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RGOD2: Episcopalians, Lutherans take huge steps toward full equality

Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, at 80, has the energy of the Energizer Bunny. We left California four weeks ago and have two weeks remaining on our tour. I call him the “munchkin” bishop with his expansive inclusive message inside such a little body.

His capacity for forgiveness and hope reaches far beyond his difficult context of advocating for LGBT Ugandans in a world that would rather keep us far from altars and lock us up in prisons. He is a metaphor for the future of Christianity that we witnessed this week at the Episcopal Church’s General Convention (a parliamentary body meeting every three years) in Indianapolis and at Lutherans Concerned conference in Washington, D.C.

Two small but influential American denominations hold similar inclusive messages inside numerically small bodies that are standing up against the religious giants of Mormonism, Catholicism and American Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. These two sister denominations have little outposts on every American street corner all dealing with the same issues of how to help people live authentic and purposeful lives in a changing and globalized world.

Putting your money where your mouth is

Both denominations are rich in property (owning a lot of American real estate) and have used their privilege of past glory to meet contemporary challenges within these local contexts with an eye on the global stage. Their privilege connects them to some of the poorest parts of the world like Africa through a shared dark colonial history with England and Germany, while maintaining historic links with declining churches in Europe.

It is a substantial network of influence for the good. For Episcopalians, the dominant theme of the convention was about budgets and structures and how the costly path to creating inclusive outposts on American street corners (where LGBT people and women can continue to be welcome fully at their little altars) can work. These altars represent equality of full membership of the church and a share in the ministries or the ordained so there are no “second class Christians.” It is an audacious and radical message.
One of the significant foci of this convention was on the gifts of the transgender community and how all obstacles to ordination to the priesthood were removed by the governing structures of the church. A wonderful film “Out Of The Box” documented the difficult personal journeys of several transgender clergy helped to “incarnate” the values of a church that still wants to have “no outcasts.”

Also, the convention also decided to sell the upscale 5th Avenue address of the Episcopal Church headquarters in New York as a symbol of its move from the imperial church model to a much more grassroots model where their 15,000 street corner outposts become the centers of mission. It is within these properties that LGBT people and others are most welcome. Inclusion is morally right, but in this current culture, it is a huge financial gamble for this small body of Christians that its theological position of costly inclusion will ensure the core message of Jesus teaching about love, forgiveness and reconciliation will have a place in America’s religious movement.

The church also approved sacramental rites of blessing for same-gender couples. This was the fruit of a 40-year journey for many of us who have prayed and pushed for the Church to be consistent in its pastoral support of LGBT members.

Will the Episcopal Church officially support Bishop Christopher?

The bishop and I had an opportunity to address the World Mission Committee last week and to speak about the Episcopal Church’s policy of funding international programs where the Archbishop of a given region approves the proposed project.

It has been impossible to fund Bishop Christopher’s inclusive form of Christianity in the Province of Uganda where he has been inhibited by his Archbishop and where his own Church of Uganda supports further criminalization of homosexuality. We noted the discrepancy between wealthy North American congregations like Trinity Church, Wall Street funding many African Anglican provinces that support further criminalization while our main Episcopal development programs are not permitted to fund LGBT inclusive programs like Christopher’s.

What we say and do in our street corner outposts of inclusion to welcome and ordain LGBT people in North America is limited by our shoreline and our polity. The convention was reluctant to intervene in provinces where we continued to respect the decisions of the local church, draconian as they are. A resolution proposed by supporters from the Diocese of California and Los Angeles suggesting a way forward by allowing development funds to be given to non-government and other religious organizations in places like Uganda, whose mission was consistent with the Episcopal Church’s never made it out of committee to be debated by the convention.

Bishop Christopher’s work is still remains highly controversial and some would say “too hot” for the institutional Episcopal Church to fully support.

A revised resolution was recommended where key issues could be raised, while still hoping the might be some reconciliation between the bishop and his Church. A new Archbishop was appointed two weeks ago and Christopher is looking forward to meeting him when he returns to Uganda at the end of July. Inside that little body beats a huge reconciling heart.

So, the Episcopal Church continues to respect the polity of the Anglican Communion in a gesture of sacrificial openness to dialogue and understanding. Meanwhile parishes, dioceses and individuals will have to ensure somehow the bishop’s inclusive message and programs can be delivered without crossing institutional boundaries. The St. Paul’s Foundation remains totally committed to ensuring his work is funded and people can continue to donate to his ministry through us. It would have been easier for me if the Episcopal Church could have widened its circle of support for difficult and dangerous work in 76 countries where it is still illegal to be LGBT. The churches in most of Africa, the Caribbean, Russia and Eastern Europe are actively encouraging more draconian anti-gay legislation but we all share in the same broken and dysfunctional world that the churches are ironically called to heal. The resolution reads:

“Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, that the 77th General Convention recognize the courageous witness of Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, retired Bishop of West Buganda, particularly with LGBT people in Uganda and in 76 countries where they are criminalized; and be it further Resolved, That this General Convention support Anglican and other ministries engaged in the intersection of rights, development and justice consistent with our mission priorities and Millennium Development Goals.”

How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?

I don’t know. All I know is it takes three Episcopalians to change a light bulb. One to change the bulb and two to whine and complain about how nicely the old one functioned.

Lutherans, we were about to discover, are more pragmatic than Episcopalians when it comes to issues of exclusion and oppression.

We left General Convention last Saturday in Indianapolis to join Lutherans Concerned North America at the Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. What was significant about this gathering of clergy and lay leaders was to see their Presiding Bishop, Mark Hanson, address their conference of the first time ever.

