Tag Archives: Activism

Did the Movement for Marriage Equality Begin in 2008? One Chapter in a Larger Narrative

Forcing the Spring, the recent best-seller by New York Times reporter Jo Becker, purports to chronicle the back story to the sweeping success of the marriage equality movement across the nation, but critics complain that the book gives too much credit to Becker’s sources and too little to the significant contributions of others, especially earlier pilgrims in the long journey toward marriage equality. In response, author Becker acknowledges that “The book is about one chapter in a larger narrative, and that narrative includes so many people who worked so hard on this issue when the going was far tougher than it is today.”


Let us consider the role of progressive religion. Against well-entrenched religious opposition to all things gay, progressive religious leaders were early voices “crying in the wilderness,” and decades of advocacy within religious spheres have largely prepared the good soil for recent marriage equality policy breakthroughs.

In the sixties, the issue was not marriage equality but criminalization and police harassment of homosexuals. Of course, the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in the summer of 1969 exploded as a spontaneous backlash to a police raid on a gay bar, and Stonewall has become the iconic moment that marks the birth of the gay liberation movement.

Clergy press conference following police raid

Clergy press conference following police raid of 1964 New Year’s ball

However, nearly five years before Stonewall, the San Francisco based Council on Religion and Homosexuality (CRH) sponsored a New Year’s Eve ball in 1964 that was raided by police, and the clergy who appeared at a press conference the next day to denounce the police behavior focused the eyes of the nation on abusive police practices and policies. One commentator suggested the clergy provided the “cloak of the cloth,” a powerful and visible sign of religious support for the LGBT community. In 1965, the prestigious Christian Century Magazine suggested, “the law … should not penalize private immoralities which cannot be proved contrary to the common good.” The first LGBT policy statements of the ecumenical Protestant denominations (Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, United Church of Christ) in the late sixties and seventies called for the decriminalization of homosexuality and homosexual behavior.

Holy Union 1970

The 1970 Holy Union of Father Robert Mary Clement and John Darcy Noble, Rev. Troy Perry officiating

By the 1990’s, still long before marriage equality was on the legal horizon, many clergy conferred a blessing on the relationships of their gay or lesbian parishioners, variously referred to as “covenant ceremonies,” “rites of blessing,” commitment services,” “holy unions,” and other terms. In fact, the terminology “holy union” dates to 1970 when independent (non-Roman) Catholic priest, Father Robert Mary Clement, who had marched in his clerical robes in the first Gay Pride parade in New York City, was joined with his life partner in a religious ceremony, and the officiant was Rev. Troy Perry, who had started the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), a predominantly gay denomination, months before Stonewall. In 1993, Perry and the MCC organized a Washington D.C. event they dubbed simply “The Wedding,” and Perry claimed “At least 2,600 same-sex couples, complete with tuxedos and wedding gowns, made a public commitment in a mass ritual.”

Meanwhile, the ecumenical Protestant churches wrestled with policies regarding blessing gay and lesbian couples.

  • In 1993, the Lutheran Conference of Bishops stated that although the church did not recognize an official ceremony of blessing, the bishops acknowledged the prerogative of pastors and congregations in ministry with gay and lesbian persons to “explore the best ways to provide pastoral care,” and that was widely interpreted to allow clergy discretion to preside at rites of blessing.
  • After Methodist Pastor Jimmy Creech was defrocked and Pastor Greg Dell suspended just before the turn of the century for presiding at covenant ceremonies, nearly one hundred West coast Methodist clergy jointly officiated in the covenant service of a lesbian couple. Though Methodist policy remained unchanged, the horde of media representatives and bank of television cameras at the February 2000 press conference announcing that no ecclesiastical charges would be filed against the “Sacramento 68” demonstrated that the same-sex marriage issue had captured the attention of the world.
  • When Massachusetts became the first state to recognize marriage equality in 2003, by judicial fiat, the local Episcopal bishop initially encouraged his priests to refrain from conducting marriage ceremonies, but the priests widely ignored their bishop, and within a few years, the bishop himself presided at a lesbian wedding–of two of his priests, no less!
  • On July 4, 2005, the UCC General Synod formally endorsed marriage equality with an overwhelming vote for a resolution that “affirms equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender and declares that the government should not interfere with couples regardless of gender who choose to marry and share fully in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of legally recognized marriage.”
  • In the last decade, the Presbyterian journey to full LGBT inclusion was marked by ecclesiastical trials wrestling with rites of blessing, and the Presbyterian courts made it clear that rites of blessing were permitted as long as it was not a legal marriage ceremony. Yet, when the Presbyterian “Supreme Court” instructed her local presbytery to censure Rev. Dr. Jane Spahr, who has long been the “poster lesbian” of the Presbyterian Church, for officiating at legal marriages of gay and lesbian couples, the presbytery instead issued a resolution of support for Rev. Dr. Spahr’s ministry. All Presbyterian eyes are on Detroit this week where issues of marriage equality are front and center of the General Assembly.

