Last week at its national meeting, the gathered Assembly of our denomination (the Christian Church [Disciples of Christ]) took an historic step forward. The Assembly voted to adopt a resolution calling for us to “affirm the faith, baptism and spiritual gifts of all Christians regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and that neither is grounds for exclusion from fellowship or service within the church.” Even taking into consideration important caveats about congregational autonomy and non-binding authority, this was a major step for a denomination known for not taking stands on anything.
It was interesting to note that nowhere in the resolution were the words “open and affirming” used. That term has become synonymous with churches that openly welcome gays and lesbians into the life of their church. According to my research (translation: looking it up on Wikipedia), that phrase has been used in church circles since 1985, include in some of the churches in my denomination.
So why did this resolution not call us to be “open and affirming?” After all, that was the spirit of the resolution, and the words fit the ethos of many of our congregations. Most Disciples churches I know offer an open table (all believers are welcome to take communion) and affirm the variety gifts of the congregation. In other words, many of our churches are already open and affirming, if not “Open and Affirming.”
I have a theory. The term “Open and Affirming,” while originally meant to promote inclusion, has become exclusionary. As it has made its journey from 1985 until now, “Open and Affirming” has picked up some cultural baggage. It no longer is simply the antithesis to being “Closed and Condemning.” Now, I believe, “Open and Affirming” has become the buzzword for the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church, the slogan that gives the movement an identity. To say a church is “open and affirming” gives a person some immediate context for understanding a core value of that church.
But I believe the evolution of the term has had some unintended consequences. It now is sometimes perceived as being exclusionary. In other words, if you’re not for us, then you’re against us. It communicates that those who are opposed to the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church aren’t welcome. I know many of my pastor friends will argue this is not what the terms means, and I agree completely. What I’m saying is the perception of the term’s meaning has evolved (devolved?) into this.
This conclusion is not without support. I’ve talked to folks, some in my own church, who opposed the resolution and the idea of being “open and affirming,” stating that if their church ever went that direction, they wouldn’t feel welcomed. Of course, I could say, “Well, that’s your fault, not ours! Of course you’ll still be welcomed.” Which is often the same thing we say to gays and lesbians who won’t come to our church because they’re afraid they won’t feel welcomed. This is quite a sticky wicket. To quote Brian McClaren, “How do you oppose division without dividing from dividers? How do you oppose exclusion without excluding excluders?”
I think it’s time to move beyond “open and affirming.” If that term has become a barrier to people feeling welcomed in our church, then maybe we need to find another way to say what we mean. I have a suggestion, one that came to me during the very same assembly where we passed the resolution. It was a phrase that resonated through that gathering, both from the main stage and in the Twittersphere. It was a phrase often used in support of the resolution but just as easily stated to raise a concern about the unintended message that passage of the resolution might send to those in opposition.
The phrase is “All Means All.” If we’re going to say all are welcome, then we have to mean all. “All” includes gays and lesbians, single and divorced people, adopted kids, hard-of-hearing elderly folks, and everybody else I could name. All means all. But “all” also means we welcome the racist, the felon, the homophobe, the manipulator, the guy who thinks women don’t belong in the pulpit, and even seminary graduates. “All” means the distracted businessman who would rather be on the golf course and the harried mom who uses the bulletin to make a grocery list during the sermon. “All” means the teenagers who make fart jokes during communion and the one person who always seems to nod off at some point in the sermon. We welcome the abused and her abuser. We welcome the hater and the hated. All means all.
To me, this is a far more challenging prospect, because no one is excluded, even unintentionally. This sends the message that everyone has a place here, everyone can claim that the church is “my church,” and doesn’t belong just to those who are in line with a certain theology or worldview. That means we pastors have to make sure that there is indeed space at the table, in the Board meeting, and in the Sunday School class for these opposing viewpoints. Our job is not only to help them co-exist, but to facilitate their dialogue, with the hope that somewhere in the conversation these competing ideologies transform into two people trying to work out their faith in fear and trembling who discover in each other commonalities that soften the differences. Oh yeah, and we have to make room for the Spirit, who is really the One with the work to do.
I’m not saying “Open and Affirming” (the term, not the idea) should go away, but I do hope, in the wake of my denomination’s statement, that we seek ways of living and being that call us to be open and affirming to everyone, both those who’ve been locked out of the church and those who’ve wielded the keys that no longer work. All means all.
 McLaren, Brian. Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Muhammad Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World. Jericho Books; somewhere in Chapter 2.