At the board meeting where Gower Street United Church recently voted on the issue of same-gender marriages, members of the board made a clear recommendation: let’s share what we have learned with the wider church. There was a general belief that the process we undertook in reaching our decision held value for other congregations tackling contentious issues, so this article is offered in that spirit—as a pathway for others to consider.
When Rev. Marion Davis and I began in ministry at Gower Street United Church in 2005 the members of the Worship and Sacraments Committee told us they had been waiting for their new ministry team to get in place before beginning a process of exploring same-gender marriages. What a way to start our ministry, we thought. Nice and quietly!
In 2004, same-gender marriages were legalized in Newfoundland and Labrador, and many people were aware of the United Church of Canada’s public support of the issue. As one of the prominent downtown churches in St. John’s, we knew it wouldn’t be long before same-gender couples began approaching us to ask to get married in our church. Before that happened we wanted to have had a chance to think the issue through for ourselves.
It was not immediately clear who was ultimately responsible for setting wedding policy at the church. Since the Worship and Sacraments Committee had been handling the details concerning weddings up to that point, we made the assumption (which later turned out to have been incorrect) that this committee also set wedding policy. We started in with this understanding.
Our first step was to conduct the four workshops outlined in On Love and Justice: Toward the Civil Recognition of Same-Sex Marriage (published by the Justice Global and Ecumenical Relations Unit of the United Church of Canada, 2003) for the members of the Worship and Sacraments Committee. These four workshops were designed to address personal experiences of homosexuality, community norms, and justice issues.
Since we knew that even this would be unsettling for some in the congregation, and since we wanted to do everything with as much transparency as possible, we made sure to announce each session in the church bulletin. On Love and Justice is now out of date, so we modified the workshops as we went along and decided to dispense with the fourth suggested workshop altogether—the one designed to evaluate the process—since it was clear by the end of the third workshop that the members of the Worship and Sacraments Committee had become of one mind. After much honest and prayerful discussion and sharing of points of view, each person had become supportive of same-gender marriage. We spent what would have been our final workshop talking about how to move forward.
Although our understanding at the time was that the Worship and Sacraments Committee could formulate the church’s marriage policy on its own, we knew that doing this without any education of or discussion with the wider congregation would be divisive and hurtful. We wanted to invite the congregation itself into a process of workshops such as we had just undergone, but we felt that we first needed the board to be both informed and supportive. So, in the spring of 2006, the Worship and Sacraments Committee conducted a one-hour workshop on same-gender marriage with the board. This involved a very brief Bible study, a short theological reflection, and a quick “where are you on this issue” conversation with a partner. Participants were asked to consider questions such as: How are you feeling about being here today? What do you hope for Gower and for the ministry of Jesus Christ?
After personal reflections and case studies were offered, board members were asked to describe what had spoken to them in what they had heard. Similar questions were posed after biblical material and a United Church of Canada understanding of marriage and equality rights were shared: What are the scriptures saying to you? What spoke to you in the evolving story of marriage in the United Church’s approach to marriage? Where do you see God calling us now?
Worship and Sacraments Committee members provided leadership at this session, which helped to inform the board that this was not a clergy-only agenda. One hour was barely enough time to scratch the surface of the issue. At the end of the hour we summarized the board’s choices as follows:
- Stop the process right now.
- Ask for another, longer workshop where the board can get more information.
- Proceed to congregational workshops and education.
None of us wanted the board to stop the process, but we felt we had to offer that as a real option. If the board members themselves couldn’t be open to this, we wondered how we could expect the congregation to be open, either. After a wonderful discussion, the board members elected to request another workshop for themselves as the next step in the process.
The second workshop was held the following fall (October 2006) for most of a Saturday, with both clergy and Worship and Sacraments Committee members once again acting as workshop leaders. During the intervening summer I had had the privilege of serving as a delegate to General Council 39, our triennial national governance meeting, where we were taught a model of discernment called Kerygma Café1 (see box, left). The basic principles of this model involve creating hospitable conversational space for people to talk together without needing to argue or convince each other. The purpose of the conversation is listening for the Spirit as we explore questions that matter and connect diverse perspectives. The Kerygma model is also based on the belief that when we give ourselves permission to do so, we actually do want to talk about the Spirit in our lives. I brought this back from the General Council and we integrated it into the workshop. It was a wonderful model, and later on became integral to our whole process.
During the Kerygma Café portions of our workshops, participants were asked to reflect on and respond to questions such as: How did you first learn about homosexuality? What messages did you receive about it? How have your feelings and opinions changed over time? What has most influenced you?
After a presentation of case studies about why lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people might want to be married in a church, and biblical reflections on Genesis 19, Romans 1:26–27 and other materials, participants were asked: What speaks to you in what we have just heard? What is the scripture saying to you? What do you think the next step is?