In the last dozen years, as marriage equality has gained momentum in the civil sphere, so too has full inclusion of LGBT persons moved forward in the religious sphere, at least within the ecumenical denominations. By removing the gates to the pulpit through revisions to ministry policies–that is, by ordaining partnered gays and lesbians–the UCC (as early as the 1970s), the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, and the Presbyterians have all recently affirmed that the relationships of gay and lesbian partners are to be recognized, supported, and celebrated. Without attempting too fine a point regarding a chicken or egg analysis, when the moral authority of the church swings toward inclusion, public opinion will be affected.

Finally, and especially germane to the recent sweeping success of marriage equality adjudication and legislation across jurisdictions, the role of progressive clergy in statewide pro-equality movements cannot be understated. The example of Minnesota is illustrative. In 2012, a restrictive constitutional amendment was defeated by the electorate, and marriage equality was enacted during the next legislative session in 2013. Minnesotans United was the LGBT advocacy group that successfully worked on both measures, and their strategy “refused to cede the religious ground.” Though the local Roman Catholic Archbishop was an outspoken opponent of marriage equality, ecumenical Protestant and Jewish clergy served in highly visible leadership roles. Minnesota clergy issued joint communiques, provided legislative testimony, appeared at rallies and press conferences, and a priest, a minister, and a rabbi came into a bar together in a humorous TV ad. The clergy collar was omnipresent in LGBT advocacy efforts.

Marriage is a legal contract, defined and sanctioned by the civil law but with significant religious overtones, and the voices of opposition to LGBT rights have long used religion to bolster their arguments. Because of the religious underpinnings to LGBT issues, legal and societal progress would have been slowed or thwarted without the counter-influence of activists and allies, within the church, who offered the “cloak of the cloth” from the earliest days, who provided the example of holy unions to bless and solemnize gay and lesbian relationships, and who “refused to cede the religious ground.”

The Failed Attempt to Blunt Progressive Christianity

In 1980, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and a couple of hundred thousand conservative Christians claimed “Washington for Jesus.” Months later, Ronald Reagan was elected with substantial support from Falwell’s “Moral Majority.” Thus began an unholy alliance between Christian fundamentalists and the Republican Party that now threatens to rip the Grand Old Party apart. The loss of functioning government has been collateral damage of this internecine warfare, and David Brat’s defeat of Eric Cantor is the latest and most profound example of the raging civil war over the heart and soul of Republicanism. That christianist Brat claims his victory was a God-ordained miracle is hardly surprising.

The Republican establishment has long fed the beast that now threatens to devour the party, and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman’s New York Times op-ed of June 13 offers his typical sublime insights. Krugman suggests the Republican establishment has long used the cultural warriors of the religious right to stir up the base and win elections but for the benefit of the economically advantaged. Krugman writes of the stratagem: “an interlocking set of institutions and alliances that won elections by stoking cultural and racial anxiety but used these victories mainly to push an elitist economic agenda.”

There is a striking parallel within ecumenical Protestantism.

At the same time that Ronald Reagan forged support from Christian conservatives into a winning political coalition, the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD) was founded in 1981. This organization mirrors the Republican establishment in the manner it riled up folks in the pews in order to further a largely neo-conservative economic and political agenda. The IRD’s political/economic goals include increased defense spending, opposing environmental protection efforts, anti-unionism, and weakening or eliminating social welfare programs, but those actual goals were masked by an emphasis on cultural warfare issues. Over the years, the IRD has been financially supported by a who’s who of right-wing millionaires, including Richard Mellon Scaife, Howard Fieldstead Ahmanson, Jr. and his IRD board member wife Roberta (called the “financiers” in a 2005 Time Magazine article), Adolph Coors, the John M. Olin Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

President of the United Church of Christ, John Thomas, wrote in 2006,

The right-wing Institute for Religion and Democracy and its long-term agenda of silencing a progressive religious voice while enlisting the church in an unholy alliance with right-wing politics is no longer deniable … But to play with Scripture just a bit, we doves innocently entertain these serpents in our midst at our own peril.*

