In the Sixties, Saint Mark United Methodist Church was one of the first congregations in Atlanta to refuse to discriminate on the basis of color. Today, despite the institutionalized bigotry of the Methodist Church (official church law declares homosexuality to be “incompatible with Christian faith and practice”), St. Mark refuses to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
Among Methodists, the term “reconciling” is applied to congregations who “welcome people of all sexual orientations and gender identities into the full life of the church.” Lately, a handful of vocal St. Markers — affiliates of an organization called the Reconciling Ministries Network — have been pressuring the congregation to declare itself a “reconciling church,” publish a “statement of inclusion,” and lend public support to the mission of the RMN.
The congregation continues to debate the necessity, wisdom, and merits of such a declaration. But this Sunday, the Couples Class — the Sunday school class I’ve taught and attended for years — will vote on whether or not to become “a reconciling class.”
I’ll be voting “No.” Here’s why.
After reviewing their website, watching their videos, and listening to their most ardent supporters, I am not much impressed with the Reconciling Ministries Network. Their texts are rife with the stiff, self-conscious language I associate with political and corporate double-speak. While they lay many claims to boldness, they have not mustered sufficient boldness to speak plainly, clearly, and from the heart.
Worse, I find their tactics — including pressuring a Sunday School class to call a vote on whether or not it, as a subset of the church, will declare itself to be “reconciling” — to be calculated, callous, and divisive. What was once a tight-knit, unified group has become a divided community: some for, some against. If the measure fails to pass, those who were for it will undoubtedly feel bitter (at worst) or sheepish (at best). If the measure passes, people like me will feel as though a familiar place has been hijacked by an aggressive and unfriendly political agenda.
And this, friends, makes me angry … because, while I no longer feel any particular allegiance to the Methodist Church, I have always, from Day 1, felt a part of the Couples Class. That feeling — that longing to be with those people — did not come about because the group adhered to some “statement of inclusion.” Instead, it came about because of the lives and words and actions of the people in the group.
The life-changing power of the Couples Class rests in honest sentiments and open hearts, not in the adoption of rubric and rhetoric.
I am angry because, this Sunday, a place I want to go — one of very few spiritual places that remains truly open to me — will be inaccessible because the class I love so much has been preempted for yet another debate and a controversial vote. I am angry because good people — people I love, who should know better — have been moved to speak harsh words about other good people who oppose the RMN’s agenda.
The clincher, for me, came this past Wednesday night, when I sat across the dinner table from a woman who has been a member of Saint Mark for almost as many decades as I have been alive. Though she has been assured by RMN representatives that a declaration of membership does not designate St. Mark as “a gay church,” she cannot help but feel that way. “I’ll feel excluded,” she said, her eyes brimming with tears. “After supporting so many people for so long, I’ll feel like St. Mark is declaring itself a gay church … and that kind of church wouldn’t include me.”
I know what it feels like to be excluded … and if a label like this one makes someone like this dear woman feel excluded, there cannot be any good in it at all.
I am a Child of God, and I operate with the confidence that a Child of God possesses. I do not require an affiliation with a movement or a statement of inclusion or identification with some network in order to claim what is already mine by birth. I do not appreciate those who, for political and social reasons, assert that I do.
This Sunday, I’ll vote no. My sincere prayer is that others will do so, too … and see that, in doing so, we are affirming that we are already reconciled in every way that matters — to ourselves, to our nature, to each other, and to our God.