Reconciled

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.

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.

Mark McElroy

I'm a husband, mystic, writer, media producer, creative director, tinkerer, blogger, reader, gadget lover, and pizza fiend.

19 comments

  • Blah, blah. Stop wasting your time with any of this business. You are obviously a thinking person. Join the 21st century and realize that religion poisons everything. You don’t need to dress up on Sundays and spend your time in a couples class for Jesus or the Easter Bunny or Santa to feel fellowship and communion. C’mon guy.

  • Hi, Rick. Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

    Am I wasting my time by exploring matters of faith? Perhaps. But as someone who has been, by turns, a fundamentalist, an Atheist, a Christian, a mystic, and now, well, now something that doesn’t have a name, I can assure you that my journey has not been intended as a waste of time, nor does it feel like one.

    Does religion poison everything? Though I am interested in faith and spiritual matters, I am not much interested in religion these days, and cannot say. On the face of it, though, “Religion poisons everything” strikes me as one of those exaggerated, all-inclusive, unsupportable claims. How is that, as a mantra, any better than blind religious faith?

    Do I feel I need “to dress up on Sundays” and “spend my time in a couples class … to feel fellowship and communion?” People who actually know me will confirm that I do not dress up on Sundays.

    As for feelings of communion and fellowship: I’ve awakened to the reality of communion and connection, and I can assure you that this reality, once embraced, is neither sustained nor challenged by anything a church or class or individual can do or say. In fact, it’s my awareness of this reality that leads me to oppose those who, because they are dreaming a dream of separation, feel the need to draw lines and attach labels within communities of faith.

    On a personal note — I left behind both fundamentalism and organized atheism because, as philosophies, they have much in common. Both insist they have a monopoly on Truth. Both make their claims with an air of smugness, superiority, and self-satisfaction that hints, to me, that those making the claims are not as entirely certain of their conclusions as they might claim to be.

    And both, I think, are, in the worst possible sense of the word, religions, and, as I mentioned earlier, I have no particular interest in religion.

    I wish you well as your journey continues, and hope that, wherever your journey leads you, your destination will be a good place to be.

    M.

  • Jeri —

    Thanks for your comment. Watching you and others struggle with this issue has been painful. For too long, I’ve avoided that pain — in this case, by avoiding the responsibility to speak out.

    But, to be fair, before taking “a side,” I had to spend a long time reading, researching, and observing, and thinking about what it means to become a “reconciling church” or a “reconciling class.”

    And then it hit me — the very idea that we must “take a side” on this issue is, in fact, what makes it so poisonous.

    We are One. Once we awaken to the idea that divisions are illusions, adopting labels and drawing lines simply makes no sense. I am unconvinced that drawing lines and adding more labels will heal division and lead to unity.

    If the reconcilers were genuinely convinced of the validity of their assertions, it would not occur to them to put the matter of reconciliation up for a vote. (Why call for a vote on what *is*? The very act of voting reeks of uncertainty … and suggests, I think, an unhealthy craving for validation in the eyes of others.)

    The good people in the reconciling movement are focused, quite simply, on the wrong thing. They *are* reconciled. They always have been. No power on Earth can take away that complete and total reconciliation.

    The bold choice here is not to imagine division, invent a fight, and wage a campaign for a label … but to live and act and speak as people who know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they have claimed their birthright, whatever a church, movement, or individual has to say.

    That bold act will change more hearts and minds than any label or any “statement of inclusion.”

  • Jesus’s words, as interpreted in The Message:”There is far more at stake here than religion. If you had any idea what this Scripture meant—’I prefer a flexible heart to an inflexible ritual’—you wouldn’t be nitpicking like this.”Matthew 12:6-8

    we waste so much energy on procedural bickering… stifling the work that God is already doing. thanks for the thoughtful post and for focusing on the heart.

  • Hannah,

    Thanks for speaking up — and for the gentle reminder that debates like this one have been going on since the time of Jesus.