The Lutheran expatriate turned Roman Catholic priest, Richard John Neuhaus, an IRD founder and longtime board member, bragged in 2005 while addressing the IRD board,

How, if at all and what ways, do we distinguish IRD from the remarkable insurgency that has rewritten the map of American culture and politics over the last 20 years, of evangelical, Catholic, generally conservative, religiously inspired political activism, dismissively called by our opponents, the “Religious Right”? How did it happen, one might ask, that IRD became in many ways an ancillary, supportive, coordinating agency for insurgencies within these three denominations–the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church-USA, and the Episcopal Church?*

The earliest splash made by the IRD was to attack the National Council of Churches by promoting the false notion that the ecumenical denominations supported Marxist revolutionaries in Africa. CBS’ 60 Minutes played the role of dupe in furthering the claim in a 1983 segment later dismissed by Don Hewitt, the 60 Minutes creator and longtime producer, as the segment he regretted most in his 36 year career. The broadcast began with the IRD leader, Richard John Neuhaus, speaking,

“I am worried – I am outraged when the church lies to its own people.” The camera moved from an offering plate in a United Methodist church in the Midwest to images of the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and then to marchers in Communist Red Square. The lengthy segment over and over suggested that the National Council of Churches (NCC) was using Sunday offerings to promote Marxist revolution. The most damaging accusation in the program was that NCC had somehow funded armed insurgents in Zimbabwe. While showing horrific footage of a slain missionary, the program implied that the NCC was responsible for the brutal murder. It was a lie that the top rated show in television told to tens of millions. The broadcast was highly damaging to mainline Protestants and the NCC.*

By the late 1980s and continuing, the IRD founded, funded, or otherwise influenced conservative organizations within the Methodist and Episcopal Churches and trumpeted the danger of LGBT inclusive policies to rally their troops. Dianne Knippers cut her teeth as a staffer for the conservative Methodist organization, “Good News.” Later, she would serve as IRD president during the height of its influence. Methodist theologian Thomas Oden was another Good News leader with ties to IRD as a member of the IRD board of directors. Current IRD President Mark Tooley is a lifelong Methodist and founder of the Methodist arm of the IRD called UMAction. The IRD also has a Presbyterian Action branch. The longtime conservative irritant within the Presbyterian Church is an organization called the Lay Committee that promotes their publication, The Layman. The self-described pillars of the Lay Committee were “People of means and action. Besides being leaders in their churches, they were leaders in corporate America.”* Within the Episcopal Church, Knippers served jointly as IRD President and organizer and leader of the late 1990s Episcopal group, the American Anglican Council, which served as chief conservative organizer at the virulently anti-gay Lambeth Conference in 1998 and as the opposition to the confirmation of Bishop Gene Robinson and all things gay in the early years of this century. Though the opponents of ELCA progressivism are not connected to the IRD, some Lutheran conservative commentators share neo-conservative political views (for example, Robert Benne, the author of The Ethic of Democratic Capitalism: A Moral Reassessment).

Over the years, the Republican establishment has stoked nativist, racist, sexist, anti-intellectual, anti-government, and anti-Muslim fears with a politics of scapegoating the immigrant, the black, the feminist, the queer, the academic, the government worker, and the welfare recipient. town-hall_thumb.jpgBy appealing to lesser instincts–especially of the angry white male–the party has enjoyed sufficient electoral success to continue feeding the beast, but Krugman’s article suggests this “bait and switch” tactic may no longer work as evidenced by Tea Party primary challenges to the party favorites. Ironically, the destabilization of the Republican Party itself would appear to be the legacy of the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and the complicity of the Reagans, Bushes, and the Republican establishment who are now being forced to “dance with the one who brought you.” While Republican self-destruction may not play out in the 2014 off-year elections, early portents for 2016 suggest a likely Democratic president and Congress, despite the built-in Republican advantage of gerrymandered Congressional districts. In the meantime, dysfunctional government will continue as the Tea Party insurgency in Congress will preclude any meaningful legislation.

