History of Open & Affirming

Open & Affirming at Immanuel:  A History

The death of Matthew Shepard on Monday, October 12, 1998, proved to be a galvanizing moment for the Immanuel congregation, as it was for much of the nation.  On the Thursday evening following his death in Laramie, Wyoming at the hands of two homophobic strangers, 700 people from Greater Hartford filled the Immanuel pews after walking in candlelit silence from the United Methodist Church at the corner of Farmington and Whitney.  The evening proved to be part memorial, part protest rally, and many people in the packed pews were comforted and moved by a hymn from the Immanuel Chancel Choir.  Immanuel Music Director Larry Allen had cancelled the regular Thursday rehearsal in favor of asking the choir to welcome the sad and angry marchers with a hymn.  We stayed to mourn and to listen, and later closed the evening with “Amazing Grace”.

In 1989, the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ had adopted the policies of openness toward and affirmation of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals which had recently come out of the General Synod of the United Church of Christ.  The individual member churches in Connecticut were invited to educate themselves on these issues and to consider adopting the designation “Open and Affirming,” that is, extending a particular welcome to full Christian fellowship to persons of every sexual orientation.   But ten years later, only a handful of Connecticut UCC congregations had gone through the self-study and become open and affirming.

In the 1990’s Immanuel went through several long periods of interim ministry (both senior and associate) and considerable self-examination and soul searching on our overall direction as an urban congregation.  There was no apparent momentum (that I remember) for taking on the potentially divisive study of sexual orientation/equality and the role of the church in that conversation.  In fact, more than two decades earlier (1972), Immanuel had wrestled briefly with homosexuality/homophobia issues when a gay support group called the Kalos Society was invited to use our meeting space in 1972, and then later disinvited in response to the discomfort and concern of some church members.  The invitation to all persons to worship here was reiterated, but the invitation to the gay-identified organization for meeting space was withdrawn.

The murder of Matthew Shepard made it clear to our congregational leadership and many individual members that passivity and silence on the issue of homophobia was inconsistent with our Christian values.  Thus began a stimulating and challenging period of study for the congregation, which ended up lasting almost two years.

In early January 1999, Interim Senior Minister John Hay preached a sermon entitled “Open & Affirming, Like God.”  At the Annual Meeting of late January 1999, an open and affirming study process was launched by congregational agreement, to be guided by a subcommittee of the Diaconate, which had already begun gathering materials and resources.  And on the first Sunday in February, 1999, we welcomed our new senior pastor, the Reverend Ed Horstmann.  Some of us recall Ed’s pleasure (or was it relief) that we had already made the decision to begin the Open & Affirming study – a decision he fully supported.

The study process came to include the following elements:
Lent 1999:  adult education classes with outside speakers from other churches and gay advocacy groups including members of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), organized by a subcommittee of deacons.
•    Second Hours, Oct 10 & 17, 1999
•    Sermon by Ed Horstmann, Oct 17, 1999, “The Implications of  Love:  How Open & Affirming Can We Be?”
•    Advent evening adult education series (Ed Horstmann),  Nov. 30 and Dec. 12 & 14,  1999, “The Word Made Flesh: Exploring the Gift and Mystery of Human Sexuality”
•    Pre-Lent Wednesday Adult Study, “The Challenge of Diversity,” February 2, 9 & 23, 2000, led by the Rev. Rosemary Turner
•    Lenten Study Series, “An Open & Affirming Congregation”, Mar 15 – April 12, 2000, composing a draft of Immanuel’s statement on diversity with members of the Open & Affirming Study Committee.

It is fair to say, from the above extensive list of classes and forums, that every member and friend of the congregation who wished to engage with the Open and Affirming study process had opportunity to do so.  To my memory, this engagement happened in an atmosphere of careful speaking and listening even while strong and varied opinions and concerns were being expressed.  We became closer as friends and as a congregation because of our willingness to speak honestly about our hopes, fears and concerns.

After drafts and redrafts, in May and June, 2000, a proposed Open & Affirming Resolution was adopted in turn by the Diaconate, Board of Christian Education, and Social Action & Mission Committee, and then by the Church Executive Committee which referred it for vote of the congregation at a special meeting on Oct 29, 2000, Reformation Sunday.

On September 24, 2000, Ed’s sermon entitled “What’s the Story” reviewed the remarkable history of our congregational awakening on the Open & Affirming question, the Biblical and social underpinnings, and urged all of us to use the remaining weeks before the vote for continued discussion, feedback and prayer, including a sermon talkback that very day.   He closed by urging us to be “as open, and affirming, and compassionate, and hopeful, as we say we already are.”  I urge you to read the entire sermon at your leisure.  It remains an inspiration ten years later.

At a special meeting of the congregation on October 29, 2000, Immanuel members unanimously approved the Open & Affirming Resolution and started a new and remarkable chapter in the history of this amazing church.  Who among us “older-timers” can imagine Immanuel today without the gifts and talents of our newer members, gay and straight, who have been drawn here in the past decade by our passion for justice and inclusiveness.  I, for one, cannot.

– Sally Taylor
Church Moderator, Feb 1998-Jan 2000

OPEN AND AFFIRMING RESOLUTION

We believe in God
Whose will for us is vitality and love.
Through the created worlds
We see the passion of God for unity and diversity;
Through the voices of the prophets,
We hear the dream of God for justice on earth;
Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus,
God reveals a way that leads to life.
We believe that all people are cherished by God
And called to live with respect and compassion.
We believe that human sexuality
Is a gift of God
That can enhance our life together in community.
As we are open to a variety of devotional styles,
We affirm a variety of ways
In which we can enjoy the mystery of sexuality.
While we are open to the diverse possibilities of intimacy,
We affirm the virtues of
Respect, justice and compassion
For all human relationships.
We affirm human sexuality as a gift of God
To be celebrated and cherished in relationships of truth and trust.
We seek to explore both the challenge and possibilities of human intimacy
And to proclaim the truth of love to those who abuse or degrade the gift of diversity.
In all that we do and are
We seek to be as loving as God,
As alive as Jesus,
As creative as the Holy Spirit.

Declaration
The People of Immanuel Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hartford, Connecticut embrace the loving and creative goodness of God. We declare ourselves to be an Open and Affirming Church and welcome into full participation members and staff of every sexual orientation just as we extend the same loving welcome to people of every age, race, gender, physical and mental ability, ethnicity and economic status. We affirm the gifts for ministry of all God’s children and will not be silent when the rights and dignity of any are denied. We seek to be a congregation that welcomes and nurtures all people, that encourages respect, justice and compassion for all human relationships and that strives for wholeness in our city, country and throughout the world.
Voted unanimously at a Special Meeting of the congregation on October 29, 2000