Wes Granberg-Michaelson served as General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America for 17 years. We are honored to welcome him today as a guest writer for Outsights!
For about two decades in the RCA my goal was to foster a climate receptive to ongoing dialogue around contentious issues of human sexuality, creating safe space for differing views. I did so for two reasons. First, it was and remains my firm conviction that differences over how the RCA regards same-sex relationships are not church-dividing questions. The most unfaithful and unbiblical response to these differences is to break fellowship with one another. So the question I always tried to ask was, “What kind of difference is this?”
Second, my responsibility as general secretary was to foster and uphold the unity of our fellowship. As one who could convene conversations, share vision and direction, and make recommendations to the General Synod, I understood this ministry of nurturing our bonds of fellowship, amidst differences, as my calling. How well or poorly I carried out those goals during that time is for others to decide.
But in 2015, my wife Karin and I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Retired from our previous vocational callings, and no longer serving on the RCA’s staff, we looked forward to a new chapter, and a new local church. One thing we were clear about: we wanted to be part of a congregation that was open and inclusive toward LGBTQ persons. We had a deep desire to be part of a fellowship that had settled this question.
Visiting several congregations (there is no local RCA congregation), we were attracted to the United Church of Santa Fe. A solid, thriving congregation with two Sunday services, an active youth program, and numerous expressions of justice ministries and service in the community, this UCC church seemed to be a fit for the new chapter in our journey. But I noticed there was no rainbow on its logo, no prominent, italicized declaration about its stance toward LGBTQ persons, or no identification of belonging to some wider network of inclusive congregations.
Karin and I invited United’s senior pastor, Rev. Talitha Arnold to breakfast at Harry’s Roadhouse. As we got acquainted over coffee and eggs, always served with a choice of green or red chili, I asked if she could simply clarify United’s practice. “Oh,” Talitha responded, “in August, 2013, when same-sex marriage became legal in New Mexico (prior to the Supreme Court’s decision) my associate pastor and I went down to the courthouse and performed about 70 marriages that week.”
About a year after moving to Santa Fe, and following a period of reflection and prayer, Karin and I joined the United Church. Already we had been singing in its choir, led by an enormously gifted director who is Lutheran and an alumna of St. Olaf College’s choir. But now we placed our full commitment, and our spiritual nurture, in the life of this congregation.
United is a local congregation, preaching the Word, administering the Sacraments, and endeavoring to be faithful to God’s mission in its place and setting. Committed to a witness of care for creation, solar panels provide all the congregation’s electrical power. Groups travel to the border to engage issues around immigration. Volunteers are a mainstay at a homeless shelter. Adult education groups engage a wide variety of issues. We pray for those in need of healing, and are enriched by a children’s choir. It’s a church on its journey.
In the past few months, there was a baptism of two young women, sisters born in India who were adopted years earlier. Their parents, two women, had accompanied their faith journey at United, and we celebrated this moment, like any congregation would. Another couple, Barry and Dale, lived nearby Karin and I and we became good friends. They had moved to Santa Fe from Texas where they had been together there for 27 years. But in New Mexico they could finally be married, and did so in a wonderful celebration at United Church. Tragically, Dale then got cancer and eventually died. His memorial service at United was filled with the grief and joyful memories as with any couple whose lives had long been bound together in covenant. We sang Blessed Assurance and How Great Thou Art.
The word on the street in Santa Fe is that LGBTQ persons know they are accepted at United Church—as well as at some other congregations. They don’t have to worry about that persistent anxiety so often clouding the relationship of gays to the church. Instead, they can focus on living out their relationship to God.
That’s United’s story as well. Of course, the congregation previously had to work through the questions of the church’s stance toward same-sex relationships, which is never easy. After a process, in 1994 they adopted “The Covenant of Openness and Affirmation.” But that now is clearly in the congregation’s historical and emotional past. No banners of their logo are needed. In the present, their energy is given to worshipping God, supporting one another, and being about God’s mission in the world. And that, for any congregation, is difficult enough.
I know that many in the RCA could not imagine being in a congregation like United Church of Santa Fe. But again, I’d simply ask, what is the nature of this difference? And I’d ask those who hold that view, do you believe that Karin and I should be cut off from fellowship with you?
Here’s what I am clear about. For the sake of its mission, its faithfulness to God, and its witness to the Gospel’s proclamation of grace and love in Jesus Christ, the RCA needs to preserve and protect the space for many congregations following the journey of the United Church of Santa Fe. They need to flourish, even in the midst of unresolved differences that need not divide. We can trust in the Spirit’s diversity of voice and witness, which has been creating and shaping the body of Christ since Pentecost.