While the outcome of the Republican civil war remains uncertain, the ecumenical denominations have largely resisted the contemporaneous neo-con attempts to destabilize leadership and thwart progressive impulses. For years, the conservatives used the rising tide of LGBT inclusive policies to frighten folks in the pews, but that battle is nearly won. Within the Lutheran Church (ELCA), Episcopal Church, and the United Church of Christ, LGBT-friendly policies are largely settled and entrenched with LGBT clergy, bishops, and high-ranking executives in the home offices all serving openly. The Presbyterians now ordain openly gay and lesbian ministry candidates and will likely endorse marriage equality in the next week. Meanwhile, the conservative opposition to Presbyterian progressivism, the Lay Committee, has chosen to stay away from the national General Assembly currently underway in Detroit–a telling admission of their declining influence. Although the battle rages within the United Methodist Church, it is only unique Methodist international polity that serves as the final barricade against LGBT inclusion (38% of all delegates at the last Methodist General Conference were foreign and staunchly conservative regarding LGBT issues), but the swelling pockets of inclusivism in local congregations and regional conferences and the ecclesiastical disobedience of Methodist clergy and bishops signal growing momentum for the cause of inclusion. After years of IRD and other conservative opposition to the innate progressivism of the ecumenical denominations, those church bodies have emerged from the fray more solidly progressive than ever. The neo-conservative intention of thwarting the social justice impulses of progressive Christianity has been a singular failure.

The media is noticing. The religious editor of the Huffington Post suggests the knee-jerk media response of running to the nearest evangelical with a bullhorn may be over in an article entitled, The Stunning Resurgence of Progressive Christianity.

*Quoted in Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism.

Breaking: Methodist trial dismissed

Bishop Martin McLee

Bishop Martin McLee

In perhaps the biggest Methodist LGBT news since the 1972 enactment of the “incompatibility clause,”* Bishop Martin McLee has just announced a complete dismissal of the ecclesiastical charges against Rev. Thomas Ogletree. Rev. Ogletree was on trial for conducting a wedding service for his gay son. What is more, Bishop McClee stated, “I call for and commit to cessation of trials” arising under the Book of Discipline provisions related to LGBT persons. This is the highest act of Methodist ecclesiastical disobedience to date, but it follows the recent actions of retired Bishop Melvin Talbert, who personally conducted the wedding of two gay men, and the actions of sitting Bishop Minerva Carcaño, who offered defrocked pastor Frank Schaefer an appointment within her jurisdiction. Four other bishops have publicly registered their dissent from Book of Discipline trial proceedings.

Though it is always dicey to predict the significance of an event without the benefit of historical hindsight, this Methodist news may parallel the breakthroughs in sister denominations, including the 1996 failed heresy trial of Episcopal Bishop Walter Righter, and the legislative reversals of the Lutherans in 2009 and the Presbyterians in 2011. Certainly, there will be many jurisdictions, perhaps most, where the Book of Discipline provisions will still be enforced, but this announcement from Bishop McLee suggests a break in the dam, and the more progressive Methodist Annual Conferences on the West coast, Midwest, and East coast may soon surge through the breach.

*Pertinent provisions from the Methodist Book of Discipline

  • We do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice to be incompatible with Christian teaching. (1972)
  • Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church. (1984)
  • Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches. (1996)

UPDATE: Religion Dispatches has published my essay, which elaborates on this historic breakthrough.

Methodists Make History, Or, an Argument for Ecclesiastical Disobedience

UMC General Conference (GC2012): Daily Report April 27

Before we get to the day’s news, we begin with a bit of history.

In 1975, The first Methodist gay caucus meeting took place at Wheadon UMC Church of Evanston, Illinois near the Northwestern University campus.  Steve Webster*, a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, was the principal organizer.  Steve had been featured in a New York Times article earlier when his attempt to enroll in seminary was rejected because he was an out gay.

“This is not the end of my ministry, but more of a beginning,” he said to the New York Times.

Webster would fulfill his promise and pursue a life of ministry, but not in the manner he expected. Ordination in the UMC would remain beyond his grasp, and Webster’s ministry would be as a lifelong advocate for gays within the Methodist Church. It started when Webster and Richard Cash organized the first national gathering of gay Methodists. For a mailing list, Webster used the return addresses from the numerous letters of support he had received in response to the New York Times article.

“I got ahold of one of those old mimeograph stencils and rolled it into my Smith-Corona typewriter and carefully typed up a flyer about the meeting,” Webster would later reminisce.

Their efforts bore fruit in the summer of 1975 when nearly twenty gay Methodists gathered at Wheadon Church. That meeting was the birth of The United Methodist Gay Caucus, soon to be renamed Affirmation, and The Reconciling Congregation Project (RCP) would be a later outgrowth in the 1980’s. At a second meeting that year in Kansas City, others joined the group. Their primary activities in 1975 were to prepare for a ministry of presence at the 1976 UMC General Conference in Portland.

