The Affirmation Conversation

September 24, 2017
Rev. Sean Handcock

The words “eighty-eight” have a particular resonance within the United Church of Canada.

While some of us are too young to remember most of us still recall that eighty-eight was the year that General Council – our national governing body – met in Victoria BC and declared by a three to one margin:

A) That all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, who profess Jesus Christ and obedience to Him, are welcome to be or become full members of the Church.

B) All members of the Church are eligible to be considered for the Ordered Ministry.

At the time it was a stunning decision. I mean, it wasn’t news that a certain element of the church was leaning in that direction.

In 1980 a report commissioned by the General Council In God’s Image… Male and Female had reported that there was no reason why self-accepting homosexuals couldn’t serve as clergy.

And in 1984 a new task group on sexual orientation and ministry recommended that “in and of itself, sexual orientation should not be a factor in determining membership in the Order of Ministry.”

But it was also widely known that 90% of the many hundreds of local discussion groups tasked with debating the issue were in opposition and that only 28% of congregants surveyed were in favor.

And yet, after several days of debate, emotional stories, and impassioned pleas – at a meeting where many were meeting the first, openly homosexual individual they’d ever met in their lives – the court was swayed.

Sexual orientation would no longer bar anyone from full participation in the life and work of the United Church of Canada. And for a lot of folks that mean the decision had been made and the issue resolved.

Except it really wasn’t.

You see, as a result of our Congregationalist roots the General Council doesn’t have any authority over the life and ministry of individual congregations.

They can set policy. They can offer direction. They can even change the admission standards to the Order of Ministry.

But what they can’t do is compel so much as a single congregation to accept a gay minister, to perform a same-sex wedding, or to even tolerate homosexuals within their church community.

And the sad truth is that in the wake of eighty-eight most of our communities just weren’t interested.

Over the next ten years only nine congregations in all of Canada were willing to publicly admit that they were willing to be served by homosexual clergy and only 27 of more than 200 gay clergy were serving openly.

Clearly we had a long way to go before we could proudly proclaim that all were welcome within the United Church of Canada.

To help facilitate this transformation Affirm United was founded to provide education, support, and affirmative action aimed at ending discrimination within the church and society.

It also sought to create a network of churches that would be both safe and welcoming to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities as despite the decision of eighty-eight most of our churches were not.

These are what we now commonly refer to as affirming congregations.

But as the work of Affirm United got under way it didn’t take them long to realize that there were a whole host of other issues that the church – as a whole – was turning a blind eye to.

While we do a much better job of it now many, many churches are all but inaccessible to people with mobility issues and their worship far from welcoming to people with hearing or vision deficits.

There are lots of communities that refuse to take food allergies seriously and are not at all a safe place to share if you have a mental health issue.

We habitually exclude by class, by race, by age, and education and we do it so reflexively that most of us aren’t even aware of what we’re doing – unless someone points it out to us – and even then we’re much more likely to take offence than to take action.

We really, really wish it were so, but all are not welcome in our church.

But that’s something we’d like to change.

Most of you probably don’t know this, but in 2015 – for the first time ever – our church was approached to perform a same-sex wedding.

As is our policy I took the decision to both the Worship Committee and the Board, both of which unanimously voted to allow me to conduct the service. But they also agreed that we needed to have a deeper conversation on the topic.

And I suggested that if we wanted to have that conversation we should go deeper and broader; we should look at becoming an affirming congregation.

But what does that mean?

Well, for starters, it means intentionally transforming our community into a safe and welcoming space for individuals of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

It also means exploring all the other ways in which we intentionally – or unintentionally – exclude others and invest in ways to make them feel more welcome; to go beyond the limits of hospitality and practice the radical hospitality of Jesus Christ.

Which means we need a whole lot of education because as a church we rarely delve into any lengthy discussions on gender, sexuality, race, mental health, physical ability, age, or class from a social justice perspective – and that’s a perspective we’re sorely going to need if we choose to become affirming.

And it is a choice. Just because we take the time to educate ourselves and discuss these issues doesn’t mean that we’re under any obligation to become an affirming congregation.

We need to make that decision together and most of us have to be in agreement.

Because to be affirming isn’t just about making welcome the people who occasionally turn up on our door step it’s to actively seek out people the church has excluded and invite them to join us on our faith journey.

It isn’t just to proclaim from the pulpit that we value justice and equity it’s to actively engage the community on issues of social justice and to be a force for change both locally and globally.

It isn’t even just a process that you can do and say you’ve done, but to admit that your community will need constant education on a whole host of topics if it expects to remain at the cutting edge of social justice and to be as radically hospitable as your community hopes to be.

It’s not a light commitment. But it’s one I think we’re ready to talk about.

And to talk about it with you our Board has assembled a team. If the Affirmation Committee would please come up to the front so that everyone can see and recognize you.

Under the leadership of Margaret Atkinson – and just so you know Margaret’s always recruiting – these dedicated members of our congregation have put their time, talent, and passion for social justice at the disposal of the affirmation committee and will be facilitating a number of conversations and educational opportunities on a wide variety of topics over the next couple of years.

And it’s my hope that you’ll lend them your attention as I know I’ve already learned an enormous amount having worked alongside them as we’ve spent last year together preparing ourselves for this task.

And what I’ve learned is that as much as I thought I knew about gender, sexuality, race, class, age, and the reality of various physical and mental health challenges I didn’t know nearly enough to be a successful ally in the fight for social justice and my idea of what it meant to be welcoming was a little hazier than I’d like.

So while we’ll eventually have to make a decision as to whether or not we wish to become an affirming congregation, for now, I hope you’ll be able to set that aside and give just yourselves over to the process.

To open your minds. To open your hearts. And catch a glimpse of what justice might look like from a different point of view; the point of view of someone who hasn’t always felt welcomed by our church; but yet desperately longs to be a part of it; and to forge their own relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

We say all our welcome here. Let’s see if we can make that statement true.