    When spiritual conversations take this turn, I wish more folks would respond with Matthew 12:6-8.

  • Mark, thanks for your comments which so succinctly express my feelings. It seems lately that things I say are often misunderstood and misrepresented and create ill will and “back-table” discussions and I’m sure I’m one of the people (paranoia aside) that has been labelled by my concern that there is a rush to make decision about this thing that can be so decisive. Obviously our church, as you mentioned, practices the word by living it. I truly don’t see what we can gain from a decision to do this.

  • Phil: thanks for your note.

    As you note, actions speak louder than words — and St. Mark’s actions, I think, say volumes more than any label or proclamation ever will.

    In my personal opinion, the Reconciling agenda was good-hearted, but misguided.

    – If we can connect with and embrace the fact that all of us are already reconciled by God, there’s nothing for a reconciling movement to do.

    – If we understand and embody the truth that everyone is welcome in the church, there’s no need for the church to publish a document specifically listing the kinds of people welcome there.

    Instead of embracing and living this fact, the Reconciling Network has chosen to invest energy in establishing what is, essentially, a “test” of openness. How do they expect to heal division and stop labeling … by creating yet another division and adding another label?

  • My Dearest Mark,I have tried repeatedly to start typing want I wanted to say but each time I tried to begin I found myself hitting the back space, over and over and over.I can come up with nothing but this, my heart hearts.I have been apart of this class for a little over two years. It has watched as I have changed and grown in my spritual journey as also I have watched it do as well.As I am a very simple person, an empathic person by nature and increasingly more so as I get older, this whole issue of RMN and watching what is doing to us as a Sunday School Class (Spritual Growth Class as some would call it)and us as a Church is breaking my heart.I have been reading, as of late, a book by William Paul Young called “The Cabin”. Through this I have learned much that I will be applying to my every day life. What does this have to do with the issue of Reconciling Ministries?He writes, refering to a bird:”Consider our little friend here (the bird). Most birds were created to fly. Being grounded for them is a limitation “within” their ability to fly, not the other way around. You (humans), on the other hand, were created to be loved. So for you to live as if you were unloved is a limitation, not the other way around.Living unloved is like clipping a bird’s wings and removing its ability to fly. Not something God wants for us.”I am a simple man by nature, not a lot of education to speak of and am happy with the blessings bestowed upon me, on a day to day basis.So (through tears now) am I asking too much just to have everyone remember that God loves us all. That we don’t need a label to establish or differentiate us from anyone else. They will know we are Christians by our love.Troy

  • This is a copy of a letter that I sent to Rev. Mandy Flemming and to Rev. Josh Noblitt on October 5, 2008. As of right now, I have not received a response.

    Dear Mandy and Josh,

    I may be only one of 3 or 4 people of Saint Mark who has ever been a member of a “Reconciling” Methodist Church. That would have been Grant Park – Aldersgate, here in Atlanta. It closed down 2 years after becoming “Reconciling” (I had already joined Saint Mark).

    “Reconciling” means one thing – “We don’t want any straight people in our church.” You can argue with me all you want, but, it always comes down to that meaning.

    Gay people are very funny; They don’t want any straight people to come to their Bars, Parties or Churches. Once a Saint Mark Choir Member would not attend a church member’s party – because a straight couple had been invited! I went! It was a fun party! The man and wife entertained all who were there.

    When I joined Saint Mark in 1994, it was basically an historic “straight” church that was reaching out to include GLBT’s. Now, we are (90%) a gay church trying to run off all straight members!

    You need to be preaching more about “attitudes” and less pushing “Reconciling”. We won’t even need the new parking lots in 3 or 4 years if we vote to become “Reconciling”. I can guarantee you, Saint Mark will be almost closed up in 4 or 5 years if it goes Reconciling. We have too many problems now without adding this. I and some others will have to withdrawl membership if this happens. Free free to call and talk with me!! David Q Tuck.