Love Your Neighbor LogoOne positive development at GC 1976 would be networking with like-minded groups. Common worship services were conducted with the Women’s Caucus, the Young Adult Caucus, and the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA).  That tradition of cooperative, collective action by progressives continues.  At GC2012, the “Common Witness Coalition” includes Affirmation and Reconciling Ministries Network—the spiritual heirs of that first meeting in 1975—and the Black Methodists for Church Renewal, the Methodist Federation for Social Action, the National Federation of Asian-American United Methodists, and the Native American International Caucus.

They jointly publish a paper newsletter—Neighbor News– distributed at GC2012 and also online—click here.

Yesterday, the Coalition sprang to action in an impromptu demonstration.  Three hundred demonstrators lined the hallways as the plenary hall emptied.  The day before, the schedule included time for “Holy Conversations” regarding human sexuality, spread over a number of meeting rooms.  In some of the rooms, holy conversation did, indeed, take place.  In others, however, gays were bullied and derided.

“After the holy conversations yesterday, there were a number of people who felt abused in what we believed was intended to be a truly holy conversation space,” said Marla Marcum of Lexington, Mass., a volunteer coordinator for the Love Your Neighbor–Common Witness Coalition that organized the demonstration. “But for whatever reason, in many, many of the rooms, that was not borne out, and delegates and observers were bullied and … (some were) met with derision and scorn.”

For full treatment of the failed conversations and the ensuing demonstration, check out the blog post by Tim Tanton on the UMC News Service website.

As a positive note, there were two “firsts” in the honored laity speakers on Tuesday.  Betty Spiwe Katiyo was the first African laity address presenter and Amory Peck, the lay leader of the Pacific Northwest Conference, was the first lesbian—though she doubts everyone knew that–and she regrets that she wasn’t able to use her speech to note that fact.

I was sad that I could not say that openly. But the Laity Address is about bringing people together. Of course gays and lesbians are active in the church, but there is fearfulness in being open about it. I wish we could lift the silence because the silence is crushing.


*Steve Webster is present at GC2012.  For Conference attendees, stop by the Coalition tabernacle and look him up and ask about the early history.

A Jew and a Methodist …

I’m borrowing this line from Ariel Vegosen, a Jewish woman attending the UMC Conference in Tampa (GC2012).  She states, “I am here as a Jewish ally to support divestment and to support my Methodist brothers and sisters as they make this important and historic decision.”

With American support for Israel an unquestioned historical and political reality, one must be brave or foolish to raise concern for Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.  Yet, that is what Vegosen is doing, and she is at the Conference to encourage those who promote divestment from US companies perceived to sustain the illegal and immoral occupation of Palestinian lands.

Of course, divestment was a means of financial protest that contributed to the fall of South African apartheid a generation ago.

Two years ago at the Presbyterian General Assembly, I spent a couple of hours at the Cokesbury bookstore signing copies of my novel, A Wretched Man.  Two other authors were present at the same time, Gustav Niebuhr from the famous Niebuhr family, and Mark Braverman.  Like Vegosen, Braverman is a Jew who attended a Christian convention to advocate for Christians to denounce Israeli policies detrimental to the Palestinians.  Braverman’s book is entitled, Fatal Embrace, Christians, Jews and the search for peace in the Holy Land.

A couple of voices crying in the wilderness worth listening to.  Click on their names above to hear their voices.

Sweet Home Alabama

Have you seen the British Petroleum (BP) produced ads extolling tourism in the Gulf?  They’re actually done quite well and make the region from the Florida panhandle, across Alabama and Mississippi, and ending in Louisiana look pretty appealing.  After despoiling the gulf with their oil spill, I assume the ads are part of BP’s payback.

Many years ago, I spent a little time in Louisiana, home to an aunt and cousins, but the rest of the region could as well be a foreign country, as far as I know.  I hear they play really good college football down there, and the ads make the beaches appear attractive and the cuisine sounds delicious.  However, the politics and the religion down there scare the beejeebers out of me.

For a century, this was the “solid south” for the Democratic Party, the days of segregation and Jim Crow, and the Republicans were remembered as the party of Lincoln, the Union Army, and carpetbaggers.  That began to change at the 1948 Democratic Convention when Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey offered a stirring speech promoting civil rights, and the “Dixiecrats” led by Strom Thurmond stalked out, determined to protect what they portrayed as the southern way of life beset by an oppressive federal government while proclaiming “segregation forever.”


