TV & Radio
Warren Goldstein: UCC vote to affirm gay marriage will aid church
July 7, 2005 - Minnesota Star Tribune
On July 4th in Atlanta the governing body of the United Church of Christ, direct descendant of the Mayflower Pilgrims, voted overwhelmingly to "affirm equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender," thereby becoming the first mainline denomination, and the largest Christian denomination in the world, to support same-sex marriage.
Commentators have been either celebrating or lamenting the death of liberal Protestantism for at least a generation. Many will take this bold declaration as further proof of the accelerating decline of liberal religion.
At the press conference following the vote, reporters from the New York Times, Associated Press and others wanted most to know how many of its 6,000 churches the UCC expected to lose. Unintentionally, they were adding to the conventional wisdom on American Christianity: Conservative evangelical and fundamentalist churches can only grow, while the liberal churches must continue to decline.
They are missing the story.
In coming weeks conservatives will make pious declarations about their lost brothers and sisters, or ridicule the UCC as irrelevant to the larger religious landscape. Right-wing talk radio is going to have a field day. And they'll be getting it wrong.
I may be an odd source for this piece of Protestant good news -- a practicing Jew married to a UCC minister for the past 23 years -- but I believe the reports of the death of liberal Protestantism have been wildly exaggerated.
The United Church of Christ has already been proving that the savvily proclaimed message of a loving, "extravagantly welcoming" God can draw new members and new money. Endorsing gay marriage will surely lose some members and some churches; just as surely, it will attract members and churches. There are simply too many gays and lesbians, and too many straight folks who want our children, brothers, sisters, cousins, parents and friends to be able to enjoy the same rights we do.
You may remember the controversy last December around a TV ad featuring two bouncers who screened potential churchgoers, turning away the old, the young, the poorly dressed, and an apparently gay couple.
"Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we," says the voice-over.
NBC and CBS refused to run the ad, produced by the UCC for its "God Is Still Speaking" campaign, as "too controversial." That rejection, of a TV ad criticizing rejection, earned the church more publicity than it had ever received.
And something began to happen. All over the country red and black "God Is Still Speaking" banners appeared on staid white steeples. More than 100,000 people went to the group's website looking for a local church. New worshipers began to trickle into churches, which began taking in new members: gay, straight, all looking for a place where they would feel welcome.
The Rev. Kathryn Schreiber of the United Church of Hayward, (Calif.) UCC, said "we were dying" several years ago," with at most 20 people on Sundays. Because of the campaign, worship now averages 32.
According to the Rev. Kenneth Coleman, the ads doubled the number of visitors to his church in Renton, Wash. "We went from basically no hits on our website to over a thousand in the first three months after the ad," he said. Church membership is up 10 percent, half in gay couples.
For the first time in years, local church contributions to the national office have increased. Merchandise featuring a large comma -- from Gracie Allen's line, "Never put a period where God has placed a comma" -- is flying off the shelves.
"God Is Still Speaking" has theological, as well as public relations, power. Explicitly opposed to fundamentalist biblical literalism, it makes the crucial point for theological liberals -- most mainline Protestants -- that biblical interpretation and revelation cannot be frozen in time. Otherwise, what are Christians (or Jews, for that matter) to make of the biblical endorsements of slavery, stoning adulterers to death, or the Levitical code's insistence on the "abomination" of wearing garments made with different fabrics?
I asked Bob Chase, the UCC's communications director, about the coincidence of the gay-friendly Still Speaking Campaign and the marriage vote.
"Look," he said, "if we were having this conversation in 1965, you'd be asking me why all these black people in the commercials. We in the church are called to be on the cutting edge of developments in our society. In the year 2005 the cutting edge is in regard to full participation on the part of gays and lesbians. That's where we need to be."
No one I talked to here thinks the next few months are going to be easy for the church, not least because individual churches are not bound by the vote. But they have listened and prayed, deliberated and debated, and decided, and they have made history. They're going to be just fine.
Warren Goldstein, a 2003 summer fellow of the University of Minnesota Humanities Institute, is author of "William Sloane Coffin, Jr.: A Holy Impatience." He is chairman of the history department at the University of Hartford in Connecticut.