  • Hi, David. Thanks for your comment, and for sharing your letter.

    I agree that the Reconciling label is more problematic than it is helpful. I also feel compelled to share the following thoughts:

    While I am a gay person, I welcome and enjoy the company of straight people at my parties and churches. In fact, I don’t tend to think of my friends as straight or gay — just as friends.

    In my experience, saying things like “Gay people don’t want straight people at their bars, parties, or churches” is risky … because the presence of even one gay person who DOES welcome straights at these places weakens your argument. So in general, I personally avoid these kinds of statements for that very reason.

    Also, as a person attending St. Mark, I can honestly say that, in my personal experience, I have not found that “we are 90% a gay church trying to run off all straight members.” I’m sure that I’m not involved in such an effort, and no one at St. Mark has ever expressed this kind of sentiment to me. I’m very thankful for all St. Mark members, gay and straight. We’d like to see the church thrive; the sexual orientation of the members is not an issue for us.

    Finally, I’m always very careful about linking my continued participation in any group with their willingness to adopt my point of view. This kind of tactic is a bit like terrorism, really — the equivalent of saying, “Do what I want you to do … or I pull the trigger!” In my personal experience, I find this strategy closes more doors than it opens.

    All these things aside: I do think your letter is yet another testimony to just how polarizing the Reconciling issue is. My personal prayer is that the individuals behind it will recognize this and understand intuitively that the time is not right to push for this declaration.

    I liked the sentiment Jimmy expressed in the Couples Class this past Sunday: while it’s clear that St. Mark must play a role in helping change the hearts and minds of others in the Methodist Church, there are many ways to do this, and adding our name to a list of reconciling churches may or may not be the best way to do that work.

    It is certainly not the only way!

  • Let me preface my remarks by saying that I’m gay, but I’m not a member of any of the groups involved in this issue.

    Maybe I’m guilty of oversimplifying, but I wonder if those of you who are upset about this issue are perhaps making this more complicated than it needs to be.

    I can understand how it might be upsetting to be confronted with a vote on an issue that you would rather not talk about, for one reason or another. But the fact of the matter is, you are confronted with the vote. As Byron Katie would say, to get upset about it now would be arguing with reality. The fact of the matter is, you are faced with a vote. The question now is not whether you should be faced with a vote (since you already are), but how you will vote.

    I haven’t seen the actual statement of inclusion under consideration, but I went to the link provided by Mark, and I read some of their sample statements that have been adopted by other groups. Frankly I don’t see anything so terrible in them, in fact I’m somewhat at a loss to see why they would upset anyone. They simply say that the church or the group is making a statement that they welcome anyone regardless of race, sexual orientation, etc.

    So, in the end I think it’s very simple. Do you agree with the sentiments expressed in the statement of inclusion? If so, vote yes. If you disagree that the church or group should welcome a diversity of races, sexual orientations, etc., then vote no.

    For those who are convinced that voting “yes” will mean straight people will be excluded, I respectfully suggest that you take the statement of inclusion at face value. It doesn’t say that or anything like that (or at least I assume it doesn’t, judging from the sample statements on the website). In fact, to say that adopting the statement would mean straight people would be excluded is to say that the statement means the exact opposite of what it says (the statement says everyone is welcome, not that anyone will be excluded). It just seems to me that if you start making assumptions about hidden agendas, you’ll never vote for anything for fear that it could actually mean the opposite of what it says.

    I think it would be unfortunate for anyone who agreed with the sentiments expressed in the statement to vote no simply because you find it annoying that you’ve been asked to vote. A “no” vote won’t send the message that you think you shouldn’t have been asked. A “no” vote will instead send the message that you don’t agree with the principles of diversity and inclusion.

    Unfortunately life sometimes confronts us with discussions we would rather not have and decisions we would rather not make. If you have to vote, then I think that your consciences and your spirituality demand no less than that you vote honestly on the question, and not on the politics of the question.