Hubert Humphrey’s famous civil rights speech–1948


The circle was completed in 1968 when Richard Nixon recognized that he could turn the south into the Republican promised land by exploiting racism.  This “Southern Strategy” has defined the last forty plus years of American politics.

Tonight, the Republicans of Alabama and Mississippi hold their primaries, and the eyes of the nation are again focused on the politics of the region.  The pollsters tell us that not much has changed.

  • Interracial marriage ought to be illegal according to roughly a quarter of the Republican voters.
  • Three to four times as many think President Obama is a Muslim compared to those who think he’s Christian.
  • Two to three times as many do not believe in evolution compared to those that do.
  • Twice as many in ‘Bama prefer the Crimson Tide football team to the Auburn Tigers.  Ok, I guess that’s irrelevant.

Despite those appealing ads, I don’t think I’ll be heading southeast anytime soon.  I admit it, I’ve got prejudices of my own.

Gays in the Pulpit

I have several writing projects underway.  I recently posted about Prowl, a compilation of five short stories based upon my Vietnam experience.  I have also been working on a sequel to A Wretched Man.  Third, last spring I started work on a non-fiction piece, tentatively titled Gays in the Pulpit, which will be a forty-year retrospective on the gay rights movement within the church.  Now that we are settled into our new digs in Arlington Heights, I have again picked up that project in earnest.

I am personally acquainted with many of the more recent heroes of the push for full inclusion including Lutherans Anita Hill, Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart, and Emily Eastwood; United Methodist Amy Delong; and Presbyterian Scott Anderson.  If you click on their names, you will link to prior blog posts about these individuals.

My current research is also introducing me to earlier heroes.  In 1968, Troy Perry was a gay Baptist/Pentecostal preacher who founded the Metropolitan Community Church, which now numbers over 250 predominantly gay congregations internationally.  Father Robert Mary Clement was a gay priest who marched in the first gay pride parade in Greenwich Village and whose Beloved Disciple Church ministered to the gay community of New York City in the early ‘70s.  Bill Johnson was the first openly gay man ordained by an established denomination way back in 1972 by the United Church of Christ.  Ellen Barrett was the first out lesbian to become an Episcopal priest in 1977.

As I am reviewing the data from these early days, I have received invaluable assistance from Rev. Clyde Steckel, retired dean of the United Seminary of the Twin Cities.  Rev. Steckel was witness to and participant in the UCC steps toward gay inclusion in the ‘70s.  The record in the UCC is striking because they were so far ahead of the other mainline denominations.  The UCC accomplishments in the 1970s foreshadowed the actions of the Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists a full generation later.

More to come.

The Power of Woman

Mr. BumbleAs a former attorney, I  appreciate the line of Charles Dickens spoken by Mr. Bumble, the law is a ass.  In the context of the novel, Oliver Twist, Mr. Bumble recognized that his own wife was more powerful than he in their marriage relationship, and the patriarchal presumptions of the olde English common law were false.

The first half of the twentieth century witnessed the successful struggle for woman’s suffrage, and during the second half the women’s liberation movement achieved notable social and legal successes.  To be sure, the victory is not yet won, and pay inequality in the workplace is an obvious example of residual sexism in our culture.

So too the church.  Except for a bright, shining moment in the earliest days of the Jesus movement, the men have been in control until recently.  Contemporaneous with the women’s movement in secular society, the role of women in the church has changed, and the wide advance of female clergy is eloquent testimony; yet, in my own ELCA, only a handful of women have yet been elected to the episcopate, which remains mostly but not exclusively male.  This weekend, I will travel to South Bend, Indiana to attend an Episcopal Diocesan Convention, and the honored guest of the Northern Indiana Diocese will be the Most Reverend Katherine Jefforts Schori, the presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the USA, who is the first and only female to head a major Christian denomination in the US.

Though female leadership in the church is not yet completely de jure, along with Mr. Bumble I recognize the de facto power of women.  Theological critics of the 2009 pro-gay actions of the ELCA are right in one thing—it was the women’s movement in the church a generation ago that set the stage for the recent successes of the gay rights movement: a “slippery slope” some would claim, but I prefer the metaphor of opening the door.

