Saturday, December 14, 2013

Bishops' Forum on LGBT Inclusion in Kansas City

In June of this year, the Greater Kansas City Integrity chapter hosted a "Believe Out Loud" workshop. The Integrity members and other participants left that workshop all fired up about the opportunities that have been generated by the approval of same-sex blessings and the greater awareness of LGBT participation in our Episcopal parishes. We were introduced to evangelism techniques customized to reach out to a community that had been ignored and, worse yet, abused by Christian churches for a very long time.

The Right Rev. Martin Field, the Right Rev. Dean Wolfe
Although there were a few parishes in our two-state metropolitan area that had embraced the new reality and were celebrating blessings, the vast majority of our congregations were silent and slow to react. We spoke with the bishops of the two dioceses that cover the Kansas City area. The Right Rev. Dean E. Wolfe, D.D., of the Diocese of Kansas, and the Right Rev. Martin Field of the Diocese of West Missouri were supportive of our efforts and they agreed to sponsor a forum for clergy and lay leadership. They asked us to develop the agenda for this unique two bishop forum and we went to work.

We began by interviewing parish priests and asking them how Integrity could help them develop a welcoming environment for LGBT persons in their congregation. We told them about the techniques that we had experienced at the Believe Out Loud workshop. The members who had these conversations with the priests knew them well and were surprised by the apparent lack of interest in what we were offering.

Integrity Greater Kansas City Chapter Convener Scott Schaefer
with the Right Rev. Martin Field & the Right Rev. Dean Wolfe
The more that we probed in our preparation for the forum, we discovered that it was not a lack of interest – it was conscious foot dragging and a fear of adverse reactions in their congregations. We heard comments like, "My congregation is OK with this issue and we don’t need to do anything special." When asked how they might have prepared the parish for the approval of blessings by General Convention, the response was usually the same – "We didn’t need to do anything special." We were pretty sure that was not a valid assessment. After all, the states of Kansas and Missouri are not exactly hotbeds of liberalism. Both States adopted constitutional amendments banning anything other than traditional marriages.

Other priests were frank in saying that they did not want to stir up the sexuality debate and they feared the loss of valued parishioners, especially in the older generation. It was becoming clear to us that the parishes were not ready for our Believe Out Loud excitement. We needed to double back and deal with the anxiety among parish leadership over the topic of overt inclusion of LGBT persons. In other words, the passage of legislation by General Convention did not resolve the underlying issues.

The Right Rev. Martin Field, The Right Rev. Dean Wolfe
With this knowledge, we changed the theme of the forum and advertised it as an opportunity for clergy and lay leadership to have an open and honest conversation with their bishops and fellow leaders with respect to the opportunities and challenges arising from increased LGBT participation in their congregations. Apparently this struck a responsive chord and we were pleased to have an attendance of 65 persons representing 16 parishes. And this was on a Thursday night in early September – not prime time!

Bishop Field opened the forum with a reminder that the full inclusion of LGBT brothers and sisters was a "Gospel imperative" and that we as leaders in the Church needed to move forward on this initiative in the name of Christ. Bishop Wolfe, in his opening remarks, spoke about the "missed opportunity cost" that would be incurred if we were reluctant to take hold of this opportunity to make major strides in establishing our parishes as places that practice radical hospitality – especially in the context of the cultural conflicts that exist in our Midwest environment.

Following the encouraging remarks from the Bishops, the microphones were opened for brief responses from those in attendance. There next followed a very active small group discussion period among the attendees as they shared their individual parish experiences. The Forum closed with reports from the table discussions to the plenary session.

The Right Rev. Martin Field, The Right Rev. Dean Wolfe
The exchanges that occurred during this two-hour Forum were very encouraging. The participants were all supportive of the effort, but were also very frank and open in sharing their concerns. One of the conclusions stated during the discussions was that silence within the congregation cannot be taken as consensus. Bishop Wolfe suggested an analogy to our history with racism. In the 1940s and 1950s it was not uncommon for church members to openly engage in racist remarks and humor. It is difficult to comprehend now that some Episcopal congregations were openly opposed to civil rights initiatives. As the prevailing secular culture changed, the opponents of racial equality became silent but they did not go away; they merely went underground and racism is still with us today. Congregations need to be aware of this same tendency in today’s issues of sexuality and find creative ways to engage the silent members who still have unresolved concerns. However, we cannot let those silent concerns stand in the way of the opportunity that is before us.

Integrity, as a sponsor and participant in the forum, was able to express our desire to join with the individual parishes to give them whatever support and assistance we can to help them move forward with their desire to gather and incorporate new LGBT members. We are hopeful that the communication lines that have been established from this forum will give our chapter a new focus for our ministry in the Dioceses of Kansas and Missouri.
Larry J. Bingham is a member of the Greater Kansas City chapter of Integrity. He served as a Lay Deputy to seven consecutive General Conventions from 1994 through 2012. In 2012, he was a member of the Legislative Committee on Liturgy, Prayer Book and Church Music and served on the Subcommittee for Same-Sex Blessings. 

Photo credit: Melodie Woerman, Communications Officer for the Diocese of Kansas


Elaine C. said...

What is available for congregational education? Who do I ask? From a priest in Ohio

Christian Paolino said...

Hi Elaine:

Integrity and its Believe Out Loud denominational partners work with the Institute for Welcoming Resources to make educational materials available for people and congregations. There are many items available for free download and others suggested for purchase.

Please take a look at what they offer and if you are not able to find something that meets your specific needs we will be glad to assist. You can reach out to Integrity directly via phone or email.