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Sunday, October 16, 2005

When the church doesn't want to welcome the prodigal.

Wow. The Rev. John Thomas, president of the United Church of Christ, offers a pointed and illuminating critique of the resistance of some in his denomination to the UCC's embrace of gay people and same-sex marriage. In the midst of a report on the difficulties the denomination has faced since its General Synod approved a resolution supporting same-sex marriage this summer, he said:

“We know there are those in our church who struggle out of their own sense of biblical integrity over the church’s welcome and affirmation of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people,” he said. “But when I receive emails and letters from UCC members railing against such a welcome, angry that God’s gracious love is lavished on the unworthy, bitter that the church’s attention is being directed to the lost rather than to those who have faithfully tended the farm, then I sense the voice of the older brother in our midst.”

He also urged candor about the organized, well-funded movement to undermine progressives in the mainline churches:

“Groups like the Evangelical Association of Reformed, Christian and Congregational Churches and the Biblical Witness Fellowship are increasingly being exposed even as they are increasingly aggressive,” Thomas said. “Their relationship to the right-wing Institute for Religion and Democracy and its long-term agenda of silencing a progressive religious voice while enlisting the church in an unholy alliance with right-wing politics is now longer deniable. . . . United Church of Christ folk like to be ‘nice,’ to be hospitable. But, to play with a verse of scripture just a bit, we doves innocently entertain these serpents in our midst at our own peril.”

("Prodigal’s Resentful ‘Older Brother’ Still Undermines Faithfulness, Thomas Tells UCC's Executive Council," J. Bennett Guess, United Church News 10.15.05)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 16 October 2005 at 8:51 AM

Previous: UUA trustees meet in Boston this weekend.
Next: Taizé service this Thursday.




Bill Baar:

October 16, 2005 02:22 PM | Permalink for this comment

Affirmation of a same-gender marriage equality resolution is a prerequiste to welcoming a Gay person in a Church?

Those who refuse to embrace a same sex marriage are hostile to homosexuals?

This logic seems neither pointed or illuminating.

It seems foggy and unwilling to examing or understand a long history of Christian views on marriage and divorce. Like or dislike those traditions is one thing. But to claim that those views make one hostile to a person quite another step.


October 16, 2005 07:13 PM | Permalink for this comment

Read it again, Bill.

Thomas acknowledges that there are multiple schools of thought into what it means to be faithful to biblical authority: He acknowledges that some critics of the church's position object "out of their own sense of biblical integrity." But I see no evidence in this passage (or in other things the leadership of the United Church of Christ has said) that the church is "unwilling to examine or understand the long history of Christian views on marriage and divorce." In fact, their marriage resolution itself actually discusses the history and theology (and complexity) of Christian approaches to marriage.

I think the key thing Thomas is doing is calling attention to the tone and spirit of some of the opposition to the what the church has done, and I think his biblical interpretation of the parable of the prodigal son is right on target. Jesus didn't condemn the son who stayed at home, but the parable does explicitly challenge that son's resentment of the extravagent welcome the father gives to the prodigal son's return.

Thomas doesn't use the parable to argue that opposing civil marriage rights to same-sex couples means that a person is "hostile to homosexuals." He's complaining about the ill will and mean-spiritedness of some of the feedback he's received -- some of which I'm sure does express hostility to homosexuals. Thomas is saying that when people complain that the church is "doing too much" to welcome gay people -- that the church is "turning into a gay church," or is welcoming gay people at the expense of "normal" people, or any number of other complaints that portray welcoming GLBT people to church as in conflict with the needs and desires of people already comfortable in the church -- then they are behaving very much like the faithful and dutiful son who remained with the father in Jesus' parable. He is urging them to consider that they may be like this older brother. I think that's a good exegesis of the parable.