History repeats itself and not always in a negative way.  The civil war in Northern Ireland finally ended when Protestant and Catholic women said enough.  More recently, the women of Liberia rose up and ousted the corrupt Charles Taylor regime and elected a female as the first head of state in an African nation.

leymah-gboweeOne of the Liberian women leaders was Leymah Roberta Gbowee, a Lutheran and the keynote speaker at the Women of the ELCA Triennial Convention in Spokane this summer.  Earlier, she had been a scholarship recipient through the International Leadership Development Program of the ELCA in 2006-2007 to support her study in peace building at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.  An announcement from Oslo, Norway this week named Gbowee as a co-winner, with two other women, of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The following is from an ELCA press release:

The starting point of the women’s movement was war fatigue, said Gbowee, a mother of six children. She grew tried of watching children die from hunger and “waking up every morning and not knowing whether a tomorrow was possible. You can’t plan for the future.” Along with thousands of other women from across Liberia, Gbowee wanted to dream of a better community.

She decided it was time to stop the war and called together women of all faiths — Christian, Muslim, indigenous and others — from across Liberia to “step out,” recognizing that Liberian women can play a critical role in peace building.

Using the experiences of the women before them, Gbowee used prayer, picketing and silence to further their mission. Despite insults and other behaviors that came their way, Gbowee said, “We kept quiet because we had a sense of purpose and sense of direction.” The women also put together statements of peace for African governments, engaged the media and initiated personal, one-to-one conversations with power brokers “to see how we could get the peace that Liberia was searching for,” she said.

“Leymah Gbowee’s life and leadership are a witness to the power of women to resist forces of violence and domination by creating a movement for reconciliation and peace,” said ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson. “In Liberia, I experienced her passionate commitment to rebuilding a nation torn by civil war not by seeking vengeance, but through her faith to encourage dialogue and inclusiveness at all levels of society.”

Bumble concluded his soliloquy: the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.

Call to Action: progressive Catholics hold a convention

Along with a couple thousand others, I spent the weekend in Milwaukee attending the annual convention of Call to Action (CTA), a beleaguered group of progressive Roman Catholics.  The conservative retrenchment of the Vatican and the American bishops marches on, and one wonders what the future holds for Catholic progressives.  I met hundreds of interesting persons with fascinating stories: former priests and nuns who are now married, many gays or parents of gays, and numerous women who have recently been ordained to the priesthood or who are anticipating ordination in the near future. 

“What,” you ask, “women ordained as Catholic priests?”

Roman Catholic Womenpriests is a movement less than a decade old that began with the 2002 ordination of seven women (six Europeans and one American).  Since then, the movement is growing rapidly (despite excommunications), and I can attest to a sense of vibrancy at the Womenpriests’ booth that attracted an earnest crowd.  One of the priests at the exhibit told me that their booth at the 2008 CTA Convention attracted a few curiosity seekers, but overall the mood was “don’t get too close to these excommunicated dissidents”.  Last year, at the 2009 CTA convention, she reported that the fear of contagion had dissipated and the curiosity level had increased dramatically.  This year, the Womenpriests booth was filled with visitors who had moved beyond curiosity to genuine interest.  Their US map with red and green dots signifying locations of ordained womenpriests and pending ordinations was a hit with many asking for more specifics so they could attend a nearby Eucharist celebrated by female clergy.

Are progressive Catholics coming to the realization that their future lies outside the patriarchal hierarchy and beyond the control of the Vatican?  If so, where?  If not, how can progressive Catholics effect reform within the existing conservative power structures?

Enter the American Catholic Council.  The Council also had an energetic presence at the CTA conference, passing out brochures inviting all to a Pentecost gathering next June.  CTA is one of the member organizations of the Council, which also includes other Catholic reform organizations.

American Catholic Council is a movement bringing together a network of individuals, organizations, and communities to consider the state and future of our Church. We believe our Church is at a turning point in its history. We recall the promise of the Second Vatican Council for a renaissance of the roles and responsibilities of all the Baptized through a radically inclusive and engaged relationship between the Church and the World.  We respond to the Spirit of Vatican II by summoning the Baptized together to demonstrate our re-commitment. We seek personal conversion to renew our Church to conform to the authentic Gospel message, the teachings of our Church, and our lived context in the United States. Our reading of the “signs of the times”, as we experience them in the US, our plan and our agenda are set out in our Declaration.  We educate; we listen; we facilitate discussions and encounters; and, we build toward an American Catholic Council  that will convene in Detroit over Pentecost weekend in June of 2011.  At this Council we hope to proclaim our belief in the Rights and Responsibilities of US Catholics.

June 10, 2011.  Mark the date. 