Policy change where LGBT people were fully welcome in Lutheran churches (Reconciling in Christ congregations - RIC’s) had now allowed the head of this 4-million-member denomination to address this elated gathering. It is difficult to describe the feeling in the room that historic day. For 40 years, LGBT and straight allies had lobbied and prayed that one day the church might stop excluding us. That day had come.

Bishop Hanson has been invited by Emily Eastwood, Lutherans Concerned’s executive director, many times as the denomination debated and struggled with theology, interpretation of Scripture, changes in state and federal laws, and he had graciously declined. “Policy change” revolutionized all of that. Hanson, in Eastwood’s own words, had a critical role in bringing their denomination to a place of inclusion. She described his ministry as “prophetic” because he had been able to bring all of the issues and polity to a place where the church could move forward boldly.

The Lutherans do not have the international polity constraints I have described earlier with my fellow Episcopalians. Their synods and congregations can partner with whomever they wish, including Africa where there are significant churches in Tanzania, Namibia, Madagascar and Ethiopia. There is a large Ethiopian Lutheran community in Washington, D.C.

The Lutherans have been extremely supportive of our work in Uganda and gave Bishop Christopher a standing ovation when he addressed the conference. A young Lutheran pastor from Norway , Gard Sandaker-Neilsen, shared his work among LGBT Russians and Eastern Europeans. He shared the concern of the Lutheran Church to provide pastoral care to Christians who are under increasing persecution from the Orthodox churches and new anti-LGBT missionary activity from U.S. evangelists Sharon Slater and Paul Cameron. It is not usual to see some anti-gay legislation suddenly appear in Moldova or Ukraine following so-called educational tours of these “missionaries of misinformation” who delight in creating the own USA foreign policy on LGBT issues.

We know their tactics in Africa but they are also behind a lot of the new laws that have passed in Russia where the Orthodox church see homosexuality as another example of western decadence and must be stopped. Gard has been meeting and providing pastoral care to LGBT communities under threat. “Just giving people access to the Eucharist or having a Bible study brings great comfort to our fellow LGBT people. They do not have churches that are welcoming. Several straight clergy have been unfrocked simply by speaking out for LGBT people. They need resources to prepare for theological training, ordination and all of the emerging issues we are seeing in places like Africa,” Gard reported to me.

Creating an online “seminary without walls”

We had a long discussion with other clergy who were working in Mexico, South America and Central America, and there is a growing consensus for the need for long-distance-learning programs linking theological education with on-the-ground programs where LGBT people can organize themselves, have access to health and social services and develop an economic base where they can make policy changes within their own religious and political systems.

There is a meeting of the LGBT faith group in Moscow in the first week of October and Garth wants the bishop and me to attend. It would be a perfect opportunity for others to learn about what is going on in Eastern Europe and Russia and the connections with religious right organizations from North America.

Learning about Reconciling Works

The conference had two themes. Lutheran’s Concerned (self-described as “worried Lutherans”) following their “policy change” have now adopted the new name “Reconciling Works.”

Emily Eastwood gave very specific examples of what happens to real people when policy change actually happens. She had been suffering from a debilitating health issue and policy change meant that she and her spouse were able to share health benefits afforded to all couples working within the church. “Reconciling Works” she told us when health benefits afforded to heterosexual couples were available to them at such a critical moment in their family life. She now sits on the marriage equality task force for Minnesota where the issue could be decided by the largely Lutheran community who live in this progressive state.

The Roman Catholic Church is pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the anti-LGBT marriage campaign and so Eastwood is using every Lutheran Church outpost in the state to educate her faith community into why marriage equality is important and makes good sense for religious and secular Minnesotans alike. I agree with her strategy and her message. If we had only involved the inclusive religious community in the Proposition 8 fight in California in 2008-9 instead of the campaign architects deliberately excluding us, we would be in a different place.

The bishop and I spoke on KFAI Radio in favor of marriage equality in Minnesota last week. “The same forces who are against LGBT equality in Minnesota are also behind the opposition of LGBT equality in Uganda and in the other 75 countries where it illegal to be LGBT. This is not an either or situation, we need to do both,” I said on the program.

There is an opportunity for supporters in Minneapolis to do just that on Sunday, July 18, at 8 pm and see the award-winning film “Call Me Kuchu” at the Parkway Theatre and meet the bishop and Allison Arngrim (Nellie Oleson from “Little House On The Prairie”). Tickets are $15 and be purchased online HERE. If you cannot attend you can always make a donation in support of the bishop’s work, after all without this kind of grassroots support, none of this work would be happening. While large institutions like the churches who have been historically part of the oppression take time to “turn the Queen Mary,” without grassroots support, the work cannot move forward. It has taken 40 years for Episcopalians and Lutherans to finally “get it” and turn their institutions towards a direction of inclusion for everyone. We are little bodies with big hearts and share in an even bigger mission. If we believe someone else will do it for us or will pay for it, we only delay our liberation and the forces that would deny our place in faith communities and in civil societies from Uganda to Minnesota.

Looking at LGBT oppression through the HIV lens

Next week, we will be at the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. with 26 representatives of countries where it is illegal to be LGBT. What is 26 among 26,000 delegates? Let’s find out.

The slow journey toward policy change for inclusion rolls out. Our history and successes are clear and our strategies remain a universal hope for millions whose voices have still to be heard. Pray for us that reconciling really works. And turn up some Sunday to one of those little outposts of inclusion on your street corner if you don’t live in Moldova or Uganda, just to thank them for the costly work they are doing on our behalf.

RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.