Is an Affirming journey even needed? Four voices

From a thread on the United Church of Canada Facebook group, spring 2019. The post related to the United Methodist Church’s March 2019 decision to renew its ban on LGBTQIA+ clergy and equal marriage.

Part of the conversation turned to the Affirming process in the United Church: whether it should be a priority since the perception is that the whole church is “already welcoming”; whether it was accessible to congregations who struggle with a lack of volunteers; or whether it’s needed at all. Different opinions about how welcoming our United Church ministries really are were expressed, and debate offered up. Here are some stories from responders in that conversation, used with permission. Please note that they are speaking from their personal experiences, and not speaking on behalf of the ministries they serve.

Leigh Sinclair (Minister, Robertson-Wesley United Church, Edmonton AB): I have been in affirming congregations and welcoming congregations. There is a difference. How often do we preach love from the pulpit, how much do we discuss each marriage request and most importantly are we telling the community we live in what we believe on the outside of our building or in the safety of our hearts? The harm done by the Christian faith towards the LGTBQ communities can only be atoned for when love is shared as publically as it once proclaimed hate.

Steve Clifton (Minister, Rideau Park United Church, Ottawa ON): The congregation I serve has been engaged in the Affirming process for almost 2 years and we anticipate a vote to become an Affirming Ministry in May. And as others have noted it has been a positive, energizing experience. We have not experienced it as long and draining but as an opportunity for meaningful conversation, learning and growth. We believe that the Affirm designation is very important as it will speak to the intentional work that we have done, the self reflection we have been engaged in and the wisdom we have gained. Using the Affirm designation will help us to public, intentional and explicit in our welcoming of all people. And the learning and awareness from the process spill out into all the corners of our congregational life eg we are changing the communion bread we use… And through the process we have learned that we have much more to learn. The Affirm discussions have been a gift.

A sunlight filled older church sanctuary (worship space), full of people of all ages singing. In the foreground a woman is playing a grand piano.

Affirming celebration at Burton Avenue United Church in Barrie, winter 2019.

Julie McGonegal (lay member, Burton Avenue United Church, Barrie ON):  My congregation recently went through the Affirming process and I would say that it was hugely energizing rather than enervating. There were many of us in the congregation who felt galvanized by this work–and while our committee mostly consisted of straight cis people, we had absorbed the hurt of loved ones who have been excluded or othered by the church. The people on the committee were not all your “usual suspects” (i.e. the people who always show up) but felt a deep sense of call to THIS ministry. At our celebration a few weeks ago, there was profound joy in the sanctuary and folks said to me afterward (people who struggled initially), “This was important.”

Beth Hayward (Minister, Canadian Memorial United Church, Vancouver BC): I just want to weigh in with Canadian Memorial United Church’s experience of becoming Affirming. We went into the process with an inclusive wedding policy and a strong sense that we were already really affirming. For us the intentionality of that year was eye opening.

It was at a couple of our educational events in the process where members of the LGBTQ community said they felt the most unsafe they had ever felt in our church. Why? Because we created space for people to speak and they spoke their deeply hidden and unconscious fear, homophobia and ignorance… The types of remarks that really left some feeling unsafe were things like “we’re really all the same, just human, why do we need to treat anyone differently.” It’s not that deliberately cruel things were said but some people were dismissive and couldn’t see that the LGBTQ members of our church have experiences of exclusion and oppression that can’t be covered over with “we’re all the same.”

…What we learned is that allies have a key role in calling people on these types of remarks. We also learned that you cannot assume that any gathering in church is completely safe so you need to continually be aware of what can be done to make people feel safe and you have to be willing to be told there is still more to be done. This wasn’t a theoretical practice for us, we have active members who identify in all categories of the LGBTQ acronym, and it is tender spiritual work to engage in this learning with cis straight folks who are progressive and open minded and ignorant of some of our biases.

We had so much to learn. The Affirm process gave us the structure we needed to keep with it. Today, are we more welcoming that a congregation that has not gone through the process? Likely not BUT we now keep ourselves accountable to what we say we believe. The Affirm banner allows each and every member of the community to have the safety to speak up and say – “I think we need to worker harder on this particular area of full inclusion.”

Panorama of banners and people at Dundas Square. at our 2018 conference in Toronto.