    Finally, I would humbly suggest that the mere fact that a simple statement of inclusion should cause such controversy is in itself evidence that such a statement would ultimately be helpful.

  • Hi, Lee. It’s always good to hear from you! Thanks for taking the time to post a comment. Especially when issues become emotionally charged, it can be good to hear observations from those who may be more objective.

    Lee wrote: The fact of the matter is, you are faced with a vote.

    Imagine, if you will, that Clyde and I walk into your home and announce, “We like this house. We believe we should have this house. We think it’s best for you to give us this house for free. So … let’s call a vote on whether or not to give Mark and Clyde this house and kick Lee out. All in favor?”

    In this situation, you would be faced with a vote, but I submit that, rather than saying, “Okay, now I have to vote!” that your interests would be better served by questioning the validity of the vote and the authority of those calling for it.

    May I recommend a different application of Byron Katie’s principles here? Instead of submitting to the vote being forced on our group, we chose, instead, to ask, “They say we have to vote today — is that true?”

    In this case, we decided it *wasn’t* true … and so we, as a group declined the opportunity to vote — and tabled the matter once again.

    Lee asked: Do you agree with the sentiments expressed in the statement of inclusion?

    Yes, and our church and class already operates in accordance with them.

    But there’s an assumption here — and it’s a big one: “Because you agree with the principles expressed in the statement of inclusion, you should hook up with the RMN.”

    And that assumption is simply not true. There are many ways to work for full inclusion of gays in the life of the church … and while hooking up with RMN is one of them … it is not the only way, and it may not be the best way.

    Alignment with RMN implies more than an agreement with the statement of inclusion; it also implies support for that organization’s methods and agenda. I have limited exposure to the RMN, but what I have seen and heard from its members does not incline me to want to wear their mantle.

    Because hooking up with the RMN comes with a bit of what we might call “overhead,” I submit the real question isn’t “Do you agree with their statement of inclusion?” but, rather, “Do you want to be associated with the character of the organization as a whole?”

    Sunday’s discussion pretty much established that, as a class, in addition to not being ready to align ourselves with RMN, we are not even inclined to put the matter up for a vote.

    We will continue to work for the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church — but the majority of the group seems convinced that doing so doesn’t require signing on to the RMN’s agenda.

  • Hello in return, Mark! I’ll happily concede that I don’t have enough information to comment intelligently on the situation.

    Mark wrote: “Instead of submitting to the vote being forced on our group, we chose, instead, to ask, ‘They say we have to vote today — is that true?’ In this case, we decided it *wasn’t* true … and so we, as a group declined the opportunity to vote — and tabled the matter once again.”

    This was my mistake. I assumed from your original blog post that the leaders of your congregation had requested your group to vote. I think I formed that assumption from your post when you said “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.'” So I think I was drawing connections that you didn’t actually make. I guess I’m still a little confused, though — if you weren’t being asked by an authority in the congregation to vote, then why did the class feel it needed to address the request in any way?

    Mark wrote: “Alignment with RMN implies more than an agreement with the statement of inclusion; it also implies support for that organization’s methods and agenda. I have limited exposure to the RMN, but what I have seen and heard from its members does not incline me to want to wear their mantle.”

    Here I’m really at a disadvantage because I really don’t have any information about the situation other than your post, people’s replies to your post, and the RMN website. You’ve said a few times that you disagree (or don’t necessarily agree) with RMN’s methods and agenda, but you haven’t spelled out what it is you object to (other than the fact of their asking for a vote), so it’s hard for me to address. I looked at the RMN website and, besides the statement of inclusion, I couldn’t find any methods or agenda other than the following: “The journey will include fresh opportunities even after the congregation affiliates with Reconciling Ministries. By offering a special Reconciling Sunday each year and additional educational programs, members will continue to grow in their understanding of true inclusion.” I don’t really know what exactly that means or what the implications are, if any.