On a personal note, I had the opportunity to visit with keynote speaker, retired Episcopal Bishop and noted author John Shelby Spong, and we discussed our mutual suspicion that the Apostle Paul may have been a conflicted gay man (which is developed in my novel, A Wretched Man).  Bishop Spong said he first encountered that theory in a 1930’s book by theologian Arthur Darby Nock.  We also discussed our mutual admiration for recently deceased British theologian Michael Goulder, who rekindled interest in the theory of Christian origins that posits a fundamental opposition between Paul the Apostle on one side and the Jerusalem Christians Peter and James, Jesus’ brother, on the other.  This dispute provides the main plot line of A Wretched Man

I also visited with Linda Pinto of CORPUS who favored me with an early report on her reading of the novel:

It was indeed a delight to meet you at CTA. I am, however, a little annoyed. I packed your book (a present to my husband) and at the last moment thought….you might browse through it at the airport. As the hotel forgot to change their clocks, they woke me up at 3:45 am rather than 4:45 am. So, with that much time to kill, I started to read A Wretched Man. WOW!!!! I am addicted. My annoyance comes from the fact that I had to return to work today and my husband insisted that I keep the book at home for his consumption!

I love your attention to detail and description. I love the interplay between the story of Paul and Jesus. And I love your description of Jesus’ family.

That is to say, get me a book review and I will publish it in CORPUS REPORTS.

Anyone interested in writing a book review for CORPUS?  Contact me.

Catholic Crisis in Minnesota

As the Catholic hierarchy becomes ever more firmly entrenched in a conservative retreat from the reforms of Vatican II, recent events in Minnesota offer a microcosm of the rift that widens with those who dare question the top down policies that emanate from the Vatican. 

Synod of the Baptized On Saturday, September 18th, the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (CCCR) organized an event entitled Synod of the Baptized in Minneapolis.  The title implied the theme: that all the baptized, both lay and clergy, are coequal and a hierarchical model of governance in which clergy alone dictate church policy must be reformed.  Organizers planned for up to 400 participants, but registrations exceeded expectations and were cut off at 500 in the weeks before the event, and the facilities included both a main ballroom that was crowded to full capacity and an adjacent overflow room with closed circuit TV that was also nearly full.

The morning session included a keynote address by Paul Lakeland director of the Center for Catholic Studies and the Aloysius P. Kelly Professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut.  His address paralleled his ideas in his recently released book entitled Church, and also his earlier work, Catholicism at the Crossroads: How the laity can save the church.  I was present at the Synod, working with the bookstore of St. Martin’s table, and his books were clearly the hot item and sold out quickly.  I spoke with Professor Lakeland after his keynote address.   Noting the absence of folks browsing at the bookstore while the Synod was in session, Lakeland suggested that these folks were seriously devoted to their cause and faithfully listened to the speakers. 

Paula Ruddy, one of the key organizers, stated:

If signs of the Holy Spirit’s action in a group are joy and hope, Saturday’s Synod of the Baptized was a Spirit-filled place. Most of us were not able to see tongues of fire, but we heard voluble talk and shining eyes while people spoke of their experience of oneness.

And the official response from the St Paul Archdiocese?

CCCR is not “in union” with either the Archbishop nor the Archdiocese in any way, shape or form. That fact has been posted on our Archdiocesan web site since this past August and has been printed in the Catholic Spirit.

Please read the blog Progressive Catholic Voice for full treatment of this event and the critical comments of the Archdiocese.

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Bishops of Minnesota announced on September 20th that they would mail thousands of DVDs to Catholic parishioners encouraging resistance to political efforts in the legislature to enact marriage equality laws in Minnesota.  One notable dissenting voice to this official entanglement of the Roman Catholic Church in secular politics is artist Lucinda Naylor.  When Naylor announced plans to create a sculpture out of these DVDs as a protest against the actions of the Bishops, she was promptly suspended from her part-time job at the Minneapolis Basilica of St Mary.  According to the article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune,

“I suspect suspension is a kind word for termination,” Naylor said. “I’ll miss the income. But there’s times when people need to stand up for what they believe.”

One blogger commented,

The Basilica of St. Mary is a monumental church in downtown Minneapolis. Part of their mission? To “preach justice,” and to “contribute to the celebration of the sacred arts” in the Minneapolis community. Yet despite this core identity, the Basilica of St. Mary has decided to discipline Naylor because she supports marriage equality. Art it seems, at least within the confines of the Basilica of St. Mary, is now only suitable if the artist making it believes that homosexuality is icky.

Finally, blogger Terence on Open Tabernacle notes the study in contrasts between the Roman Catholic hierarchical response to progressive impulses in Minnesota versus the official ELCA involvement in the Rites of Reception that have welcomed LGBT clergy onto the rosters of ordained clergy.