were threatening to leave the UCCan (and sue so they could take their buildings and property with them), some congregations had a mass exodus of members, and some people came to the church precisely because of MMHS. There was a fear that the church would be split asunder over the issue. A vocal protest movement from the “conservative” side of the church sprung up calling itself the National Alliance of Covenanting Congregations (NACC).
And where are we now? In 1992, one of the issues that was discussed at General Council was same-gender marriage. But there was no great appetite for carrying that issue forward at that point in time. However by a decade later there were folk in the UCCan who were loudly calling for both church and state to recognize such unions. There were (and are) also UCCan folk loudly objecting to such unions. Because of the way our polity works, each congregation needs to make their own decision on that issue. Nationally, the UCCan made statements urging the federal government to change the law, but each congregation decides what weddings happen in their midst.
So where are we now? We are still somewhat split on this issue of human sexuality (meaning not only orientation but also abortion and sexual activity outside of legal marriage). But there have been changes.
The NACC has largely gone away as a force. There are still congregations who were members and whose congregational theology has not truly changed. I know of one who in their Joint Needs Assessment report proclaimed proudly their traditional marriage policy and then a couple pages later said there was no reason that any clergy, regardless of orientation, would not feel welcome in their midst -- and were totally unaware of how these were mutually exclusive statements. (I did not apply to that place). But there is not the same level of antagonism. And some churches have made a complete turn around. There are congregations that protested in 1989, where now "the issue" is no longer an issue and have now called married gay clergy.
But there is still work to do. Gay and lesbian clergy still (last I heard) have more chance of having trouble getting a call, particularly in certain areas of the country. There are still people who do not want to touch these discussions with a ten foot pole for fear of reawakening old arguments. I remember when my last pastoral charge was reviewing marriage policy and I asked if they wanted to discuss same-gender marriage — the answer was that they were not sure the congregation was ready (the congregation WAS ready, and it would not have been an issue in my opinion) largely because there was a memory of how people had reacted in 1988-89.
So there is still work to do. There are still conversations to be had. And given that hetero-sexism is still rampant in our society as a whole (and plausibly in many of our pews) in both open and hidden forms we who believe that God calls all people good, need to push for the conversations to happen. If our beliefs mean anything they need to be lived out. It has always been tempting to let people for whom the question is more pressing take the lead. Or try to not talk about it until we have no choice. And to be honest I believe that has been how the church has approached many issues (race, human sexuality, interfaith dialogue) over the generations. And that is not enough.
May we have the courage as a church to admit that the questions are not all behind us. May we have the wisdom to see that we are not in the same place we were 25 years ago. And may we have the faith to hear God calling us to name what we believe openly.
*Identifying details have been edited.