I don’t think I’ve fully recovered from this year’s emotionally charged Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly — and I didn’t even attend in person. So this month’s newsletter is going to be a quick reflection on something I’ve been mulling.
Last year, the popular podcast series Start Up examined the startup of a church in Philadelphia, and the challenges and institutional support that young and fragile churches rely on, including a web of Evangelical church planting networks. What interested me was that there were three hot-button issues that the featured church planter had to deal with because of the funding connection: the acceptance in ministry to LGBT people (including membership), the role of women in leadership and the question of hell. Personally it doesn’t surprise me that these three things are litmus fitness tests to Evangelical funders. But the church planter was careful to maintain an orthodox opinion, but it was clearly a strain. Those opinions make it difficult to engage in mission and ministry to a world which expect LGBT inclusion, leadership for women and holds distaste for doctrines of hell.
One way to square the circle is to prevaricate. If you look socially progressive and hit all the cultural notes for being accepting, then it’s easy for newcomers and new members to believe that the policies are more progressive than they really are. When honest people working in good faith are betrayed by welcoming-not-really-welcoming church, they are understandably embittered against the churches that they found so much comfort in. They were deceived by a lie. The truth, even a hurtful truth, would have been better than manipulation through deception.
I’m gay. I expect any church I work with to recognize and accept the ministry of women on an equal basis. I do not believe in the eternity of hell, and also no physical torment. I wouldn’t get very far in these church planting networks. But I can speak my mind with integrity, and you cannot buy integrity. As many LGBT people celebrate Pride this month, and in particular the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, I challenge liberal churches to go past putting up a rainbow flag as some kind of code for toleration. Church Clarity, featured in the podcast, is a distributed research site that identifies and publishes the operating policies around LGBT inclusion and women’s leadership, and I think its, well, clarity is direly needed. And next, that third taboo: plain preaching against the docrine of endless punishment. We can work on that one together.
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(The Rev.) Scott Wells