Rev. Emily C. Heath

Unbinding the Spirit: Mobilizing Pro-Equality Clergy

Filed By Rev. Emily C. Heath | June 29, 2011 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: marriage equality, New York, religion

Cross.jpgLast week I stood with Episcopal priests; Lutheran, United Church of Christ, and Unitarian ministers; and Reform rabbis in Albany. Because Monday is the traditional clergy day off, we flooded the Capitol. We held signs. We chanted. We sang. We witnessed to the fact that we as people of faith felt we could stand nowhere but on the side of equality.

Despite perceptions otherwise, there are a lot of us. There are plenty of religious leaders who believe in full equality. And we want to help. We want to be used by the movement. But sometimes our organizers don't really know what to do with us.

On Monday, when the religious fervor against equal marriage was high, I kept hearing that organizers wanted all of the clergy there in Albany to stand together for a press conference. It never materialized, and I'm not sure why. But it could have been powerful, and it could have sent a strong message to New York senators.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that religion should have had nothing to do with this vote on civil rights. Civil marriage is not religious marriage. But the sad fact is, religion was what ended up being debated. The red herring of "religious freedom" was the greatest threat to marriage equality in New York. And yet the loudest religious voices, by far, were all from the anti-equality folks.

The same is true for almost every struggle for equality going on across the country. You can yell until you are blue in the face that religion shouldn't matter, and it won't change the anti-equality folks' strategy one bit. We are being opposed on religious grounds, and anti-equality clergy voices are speaking loudly.

I know a lot of LGBT people, and our allies, are uncomfortable with religion. And for good reason. But if we want to win, we have to be able to refute religious arguments effectively. And clergy are some of the best people to do that because we speak the languages of faith. We have studied the issues. We know what our traditions say. We know religious scriptures, erroneously used to bully us, inside and out. We are prepared for this struggle. And we are a force often untapped.

Last Monday I stood in the Capitol at Albany, looked across the hallway, and realized that the anti-equality camp had managed to accomplish something incredible: They had organized conservative Roman Catholics, fundamentalist Protestants, and Chasidic Jewish communities and gotten them to all work together to oppose equal marriage. That may not sound like a huge accomplishment, but it was. On any other day the ideological disagreements of these groups would have kept them from one another. But when allied behind a common goal, they were able (at least for a few days) to overcome differences.

As much as I hate to say it, we could learn something from them.

In order to mobilize pro-equality clergy, we in the greater LGBT community have to do what the anti-equality folks did with people who generally would want nothing to do with one another: we have to work together. It doesn't matter if you believe all religious people are deluded or if you are the most devout Christian to ever exist. You have to work together on these issues of civil rights and use one another's strengths.

There have been some real attempts to use the voices of progressive clergy by LGBT organizations. These are all good starts. But we the clergy need to do more. We have so far sat back in the struggle for civil rights, content to be used when called. But the reality is that we need to be more proactive. We need to be using our voices in a more public way.

To be fair, those of us who are clergy have been distracted in part because we have been spending a lot of time in the past decade fighting for equality within our own religious organizations. We've gained greater inclusion for LGBT people in the UCC, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Disciples denominations of Christianity, in Unitarian Universalism, and in several Jewish movements. It's been well worth it. But we have sometimes looked inward to the neglect of the greater struggle outside of our church and temple walls.

And so the question I ask is this: How do we do it? Do we form a clergy equality organization that can respond in its own voice? Do we continue to work with already existing LGBT organizations? Do we stay local? Do we go national? Do we do something else entirely? I ask because I don't know, and I want to hear ideas.

Friday night, after the final vote, I went to the victory celebration being held at an Albany gay bar. There, after standing for a week in the Capitol with my clergy collar on, I heard the DJ talk about how he wanted to "piss off Christians" that night. At first I was frustrated. I and other clergy had fought for equality all week and now our faith was being attacked. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that he was just responding based on what he saw. We deserved it.

The voices of progressive clergy, while present, have simply never been as loud as the voices of anti-gay clergy. That DJ probably had no idea that there were clergy at the Capitol all week. When we get to the next vote, I'd like to change that. I'd like for clergy to stand up against religious bigotry with a voice that is heard loud and clear. The question is: How do we do it?

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I don't really know the answer to your question, and can't speak as a person of any particular faith. But I have observed in the past (in Canada) that as much of a unified front as faiths opposing LGBTTQ rights sometimes show, there are often huge rifts underlying them, not the least of which is the ongoing distrust and rivalry between faiths themselves, and a refusal to see each other as speaking with any kind of Biblical authority. Denomination is a problem, and this is a point where I think that progressive faiths can excel, if the initial timidity and complacency on controversial issues can be overcome.

