Sunday, April 26, 2009

Welcome? by the numbers

Where are LGBT people welcomed in Massachusetts churches?

While the following numbers don't tell the whole story, and none of our stories are represented fully by the numbers, the following sets of numbers are indications of where LGBT folks are welcomed as congregants, and perhaps as clergy. There seem to be some correlations between denominations that have ordained women and those that welcome LGBT people. Is there in fact a cause/effect relationship between congregations that hire women pastors and who are welcoming and affirming/open and affirming or vice versa, and if so, what does that mean for women or LGBT clergy?

But first a poem about welcome by George Herbert that I read quoted in Gifted by Otherness by L. William Countryman and M.R. Ritley. This poem has also been famously set to music by Ralph Vaughn Williams in Five Mystical Songs. (I'm listening to the setting as I write. Also included in this set of five pieces is The Call—I included that one in my iTunes playlist about calling.) This is the kind of welcome I want the numbers to represent. Love calls us to welcome—are we/can we be the kind of host that Love is?
"Love" from The Temple
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.
A Massachusetts LGBT-friendly congregational cameo
The UUA, Quakers and UCC have been leaders in welcoming LGBT people into their churches. In Massachusetts, there are more UCC churches that are open and affirming than there are UUA churches, but there are three times as many UCC churches in total in Massachusetts. Even among these historically progressive or liberal denominations this has not been without turmoil.

At the denominational level, the Unitarian Universalist Association is open and affirming to LGBT people and to the ordination of LGBT clergy. I was actually somewhat startled, given the denominational stance and publicity, to see that the percentage of officially welcoming churches in the UUA in Massachusetts is only 55%, just over half. Congregational polity means that the local church does not necessarily pay attention to or act on what the denomination thinks is important.
The leadership of the 1.3 million-member United Church of Christ has been foremost among denominations seeking the full inclusion of homosexuals. In the 1970s the UCC allowed the ordination of the first openly gay man and the first openly lesbian woman, and in 2005 the UCC endorsed civil unions for same-sex couples. Ordination of practicing homosexuals was officially accepted in 1980, and the blessing of same-sex couples is allowed. But the issue still roils the UCC. Because the UCC believes in local autonomy, some regions and congregations bar gay clergy and gay couples. Some congregations are threatening to leave over the denomination's official tolerance of homosexuality, while some liberal members want the UCC to be more active in promoting gay rights as a denomination-wide standard.
The American Baptist Churches-USA has a national denomination resolution, "We affirm that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching," The ABC-USA "resolutions are adopted by a 2/3 majority vote of the General Board of American Baptist Churches, a resolution represents the position of the ABC on a specific issue and calls for some type implementing action. All resolutions must be based on a policy statement. General Board policy documents are binding on national staff only and not on regions or local churches."

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), not a big presence in Massachusetts, has not taken a national stance on ordination of LGBT people, leaving that to regional committees on ministry. There are regions with openly gay or lesbian clergy, as well as welcoming and affirming churches nationally.

With the exception of the American Baptist Churches, denominations with congregational polity, rather than institution-centered denominations have higher percentages of welcoming/open and affirming congregations. As a barometer of liberal theology, this seems to be the reverse of the finding in Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling on the ordination of women where institution-centered denominations, once committed, do a better job supporting women, but it could also reflect that the institution-centered denominations clearly have not made the commitment to being open or welcoming and affirming, so it then is impressive that 7-11% of Episcopal, Presbyterian USA, United Methodist, and Lutherans-ELCA congregations in Massachusetts have made the commitment in the face of national stances that are negative toward LGBT people or clergy.

Institution-centered churches with episcopal or presbytery polities have similar percentages of open and affirming/gay friendly churches, but it is not clear how many gay or lesbian clergy they have. I personally know openly gay and lesbian Methodist, Episcopal and Presbyterian clergy, or at least LGBT clergy with really, really big closets. But of course, a quick internet search will reveal national news stories about lesbian and gay clergy being defrocked in the United Methodist Church and in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The Presbyterians seem to be getting more mixed press on the subject today, and have a resolution being voted on by their presbyteries to change the denominational rules on LGBT clergy.

Openly gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson in New Hampshire is not recognized as a bishop by the worldwide Anglican communion. And despite the publicity surrounding him, Episcopal churches don't list themselves as so gay friendly. Only one Episcopal Church in Massachusetts was listed as a partner member of Integrity, the gay Episcopal group, so the eighteen churches noted above were found on the listings at lists 5,301 churches worldwide, mostly in the USA and Canada, that have identified as gay friendly, welcoming and affirming, open and affirming, reconciling in Christ, etc.

I found no historically black church denominations that had welcoming or open and affirming churches listed in Massachusetts from any of the national gay church lists. None of the denominations' Massachusetts websites or national websites for African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, National Baptist Convention, or Progressive National Baptist Convention had any mention of gays (pro or con). The gay or lesbian Afro-American Christians I know have found their way into more diverse, but primarily white, welcoming and affirming congregations, or lead divided lives about their sexuality and their Christianity.

Here is where this info comes from:
Mass. UCC
ONA UCC congregations

Mass. UMC congregations
UMC reconciling congregations in MA

Christian Church/Disciples of Christ in MA
Disciples of Christ open and affirming congregations in MALink
MA Presbyterian churches
More Light Presbyterian churches in MA

ELCA Lutheran congregations in MA
Reconciled in Christ ELCA Lutheran congregations in MA

ABC congregations in Massachusetts
Welcoming and Affirming Baptist churches in MA (all of which are ABC-USA)

Quaker meetings in MA

gay friendly/welcoming Quaker meetings and Episcopal churches in MA

Episcopal churches in MA
Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts
Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts

UUA congregations and welcoming UUA congregations

So there are some of the numbers. I have spent much of this week turning the musings of this blog into a final paper, and yesterday in a timely fashion, my friend PB sent a morning devotional reflection based on Acts 5:34-35, 38-39:
One in the council stood up, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in respect by all the people, and commanded them to put the apostles outside for a little while. And he said to them: “Men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do regarding these men. Keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God.
PB wrote:
Lord, your truth will be with the world, even when we are not. It is our choice to be a part of it or apart from it. In the end, you will not be overthrown.
I think we can see in vibrant and faith-filled people and churches what is the work of God, and today I pray that those who do the work of God will be sustained by the truth and power of God's word, and those who do not hear the voice of the Spirit will be gently led to hearing. If God is calling women and LGBT clergy to ministry and leadership, this is the work of God, and God will not be overthrown.


  1. Nancy, could it be that denominational power has had it? They just don't know it yet. Maybe they will come around. In the meantime, perhaps the covenant is with the outsiders not the insiders. In spite of many always trying to corral the power, the truth is the many have always had it. The challenge is to humbly know its source.

  2. Your remark on congregational polity is apt.
    My UU church took years to even begin to think about taking the steps required to be recognized as a "Welcoming Congregation," e.g. educational programming, vetting the by-laws for non-inclusive language, etc. Our heart was in the right place for a long time, but one particular member had to come along with the time and energy and determination to shepherd us through the official hoops.