Scripture: Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:36-41, Luke 8:22-25
Over the course of the past year or so, I have stopped attending church. (Like an abused dog, hiding in the corner and licking its wounds, I have decided to punish the church by removing my august presence.) The reasons are multitude, and most of them trivial, however those trivial reasons have served to add fuel to the fire. There is one overwhelming reason for my action. I feel betrayed by my church. I feel betrayed because I found staunch conservatism on an issue important to me. This is in spite of the fact that my church is of one of the most liberal congregations in my city and belongs to the most liberal Christian denomination of this nation.
The issue which is at the center of my contention with my church is the gay, lesbian and transgender Christian issue or, in my denomination, the Open and Affirming Resolution. Our former minister, who was personally a champion of the cause, refused to encourage the church to entertain the issue. He said, “We are already open and affirming in spirit. Why do we need to declare it in a resolution?” So, when he decided to move on, I thought this was the opportune time to push the issue and even received support from several of the movers and shakers of the congregation. I approached the interim and again received support. I was encouraged.
Then the pastoral search committee passed out a questionnaire regarding the minister. One of them came back saying that the responder, in no way, would accept a gay pastor. He even put his name of this supposedly anonymous form. He was one of the biggest financial supporters of the church and our church was struggling financially. When he was interviewed, he indicated that he had found support among some of the other big givers. He was asked about the Open and Affirming Resolution and said that his financial support as well as the financial support of most of those in agreement would be pulled if the church entered into a discussion on the issue.
My support immediately dried up. I was asked to table my concerns until the new minister came on board. Shortly after she arrived, a staff person from the general synod, in conjunction with a member of the local liberal Christian organization, put on a discussion group about the issue in my church’s building. My new minister and her husband, a professional interim minister, were both there and both supportive of the cause until I approached her about bringing it to the church. She said this church was, in no way, ready to address the issue and would appreciate it if I did not push it. Already, the movers and shakers, who personally supported the open and affirming resolution prior to their enlightenment, warned her about both the financial threat to the church and my “obsession” with the issue.
I feel I was betrayed because financial considerations overruled an action the clear majority of those involved believed was mandated by Christ.
Conservatism is defined as an attempt to avoid change. It is also a two edged sword. Some times it is legitimate because a lot of proposed changes cause more damage than good. At the same time, it can also stand in the way of changes that are much needed.
Examples of the damaging effects of conservatism abound. In the field of psychology, we find this inability to accept change frustrating the recovering alcoholic. The biggest obstacle these people face is their own family, who knew how to deal with them when they were a practicing alcoholic don’t know how to deal with them now that they are sober. When we consider issues of prejudice, we find the same unreasonable motivation. In the fifties and sixties did Jerry Falwell oppose the equal rights movement because he hated people of color, or did he oppose it because he knew how to treat them when they were racially inferior but didn’t know how to treat them as equals? (Your answer here should also explain his opposition to the legitimate efforts of gays, lesbians and transgender people.) In my church, the fear of change was even more mundane, even more pathetic. The movers and shakers opposed the change because they feared what the subsequent loss of financial support would do to the church.
All three scripture passages I have chosen tell the story of Jesus calming the waters. He decided to cross the Sea of Galilee. (No reason for this decision is given except, like the preverbal chicken, he wanted to get to the other side.) In the course of that trip, Jesus fell asleep and the storm, which frightened even the experienced fishermen of the group, wasn’t sufficient to wake him. They shook him awake and demanded he take action, which he did. After calming the storm, all the disciples marveled at his power over nature, which is probably the reason for the story, to show that he had power over nature and therefore, must be God.
Most conservative commentators would agree with that conclusion, as well as the liberal, such as Bishop John Shelby Spong. The difference is that while the conservative commentators would see the inclusion of this story as legitimate and an action of God, while the liberal would find it suspect, both the story itself and the motivation for including it. However, this is not my reason for citing these passages of scripture.
Jesus was evidently comfortable in the storm.
As a former sailor, I know that this ability to be comfortable in a storm can be developed. When I first went aboard the ship, I had a hard time sleeping through a storm. In fact, on my first night out at sea, I had the same problem because of the gentle rocking of the ship. However, latent memories of being rocked in a cradle soon enabled me to be comfortable with the constant motion of the ship, and in time enabled me to be able to sleep through the storms the ship ran into. So, the fact that Jesus could sleep through the storm was not remarkable.
