DECATUR, Ga. (ABP) – A gay Christian told Baptists April 20 that whatever their views about homosexuality, churches can learn something from committed same-sex covenant relationships.
Cody Sanders, a Ph.D. candidate at Brite Divinity School and member of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas — a congregation kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention for its full acceptance of openly gay members — said without homosexuality many Christians might never be forced to think about things like power inequalities in heterosexual relationships or how idolizing the traditional nuclear family marginalizes others like single-parent and extended-family configurations to a second class.
“Rather than a tolerable but undesirable ‘Plan B,’ LGBT relationships are stellar examples of covenant forged in the fires of oppression and marginalization,” Sanders said at a three-day [Baptist] Conference on Sexuality and Covenant co-sponsored by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Mercer University’s Center for Theology and Public Life.
Sanders said he and his partner kept their relationship secret for two years, because both wanted to be ministers and thought coming out would jeopardize their careers. He said Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., which ordained both of them to the ministry, was not only the first church but the first institution of any kind to celebrate their relationship.
While homosexuality is one of the most controversial issues facing Christians today, another speaker said it need not divide congregations that choose to discuss it. LeDayne Polaski, program coordinator for the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, outlined principles of conflict transformation, a program that views conflict not as something to be avoided but instead as something that is inevitable in meaningful relationships.
“Relationships without conflict are simply acquaintances, and we as Christians are not called to be acquaintances but sisters and brothers,” she said.
Polaski said the attitude taken going into conversations about sexuality and covenant can make all the difference. “If you walk into this feeling that it is a regrettable but necessary task, it will be what you expect,” she said. “If you decide that you must grit your teeth and bear it, you’re going to end up gritting your teeth a lot. But if you decide instead to hold and convey a different attitude — if you decide to believe and trust that you have an opportunity to transform and be transformed — then you may indeed find yourself on holy ground.”
Wendell Griffen, pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark., said most churches have a “religious phobia” about discussing human sexuality. He said one of his charter members left the congregation because she didn’t want to participate in a study of a book about the Bible and homosexuality. “Although others openly expressed anxieties, they committed themselves to the study because it marked the first time they were part of a congregation where human sexuality was being openly pondered, discussed and embraced,” Griffen said.
More than 430 people showed up for the first-of-its-kind conference, which included seven plenary sessions on a variety of topics related to human sexuality and covenant. Participants were assigned to one of 23 covenant community groups, which met immediately following plenary session for debriefing, questions and processing the topics and issues presented by speakers.
“This event is about helping Christians and churches comfortably discuss sexuality and covenant,” said Rick Bennett, CBF’s director of missional congregations and one of the event’s organizers. “This event is grounded in CBF’s shared core values, vision and mission. It equips and empowers Christians to be the presence of Christ to one another and to the stranger; to break down barriers; to let nothing get in the way of sharing the good news that God’s kingdom is available to us even now.”
The event included a resource fair and a concert by singer/songwriter Jennifer Knapp. Formerly a Grammy-nominated contemporary Christian musician, Knapp went on a seven-year hiatus before releasing a new album in 2010 and confirming rumors that she is a lesbian in an interview with Christianity Today. Planners said her invitation to the conference wasn’t an endorsement but was extended because her story would be of interest to many people in attendance.
Videos of the plenary sessions and photos from the conference can be found online at www.thefellowship.info/conference.
Bob Allen is managing editor of Associated Baptist Press. Ken Camp of the Baptist Standard and Patricia Heys of CBF communications contributed to this report.