The Open and Affirming movement in the United Church of Christ is the formal means by which individual congregations can declare their welcome and full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people into the life of the church. Our denomination and its forebears have always been at the leading edge of breaking barriers to the full inclusion of all God’s children, with the first ordained African-American pastor in 1785 and the first ordained woman in 1853. In 1972, the UCC ordained the first openly gay person into ministry, the Rev. William R. Johnson. In 1985, the UCC’s General Synod declared itself to be “open and affirming.” Since that time, more than 400 UCC congregations and ministries have declared themselves Open and Affirming; St. James United Church of Christ is one of them.
The UCC is not a doctrinal church, and each congregation is free to engage in discernment and determine its own mission. Because at St. James we understand Scripture and other statements of belief to be testimonies of faith, not tests of faith, we are open to truth as it comes to us out of the Christian tradition, but also truth as it comes to us from our always growing and changing knowledge of God’s creation.
In the Bible, the book of Deuteronomy is very clear that the sexual minorities of that day—eunuchs—were not allowed to be members of the worshiping community; in fact, they were excluded altogether from Jewish life. However, in the book of Acts [8:36-38], we find the painful yet empowering story that poignantly demonstrates the life of grace we find in Jesus Christ—Philip’s encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch. In short, this outcast wants to be baptized. Recognizing the boundless invitation of God’s inclusive love in Christ, Philip receives the eunuch as a member of the church.
This openness to God’s extravagant welcome and boundless love was a shocking violation of the sexual mores of the time, just as our declaration that “homosexuality is not a sin” is considered a shocking violation by certain “Biblical literalists” today. Our moral compass is the rule of love exemplified by Jesus.
Christian morality . . . is a way of expressing the integrity of our relationship with God. It is the attempt to discover a manner of living that is consistent with who God created us to be. For those of same-sex orientation, as for heterosexuals, being moral means rejecting sexual mores that violate their own integrity and that of others, and attempting to discover what it would mean to live by the love ethic of Jesus.
Ten years ago, former UCC President The Rev. Paul H. Sherry wrote a pastoral letter on the topic of GLBT people in society, our congregations and ministry:
Confronted and gifted by [the presence of GLBT Christians] , members of the United Church of Christ have been challenged to read the Bible again with new eyes and listen to the Holy Spirit with new ears. We have had to reexamine long held assumptions about those few passages of Scripture that appear to speak about homosexuality in the light of transforming interpretations from widely respected Bible scholars and teachers, and we have begun to recognize how our fears of those who are different, and our society’s deeply entrenched bias against homosexual persons has often distorted and nearly silenced the Bible’s liberating and inclusive voice. At the same time, encounters with hurting and excluded sisters and brothers have caused us to look to the whole of Scripture which speaks of a God who continually reaches out for those who are cast out for any reason, those who live at the margins of our lives. We have been reminded of our identity as disciples of the One who often ate with those rejected by the religious norms of the day, the One who sets before us all the Table of God’s inclusive love, mercy, and grace.