Stances of Faiths on LGBT Issues: United Church of Christ
The United Church of Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination with about 1.3 million members, has been one of the most accepting religious groups of LGBT people, although not every church in the denomination is supportive. The church’s General Synod recently endorsed full civil and religious marriage rights for same-sex couples.
During the 2011 Human Rights Campaign’s Clergy Call, for which hundreds of clergy and faith community leaders from across the country joined HRC's Religion and Faith Program to build up the faithful movement for LGBT justice, the Rev. Geoffrey Black (General Minister and President of the UCC) spoke at the press conference. He said:
“In the United Church of Christ we believe that every person is a child of God and is endowed by God with dignity and worth that human judgment cannot set aside. When persons are bullied because of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, a member of the family of God is harmed. LGBT people face such discrimination on school grounds, at the work place, in their neighborhoods and places of worship. For us these are matters of grave moral concern.”
- LGBTs Welcome
In 1985, the UCC’s national organization, the General Synod, began a national effort to reach out to gay, lesbian and bisexual church members through its Open and Affirming movement. Churches that are designated Open and Affirming have publicly declared themselves welcoming to LGB members, leaders and employees. In its resolution, “Calling on United Church of Christ Congregations to Declare Themselves Open and Affirming,” the General Synod said:
“Lesbian, gay and bisexual people are often scorned by the church, and devalued and discriminated against both in the church and in society. We commit ourselves to caring and concern for lesbian, gay and bisexual sisters and brothers by affirming that:
“We believe that lesbian, gay and bisexual people share with all others the worth that comes from being unique individuals;
“We welcome lesbian, gay and bisexual people to join our congregation in the same spirit and manner used in the acceptance of any new members;
“We recognize the presence of ignorance, fear and hatred in the church and in our culture, and covenant to not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, nor any other irrelevant factor, and we seek to include and support those who, because of this fear and prejudice, find themselves in exile from a spiritual community;
“We seek to address the needs and advocate the concerns of lesbian, gay and bisexual people in our church and in society by actively encouraging churches, instrumentalities and secular governmental bodies to adopt and implement policies of non-discrimination. …
“[This resolution] encourages a policy of non-discrimination in employment, volunteer service and membership policies with regard to sexual orientation; encourages associations, conferences and all related organizations to adopt a similar policy; and encourages the congregations of the United Church of Christ to adopt a non-discrimination policy and a Covenant of Openness and Affirmation of persons of lesbian, gay and bisexual orientation within the community of faith.”
Although the original declaration referred only to lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, today the denomination extends its welcome to transgender people as well. The General Synod passed a 2003 resolution to that effect, entitled, “Affirming the Participation and Ministry of Transgender People within the United Church of Christ and Supporting Their Civil and Human Rights.” The resolution instructed UCC members to advocate for the civil rights of transgender people and created a task force to study the inclusion of transgender people in UCC churches. It can be read here: AFFIRMING THE PARTICIPATION AND MINISTRY OF TRANSGENDER PEOPLE ...
The UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns encourages all Open and Affirming churches to specifically include references to transgender people in their welcoming statements.
The UCC website also contains a statement arguing that there’s no basis in the Bible for discrimination against LGBT people. The Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer wrote:
“There is a significant and growing consensus among biblical scholars about the few biblical texts that are often referenced as the basis for condemning same-gender loving people of God. Contemporary biblical scholarship argues strongly against this condemnation and finds a much more significant Gospel message that supports the inclusion of LGBT persons into the full life and mission of the church.” --From “Message Concerning the Open and Affirming, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Ministries of the United Church of Christ.”
Because individual UCC congregations are autonomous, however, they are not bound to become Open and Affirming churches. The General Synod only recommends that they do so. According to the Open and Affirming office, more than 954 out of 6,000 churches are officially listed as participants in the movement. This is 20 % of all UCC Churches. However, many congregations that have not officially joined the ONA program still welcome LGBT members.
The UCC also offers several support groups for the LGBT community, including bisexual members and the parents of LGBT people.
In December 2004, as part of a national campaign to increase public awareness about the denomination, the UCC launched a television commercial that highlighted its inclusivity. The commercial showed a same-sex couple being turned away from one church only to be welcomed into a UCC church. The ad garnered significant media attention after both NBC and CBS deemed it too controversial to air. LGBT advocacy groups, including the Human Rights Campaign, protested the networks’ decision as discriminatory. The denomination stood by the ad, and it was shown on several other networks.
Likewise, in March 2006, another television commercial launched by the UCC to highlight its inclusivity was rejected by four major television networks. The 30-second commercial for the church showed a gay couple, a single mother and a disabled man flying out of their pews as an unidentified hand pushed a red “ejector” button.” On screen text read, ‘God doesn't reject people. Neither do we’, as a voiceover says, “The United Church of Christ. No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here.” CBS, Fox, ABC and NBC all said no to showing the ad; however, CNN, USA, TNT, BET and eight other cable networks, along with three Spanish-language stations, aired the ad in April.
The UCC has been one of the most supportive denominations in the fight for marriage equality for same-sex couples. Many UCC clergy members across the country regularly perform same-sex union ceremonies.
