Baptist pastor Oliver “Buzz” Thomas wrote during the winter of 2006/07 in USA TODAY on gay and lesbian issues: “It’s happened to Christianity before, most famously when we dug in our heels over Galileo’s challenge to the biblical view that the Earth, rather than the sun, was at the center of our solar system. You know the story. Galileo was persecuted for what turned out to be incontrovertibly true. For many, especially in the scientific community, Christianity never recovered.”
Before I give an account on the corresponding position of First Reformed Church, I would like to begin with a few personal remarks, hoping that this might make the topic less abstract.
My interest in gay and lesbian issues did not develop first from the question of what is scientifically right or wrong. Neither did it first come to light when two of the cousin’s in our extended family came out as gay and brought boyfriends to our family gatherings. By then, the base of my opinion was already shaped.
I was born in East Germany into a family of active church goers and spent years in elementary school and high school not being allowed to talk about what we did in church. I had a divided childhood. I remember how fearful I once was as a 7-year old on my way to religious instruction on a weekday afternoon on my way to the private home of the catechist. I had left our house alone, (things were safer in the police state back then); but I had forgotten to change from my house shoes. With the imagination of a 7-year old, I was sure that this little oversight would reveal to every pedestrian in the street that I was on my way to religious instruction. I was so scared that I remember the incident today. Since then I know what it means emotionally to have to live with two identities.
Later I was fortunate to enjoy religious instruction in a public high school in West Germany. For the first time, I was exposed to the writings of church leaders like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller. Both had given voice to the Confessing Church during the Hitler regime. Niemöller later became president of the Protestant Church in the West-German state where I lived; when teachers quoted him, it meant more than a paragraph in some book.
Niemöller once described his experience of Nazi Germany like this:
When the Nazis arrested the Communists,
I said nothing; after all, I was not a Communist.
When they locked up the Social Democrats,
I said nothing; after all, I was not a Social Democrat.
When they arrested the trade unionists,
I said nothing; after all, I was not a trade unionist.
When they arrested me, there was no longer anyone who could protest.
I do not remember, was it the teacher, who introduced us to this text, or was it somebody else, but very soon the line was inserted, When they arrested the homosexuals, I said nothing; after all I was not gay.” Since then I realized, the fight for one minority is, in principle, not different from the fight for any other minority. Or, vice versa, what happens to one minority happens to all of us.
Coming from the monoculture of East Germany, I enjoy living in a multicultural society. It has been a liberating experience. Considering that I grew up with the anxiety only a police state can produce, diversity and world openness provide me today with the security and peace of mind that I need in order to feel blessed. Nothing is more fear-producing to me than the memory of narrow-mindedness that once declared one perspective to be the norm of all others and then tried to suppress them.
First Reformed Church is a congregation that provides the acceptance, diversity and political awareness I cherish. In December 2006 our leading board, the Consistory, received an overture signed by four women who are members of the church. The overture asked Consistory to declare the church welcoming and inclusive “regardless of our differences in understanding particular texts of the Bible.” It also asked for an amendment of the church’s bylaws to include a statement that “candidates for the ordained offices of the church (Deacons, Elders, Pastors) will not be discriminated against on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, age, ethnicity, or physical ability.”
This overture was preceded by several months of meetings of a task force on inclusiveness, and a congregational meeting that discussed the process of becoming open and affirming. Consistory adopted the overture, published it in the newsletter of January 2006 and invited more comments from the congregation. One month later it amended the bylaws in accordance with the overture.
We hope that this process will bear much fruit in years to come; that it will enrich our life as a church and continue to make us sensitive whenever inclusiveness is threatened. We also hope that other congregations might be encouraged to embark on similar developments – the Reformed churches in Metuchen and Highland Park declared themselves open and affirming shortly thereafter.
We Could Have Been So Wrong!
By Pastor Hartmut Kramer-Mills