Open and Affirming, 20 Years Later

Spiritual Reflections

by Brett Webb-Mitchell    
Published: November 22, 2013 in Spiritual Reflections

[Ed. Note — qnotes launches its new community faith column this issue. Every other issue, we will print contributions from faith leaders, clergy and members of welcoming and affirming faith institutions to share the work of their groups and discuss important matters of LGBT and inclusive faith and belief. Want to contribute on behalf of your organization? Email editor Matt Comer at matt@goqnotes.com for more information.]

Amid stories of churches spewing forth hate-filled homophobic rhetoric, or turning the corner and experiencing a radical epiphany of engaging lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) people as human beings after years of spurning our existence, there are faith communities who have long been voices in the barren wilderness, welcoming and loving all who wish to worship. One such church in North Carolina is the United Church of Chapel Hill (UCCH), with co-pastors Reverends Jill and Rick Edens, part of the United Church of Christ (UCC).

UCCH’s interest in welcoming LGBTQ people began in 1985, with the Open and Affirming (ONA) movement in the UCC. This movement began in the UCC’s Fifteenth General Synod, which called on churches to be “open and affirming” of LGBTQ people, their families and straight allies. Materials were developed for the denomination in becoming and being open and affirming and within a few years there were churches, especially in the northeast and California, who were signing up and advertising that their doors were open to LGBTQ people.

In the 1990s, the Spirit was moving among UCC churches in North Carolina. Community UCC in Raleigh became the first UCC church in North Carolina to be ONA and soon after UCCH became interested in becoming an ONA church in 1991. The inspiration to become an ONA church was led by a member of UCCH, George Moulthrop, who was a retired UCC pastor. The UCCH’s Board of Outreach and Service responded positively to Moulthrop’s suggestion and began an ONA Task Force. The early meetings were a series of talks within the congregation, exploring Scripture, tradition, homophobia, spirituality and sexuality. Enthusiasm would build up and then the subject would be dropped for several months. But this ebb and flow worked towards the movement’s advantage, because no one felt rushed into a decision without adequate time for consideration.

After a period of months, along with more meetings, fellowship gatherings and a posting of a suggestion box for people to express their opinions (this was before the wide use of internet), there were still those who were willing to have LGBTQ people attend church, but did not like the idea of “affirming homosexuality,” as well as those who wondered if it would lead to “gay marriage” (it would). By mid-1993, it seemed clear to those who were on the ONA Task Force that LGBTQ people do not believe they’re welcome unless it is stated explicitly because they have suffered too much oppression by churches. On June 6, 1993, the UCCH voted by secret ballot to accept a statement affirming they were an ONA Church: 106 in favor, 7 opposed. Part of their statement includes the following: “With confidence in Christ, we step forward to affirm people of diverse sexual orientation as part of God’s creation. We invite all persons to journey with us in fellowship for we may not in faith set anyone aside. We are not whole unto ourselves.”

Twenty years later, the UCCH has grown into their ONA statement. For example, the Rev. David Mateo, who leads the Spanish-speaking congregation that meets weekly at UCCH, has hosted a session on LGBTQ Latinos for the community. And while the UCCH began with the simple, but necessary “first step” of welcoming LGBTQ people, the church’s sanctuary has been the place for many same-sex couples to wed. Both pastors have been at the bedside of lesbian couples welcoming their first baby. And, the children of LGBTQ individuals and couples have been baptized in this holy place as well. While Jill and Rick didn’t fully understand what it would mean to be an ONA congregation in 1993, they appreciate all that has taken place within and among members of the Church. They also understand that there is much work to be done, including ending employment discrimination among LGBTQ people, as well as discrimination in housing. To this day, the church gladly proclaims that they are an ONA congregation as the church strives to live out the first line of its vision statement: “In Christ we are one.” : :