At the UCC General Synod’s annual meeting in July 2005, the delegates voted to endorse full civil and religious marriage equality for same-sex couples. The measure, which passed overwhelmingly with 80 percent of the delegates voting in its favor, marked the first time a mainline Christian church in the United States officially endorsed same-sex marriage equality. Before the meeting, the denomination’s then general minister and president, the Rev. John H. Thomas, officially endorsed it. In his statement, “Marriage Equality and the General Synod of the United Church of Christ,” Thomas said:
“The General Synod, through sound biblical and theological reflection over many years, has affirmed the full dignity, humanity, and worth of all persons regardless of sexual orientation, an affirmation grounded in our creation in the image of God. We have called for the removal of one’s sexual orientation as a barrier to ordination and to all other forms of service in the church. We understand baptism to be the foundation of one’s incorporation into the body of Christ, affirming the primacy of grace over every other category of human accomplishment or failure or human status, including sexual orientation. Many of our congregations have offered blessing to same gender couples and many, if not most of our congregations, include same gender couples who are models to us of family life, including parenting. We have opposed discrimination in civil society and we believe that public policy should be informed by faith, but not controlled by the religious teachings of any one denomination or tradition in our pluralistic society. On what basis do we now draw the line between everything we have said, affirmed, and experienced and the extension of those commitments to the civil status and ecclesial rite of marriage for all, not just for some?”
In April 2004, the UCC Executive Council publicly denounced the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have written discrimination against same-sex couples into the U.S. Constitution. The council also called for the repeal of the anti-gay federal Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 and state-level legislation that restricted the rights of same-sex couples. In their statement, “Call to Action and Invitation to Dialogue on Marriage,” UCC leaders said:
“We hold that, as a child of God, every person is endowed with worth and dignity that human judgment cannot set aside. We believe that recognition of the sacred joining of individuals is deserving of serious, faithful discussion by people of faith, taking into consideration the long, complex history of marriage and family life, layered as it is by cultural practices, economic realities, political dynamics, religious history and biblical interpretation."
"Because there is a need to end the rhetoric which fuels hostility, misunderstanding, fear and hatred expressed toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons, and the denial of their equality under the law … we … affirm equal rights for all couples who seek to have their relationships recognized by the state.”
The UCC website contains a number of supportive resources for clergy members and congregations about marriage equality, including publications entitled:
- SAME SEX COUPLES IN THE CONGREGATION
- THE PRIOR QUESTION: A THEOLOGICAL BASIS FOR BLESSING SAME GENDER ...
- WHY THE FEDERAL “DEFENSE OF MARRIAGE” ACT (DOMA) IS UNCONSTITUTIONAL
When marriage became legal for same-sex couples in Massachusetts in May 2004, the state conference allowed individual UCC clergy members to decide whether they would perform same-sex wedding ceremonies. It was the only denomination within the 16 members of the Massachusetts Council of Churches that gave its clergy that choice. UCC volunteers also went to courthouses across Massachusetts on May 17, the first day same-sex couples became eligible to apply for marriage licenses, and passed out coffee and cookies to the couples waiting in line.
In 1972, the UCC became the first mainline Protestant denomination to ordain an openly gay minister, the Rev. William R. Johnson. In 1977, it became the first to ordain an openly lesbian minister, the Rev. Anne Holmes. In 2003, there were approximately 300 openly gay or lesbian UCC ministers, according to Johnson. A number of transgender clergy members also serve in UCC churches, according to remarks made by UCC officials at the 2003 General Synod meeting. The denomination offers a $500,000 scholarship fund to LGBT seminary students.
Support for HIV/AIDS Issues
The UCC has an HIV/AIDS Ministry which focuses much of its attention on addressing the ways the disease affects people of color. It also suggests that congregations take part in local prevention efforts, including testing, counseling, sex education and needle exchange programs. The denomination encourages its members to make donations to the Global AIDS Ministry Fund.
Opposition within the Church
The UCC is a diverse denomination and not all its members and congregations embrace LGBT equality. Because UCC organizations and churches are autonomous and not held accountable by any national governing body, groups that disagree with the General Synod or Executive Council are able to discriminate against LGBT people without fearing reprimand from the national denomination. For example, in 2003, the Western North Carolina Association of local UCC churches banned the ordination of openly gay clergy members, and the General Synod had no authority to prevent the policy from taking effect.
In addition, a national group of UCC church members, the Biblical Witness Fellowship, often denounces the denomination’s support for LGBT equality. The group opposes the ordination of LGBT ministers and publicly criticized the denomination’s creation of a scholarship fund for LGBT seminarians. The group has also proposed several anti-gay resolutions to the General Synod. None have passed.
Some congregations also criticized the Executive Council’s opposition to the anti-gay Federal Marriage Amendment. In June 2004, the First Church of Christ in Wethersfield, Conn. — the largest UCC church in New England — voted overwhelmingly to become independent from the denomination, citing the UCC’s support for marriage equality as one of its major reasons for doing so.
Resources for LGBT UCC Members
The United Church of Christ Coalition for LGBT Concerns offers resources for LGBT members and coordinates the Open and Affirming church program.
If you would like to communicate with the United Church of Christ, here is their mailing address:
United Church of Christ
700 Prospect Avenue
Cleveland, OH 44115