Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Acting in the AFFIRMative

So, a little more than a week ago, Jubilee United Church became an Affirming Ministry.  
What that means is that we are intentionally welcoming and inclusive of all people, with an expressed welcome to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) people.  It turns out that we are the first church in North York to be officially “Affirming”.  I was a little surprised by that  (thought there would be more).  Since that day, I've been contacted by four other churches wondering how we did it and  if it was worthwhile.
Let me explain why we did it…
How we did it…
And why it took so long for us to do it…

First: Why.
Because it’s exactly what Jesus would have done.   Jesus regularly reached out beyond the centre, past where the majority sit in comfort, into the margins where people wondered if they actually were noticed by God.  He reached out to women in a culture that gave them no name and only shame in public.  He reached out to those who were grieving, when the rest of the world had nothing to say.  He reach out to Samaritans when proper first century Jews gave them disdain and a wide berth.  He spent time with despised tax collectors and disenfranchised widows; foreigners and prostitutes were his companions.    In the western world today, LGBT people are often found in the margins… left out of the centre… and a lot of young men and women, upon recognizing their own sexuality and discovering that their feelings and nature have left them out of the majority, wonder if God has left them out as well.  Just as Jesus did, we need to reach out and assure our brothers and sisters that they are loved, included, valued and needed. 

Some wondered if we weren't beyond being Affirming. After all, we have openly gay celebrities, self-identified LGBT people living in our communities, running businesses, George Takei is on Facebook and Twitter… we have an openly Lesbian Premier in Ontario and an openly Gay Moderator of the United Church.  Surely, there is no longer any need for us to make such a statement.

Did I mention that we are the first church in North York to become Affirming?
That means that no other church has made the explicit statement that we have made, even though the United Church of Canada declared that Sexuality was no barrier to being Ordained over 25 years ago… even though we have had same sex marriage in Ontario for a decade.  It is still politically beneficially for a Mayor of Toronto to be reluctant in supporting Pride Week.  Bullying and violence against LGBT teens is on the rise in 2013, not a thing of the past.    When the Defense of Marriage Act  was defeated in the U.S. last week (this act would have stopped individual States from recognizing same sex marriages), “Christian” commentators were invited on most networks to give the "Christian" perspective and it was almost unanimously AGAINST equal marriage rights for all people.    As I look around, I realize that our society is not BEYOND Affirming at all.  Children are being beat up… people in love are being refused their rights, even when it costs the rest of society nothing.   We need a few more rainbows around (rainbows being the symbol for Affirming and including, celebrating and welcoming the LGBT community).

So, how did we do it?
About two years ago, I asked about 20 people from the church to join me and talk about becoming an Affirming Ministry.   I invited some LGBT people in our congregation (please note: they are not a club, they are not a single entity… many of them disagree with each other, like each other, don’t like each other and have entirely different agendas from each other – just like everybody else!)  I invited some straight people (whatever term you choose… majority, people of privilege, breeders, neighbour, “I don’t know, maybe you”), some folks that I knew would be supportive, some folks that I suspected might find this challenging and some folks about whom I had on inside info or preconception.    We talked about the idea of Jubilee becoming Affirming.   We began to talk to others outside of the group (we met two or three times).  We wrote about becoming Affirming in the church bulletins, newsletters… we invited discussion and provided resources and reading material.  We let the word spread naturally.
Not a whole lot of formal “programming”.  It didn't seem like a campaign - nobody was "selling" anything. 

As word got around, I found myself visiting people’s homes and sitting down and talking. Actually, more than talking, I found myself listening.  I listened to concerns that we might become too much a “one note” church, only reaching out to the LGBT community and shunning others… I heard of fears that we would be over-run by new people who would change the way we do things…  I heard concerns that others might leave our church if we became Affirming (nobody suggested that they might leave, but they feared that others might)  I heard from only person that it was against God’s will that we accept LGBT people as they are, without condemning their “life style”.    
What I found is that many people were simply afraid of change.  
What I discovered is that many folk were so happy with the way things were at Jubilee, they didn’t want to risk any change.  
What I heard were a great many people who wanted to wonder about loud about the issue, but were afraid of being labeled “homophobic” or “backward”.  
In the meeting and talking, I found that most fears were relieved… without my having to do or prove a thing.  People got it… and embraced what we were trying to do, they just needed the chance to come to it themselves.

