A congregation of the United Church of Canada
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Affirming Ministry Launch Day
Today is a special day because we are officially launching something called our Affirming Ministry process. The absolute number one question that always comes up about this is “We’re already welcoming and inclusive, so why do we have to do this?”
And the second question is, “What exactly are we supposed to be affirming?” I’ll answer that one first.
Specifically, the Affirming movement grew out of an awareness that people who identify as LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) have historically been treated very badly by churches and have felt decidedly unwelcome and therefore unable to grow in their faith.
However, denominations like our United Church of Canada, who lead the way in being inclusive, have been working hard to change that story. The thing is that ultimately our national church cannot and will not tell individual congregations how to shape their worship policies, so regardless of national pronouncements and encouragement the experience at various churches can range from wonderfully inclusive and supportive to downright hostile.
For several years now Faith United has had an equal marriage policy that says that if you are legally eligible to be married in Ontario, opposite sex or same sex, and you desire a Christian ceremony that you can be married here by me. This is a clear sign that we’re already inclusive, but to be Affirming says something more.
If a congregation is an Affirming Ministry they are saying, out loud and to the public, that they “affirm” the radical inclusiveness, acceptance, and hospitality toward LGBTQ folks that our denomination encourages.
And that’s the answer to the first question.
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We here at Faith United are wonderfully inclusive. No matter who comes through our doors I know that as long as they were willing to learn about and practice journeying in the Way of Jesus that you would welcome them without hesitation, no matter how they looked, or how they self-identified their gender, or whatever their sexual orientation might be.
The difference is, and the reason we’re embarking on this is, that WE know we’re inclusive, but LGBTQ folks out there may not be sure about us, because we’ve never taken the time or effort to tell them.
And make no mistake, they’ve been burned and hurt before by churches, so they’re likely not willing to give us a try and risk coming through our doors and finding out unless they’re sure.
And if we’re going to say out loud and publicly that we’re Affirming then we need to be sure that we understand the people we hope to welcome as best we can.
I think there are two key indicators that inform whether people are comfortable with these kinds of conversations: their view of interpreting scripture and their personal experience of people who are “others”.
So let’s talk scripture first. As soon as you say LGBTQ and the bible in the same sentence just about everyone’s mind goes instantly to Leviticus 20:13 If a man lies with a male as with a woman they shall be put to death.
I know that many of us grew up with that verse ringing in our ears. I could take 10 minutes and explain to you the deep theological reasons for why that verse is shaped that way, but I’ll take the tack of simple logic instead. Not one single person in this room, or in any Christian church, actually believes that every single verse of the bible is literally true and true for all time. Not one.
I say that with supreme confidence because I know that if you claim that verse is true and operative “because it’s in the bible” then you have to claim every verse is, and no one does.
If the principle is that it’s in the bible therefore it’s true then why are you wearing clothes of different fabrics woven together? If you’re wearing polyester, or some blend, you should be punished says Deuteronomy 22:11.
Leviticus 11:9-12 says we shouldn’t ever eat shrimp or lobster, however we should feel free to sell our daughters into slavery according to Exodus 21:7, and if our sons don’t behave we can stone them to death says Deuteronomy 21:20.
1 Corinthians 14:34 tells us, Women should keep silent in the church! (Good luck with that one!)
And my favourite, one that I know even the most staunch literalist doesn’t follow, is Luke 18:22 Sell everything you have and give the money to the poor.
So does that mean nothing in the bible is true or operative for us? Absolutely not!
It just means that we have to do the hard work of discerning, and interpreting, and praying.
It’s interesting though how we tend to latch onto those verses that don’t require anything directly of us. It’s simple to hold up “man shall not lie with man” if you’re straight. It costs you nothing. But to give away all your possessions? Suddenly we’re not literalists anymore.
So scriptural interpretation is a big challenge, and the other is experience.
If your own personal life experience is that you were born biologically male or female, and your sexual orientation is heterosexual, and your sense of being male or female all matches that biology you are what is called cis male or cis female. That covers the vast, vast majority of people, including me.
For us, our sexuality and gender are utterly and inextricably cemented to our biology and anything other than that feels wrong to the core of our being.
And it is wrong…FOR US.
The difference is that science has discovered over time that not everyone’s biology, orientation, and gender identity match up, and that while our biology is either/or our sense of maleness and femaleness is on a continuum. And this is not a disease, or a choice, it’s just how some people are.
How many of you are left handed? How many of you lefties experienced people punishing you for using your left hand and trying to force you to be a righty? My dad experienced that. No one chooses left-handedness, you’re born that way – but that didn’t stop well-meaning people from trying to fix them, before we knew better. And verses like Ecclesiastes 10:2 didn’t help.
If you still think that a person chooses to be lesbian or gay you simply do not understand science.
Do you remember the day back in 5th or 6th or 7th grade when most of you chose that you were attracted to the opposite sex? Of course not, because we don’t choose that anymore than our left or right handed-ness.
