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ON THE SCENE: Keene Valley Congregational Church embraces ‘open and affirming’ for LGBQTI community

October 12, 2018
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

The United Church of Christ states on its website that it seeks to be "Multiracial, Multicultural, Open and Affirming, accessible to all - a church where everyone is welcome."

On Sunday, Oct. 6, the Keene Valley Congregational Church took a major step toward embracing that vision when its membership voted to become "open and affirming," culminating in a year-long discussion and investigation of the full meaning and ramifications of the phrase.

UCC became the first mainline Protestant church to openly welcome and ordain gay and lesbian clergy to service, which has since expanded to include the full LGBQTI community. UCC remains the largest of several LGBQTI welcoming U.S. and Canadian churches with approximately 30 percent of its membership voluntarily adopting Open and Affirming covenants.

Article Photos

Rev. John Sampson, Keene Valley Congregational Church
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

The roots of this initiative gained national attention in 1972 when the Rev. William A. Johnson was the first openly gay minister ordained by UCC. His ordination was followed by the formation of the Gay Caucus within the UCC, later renamed as the Open and Affirming Caucus. The ordination of Johnson and establishing of the Caucus was part of a long journey by UCC to becoming more open and inclusive of people who had not been traditionally in the church.

In 1982, UCC ordained its first openly lesbian minister Anne Holmes, which led to the Synod adopting a resolution urging its churches to declare themselves Open and Affirming. The first to do so was New York City's Riverside Church in 1985 under the leadership of the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin.

More recently, the Church of England, Church of Scotland, Episcopal Church in the United States, Anglican Church of Canada, and the Presbyterian Church have followed suit though many not as thoroughly as UCC.

Three years ago, the Keene Valley Congregational Church initiated a search to seek a replacement for retiring pastor Milton Dudley. During his interview, John Sampson whom they ultimately selected, asked the question if they were an open and affirming church. From Sampson and the acting pastor and consultant, they learned that they were not and that so becoming would require an in-depth discussion by the entire congregation, which began about a year-and-a-half after his hiring.

Open and affirming stands for the inclusion of sexual and gender minorities into all aspects of the life of the church. In some denominations, a person can be gay, and a member of the church and not ordained, or you can be in the church but in the down low, an activity that's kept discreet, and other permutations of acceptance.

At UCC, to be open and affirming means that all facets of church life, which goes from governance to clergy, to sacraments, to all the other aspects of the church will become open to LGBQTI individuals.

Several Keene Valley congregation members asked, how is being open and affirming different than a church that proclaims, as Keene Valley Congregational has for years, that all are welcome? They learned that in some churches that state, "all are welcome," gays and lesbians cannot be married.

In other churches, members of the LGBQTI community are welcome to attend and take communion, but may not be welcome to sit in a pew holding the hand of their partner, or allowed to be ordained as a minister of that church. They learned that there are different levels of inclusion across different denominations and churches within a faith, which do not meet the UCC standard.

Therefore, a year ago the Keene Valley Congregational Church's congregation began a process of learning what it would mean to wholeheartedly welcome LGBQTI people.

They began this process by selecting 10 people to serve on a committee, people that reflected a range of life experiences, opinions, and how they experience Christ and the message of God. Their task was first to educate themselves about what it would take to enable all people to feel safe and welcome and then lead the congregation through a comprehensive examination as the outcome would be setting a new direction for the church.

"I thought the experience was truly wonderful," said Susan Doolittle, a member of the committee. "I came in thinking, 'Well, we already state that all are welcome, what's the need?' I've never gone to a public space and thought, 'I'm not welcome here!' We were challenged to think about what makes a person feel unwelcome, what causes a person to feel alien in a place. I think for everyone on the committee to get into that headspace required a leap of imagination to learn what it feels like to not belong for whatever reason."

The committee held a range of forums and events to help members of the congregation and anyone from the community who wanted to attend to, in effect, walk in another's shoes. By chance, during this process, the community as a whole had a similar opportunity to experience what it's like for youth of color raised in the Adirondacks through hearing from two Keene Central School high school students who spoke about the degrading humor and behavior they have experienced. Similarly, the committee hosted a forum that included members of the LGBQTI community to talk about their life experiences and answer questions, which was eye opening to many.

"I learned that it's possible to separate politics from a spiritual question," said Debby Rice, a member of the committee. "I learned that people who come from many different life experiences, thoughts, and backgrounds could come together in agreement on a forward-looking statement regarding welcoming the LGBQTI community. For the church, it means we are embracing our future, that we stand on looking ahead in becoming more, and more, and more inclusive."

"I felt the process was comprehensive and rewarding," said Jim Marlatt. "It was fascinating to determine how the total community would respond to this, and I think they responded in a very positive way. I learned how significant this issue is for many in the North Country as we have many people who fall into the LGBQTI community. Even in the town of Keene there is a significant number. I think the more we engaged people and brought information to the table, many responded, "Oh, I didn't realize that!'

On Sunday, at its annual meeting, the congregation voted overwhelmingly to declare itself open and affirming, taking the first step in what will be a long road of discovery.

"While overwhelming, the vote was not unanimous," said Karen Glass, noting that two voted in dissent. "I feel strongly that we still need to be open to listening to opinions of others and that we have both kindness and trust for those who voted differently. We want people to continue to share their truth and know that they will be accepted, even though their opinions may be different than our own. I think going forward we have to consider how to let LGBQTI know that we are open and affirming and they are welcome along with everyone else."


The language


This is what the congregation approved:

"The mission of the Keene Valley Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, is to welcome all people wherever they are on life's journey, joining together in worship and spiritual exploration while striving lovingly to serve with justice and compassion. In order to live more deeply into these values, while understanding that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning and intersex people are often scorned and discriminated against both in the church and in society, we declare ourselves to be an Open and Affirming Church. We covenant to welcome all individuals into the wholeness of the life of the church and to work to end oppression and discrimination wherever we encounter them and to help create the beloved community of God's realm."



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