In the same way, Jesus was comfortable in the storms of social unrest he created. Most commentators, both conservative and liberal, will admit that he rocked the boat so much that this was the main reason the Jewish authorities sought to end his life. One member of the Sanhedrin was quoted saying, that it is better “one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not” (John 11:50).
Paul also, was also great at rocking the boat. He openly opposed the Jewish leaders of the infant church by demanding the rights of the gentile Christians to remain gentile and still be in good standing in the church. Even though he won concessions from James when he visited Jerusalem, he continued to be opposed by those who wished to maintain the status quo. (Perhaps they interpreted James’ concessions as a mandated cooling off period, giving them the time to convince the gentile converts of their version of the truth.)
My denomination also has a great history of rocking the boat. It was formed in 1957, when the Evangelical and Reformed Church, which practiced an Ecclesiastical form of church government, joined with the Congregation Christian Church which, as the name suggests, were ruled by the local congregation and recognized no other authority except Christ. This was in a time when a disagreement over Robert’s Rules of Order would cause a church or denomination to split. The United Church of Christ, when it formed, rocked the boat because, even though they could not work out their differences concerning church government, they decided that their common faith was greater than those differences. The evidence of how great the boat rocked is found in the fact that this union resulted in the denomination losing over half its combined membership. Many Congregational Christian congregations refused to enter into the union. Evangelical and Reformed congregations waited until the union gave them the freedom of congregational styled congregations and then left. Many more congregations just split over the issue. The parent bodies knew this would happen, and entered into the union anyway.
During that first General Synod, in 1957, the Open and Affirming Resolution was introduced. It was not condemned. It was tabled while the newly formed denomination worked out a means of government that would satisfy both extremes. Then, in the mid-eighties, the tabled resolution was again taken up. In 1985, the United Church of Christ passed the resolution, becoming the first mainline denomination to adopt a statement in support of the full integration of persons with different sexual orientations into the full life of the church. (Yes, I know, the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches beat us to it, but they were formed for the sake of providing a home for the gay and lesbian Christians, and there in is one of the many differences.)
Finally, when the Episcopal Church ordained an openly gay man as a bishop last year, my minister’s husband wrote a letter to the editor of our local news paper in support of the act. (He was probably joined by UCC ministers across the nation.) He pointed out that the United Church of Christ has been openly in support of the gay, lesbian and transgender people since 1985, and that our local conference, the Pacific, North Idaho and Alaska Conference, has a conference minister, the equivalent of a bishop in the Ecclesiastical style of church government, who was openly lesbian and involved in a marital relationship with another woman. My minister’s husband bragged about the fact that his and my denomination, the United Church of Christ, set the precedent that resulted in an openly gay Episcopalian bishop. (He also pointed out that our conference passed the same Open and Affirming Resolution shortly after the denomination did.)
Yet, in spite of this “great crowd of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), the movers and shakers of my congregation decided to allow financial concerns to over rule what they previously confessed to be the “will of God,” and told me not to rock the boat.
Now, I am ready to return to the church and start pushing the issue again.
Yes, I have counted the cost. Will this mean that the church will have to give up the historical landmark it meets in and operate out of a storefront while it recovers? In truth, if the congregation doesn’t grow substantially, this will happen anyway, as the big givers, one by one, die off and are not replaced. So, what is the difference? The difference is that if this is as a result of passing, or even considering the Open and Affirming Resolution, it will be because we are attempting to follow God’s lead where as the alternative is because of a pathetic attempt to avoid financial ruin which is about to come upon us anyway. What is the eventual result? The denomination says that the majority of the congregations that pass this resolution grow substantially after they have done so. So, if we go through a period of financial deprivation before growing large enough to substantially affect the way this city works, isn’t that better than remaining in financial ruin because we tried to appease the biggest givers the church has? Yes, I have counted the costs and I believe that the costs do not overshadow the potential results.
My reaction, until now, has been childish. Yet, we are told to be child-like, not childish. (Mark 10:15) Consequently, it is time to take advantage of my experience as a sailor and to start rocking the boat. Then, I should soon regain my sea legs and, like a child comfortable in its cradle, be comfortable as the boat rocks. If, at the ancient age of 53, I am not able to regain my sea legs I should at least be comfortable in knowing that I am following the mandate of my Lord. Yes, it is indeed time to rock the boat again.
Writing as “Uthur, from the Town by the Sea,” the author contributed to Whosoever while attending church in a UCC congregation in the Pacific Northwest Conference.