Finally, participants were asked about the process: Was this useful for you? Was it intimidating? Was it a faithful process? What else would you have wanted? Name some of the high points for this afternoon. Name some of the low points.
At the end of that workshop (which was also well advertised in the bulletin and open to any members of the congregation who wanted to attend), the board members gathered together to formulate a statement indicating the board’s support for a long, careful congregational process—a statement that would be put to a vote at its next meeting. At the board’s next meeting in November, after healthy and honest discussion, that also passed.
Up until this point the Worship and Sacraments Committee had no real concept of what this longer congregational process would look like! We spent the first months of 2007 reviewing articles, gathering material, and discussing what to do. (We used a very helpful document of best practices created by Affirm United/S’affirmer Ensemble, the UCC grass-roots organization that promotes full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people in the church and society). By the time the board held its March meeting, we had a process that we were really proud of. The board approved it, and we started the proc
ess in April 2007.
At this point we invited an openly gay man who is part of the congregation to join the Worship and Sacraments Committee. We felt very strongly that we needed a homosexual person to be part of the planning process to ensure that we were respectful and appropriate. He entered the process with energy, and we are deeply grateful for his wisdom, wit, and patience.
What came to be known as the Year of Conversation on Same-Sex Marriage started with several commitments on our part:
- Be open.
- Tell everyone ahead of time what you’re going to do.
- Provide avenues of communication.
- Remember to care for people on both sides of the issue.
- Preserve community.
- Be faithful.
In all our planning and talking, we realized that what we most wanted to avoid were explosive or acrimonious meetings during which people would be visibly pitted against each other. When we started the Year of Conversation we had everything laid out ahead of time except the end of the process! We just kept saying: It won’t be divisive. It will be collaborative. And we’re working on it.
The pieces we put in place for the year included creating a logo and selecting a color to represent the Year of Conversation about Same-Sex Marriage, creating a flier introducing the project, setting up a bulletin board devoted to it, planning a sermon series that would relate to the issue, setting up workshops for information and conversation, and creating anonymous spaces for public response.
Goldenrod yellow was selected as our color, and our logo—two rectangles of different densities linked by sweeping lines—was designed to give the impression of dialogue. Everything we produced about the conversation on same-sex marriage was printed on goldenrod paper with the logo to clearly identify it as part of our process.
The first thing we created was a trifold flier introducing the Year of Conversation and laying out the plan clearly so that members of the congregation could anticipate what was to come. The flier also underlined the fact that communities are not marked by unity but by the ability to embrace differing opinions. We emphasized this in many ways through our year, using the words community, diversity, and strength.
“In our denomination, each particular congregation decides for itself who can and cannot be married by their ministry personnel,” the flier explained. “The goal of this Year of Conversation,” it continued, “is to ensure that all members and friends of Gower have the opportunity to find out more, to ask questions, and to express concerns before a decision is made about whether or not to offer same-sex marriages. The test of any community is its ability to tolerate differences of opinion. We have confidence that Gower is: a community where truth can be spoken, a community where we can agree to disagree, a community that cares about justice, [and] a community that is truly welcoming.” The flier was handed out at church for weeks, and then made available on the bulletin board throughout the whole year.
The bulletin board we set up in our lobby was a permanent, visible sign of our commitment to the Year of Conversation. On it we announced the Year of Conversation and posted fliers for people to take. As other materials were generated (sermons, in particular), they were added. We also offered a different quotation every week or so, such as the following:
- “The price of the democratic way of life is a growing appreciation of people’s differences, not merely as tolerable, but as the essence of a rich and rewarding human experience.”—Jerome Nathanson
- “Since when do you have to agree with people to defend them from injustice?”—Lillian Hellman
- “People are pretty much alike. It’s only that our differences are more susceptible to definition than our similarities.”—Linda Ellerbee
In our sermon series, we wanted to address difficult biblical texts concerning homosexuality, historical opinions, United Church theology, and personal experiences. We planned nine sermons but ended up preaching only seven (other congregational priorities stole some of our time).2
We had the most response to the sermons on the biblical texts known euphemistically in the LGBT communtiy as “clobber texts.” These included Genesis 19, Romans 1:24–32, and 1 Corinthians 6, all of which speak of the “unnatural” nature of same-gender sex. Each text was explored both historically and theologically, allowing for a reinterpretation of its judgment. What horrified the text writers was a practice that they believed expressed idolatry, a sin against God, not a practice that we interpret as the normal expression of a person’s natural sexual orientation.
All of these sermons were uploaded to the church’s website each week. Print copies were made available in the lobby the same week they were preached and each subsequent week in an envelope on the bulletin board. We printed hundreds of pages and often filled up our sermon envelopes multiple times a month.
Opportunities for expression and discussion took two forms. One was an anonymous forum for conversation and the other a forum for public education and discussion. For the anonymous forum, we considered a suggestion box but quickly realized that this would be a private conversation between individual congregational members and the committee. As a result, we chose instead to put blank flipcharts and markers in all six of our washrooms.
