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Mainstream and progressive churches reach out to LGBTs

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The passion is palpable in Pastor Jon Culp’s chambers.

He and Paul Gibson, Office Administrator of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Clearwater, eagerly relate details of changes in their denomination—the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s policy that now allows same-sex commitment ceremonies. They are passionate about the ELCA’s resolution allowing the ceremonies, and they are passionate about their congregation.

“We are drawing new members, the majority likely of which are not gay, but they want to be in a place that is seeking to do justice and is walking the walk not just talking the talk,” says Culp. He’s referring to a same-sex “blessing” ceremony he will now be allowed to do in April. It’s called a “blessing” ceremony because he currently cannot give it a name, according to his denomination. But that fact that he can perform it all is significant.

In August of 2009, the ELCA had the exact number of votes to pass a resolution stating the church would commit to “finding ways to allow congregations that choose to do so to recognize, support, and hold publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.” 

SpiritHome1_483949037.jpgThat’s a big statement for a mainstream denomination that previously allowed clergy to be openly gay but only if they were single. In 2006, Atlanta Rev. Bradley Schmeling’s bishop removed him from the clergy roster of St. John’s Lutheran Church after he revealed he had found a life-long partner. The congregation of St. John’s refused to recognize the bishop’s decision, and at his congregation’s request, Schmeling stayed in the church pulpit but without his clergy status.

That began a three year battle within the ELCA and prompted the supervising body to review its policy.     

With last August’s resolution, the 10,000 ELCA churches nationwide can now determine for themselves if they choose to support homosexual partnerships among clergy or lay members. To date, only 28 congregations have chosen to depart from the ELCA in response to the resolution.

The congregation of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Clearwater quickly passed its approval and became an affirming denomination which will bless “lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.” The ELCA has not given a name to the “blessing.” That is to be determined by a committee over the next several months which will create and develop the process for liturgies in these ceremonies. But Culp says it’s a big step forward. 

“Three years ago I could not have seen this happen in 10 years,” he says. “Through the power of the Spirit, this has SpiritHome2_777580942.jpgtransformed.”

Progressive inclusion
While the ELCA is moving forward ahead of many mainstream denominations, progressive churches have been reaching out to the LGBT community for years. For nearly four decades, Metropolitan Community Churches has held same-sex marriages around the globe.

Reverend Dee Graham, now a fellowshipped Unitarian Universalist minister in St. Petersburg, first married her partner Sig Quandt in an Atlanta MCC church in 1977. The women then held a commitment ceremony before the UU General Assembly in 1998 and finally on October 11, 2002, in the city of Berkeley, Calif., the day the city enacted civil unions.

“We did it so we could have health insurance and benefits we otherwise could not get,” says Graham about their Berkeley union.

Now as a UU minister, Graham performs weddings for gay and straight couples in line with the Unitarian Universalist principles.

“Our faith stands on the side of love, we have a democratic polity, and we’ve chosen to stand on the side of same sex marriage since the 70s,” Graham explains.

But she does acknowledge there are UU ministers who’ve chosen not to perform any ceremonies at all until all weddings are considered legal.

“I totally respect those clergy who made that stand, but I know what it would’ve meant for us to have signed that paper,” Graham says.

Graham says she honors the commitment between two people, whether gay or straight.

“I think marriage is about the two people involved, and if I can help honor that commitment in the ceremony, then I am blessed to have that privilege.”

Reverend Temple Hayes of First Unity of St. Petersburg shares Graham’s sentiments.

“The true intention is to say, ‘I am committed to supporting your individuality and to share your heart with you, however I do not own your heart nor own you. As a loving partner, I commit to supporting you as an individual all the days of your life,’” Hayes says.

Hayes emphasizes there is no distinction made between a gay couple and a straight couple within the Unity movement.

“Unity embraces all people from all faiths, all places, and all walks of life,” she explains.

Hayes points out that some heterosexual couples choose to have holy unions instead of marriages for differing reasons, whether to avoid documentation, maintain personal benefits such as social security, or simply by choice. She says it’s important to understand each couple’s unique situation and desires, and design a holy union around that.    

“We are non-traditional in nature, this isn’t a package we put together and offer whether you’re gay or straight,” Hayes says. “We offer everything to everyone and encourage participation of the whole family as part of our service.”

Hayes is encouraged by the action of the ELCA and other denominations now moving forward in diversity.

“We as a culture have to celebrate how far we’ve come,” she says. “Are we there yet? No, but we cannot conveniently forget how far we’ve come.”

For Gibson and Pastor Culp, celebrating now means they can openly welcome everyone with compassion and care.

“We’re trying to reach the people who want to be part of the church and have felt that they couldn’t,” says Gibson.

Both believe the recent ELCA resolution will open the way for their denomination to reach out to the LGBT community more, by putting the choice to welcome all couples in the hands of each individual church body.

“We see it as a real need, a real opportunity and we feel blessed to be able to extend a hand of welcome,” says Culp passionately. “The future is going to be very congregationally driven.”