Our church is undertaking the process to become what is known as an affirming ministry. It is similar in some ways to a certification, in that there is a process we need to follow with a third party in order to substantiate our claims to be a truly welcoming and inclusive place, regardless of the attendee's age, race, culture, physical ability, gender identity or sexual orientation. Obviously it is the last couple of points that have the greatest potential for differences in opinion, but all of them need to addressed, and not just during this process, but on an ongoing basis.
As a member of the Affirming Committee, I was asked to address the inclusivity portion, while others looked at our history with regard to inclusivity, the process itself, and the scriptural elements that can sometimes arise when people of faith deal with human sexuality. (In the end, the two best things I thought our minister brought up was, first, that there are 9 verses out of 66 entire books in the Bible that address what we would call homosexuality, and of these, exactly zero are said by Jesus. The second is the fact that the most often quoted admonitions are from the 'holiness code' in Leviticus, which also contains prohibitions against wearing clothing made from two different materials, dietary restrictions, not trimming one's beard, and a host of other regulations we regularly ignore in much of the modern world. This is a contradiction familiar to many of us who are fans of The West Wing.)
I opened by asking if anyone perhaps felt that, 'hey, we are a progressive spiritual entity with a history of social justice and progressive theology, of course we are welcoming and inclusive; why do we need to justify ourselves to a third party in order to get some sort of seal of approval?' No one spoke up, but I could see heads nodding around the room.
"Well," I said, "you may have heard about the Apollo Theater in New York City, in Harlem, actually. White artists were certainly 'welcome' to perform there [and Buddy Holly did, in the 60s], but decades passed before a white R&B act actually did, and that was Darryl Hall and John Oates. They were the first white musicians to successfully perform at the Apollo in years, and in addition to craft, skill and confidence, that took a lot of courage on their part. That's not really something we can ask of someone we want to come here in the spirit of open invitation.
"Bear in mind as well, that when we are talking about the oppression of sexual minorities, that a lot of that persecution came, and continues to come, at the hands of people who call themselves Christians. Without the assurance that we actively encourage the attendance of everyone, it is too much to ask people from that community to expect a loving, non-judgmental welcome."
James added, "Remember that the rainbow sticker [displayed by affirming ministries] saves lives." Everyone swivelled to look at him as he continued: "In Vancouver, a young man tired of bullying because he was gay had emptied his locker and was planning to end his own life when he spotted the rainbow sticker outside of an affirming hurch. He went in to talk to someone, found acceptance, and ended up changing his mind."
James' story was very powerful, but I had struggled to come up with an analogy a little closer to home than Hall & Oates to describe the difference between welcoming and affirming; to answer the question the 16 people in the room were going to hear from their friends who couldn't or wouldn't attend: "what is the point of going through all this rigamarole anyhow?" I said as much, and then made my attempt.
"It's like arriving late to a dinner party; everyone turns, and is glad you made it, but a little surprised. They tell you to bring in a chair from the other room, and immediately begin to re-position themselves so there is room to accommodate you. And that's pretty good.
"But how much better would it be to arrive to a room full of smiles and hear someone say, 'We are so glad you made it! Here, we saved you a seat.' That is the kind of difference we are talking about."
There were nods and murmurs of assent around the room.
We already have an inclusive marriage policy and an 'out' minister, but we have some work to do before that seat is ready. I really got the impression from that room though, that there are more than a couple of people who would like to get to that point, and that is pretty encouraging.