Opinion

I blinked on LGBTQ issues in my church. And I regret it.

Two LGBTQ flags hang Monday, April 11, 2016, outside the United Church of Christ in Hillsborough. The church put up two new rainbow flags after someone burned two other rainbow flags there sometime Friday night. The church wanted “to let the (LGBTQ) community know there was a church that supported them and welcomed them,” the Rev. Jay Kennett said.
Two LGBTQ flags hang Monday, April 11, 2016, outside the United Church of Christ in Hillsborough. The church put up two new rainbow flags after someone burned two other rainbow flags there sometime Friday night. The church wanted “to let the (LGBTQ) community know there was a church that supported them and welcomed them,” the Rev. Jay Kennett said. mschultz@newsobserver.com

We fall short as a civil society in our ability to admit mistakes and apologize with the sincere intent to change our behavior. So here goes: I’ve been wrong. And in the reality of human fallibility, I know I’ll be wrong again. The best I can do is move forward, determined not to repeat that particular shortcoming.

The mistake I regret of longest standing dates back 15 years. The Episcopal Church was taking up issues related to our siblings who are lesbian and gay, specifically at that time the consecration of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as a bishop. I would consider myself, then and now, someone who believes that all of us are beloved children of God, created in God’s image, and worthy of serving God.

But faced with division within the church, I blinked. While I wanted everyone to have a path to ordination, consecration, and marriage regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, if it was going to cause conflict, I thought that could wait.

I cannot even blame some misguided interpretation of holy text. From my place of privilege, I denied the humanity of others because doing the right thing was going to get messy. I am truly sorry and I humbly repent.

Since the consecration of Bishop Robinson, and with some affirming decisions that have followed, some have left the Episcopal Church. In the case of my church, individuals who left were people I worshipped beside and cared about. They, too, are God’s children, but on this key belief, we disagree.

The Rev. Winston Charles was rector of Raleigh’s Christ Church at the time of Bishop Robinson’s consecration. He saw people who were an important part of his parish leave but also saw others affirmed in their place within the community. Charles saw common components among parishes that continued successfully within the Episcopal Church.

“Key to all of this is the leadership of the clergy,” he said. “The bishops and the rectors of those congregations. It also took wonderful lay members of congregations who stepped up and were determined not to split over this issue.”

“During that process, it was important that people really listen to one another. And if people decided they really had to leave, to respect that but to know we still cared for one another.”

The Episcopal Church still has work to do. Meanwhile, the United Methodist Church is among denominations discerning how LGBTQ members and clergy will be included. A report released this summer offers three options, ranging from taking a stricter view on LGBTQ inclusion to two plans that would allow some flexibility.

The Methodists have put together a guide called “Courageous Conversation About the Way Forward” to help churches constructively discuss the issue. A vote is scheduled at a special meeting of elected lay and clergy delegates in February.

“The fear is schism. There are very strong feelings on all sides,” said Sally Bates, a retired UMC elder and former chaplain at Duke Divinity School. Despite recent political division, she believes people are still listening to each other on this issue, in the pews, on mission trips, and in other parts of church life. “Maybe that spirit (of hearing one another out) can prevail.”

Looking back, the recognition that inclusion brings us closer to God’s love is more manifest to me now than ever. Doing the correct thing felt too hard then, but living it in the intervening years feels exactly right.

Community columnist Aleta Payne of Cary is executive director of Johnson Service Corps, a community of young adults committed to social justice and spiritual growth.


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