Part of what is powerful about this interpretation, in fact, is that it aso challenges some of the self-righteousness of the activists who might be impatient with people who have expressed resistance to change. After all, in the parable, the dutiful people who've had no problem with the church as it has "always" been are not kicked out or censured for their faithfulness; they're simply asked to find it in their hearts to celebrate the return of their "prodigal" brothers and sisters.

You see him clumping two separate things: welcoming gay people to full participation in the church -- which the UCC has taken on as a primary component of its denominational outreach effort, and which it has pursued in its ordination policies for a number of years -- and supporting civil marriage for same-sex couples -- which the church's legislative body endorsed this summer. Okay. But look: His church, adhering to its own policies and procedures, has embraced both policies. It's entirely appropriate for him, as an elected leader, to promote both and to talk about how they're linked. If it simply boggles your mind that these might be linked, fine.

But I'd like to raise up a fundamental problem I see in Unitarian Universalists like you criticizing a liberal-friendly Christian church for not giving up and letting conservatives define Christianity. To be blunt: Are you out of your gourd?

First, you can't have it both ways: Unitarian Universalism doesn't get to exist if traditional interpretations of authority are simply entitled to be right by virtue of their traditionalism.

That particular aspect of conservatism is what the liberal theological tradition refutes flat out. Who are we to say that, sure, our religious forebears had the right to interpret scripture critically and to arrive at untraditional conclusions, but contemporary Christians do not? Question authority was okay for Martin Luther, okay for William Tyndale, okay for William Ellery Channing, okay for Theodore Parker, but it's not okay for 21st-century liberal Christians?

Finally, I'm all for better and more theological and biblical arguments for some of the things that mainline and liberal Protestants have sometimes been content to pursue simply through "social justice" language and political tactics. It is not adequate for churches to drift left by neglecting tradition; it would be much better for the church and for the world if liberal Christians paid more attention to theology, liturgy, and mission.

But liberal Christians should not be naive about the goals and tactics of their traditionalist opponents. The debate is not just about secular political allegiances; it's not just about whether denominations tack "left" or "right" on social policies and political ideology. Some of the traditionalist opponents are hostile to much of what is genuinely liberal in the gospel itself, and that is the threat that liberal Christians must become more resourceful in responding to.

hafidha sofia:

October 16, 2005 09:47 PM | Permalink for this comment

I would like to know how opposition to gay marriage is not hostile to homosexuals (who want to get married).

Bill Baar:

October 17, 2005 08:32 AM | Permalink for this comment

Re: Hafidha sofial: My wife and I were members of a Catholic Church for ten years. The Church did not recognize our marriage. (It wasn't Catholic). As far as the Church was concerned we weren't married. I felt no hostility.

Re: "The fundamental problem of not giving up and and letting conservatives define Chriatianity. To be blunt are you out of your gourd"

Yes, often out the gourd always. I'm a believer in inverted thinking as always good for ones spiritual health.

I'd leave it to the Christians both Liberal and Conservative to define their own doctrine and creed. The history of Christianity seems distincty hostile to homosexual marriage, pluaral marriage, sex outside of marriage; there is just a Christian history there that's hard to overlook.

But try looking from this persepective from my own life.

I lived in Oak Park, Illinois. The town has the largest percentage of Gays per capita of any community in Illinois.

I know a woman who's a long time member of a Catholic Church there. She's frail, elderly, crippled by a stroke, with a face badly disfigured from cancer. She has trouble attending mass and her Priest told her if she misses a service, she can't take communion. Therefore, she misses a service she doesn't go for communion until she can make a confusion, and communion no symbol for here. It's the real body of Christ and the core of her belief.

Now, same Church will go through a ruckus when an activist presents for a communion with a rainbow banner. The person will demand communion in open defiance of the Church's teachings and doctrine. They'll split the Church and community over it.

It's a battle I'm not part of. I stay out of it. I don't comment. I've told some of my Gay friends at work, that they'd be welcome at our UU Church, but they want a Christian Liturgy. They want Communion because they tell me it's just as important to them, as it is to the woman I know; but who refuses herself Communion until she can get herself straight again with her God, the Chruch, and the doctrine it preaches.