Each month a member of the committee read all the comments posted on the flipcharts and added a signed comment of his or her own to show people that we were in the conversation. The sheets remained up all year. We got amazing responses from people inside and outside the church, from “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” to “Gay is God’s way.” An at-risk youth group that meets in our building added some very racy material, which we didn’t censor. Although we left it in place, we asked that they respect our conversation, which they did—with an apology left on the paper!
The “washroom wall” aspect of the Year of Conversation caused the most public response. We were featured in a local paper and even did a radio interview from one of our bathrooms, reading some of the comments that had been posted on the flipcharts and sharing what was going on at Gower.
Our public education/discussion forums took the form of a three-hour workshop (including a meal), which we offered eight times during our year. Congregational members could go to any workshop, while people who served on committees were invited to their own workshops. In this way we ensured that everyone could participate with the group they felt most comfortable with. We also offered workshops for the choir, United Church Women, Men’s Club, and Sunday school. The Sunday school workshop was held during church, for only one hour. Parents were all called ahead of time and were invited to attend with their children if they wished.
The workshop was almost the same as the one offered to the board. It involved personal reflection, a history of the issue, Bible study, a Kerygma Café-style discussion period, and a personal story of a same-gender relationship. The workshop agenda and handouts were available ahead of time in the lobby. Even people not participating could take the material.
Pulling It Together
The first sermon introducing the Year of Conversation on Same-Sex Marriage was preached in April 2007, and the first workshop was held the following week, in May. In the fall, along with running the workshops and conducting its normal business as a committee, Worship and Sacraments turned to wondering about how to end the process. Once again we read articles and gathered resources, this time focusing on consensus-building, conf
lict management, and family systems. Helpful resources included several articles: Peter Short’s “Love and Marriage,”3 Marlis McCollum’s “Respectfully Disagreeing: How Dialogue Works to Transform Conflict,”4 Wendy Cadge’s “Dialogues across Difference: Congregations Talk about Homosexuality,”5 and Martin B. Copenhaver’s “Who is Robert, Anyway? And Why Do We Think We Have to Follow His Rules?”6
In the spring of 2008, we were preparing a plan for a congregational meeting using consensus building. We wanted to take the plan to the board and propose it for the board to facilitate for the whole congregation. However, while we were fine-tuning our thinking we decided to double-check with the United Church legal counsel about the actual vote process. Good thing we did! A legal opinion had been offered as early as 2005 that the Session or equivalent is the only appropriate body to vote on marriage policy. At Gower, we have no Session, and in many respects our Worship and Sacraments Committee fulfills the function of a Session; however, the members of the committee are not elected. The legal counsel clarified for us that only elected elders could vote. The only people elected in our governance model are the members of the board; therefore, for this purpose, they are our elders. Up until this point, no one had realized this.
I circulated the legal opinion to the Worship and Sacraments Committee members before our next meeting. We quickly agreed that we had to change our plan, and instead of preparing a congregational meeting to be led by the board, we needed to prepare the congregation to communicate clearly to the board so that the board itself could vote.
We circulated the legal opinion to members of the board and explained why we were proposing the change. It was a difficult adjustment for the board members to make, and we knew it would be equally difficult for the congregation. While we had never specifically said “there will be a congregational vote,” it had always been assumed that this is what we meant when we said “there will be a day of decision.” (We had actually made a conscious decision very early on to use the word “decision” instead of “vote” since we had hoped to avoid a vote altogether, but this was pretty subtle and many people missed the nuance.)
The board reluctantly agreed to the change of plan, and asked the Worship and Sacraments Committee to circulate the entire legal decision to the congregation while explaining why the board alone would vote. We created a congregational insert for the weekly bulletin that thanked everyone for their participation in the Year of Conversation, explained that the ultimate decision- making process was changing and why, and provided information about when and where the board would make its decision. (All our board meetings are open for members to attend.) The insert also included the exact wording of the motion the Worship and Sacraments Committee planned to present to the board (see box, page 16).
Then we scheduled one last conversation in the Year of Conversation, calling it “The End.” By this time some people were delighted to see the end in sight! After church, on the Sunday before the board vote, board members agreed to meet with anyone who wanted to talk with them. Worship and Sacraments Committee members and one of the ministers were also present. We provided a slide show of United Church positions on marriage and human sexuality and a suggestion box. We also moved all of the Washroom Walls Project comments into the lecture hall and hung the banner that the Sunday school children had made at their workshop on same-sex marriage. Everything was there. Six people came! The conversation was over.
Three days later the board met, with the only guest being one member of the Worship and Sacraments Committee. The vote was the first item on the agenda. It took an hour. We had ballots available, but in the end it was decided to take the vote by a show of hands. The motion passed with all but one vote in favor. After a deep, prayer-filled breath we moved on to other business. There was a sense in the room that our future was beckoning us forward in faith.
