First Church Looks to Expand Dialogue About Diversity
The city's oldest church passed a resolution to welcome the LGBT community.
The city's oldest church recently drafted and approved an "Open and Affirming Statement," which is a designation to openly welcome worshippers of all persuasions and family structures.
Church leaders say the new formal statement is just the first step in a planned ongoing effort to engage with and support the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community and other groups.
The "Open and Affirming" (ONA) is a suggested but optional designation within the United Church of Christ, a coalition of about 5,600 Protestant churches numbering about 1.2 million members nationwide. These churches form a loose alliance "in covenant" with one another, with each church generally deciding its own structure and rules.
While the General Synod of the UCC has recommended churches consider making the decree since 1985, currently only about 18 percent of UCC member churches have voted to approve adding this designation. Of the approximately 1,000 congregations within the UCC that are officially designated "Open and Affirming," 80 are in Massachusetts.
In Berkshire County, Housatonic Congregational, West Stockbridge Congregational, First Congregational Church in Williamstown, and Lenox's Church on the Hill have all taken the steps to become ONA churches. Both the Williamstown and Lenox churches were consulted during the lengthy democratic process that resulted in First Church's statement.
The Rev. James Lumsden, pastor of First Congregational, said the discussion about becoming an Open and Affirming church began almost two years ago.
"That involved a yearlong time of studying scripture, talking amongst ourselves, trying to discern the Spirit," which lead to the formation of a small task force, Lumsden said, who were called on to draft "a simple but elegantly clear Open and Affirming statement."
Once drafted, the statement was brought before the Church Council, who approved it unanimously, at which point it went before two meetings of the full congregation, where it was again approved unanimously. Lumsden said there was no real resistance or opposition during this process, citing a combination of factors.
"It's partially the times we live in; but it's partially the fact that we were very intentional about welcoming people's questions and concerns. We were very thorough, we didn't rush into anything," he said.
The First Congregational Church statement reads as follows:
"Following the spirit of Jesus, we embrace the diversity of God's creation. We welcome people of any sexual orientation, gender identity, family structure, race, ethnic, or cultural background and ability. Everyone is invited to participate fully in the worship and ministry of First Church."
Jason Verchot, president of the LBGT advocate organization Berkshire Stonewall Community Coalition, said he applauds First Church "for stepping forward and promoting a message of acceptance."
"I think it's reaffirming to see religious institutions change their views in order to be more accepting of diversity. As their statement says, Christ promoted acceptance of all God's children, and if you preach Christianity, then I believe you should embrace the entire message, not just the parts that are convenient for your world view," he said.
Larry Murray, who pens the blog Gay in the Berkshires, said that Pittsfield's First Congregational had been identified to him earlier as one that welcomed same-sex marriages.
"Churches, like politicians, have been among the last holdouts and when it comes to marriage equality, tend to remain bastions of the status quo," Murray said. "The growing acceptance of LGBT people by mainstream religions has been a positive development in the past decade or two. I remember when we depended on Dignity, Integrity and other offshoots for gay people to continue their religious affiliations."
Murray aligned with others who spoke with iBerkshires, saying that while the church's new statement did not impact them personally, they saw it as part of an overall paradigm shift.
"Personally, I don't look for validation of my life from any religious organization," said Timothy Kushi, founder and organizer of the "Quite Queer" LGBT event series. "But for political and practical terms, I can see that moves like this are good because they hopefully point to the eventual end of overt hatred, intolerance and persecution by society at large."
Lumsden said the new statement, which now appears on all the programs, newsletters and other materials, is more than just a formal gesture, but signifies a new imperative as an institution to support diversity and open up further dialogue about inclusion.
"Sometimes churches write a statement, or make a commitment, and it's sort of intellectual, and there's no substance to it. We didn't want that to be the case with us. So we asked ourselves 'What is the most credible and respectful way to live into this?'"
Lumsden said that the first step is to spread the word that the church is committed to being "allies of openness," and the second is to engage with groups and individuals to "listen and learn."
"That's what we're going to spend the better part of this year doing. Being in listening mode and conversation mode, so we can find ways to be authentic allies, without any illusion that we could or should set the agenda. We want to be in solidarity with people, rather than anything else," he said.
As part of that commitment, First Congregational has begun to reach out to LGBT advocates and other organizations, such as BRIDGES and Berkshire Community College. The church is hoping to obtain assistance and input as they create a series of events, which will include films and speakers, to help "deepen that conversation."
The church anticipates announcing a more formal schedule of such events sometime in March.
Disclosure: Larry Murray is an arts writer and theater reviewer who frequently contributes to iBerkshires.
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