When you’re the first guest to arrive at a party, there is that awkward moment when you wonder if anyone else is ever going to show up.
Nine years ago this month, the 1.1-million-member United Church of Christ showed up quite early – at a wedding party, of all things – when it became the first mainline Christian denomination to support same-gender marriage.
The stance cost our Cleveland-based denomination more than 250 congregations out of 5,200 nationally, churches that opted to leave the denomination in protest of the UCC General Synod’s controversial vote. Although stinging, the fallout wasn’t all that unpredictable. At the time, almost 70 percent of people in this country were opposed to legal marriage for gay and lesbian couples.
It didn’t help matters that the UCC’s pro-gay resolution originated in blue-bleeding states like Massachusetts and California, where UCC churches and pastors were already at the forefront of early marriage equality battles. But not all regions of our supposedly monolithic “progressive” denomination were ready for such a big step.
What I remember most vividly after the 2005 vote were the tears, both in joy and in anger. And, since we are a church that was born out of a radical, even zealous, commitment to Christian unity – with the prayer of Jesus, “that they may all be one,” as our unifying motto – a hefty amount of our raw emotion centered around the now-uncertain nature of our ecumenically-formed denomination.
What followed for us wasn’t easy. In North Carolina alone, the UCC lost 70 of 225 churches in just 18 months. I was editor of the denomination’s newspaper then, so it fell to me to read the deeply emotional and divided letters that poured in.
I am also gay.
On June 26, our nation marks the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decisions on two much-anticipated marriage-related cases, rulings that have since paved the way for a year of extraordinary gains for the freedom to marry, both at court houses and at polling places.
I was at the U.S. Supreme Court in March of last year, dressed unmistakably as a clergyperson for marriage equality, on that momentous day when oral arguments were heard inside our nation’s highest court. The scene outside was complete mayhem, and it was apparent that something culture-shifting was occurring all around us. Throngs of spectators and protestors, on both sides of the issue, pressed in to be witnesses to history.
What was clear to me, only one short year ago, was the painful reality that we were a nation deeply divided, with much of the consternation centered on issues of religion. But those lines are blurring now, and what’s becoming increasingly apparent is that we are now a nation that is coalescing. The inevitability of marriage equality, including swelling support in favor of it, especially among younger voters, is now shared by almost everyone, including those in both political parties.
Polling now shows warped-speed movement toward acceptance and support for marriage equality, a stampede in public opinion that is unparalleled in our recent collective memory. And, in the UCC’s case, after the mass exodus of disapproving churches in 2005 and 2006, the denomination has since added more than 300 congregations to its fold, churches that unequivocally support the UCC’s forward-thinking posture toward full LGBTQ equality. A net gain, in fact.
While there is still one final ta-da yet to be handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court to make marriage accessible to all couples in every state, the writing is on the wall. Yet, the on-going work of changing hearts and minds will go on, long after that inevitable day, especially in places of worship, where it has been our inclination to cling to what is comfortable at the expense of listening to the movement of love’s urgent, compelling message to us today.
What inspires me most, as an openly-gay religious leader, is that my people – LGBTQ people – are making marriage commitments vogue again. While not so long ago folk were obsessing over skyrocketing divorce rates, we now obsess over who is entitled to make and profess a lifelong commitment to one another. Matrimony is all the buzz. That’s what you call conservative progress.
Marriage, thank God, is making a profound resurgence again, and all of us have gay and lesbian people to thank for that.
The Rev. J. Bennett Guess is the first openly-gay national officer and executive minister of the United Church of Christ.