1. What’s the difference between welcoming everyone and being “Open and Affirming?
Many churches say that they welcome everyone. Some will say that they welcome people who are gay or transgender, but what they mean by that is that they welcome LGBT people who wish to change who they are. In other cases, LGBT people may be welcome, but it’s expected that they won’t be too open about who they are.
Being Open and Affirming means more than just accepting LGBT people into the church. It means a commitment to affirming the whole, authentic person as a child of God, made in the image of God.
Here’s a story that illustrates the difference.
A gay couple started attending a friendly, open-minded church in their community. After a few months, they shared with the congregation one Sunday that they were celebrating their tenth wedding anniversary that weekend. It was common for members to share that kind of celebration, and everyone cheered and congratulated them. The following week, the leader of the congregation was approached with a concern. A few of the parents with older children wanted it known that they were very fond of the couple and had no problem at all with their “lifestyle,” but thought there should be a conversation about them “calling attention to their relationship so much at church.” While they wanted only the best for the couple, they were uncomfortable with their children learning that being gay is something to celebrate.
Church leadership assured the parents that their concern was being taken seriously, and that they would reach out to the gay couple and arrange for them all to sit down, hear each other out, and work out some sort of compromise, such as agreeing not to discuss their marriage in the presence of children.
The church in this story may be open, but it is not being affirming.
Leaders of an Open and Affirming church would have a firm commitment to treating all members and families as equally worthy of celebration, and to publicly proclaiming the church as a place where LGBT people will not be thought of as inferior or as less beloved and affirmed by God.
At an Open and Affirming church, a conversation about whether children should witness gay relationships being celebrated is a conversation the church should already have had during the study process, and agreed that the answer is “yes.” By revisiting questions like that again and again, they would be subjecting their gay members to the kind of degrading interaction that the church had intentionally become a sanctuary from.
This doesn’t mean, however, that the concerned parents would be ignored or dismissed. Instead of treating as valid the idea that affirming gay people and their relationships harms children, the church would lovingly engage them about their fears, and the gay couple would not be expected to take on the burden of defending the worthiness of their relationship.
2. But why does “Open and Affirming” mean only LGBT people? Everyone should be affirmed and celebrated, not just the members of one group.
You’re right, and our statement of faith makes explicit our welcome and affirmation of all kinds of people, including those of other faiths. But the reason there’s a movement within the United Church of Christ that explicitly affirms LGBT people is that historically, churches have explicitly rejected LGBT people and told them that it’s not possible for them to be a Christian unless they first reject who they were created to be. Many LGBT people are also people of deep faith, and this rejection has caused incalculable pain – damaging family relationships, leading to depression, substance abuse and suicide, and driving people away from God and the church. Aside from the damage wrought to the body of Christ, the condemnation and demonizing language used in some churches has caused profound harm to our LGBT sisters and brothers far beyond the church.
While many other communities are subjected to discrimination and mistreatment, for those communities the church is often a source of strength and comfort in the face of that oppression. Uniquely for the LGBT community, the church itself has historically been a significant source of oppression and mistreatment. For these reasons, we are called to be intentional and explicit in creating space in our church for reconciliation, healing, and correcting of these past wrongs.
3. Why do we need to be public and visible about being Open and Affirming? Why isn’t it good enough to just be affirming of everyone in the church?
Because one of the reasons for being Open and Affirming is that people looking for a church need to know there’s a place where they will truly be welcome and safe in being who they are. Many churches claim to “welcome everyone,” but that phrase can be misleading (see Question 1).
For a person who has been wounded by their experience in other churches, or who has a negative impression of churches in general, what they can see from the outside makes a big difference to whether they will take the risk of looking inside. Consider a mom whose young child has come out to her as transgender, and has discovered that her long-time church refuses to accept her daughter as a girl. Without seeing any external sign that we are explicitly welcoming and safe for families like hers, she is faced with visiting church after church trying to gauge whether her daughter will be safe and affirmed there. After a few disappointing experiences she may give up on finding a church entirely.
Without an explicit sign that we are Open and Affirming, we look just like any other church from the outside. And without explicit language that explains what Open and Affirming means, we sound just like every other church claiming that they welcome everyone, when that often isn’t quite true.