Now, as the outsider to all of this, my sympathies are with the Woman. I see God's hand there with her. I don't see it with the Gay Activists.

I've told her I don't think God's offended when she miss Church and she should go ahead and take communion. But my intrepretations don't count for much with her, and that's as it should be.

I don't tell the Gay friends at this Chruch what they should do either. My opinion doesn't count with them either.

But, should they unload to me about injustice they feel at Church, I would tell them to forget their own communion and fight with the Cardinal and take a closer look at some of the old timers in the congregation who don't ambulate well and spend a little time with them and see how their faith is lived because as a UU I believe Gods presence is more often found there than in bread and wine.

Bill Baar:

October 17, 2005 08:36 AM | Permalink for this comment

Confession, Confusion??? call it cyber dyslexia before I've had my coffee.

hafidha sofía:

October 17, 2005 02:46 PM | Permalink for this comment

Bill, it just sounds to me here that the priest is in error: why not send someone around to the woman's house so that she can take communion there?

The woman may not make a ruckus about it, but that certainly does not make the priest any more compassionate.

Not everyone chooses to suffer in silence. When my grandmother divorced my grandfather, she was excommunicated. She petitioned and went to the highest levels of the state catholic-dom to be reinstated - mostly so that she could send my mother to Catholic school and raise her in the church. Many people would have merely left, either out of anger, or feeling that they had no "right" to protest and that it wasn't their "place" to speak up against what they felt was a miscarriage of justice.

That is not the type of person my grandmother is or was! And she WAS reinstated, and my mother was raised in the Church, attending Catholic school from K-12. My grandmother, now in her 70s, is an extremely active member of her church.

I wonder, what would the CHURCH have lost had they not "accommodated" her? This is the way they should be thinking of things. Instead, churches (and their parishes) seem to think it is the church that gives to its people, and not the other way around.

Bill Baar:

October 17, 2005 04:12 PM | Permalink for this comment

I don't view it as my place to tell the Catholic Church what to do. (Or UCC anymore either).

I view it as my place to offer an alternative.

I respect the woman's choice and faith.

One reason we left was most of the Priests (per my wife) we encounterd were gay. She participated in a well known choir and felt she was not part of the club as a hetrosexual woman. So you have this odd situation of a gay clergy fighting gay activist practioners over the Churches acceptance of Gay marriage.

The Churches history and doctrine seemed pretty clear to me. I'd suggest to gay friends at work they'd visit our church which was accepting to the point that their sexuality was simply transparent. They seldom accepted because the wanted a high-Christian liturigical experience. The ceremony was extremely important to them.

We call UU a liberal religion, but one of its great virtues today --I think-- is it allows a very conservative version of same sex marriage. We'll bless a union few other Chruches bless and ask for obligations and marital duties as we would a hetrosexual union.

Very different than a Church with a history and docrtine clearly opposed to homosexual behavior. Member there either exist secretly or instead oppose the whole thing saying history, doctrine, and tradition all wrong: I personally have it right. And if you oppose me, well then your a gay basher, or some other ugly epitaph. It's nasty sort of way to run things. Something should change and I think the burden is on gays to do so. They've gone beyond Christian notions of marriage and they should look for a Chruch that allows one to transcend Christianity.

Again, I don't make a point of arguing with them on it. I do like to point out our alternative should the case arise. I do balk, as I have here, when we insert ourselves into other Churches thoughts on this one though. I think we over step and act a bit intolerant when we do so.

I'd probably have let the Mormons keep their plural marriages here in Illinois, but then that one gets into the power nature of marital relationships. I don't think Marriage is a right. I think the state has a roll in governing and licensing marriage. So that's a whole other bag.

Sorry to ramble here...

bob smietana:

October 18, 2005 11:35 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thomas's speech is disturbing on a number of levels. First, he manipulates the story of the prodigal son to meet his own agenda, rather than letting the story speak for itself. That story is about a father who waits for his son to "come to his senses" and returns home--and then is welcome --it's not about a father who goes on the pigsty to find his son. The son, rather than demand that his father make room for him, begs to be taken back, even as a slave. "I am not worthy to be called your son" he tells his father.

I would be suprised if anyone wrote Thomas angry that the UCC's attention was focused on "the lost." Instead, they'd likely say that the UCC has forgetten that people can be lost and has declared everyone found--and not asked them to admit they are lost, turn and come to Jesus humbly. His critics would welcome the prodigal-if the prodigal leaves the far country and comes home. The passage doesn't fit his messages.

(Also, the father in the story shows grace to both the prodigal and older brother--telling his older son that "everything I have is yours." Thomas instead chastises the older brother.)

If Thomas wanted to make a point about God's welcome to those considered "outsiders" --a more carefully chosen scripture would have helped his case--perhaps Luke 4, where Jesus announces the messianic kingdom in a synagogue, and then tells the congregation that the kingdom will go to the gentiles, not to them. (They tried to kill him for it.) Or the parable of the workers in the field, where everyone gets the same wage, no matter how hard they worked)


October 23, 2005 10:34 PM | Permalink for this comment

Frankly, I think that the UCC, Anglican, Presbyterian, Unitarian and Quakers hatred of Israel is a little more disturbing.

Look at the Unitarian children's Sunday School curriculum, for instance, and you will see that Jesus grew up in a "Palestinian village".

Keep on boycotting Coke. It is a Jewish drink!

hafidha sofía:

October 24, 2005 02:51 AM | Permalink for this comment

Hatred against Israel? I am not clear on how this subject relates to the discussion thread, but I have to say, I haven't seen any hatred against Israel by UUs since I've been a UU. I also don't see how the example you cited is "hatred."

Bill Baar:

October 24, 2005 11:09 AM | Permalink for this comment

It's a reference to the Anti-Israel Divestment Campaign and you can read about it on the ADL's website.

There is an ugly sort of anti-semitism going on in the left now. Here's what Religious Liberal had to say about the Presbyterians actions,

While there may be disagreement about the best course of action in Israel, targeting Jews for conversion and treating Israel unlike any other nation in the world ought to make us question what the mainline is up to in terms of Jewish-Christian relations. This partnership has been so central for much of the progressive changes which have occurred over the last 60 years or more, including today's fight for gay and lesbian equality, that a careless disregard for such an alliance ought to be a concern for anyone of a liberal stripe.

Liberals ought to be concerned because on great questions of human rights and social justice they're falling on the wrong side of what's right.

Here is what Nick Cohen wrote in the Guardian in response to Iranian Feminist Maryam Namazie speech recognition as Secularist of the Year.

Namazie is on the right side of the great intellectual struggle of our time between incompatible versions of liberalism. One follows the fine and necessary principle of tolerance, but ends up having to tolerate the oppression of women, say, or gays in foreign cultures while opposing misogyny and homophobia in its own. (Or 'liberalism for the liberals and cannibalism for the cannibals!' as philosopher Martin Hollis elegantly described the hypocrisy of the manoeuvre.) The alternative is to support universal human rights and believe that if the oppression of women is wrong, it is wrong everywhere.

The gulf between the two is unbridgeable. Although the argument is rarely put as baldly as I made it above, you can see it breaking out everywhere across the liberal-left.

Read Queers against Terror and you realize many Religious Liberals now oppose investment in the one place Gays can live in peace while supporting the people most persecuting gays in Palestine.

I don't if liberals hate Jews as DaveC commented but I'm certain many hate Bush and his faith and it's blinded them to real injustice.

I don't know if God is on Bush sides, but I don't think God's indifferent. My reading of my Churches covenant leads me to decide for Universal Human rights and the best champaign in the world right now our President Bush and Prime Minister Blair.

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