The board included the wording of the motion in the bulletin for the following weeks, and subsequent sermons have made reference to our decision, acknowledging that we all don’t agree with it but we are now learning to live with it.
By taking our time, by dealing with the possibility of dissenting opinions openly and pastorally, and by allowing multiple opportunities for people to approach the issue, we were able to come safely through a process that might have torn us apart. We became what we talked about from the beginning: a community strong enough to disagree and still work together in serving Jesus Christ.
1. For an introduction to the Kerygma Café process, see http://www.united-church.ca/organization/gc39/kerygmacafe#top .
2. For the complete text of these sermons, see www.gowerunited.ca . (Follow the links to Sermons and then Sermons on Same-Gender Marriage.)
3. Peter Short, “Love and Marriage” (Outside Eden, Observer Publications, 2006)
4. Marlis McCollum, “Respectfully Disagreeing: How Dialogue Works to Transform onflict” (Congregations, Summer 2006, Alban Institute)
5. Wendy Cadge, “Dialogues across Difference: Congregations Talk about omosexuality” (Congregations, Summer 2006, Alban Institute)
6. Martin B. Copenhaver, “Who is Robert, Anyway? And Why Do We Think We Have to Follow His Rules?” (Congregations, Fall 2007, Alban Institute).
Questions for Reflection
- The committee responsible for guiding our congregation in this decision made a very clear commitment to transparency, continually informing the congregation of what they were doing, of what others were doing, and—when confusion arose—even of the nature of the confusion. How might this model be used in other areas of ministry?
- The clergy took a collaborative approach throughout the decision-making process. Rather than making a plan and bringing the laypeople on board, they worked with the Worship and Sacraments Committee so that all steps of the process were imagined and implemented by the whole group. How might this process be used in other areas of ministry?
- At a certain point, the Worship and Sacraments Committee felt that they needed to involve a “stakeholder” in their planning and invited an openly gay man to join them. This prevented any tendency toward the use of “us/them” language and challenged both the committee members and those who came to the workshops to be more aware of the human side of the issue at hand. How can we involve those who will be affected by our ministry in the planning of our ministry?
- Recognizing from the beginning that there were members of our congregation on both sides of the decision we were confronting, we made a conscious choice to use the language of community in our decision-making process. We spoke repeatedly about the challenge of disagreeing within community and emphasized this as a strength. In what other contexts might this approach be helpful?
- Everyone in our congregation was invited to participate in our decision-making process in one form or another. This included the Sunday school, where children and their parents were given an opportunity to respond both verbally and artistically and to contribute to
the wider congregational discussion through the creation of a banner. Do you think that involving children in a difficult congregational decision is important? How might you enable this in your congregation?
The Motion We Passed
WHEREAS the United Church affirms “that marriage is a gift of God through which Christians make a covenant with one another and with God.” (From Gift, Dilemma and Promise: A Report and Affirmation of Human Sexuality, 1984).
AND WHEREAS we believe that marriage is the framework within which love may flourish, grow and endure (from Peter Short, Outside Eden);
AND WHEREAS we believe that marriage is not a spontaneous relationship, but one which transforms each person through the sharing of promises and the blessing of God and of the faithful community (Short);
AND WHEREAS we believe that homosexual persons are fully human and fully members of our community with all the rights and responsibilities of the same (Short);
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the congregation of Gower Street United Church be open to marry any couple which approaches it, provided the couple satisfy the minister attending of their intentions to faithfulness and commitment.
The Kerygma Café: How It’s Done
The Kerygma Café conversation process is modeled after the kind of conversation one might expect to have among a few friends gathered at a table. It is designed to talk over things that matter and to help participants work out and integrate their thinking.
It is founded on the following principles:
Kerygma Café-style conversations take place among groups of four seated at tables covered with paper, where participants are encouraged to write their insights, reflections, or emerging themes—or to draw, doodle, or write poetry.
When participants are first seated, they select a host for their group and read (aloud or silently) the question to be addressed. The host then moderates as each person addresses the question. When a bell is rung by the Café facilitator, participants pause for prayer. All members of each group—except the host—then move to a new table. Once the new group has assembled, the host shares something significant from the previous conversation. By bringing to the new group what occurred in the last group’s conversation, the model cultivates the development of a many-layered conversation.
The Kerygma Café process was recently introduced at General Council 39, the triennial national governance meeting of the United Church of Canada, by Deb Bowman, chair of the Agenda and Planning Committee. As she said in her introduction to the Café process at http://www.united-church.ca/organization/gc39/kerygmacafe#top, participants will “be listening for the Spirit and to each other, … to be reminded of who we are” and to seek “some sense of where God is pulling us.”