Sunday, April 22, 2012

UCC Collegium Meeting with former Puerto Rican Conference Leaders this Weekend

Back in July 2005, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ overwhelmingly passed a resolution affirming equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender (i.e., gay marriage, as well as traditional heterosexual marriage). The resolution affirmed marriage equality both in the church and under the law. It was a big thing. This was really the first time that a mainline Christian denomination came out in support of gay and lesbian families and it was all over the news. If you look up the United Church of Christ online, you will find statements from UCC national leaders and pastors and church members who glowingly support marriage equality. If you come to my own church, Faith United Church of Christ in Iowa City, you will find a building full of people who fully support marriage equality.

HOWEVER... Not everyone in the United Church of Christ supports marriage equality. We are a congregational denomination. For the most part, we are a bottom-up denomination. We have certain beliefs that unite us (primarily belief in Christ as our Savior) and we practice certain shared sacraments. But individual churches set our own policies. General Synod can vote on a resolution that affirms GLBT people and marriage, as well as supporting fair trade coffee and abolishing the death penalty and promoting Sanctuary Churches all it wants. Many UCC churches gladly ignore those resolutions and pretend they never existed.

Many UCC churches are embarrassed over the gay issue. It's not that they hate gay people. However, they hold a conservative theological view of human sexuality that does not support GLBT sexual identity, relationships, or families. I'm sure that many of them would gladly welcome an inquiring gay person into their church, but they certainly don't affirm that person's relationship and will not allow that person to get married within the church. It's the church's right to hold to that belief system, despite of the national UCC's public stances.

The problem is that these local UCC churches feel saddled with the national UCC's stances even though they disagree with those stances. Other people read about the United Church of Christ supporting gay marriage and Smalltown United Church of Christ is seen as a supporter of gay marriage even though they don't. As a result, the UCC lost lots of church's because of the Equal Marriage Rights resolution. It was seen by them as the last straw.

One of the more notable marriage inequality defectors wasn't a church. It was a whole Conference (geographical grouping of UCC churches); specifically the Puerto Rico Conference. Immediately following the General Synod EMR resolution vote, all of the Puerto Rican delegates walked out of the Synod hall. They got up and left. Within a year, the entire Conference officially cut ties with the United Church of Christ. Because the denomination affirmed my marriage and others like it.

Fast forward to today... It was reported earlier this week that four members from the UCC's Collegium of Officers (Rev. Geoffrey Black, the UCC's general minister and president; Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo, executive minister for Justice and Witness Ministries; Rev. J. Bennett Guess, executive minister for Local Church Ministries; and Rev. James Moos, executive minister for Wider Church Ministries) left this past Friday for Puerto Rico in an effort to rebuild a relationship between the denomination and the Iglesia Evangelica Unida de Puerto Rico. From the UCC website:
"My hope is that we can engage in respectful and thoughtful exploration of the implications of any kind of relationship, especially since there is still a lot of healing to be done," said the Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo, executive minister for Justice and Witness Ministries. The "healing" stems from the Puerto Rico Conference's decision in 2006 to withdraw from the UCC following the General Synod 25 vote in 2005 in favor of marriage equality for gays and lesbians. A half-dozen Puerto Rican delegates walked out of the Atlanta General Synod after the resolution passed... The Iglesia Evangelica Unida de Puerto Rico had been affiliated with the UCC since the denomination's founding in 1957. "There had always been some discomfort among some in the Puerto Rico churches over the Open and Affirming stance of the UCC," said the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, the UCC's general minister and president. "We received their invitation to join them in discussion, and we've been sensitive to find the opportune time to visit to continue that conversation."
It's unclear where this revived relationship is heading. It's possible that the Puerto Rican Conference (or at least part of the former Conference) may eventually rejoin the UCC. Or it's possible that they will never rejoin the denomination itself, but will seek some other form of official fellowship. Regardless, this weekend's gathering in Puerto Rico shows that nothing is final. Forgiveness is possible. Grace is possible. Reconciliation is possible. Things might not be like they once were, but relationships can be rebuilt following conflict. I'm not holding out hope that all will be fixed by the end of day tomorrow; but I do hold out hope that both sides will talk and listen and begin the long process of patching things up in the long run.

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