And neither that, nor our sexual orientation, nor anything else is a barrier to our being one in Christ.
That’s exactly what Paul said in Galatians 3:28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ.
Of course our differences don’t disappear because we are one. The point is that the differences are far overcome and outshone by our oneness.
Inclusiveness doesn’t just ignore all aspects of the other. It’s an open invitation that says one’s otherness will not be a barrier if that other genuinely desires to follow the same Way of Jesus that we aspire to.
The only people we should consider excluding are those who are hostile to the journey we’re on, or hostile to the journeyers who share it with us.
An Affirming Ministry is one that is radically open and inclusive for anyone who wishes to authentically be one in Christ. But the reality is that our history is overflowing with examples of times when the Church has put up barriers rather than remove them – and the Church allowed someone’s otherness to be a reason to exclude them.
Now, to be fair, in many cases we didn’t know any better and in time we grew in faith and realized we were making a mistake – like with left-handed people.
And usually, and I am about to make what I think is a bedrock, fundamental point here, usually the reason we excluded the other was because we had no experience of that other so our defense mechanisms kick in and we put up barriers.
In Galatians 3 Paul was actually being astoundingly insightful about the human condition. He realized that the primary reasons we see otherness is because of ethnicity (no longer Jew or Gentile), class or socio-economic status (no longer slave or free), or gender (no longer male or female). The one area Paul did not mention was sexuality, and frankly that’s because in his day and age sexual orientation was not within their realm of understanding any more than they had the capacity to think the world was anything but flat.
I suspect many of us remember using horrible, disrespectful epithets about people of different races or ethnicities. And if I was to rhyme off a list of the slurs we used to hurl at people you would rightly be disgusted by it.
How did you and I go from using that terrible, dehumanizing language to realizing it’s awful?
We gained experience! We learned!
Those “others” with different coloured skin and different customs moved into the towns and cities we live in and became our neighbours – and we realized they weren’t others they were just like us!
I imagine you all have a good amount of experience with different ethnicities, and hopefully with different classes, and chances are you probably have direct experience with a lesbian or gay person – because they are our friends and our family members. They are, thankfully, no longer othered as they sadly once were – well, at least not as much.
I grew up in blue collar Oshawa in hockey dressing rooms. That was probably the most homophobic environment you could imagine. Being called gay or a “fag” was considered the most insulting thing you could say.
Of course there were gay people around then, and probably on my hockey teams, but no one would dare admit that.
It would’ve been social suicide.
I didn’t meet any openly gay people until university music school. The arts tend to encourage self expression so they tend to be safer spaces for LGBTQ folks. I learned a lot as “they” became my friends.
When my wife’s lesbian cousin asked me to help officiate her wedding while I was still in seminary I had to wrestle with how I felt about same sex marriage. I ended up feeling fine and it was a lovely wedding. Today my best friend happens to be a gay man. I’ve come a long way since my youth, and so has our society. But it’s not perfect yet.
One of the sparks for our Affirming Ministry journey was the horrific mass murder of LGBTQ folk in Orlando last May – people who were targeted for no other reason than they were LGBTQ. And those folks, ironically, were in that club because it was one of the few spaces they felt safe, because in other places they were far too often othered and discriminated against, or worse.
While our experience has helped us grow in relationships with people of different ethnicities, different classes, and different orientations, I imagine that most of us don’t have very much personal experience with people who identify as Transgender or Queer.
Heck, we might not even understand what those words mean!
And that’s ok. We’re on a learning journey.
Much of this is new, and odd, and sometimes uncomfortable for me too! I hope that as we journey we’ll remember that we’ve encountered the other before, and through experience we’ve grown in understanding.
So we will spend this next year or so learning, and experiencing, and praying. We’ll have bulletin inserts, and some workshops, and lots of time to talk. We’re not in a hurry, and we’re not trying to force the congregation into anything. And after a time, when we think we’re ready, we’ll take a vote to make sure we’re on a similar page and then we’ll be able to confidently say out loud “Come on in, the water’s fine” to groups of people who are longing to hear those words but have always thought they weren’t invited, and wouldn’t be welcome if they showed up.
There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. We are one in Christ.
There is no longer to be any division based on ethnicity, or class, or left-handedness, or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or hair colour, or disability, or anything among those who longingly desire to belong to the body of Christ. We are one in Christ.
Nothing should ever be a barrier to anyone who authentically yearns to be on this journey.
I acknowledge that as we have these conversations there will be times and topics that challenge us, and may give us pause, and I hope our response in those times will be conversation and not conflict.
But I’m not very worried about that because I know that you are already welcoming and inclusive.
And I know that because we are one in Christ we will continue to celebrate our love of one another, and the other. It will be an interesting journey, and I trust that we will always affirm that we share a firm faith!
(For more information you could visit the Affirm United website.)