Chattanooga’s First Christian Church Becomes Open, Affirming Congregation After Years-Long Process

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July 12 — From his early days as a member of First Christian Church in the 1960s, when his son, now 58, was still a baby, Jean Blackburn has held leadership positions , from chair of the finance committee to chair. of the congregation.

But her most recent responsibility on the church committee was very important, she said. It was personal.

First Christian has always been a loving and welcoming place, said Blackburn, but as a child his son was not able to fully express himself in the community.

“He was nurtured and cared for and loved, but there was a part of him that was hidden, and he was unwilling to say what was happening to him,” Blackburn said.

In 2019, Blackburn joined the church’s congregation-wide conversation about officially becoming an open and assertive church for members of the LGBTQ community. The church denomination had voted to affirm all LGBTQ members at its general conference in 2013, but the declaration was not binding on individual churches, which enjoy autonomy similar to some other Protestant traditions.

For years, the McCallie Avenue Church has supported LGBTQ members and allowed them to take leadership positions. The senior pastor of the church, Reverend Brandon Gilvin, performed a same-sex marriage in the church. But he had to inform the leaders of the congregation, he said.

The Disciples of Christ congregation has often spoken out in favor of all of its members, but there was always a pause when questions arose about gender and sexuality. Not anymore, Gilvin said.

“The conversation is different. It’s not every time the question arises, do we have to make a decision?” Gilvin said. “The decision has been made: yes, this is a church for all. Period.”

Last fall, about 85% of the congregation voted to accept a welcoming statement officially marking the first Christian as open and affirming. The congregation is celebrating the decision as it resumes in-person worship services this summer.

“We welcome the table as Christ did, offering a broad membership and full participation in church ministries to people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, races, ethnicities, nationalities, disabilities, family structures. , origins, economic circumstances and theological and political perspectives, ”the declaration reads in part.

Churches and religious communities have struggled to answer questions of gender and sexuality for decades. The United Methodist Church is expected to split into a more liberal and assertive denomination and a more conservative or traditional denomination, although the official split has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although more than half of American Christians say homosexuality should be accepted, according to the Pew Research Center, some of the country’s major religious communities, including Baptists and Catholics, reject same-sex marriage and argue that people of the LGBTQ community should deny their sexual desires. . The majority of Christian churches welcome the participation of people in the LGBTQ community but ask them to change, which is why LGBTQ advocates argue that there is a difference between this and an open and assertive church.

Support for laws restricting the use of a toilet to a person’s sex at birth has gained significant support among conservative Christians, who have rallied to fight for what they contend to be a biblical view of gender.

Theology played a central role in First Christian’s decision, Gilvin said. The church has come together in the idea that all are welcome and accepted at Christ’s table, he said.

Church members led the discussion at First Christian, Gilvin said, and they intended to understand the views and understandings of different members.

A church committee held one-on-one meetings, as well as a panel of people from the LGBTQ community to discuss their experiences with the church and a panel of clergy serving in open and affirming churches to discuss this. that is to lead their congregations. Members then weighed in on the official statement the church would adopt, making sure the language was accurate.

Katie Wylie, who served as congregation president during the discussions, said the whole process was collaborative.

“With any process like this there will always be some rumbling, but the vast majority of the congregation supported it,” Wylie said.

Harriet Sutton, who served on the committee and is a mother of two grown children from the LGBTQ community, said the roundtable was important for church members to hear firsthand what it’s like to grow up in a Christian environment that does not support gender or sexuality when it does not fit traditional understanding.

“I think it’s good for people to hear real stories about how people have been affected by the church and how they are treated and how the church is responding to their membership in the LGBTQ community,” Sutton said.

Kate Wallace, a committee member and mother of two children aged 2 and under, said it “meant the world” to have her family supported in the congregation. Her family and children will never have to wonder if the church really means what it says when it comes to accepting everyone, she said.

“They have a place, a place that is open and assertive, and there’s really never a time in their life where they kind of have to come out as kids of gay parents or anything like that,” he said. Wallace said.

Contact Wyatt Massey at [email protected] or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @ news4mass.

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