“How Far Does Covenant Stretch?”
Last week, many of us in the Minnesota Conference returned from General Synod, the UCC’s biennial assembly of churches, members, and leadership from across the nation. As is always the case with the United Church of Christ and our General Synod, it was simultaneously a beautiful, messy, life-giving and exasperating experience. Nearly 3000 attendees worshipped, debated, communed, and acted together as one gathered church.
Of the over 20 resolutions that came to the floor of General Synod for a vote, on issues ranging from nuclear war to the use of Styrofoam, one particular resolution laid bare some deep wounds and opened up some very fundamental questions about who we are in the UCC. The name of the resolution, “Stewardship of Exhibit Space”, hid its explosive implications for our life together. At issue was whether a more conservative group of congregations in the UCC called “Faithful and Welcoming Churches” should be allowed to have exhibit space at General Synod given that group’s failure to fully embrace our LGBTQ members.
The debate surrounding these issues boiled down to some questions that strike right at the heart of the UCC’s own identity. How far does our bold claim of “extravagant welcome” and “radical hospitality” extend? Are we really the “big tent” we say we are, a church community that can creatively and graciously hold the tension between different points of view? Is the covenant that holds us together elastic enough to truly allow for autonomy of thought and theology?
The Open and Affirming Coalition of the UCC, our national coalition supporting LGBTQ persons and allies, released its own statement ahead of Synod recommending defeat of the “Stewardship of Exhibit Space” resolution, insisting that “graceful engagement” should remain our practice and that excluding members of our body from our shared spaces would only harm the Open and Affirming movement. But other members of the LGBTQ community strenuously disagreed, including many youth who tearfully witnessed to their need for spaces free of all judgement.
The issues at stake were ultimately not resolved. After painful, agonizing debate, the resolution was tabled and will now be considered by the United Church of Christ Board. But the difficult questions remain for all of us. How far can our covenant be stretched? Are there limits to our frequent claim that “no matter who you are or where you are, you are welcome here”?
Earlier this week, I joined with others from the United Theological Seminary community to sit in solidarity with our neighbors at First Covenant church in downtown Minneapolis. That church and its senior pastor had sat in “trial” the previous week at the national gathering of their own denomination, the Evangelical Covenant church. The judgment of that denomination was to “de-frock” the pastor and remove the congregation from membership because they were deemed “out of harmony” with the tenets of that denomination in regards to the welcome and inclusion of LGBTQ persons. The congregation and pastor had determined that nothing less than full welcome would be consistent with the call of our faith; the denomination felt the opposite. The result was complete disenfranchisement.
As I listened to them describe the costs of their courageous witness, I could not help but reflect on the UCC’s own struggles the week before at our own General Synod. I have always been grateful in the United Church of Christ for the freedom each of us has to speak our own truths and for the covenantal space that allows for all voices to be heard and for differences to be graciously held. Ours is not a denomination that places each other on trial and chooses who is in and who is out based on specific beliefs and practices. But now, in the context of a society where there is little appreciation given any more to the nuance or complexity of issues, our own deepest claims about who we are being sorely tested.
The United Church of Christ Board will now take on the specific issues of the resolution tabled at General Synod. But the broader questions raised by the resolution belong to all of us in the United Church of Christ and are ours to engage. How far does our covenant stretch, and what are the limits, if any, of our extravagant welcome? What do you think?
With you on the journey,
Reverend Shari Prestemon, Conference Minister
To learn more about the debate surrounding the “Stewardship of Exhibit Space” resolution at General Synod, read this article from the national UCC website.