It was announced in advance that, at our Annual Meeting, we would vote on engaging with Affirm United to be designated an Affirming Ministry.  I presented the question with three options:  
YES, being the Process.  
WAIT, we need more time.  
NO, do not proceed with becoming an Affirming Ministry.  
Before the vote, a member of the congregation, who is lesbian, spoke of a woman who became accepting toward the end of her life and her only regret was the time that was lost before she has understood.  Our friend then invited the congregation to vote with their hearts and to not vote out of fear. “If you vote to not proceed… don’t worry, we won’t storm out… we won’t leave you”.
Best. Words. Ever!

The congregation voted 91% to engage.  The other 9% voted to wait a little longer. Nobody voted “No”.
I cried all the way home.

I didn't cry because I’m gay and found it a victory.  I’m not… and it wasn't a victory.  A victory means that there are vanquished:  Someone is defeated.  Nobody lost with this decision.  What I found so gratifying is that the community that I help to lead and love so dearly, chose welcome and risk over comfort and complacency.   We were happy and satisfied just the way we were… we have just come off of our first balanced budget… we were showing growth.  Whenever you decide to begin a new ministry or clarify/specify your identity you risk upsetting the status quo.   We decided to risk upsetting the status quo… just like Jesus.  We decided that welcoming others was more important that our comfort and satisfaction.  That’s why I cried..  For the moment of the vote, at least, we got it.
   (by the way, we continue to get it...)

So, why did it take SO long?  
Two years is a long time to do what it right.   We could have met the requirements and followed the guidelines presented by Affirm United in a few short months. 
I have friends who feel that the United Church of Canada should simply legislate “Affirming Ministries” and make our churches comply, after all it is a matter of Justice and the right thing to do. 
I sympathize.
However, I also recognize that it is challenging for many people in the majority community.  And we bear some responsibility for that… and to them.  For centuries (even millennia) we have spoken with authority and told people that homosexuality is offensive to God.  We have endorsed a heterosexual culture as the only one acceptable to God, without any regard for those who are homosexual, bisexual, asexual  or transsexual.   We have endorsed a literal prescriptive reading of the Bible that has not encouraged engagement with the text, challenging of ideas or faithful struggling with context and interpretation.  We have often provided, or left unchallenged, a very lazy faith that sees the Bible as a dictionary that provides simple definitions of right, wrong; in and out.
That wasn't some other church doing that… that was our church.  The one that has existed for 2000 years and continues to struggle in its witness to God’s Love and the Ministry of Jesus Christ.   We shared in the abuses as well as the fruits of that church and we can't just turn our backs and say "Not Us".  
We have failed to stand up when others were marginalized or when privilege was protected instead of challenged in our faith communities.   And so, when members of our community are baffled by these “new” insights, we owe them some patience, time and compassion as they discover for themselves, the grace and love that we have found.

I’m not saying that Justice should be delayed… but as the church moves toward justice, it need to give people ample opportunity to catch up and share in the ministry.
And that’s why we took 2 years. 

That, and that fact that I misread a couple of the requirements set forth by Affirm United, but we can talk about that another day. 

For now, allow us to celebrate the moment… and help us to imagine how we are going to live out this ministry in our community as the future unfolds.

In closing allow me to share with you this picture of a great many of our congregation - dressed as a rainbow - on the day that we become officially Affirming. 

And, a
llow me to recommend the wonderful people, and resources at Affirm United


  1. I am not sure what I think about the idea of 'legislating' this change. Coming from a Baptist tradition I find the concept kind of foreign in a church context. It seems to me that the thing I have the most difficulty with a church doing is telling someone else what to believe. If the United Church legislated 'affirming' this would seem to be the same thing. While I relish the thought of all churches being part of the great affirming movement, I think it would have more value for them to come to this decision on their own. As an lgbt person I would prefer to have allies than simply indoctrinated conscripts. Just sayin'.... (sorry Norm had to steal that quote, I like it)

  2. I agree with you, Greg, I'm not much for legislating belief, faith or morality. However, there are times when one needs to be somewhat "Defining" even at the risk exclusion. The United Church of Canada, does not include Nazis or animal sacrifice... We do not tolerate intentional bigotry. These are all reactive - and things that we are NOT. I wonder if we would ever dare to be proactive and speak of things that we ARE... that's a lot tougher. I'm advocating for it, just sympathizing with those who do... That said, I am very glad for our process and where it has taken us - a process and journey that would never have happened with legislation being downloaded from the National Office