That said, something that I've seen far-right Catholic, Evangelical and Christian Zionist groups do to avert some of that infighting is to form non-denominational "think tank" -style frameworks, allowing discussion without any obvious favoritism. It's sometimes used underhandedly (which I don't recommend, but acknowledge), to give them an appearance of being academic rather than theologically-biased, when lobbying to and for far-right legislators. An example: (note: CCPS shouldn't be confused with the better-known progressive Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, although the similarity in naming is probably intentional). An affirming corollary to that might start out looking like: or

Thank you for a great post. While I know that there are many pro-LGBT clergy who are often overlooked, I think you summed up the heart of the issue well when you stated "We the clergy need to do more. We have so far sat back in the struggle for civil rights, content to be used when called. But the reality is that we need to be more proactive. We need to be using our voices in a more public way."

All too often the only voices heard on news media broadcasts or in the print media are the voices of Bible thumping LGBT-hating clergy - the Christianists or Christofascists as I call them. In my own adopted denomination, the ELCA, much has been done within the Church to change attitudes and stances - the vote at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly to allow partnered gay clergy is perhaps the best example. But the ELCA could be doing more in a public way. In addition to working inside denominations, clergy need to confront the gay-haters publicly.

Recent surveys have shown that younger citizens - especially non-church goers - have a very negative view of Christianity and it's because the only voices they hear regularly are the hate merchants of the Christian Right. Clergy need to not only be more visible in their support of equality for the benefit of the LGBT community but also to safeguard the soul of Christianity. The Christianists are killing Christianity.

Michael, you're absolutely right. Almost all of the mainline clergy I know are either LGBT or incredibly LGBT friendly. I think we have spent so much time fighting to make our churches more friendly in the last ten years than we forgot to keep fighting for the rest of the world. (Or, in some cases, church law kept us from doing so.) But we are killing ourselves. A recent survey found a super majority of teens and young adults supported our civil rights, but in that same group 90% thought the church was homophobic. Why are young people going To join an institution that they think is on the wrong side of the greatest civil rights issue of their life?

Amen. One of the issues is that, because mainstream Christians are strong supporters of the separation of church and state, we are often hesitant to get involved in politics to the extent that we should. Fundamentalists do not have that hesitation. It is sad that there are some gay people who do not know that many Christian denominations already have full gay Christian marriage, ordain openly gay pastors, and lobby for civil rights. By definition, Christianity is a religion teaching equality and love for all, yet that is not always conveyed by the media. As Galatians 3:28 states, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."

Rev. Emily C. Heath, are you going to United Church of Christ General Synod in Tampa this weekend? Will you be blogging from there?

I am! I'm serving as a delegate, though, so I'm not going to have much writing time. But, I'm already impressed with the focus on LGBT issues. I'm serving on a committee considering a resolution which calls on the UCC to speak out on international incidents of homophobic violence. With some American churches complicitly silent with the "kill the gays" bill in Uganda, the UCC is trying to actively take another path. Another committee is working on issues of LGBT adoption. Maybe after this week I can write it up. For now, though, I'm sitting in Logan airport, waiting for my flight to Tampa.

Sounds great. You should definitely write a summary post for this blog and your own.

@DB - Galatians 3:28 means that people of all sorts that believe in the Christian God get the same after death reward in heaven. In the meantime women were to remain second class citizens, slaves were to obey their owners, gays abused by straights, etc. for more.

The Bible was, by design, written to support rich men. Telling everyone who did not happen to be a rich man that things would be great for them after death was an act of genius. Brainwash people being abused this concept from birth and they are less likely to demand real life equality.

Um, the Bible was not written either by, or to support, rich men. And your exegesis of the passage is completely incorrect.

There are certain passages that have been rewritten and/or deliberately mistranslated in order to solidify control by the hierarchies of cetain denominations, and to keep minorities and women from obtaining power yes. Not sure if the Bible really was written primarily by and for Rich Men that they would have been so keen on the camel entering the eye of Jerusalem bit or the part where Jesus threw a hissy fit over merchants selling goods in the temple being included in the first place. Maybe those too were genius bits in order to deflect suspicion?

What I'm getting at is I really don't believe such sweeping generalizations could ever hold true for a document that started out as the oral traditions of a group of desert tribes and was later written down, added too, translated, mistranslated, and codified by dozens of other cultures and groups over a period of time lasting more then a millennium.

Rev. Heath and I met for the first time in Albany. As she writes, it was abundantly clear that that there is much to be done going forward as clergy on all fronts. That is the point of this article, and my own concern as well. Our larger conversation took place as we handed out water and food to the younger activists that were overwhelmed and exhausted. The situation was beyond chaotic and the larger LGBTQ organizations had no idea how to use the clergy present to their advantage. In the shadow of DOMA, the failure of GENDA, and the constant threats to the safety and civil rights of LGBTQ individuals, we need to mobilize. I support her clergy initiative completely. The voice of progressive religion was clearly heard in vote in Albany, but it was drowned out in the hallways where it was needed just as much.

There is an article in the New York Times on the subject of Christians fighting to legalize marital choice in New York: