New London Church becomes 100th ONA Church in Conference
In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the right to marriage was granted to all, including same-sex couples. In 2018, the high court ruled in favor of a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple due to his religious beliefs. It is difficult to see a clear direction for the LGBTQ community when our nation's divided leadership sways like branches in the wind.
Not so in the United Church of Christ. On July 1, First Congregational Church of New London, UCC became the 100th church in the Connecticut Conference to declare itself as Open and Affirming. The actions of the New London congregation follow a nearly 30 year history of Connecticut churches responding to the call to welcome, include, and affirm all God’s children and to adopt “a Covenant of Openness and Affirmation of persons of lesbian, gay or bisexual orientation within the community of faith.” (UCC General Synod Resolution 85-GS-76).
The history of the UCC calling for non-discriminatory policies for LGBTQ people goes back even before 1985, when the 15th General Synod passed a resolution calling all UCC churches to declare themselves Open and Affirming. The CT Conference followed this in 1989 declaring the Conference Open and Affirming and encouraging CT Conference churches to do the same. The first church to officially make this declaration was the Church of Christ in Yale (now Shalom United Church of Christ) that same year.
Rev. Harry Adams, a Yale Professor and Associate Dean at the time and chaplain of the Yale church, said he believed Church of Christ could be a leader in the Open and Affirming movement.
“I thought, if we could do it, then some other churches would be encouraged to do it,” said Adams.
The CT Conference is looking for 100 churches or individuals to donate $100 in support of Open and Affirming Ministries.
“Your gifts will help us expand our hospitality, visibility, and advocacy efforts for Open and Affirming Ministries to the LGBTQ community. Funds will support educational programs for local congregations in the ONA process as well as outreach at True Colors and Pride events.” — Debby Kirk, Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries for the CT Conference.
Adams said there wasn’t really any pushback in the church when they started the discussion, though he does recall two members leaving after the church voted. Jean Webb, currently a member of Shalom UCC who was at the church when it was still the Yale church, remembers the decision. She agrees with Adams that the conversations had little controversy and remembers Rev. Adams’ being a “strong force” in the church’s process.
Over 29 years later, the New London church experience was similar, but the discussion was a bit broader. Rev. Sara Ofner-Seals, co-pastor at New London First, says the conversation began when the Rev. Dr. T. Gregory Gray, pastor of Thompson Congregational Church and head of the Connecticut ONA Coalition, preached at the church in April. Ofner-Seals said it was clear that the church was ready to declare itself Open and Affirming from the start.
“It was never really a question – it was always going to be unanimous,” said Ofner-Seals. “It wasn’t a question of yes or no. We wanted to take time to write the covenant and be clear about how will live this out.”
Ofner-Seals said the New London process involved more “education and understanding.” They held weekly discussion groups, read “Ministry Among God's Queer Folk: LGBT Pastoral Care,” watched several films, and looked at covenants from other ONA churches.
One clear difference in the process came as the New London congregation began discussing the breadth of their inclusion. Ofner-Seals said some members of the church wanted to broaden the scope of their covenant to include marginalized people beyond the LGBTQ community, specifically those with addictions and mental health issues. The UCC has also worked to broaden the original call, eventually calling for inclusion of transgendered people in church and ministry in 2003.
In May, on Pentecost, the New London congregation began working on a draft of their covenant. Eventually, they agreed to a broad inclusion in their final document:
“Therefore, at First Congregational Church, New London, we welcome, affirm, and honor all of God’s beloved children-- including people of all ages, races, nationalities, sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, family configurations, economic circumstances, political affiliations, physical, cognitive or emotional abilities, educational backgrounds, or spiritual and religious traditions.”
Members of the church made the covenant official on July 1 when they celebrated their declaration with a special service and had each member sign the printed Covenant.
But the process does not end here. According to the UCC Open and Affirming Coalition steps to becoming an ONA Church, celebration is the 14th of 16 steps. The last two steps address how the church should live out their covenant. In New London, they have begun to move ahead, attending the New London Pride Festival in August, purchasing copies of “guide to being a trans ally” published by PFLAG, and reaching out to local shelters, where Ofner-Seals feels many don’t realize there are inclusive churches in the area.
As of October 10, 2018, there are 101 CT Conference churches who have declared themselves Open and Affirming (Newtown Congregational voted on August 7, 2018) and over 1500 UCC churches across the nation. When asked about this progress, Rev. Harry Adams, now retired and a member of Spring Glen Church UCC in Hamden, said he thought the progress was good.
“I think things are moving rapidly toward complete openness on the UCC side,” said Adams.