    Reading back over your blog post and several of the replies to it, it strikes me that perhaps there’s more going on behind the scenes than is evident here. If not, then it’s hard for me to understand the apparently widespread resistance to the RMN, unless, as I say, there’s things about the RMN that are unknowable by anyone who isn’t a member of St. Mark or the Methodist Church (or RMN, I suppose).

    Personally I was very disturbed after reading what you wrote about the lady who thinks that affiliating with RMN means that the congregation is “declaring itself a gay church” and that it won’t include her, as well as the gentleman who thinks that “gay people are very funny”. These things make me hope that your group does indeed continue to work for full inclusion, because it seems clear to me, judging from what I’ve read here, that despite the nice sentiments which some have expressed, there is some anger and fear on the part of some of the people involved.

    It may well be that the RMN is an imperfect method with which to accomplish the goal. But I still wonder whether the RMN or some other group might perhaps yet be the best way of accomplishing the goal of inclusion.

    But what do I know? Since, as I stated at the outset, I’m not a member of any of the groups involved, there’s probably a whole lot about the situation I don’t understand.

    One final thought… if you (the members of the Couples Class and/or the congregation as a whole) agree with the principles of the statement of inclusion, but find the RMN itself unpalatable, why not vote to approve your own statement of inclusion, completely apart from the RMN?

    Anyway, sorry to be so long-winded…

  • Lee asked, “If you weren’t being asked by an authority in the congregation to vote, then why did the class feel it needed to address the request in any way?”

    A respected class leader — an enthusiastic supporter of the RMN — said, “Whether or not we become a reconciling church, we can vote to be come a reconciling class.” Shortly after, he announced a date for a vote on the issue.

    As for adopting a statement of inclusion: Both Saint Mark and the Couples Class, in word and practice, have this covered, I believe, with our official statement that “everyone” is welcome.

  • Although I’m generally wary of religious groups and institutions, one thing that I like about many of them is their very admirable practice of taking a public stand in support of equal human and civil rights of various minorities. And there are many different groups/denominations/religions who have done so.

    So I’m still puzzled by the resistance of such clearly well-intentioned people to make a public statement in words of what they already practice in deeds.

    But I’m obviously not going to convince anyone, so I’ll just say thanks for the interesting discussion! 🙂 And I wish those who struggle with this issue the very best.

  • I agree that churches can — nay, must! — take a stand in support of human and civil rights, especially for marginalized groups and people.

    At this point, all I can do is assure you that St. Mark and the Couples Class does — in public, through words and deeds — emphasize that everyone is welcome in our church and class.

    I’m not rejecting the sentiment; instead, I’m questioning the assumption that membership in the RMN is an effective, appropriate, or profitable way of expressing that sentiment.

    (And, as mentioned earlier, it’s certainly not the only way to express the sentiment!)

    RMN does some good work. One day, I may have experiences that change my verdict. For now, though, my personal experiences with RMN have convinced me that I need to explore other options for making a difference within the Methodist church.

  • Holy Cow! The politicisation of couples class. Couples class was (and is) a place Dawn and I fondly remember. We often cite it when trying to find a resolution to an argument. It calms us. We learned much in the short time we were engaged in the class. The absence of political debate was key to a unified, but diverse, group of people seeking the best ways to grow our love.I am disheartened to hear that the class has been thrown into a political church debate.Furthermore, what makes St. Mark’s so special is that it is NOT a gay church. It’s a freakin’ church with lots of gay people (and straight) in it. I always think of St. Mark’s making a difference through its actions, not political statements. There has always been an extreme diversity of views, existing together, sometimes barely, to support a common goal–spiritual affirmation through fellowship.

    Keep taking action. Keep embracing each other. Please keep couples class a sanctuary for thought, open discourse and love.

    Todd (and Dawn) Hannula

Who Wrote This?

Mark McElroy

I'm a husband, mystic, writer, media producer, creative director, tinkerer, blogger, reader, gadget lover, and pizza fiend.

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