Progressive Revival

Timothy Palmer is the Director of Policy and Communication at the Religious
Institute: Faithful Voices on Sexuality and Religion

Those of us who are both openly gay and openly Christian (and
happily reconciled in the two) are used to the deliberate pace that many
Christian denominations have taken toward fully embracing their lesbian, gay,
bisexual and transgender (LGBT) congregants.  Having consecrated one openly gay bishop in 2003, it took
the Episcopal Church another six years to give itself permission to (maybe)
doing it again.  The Lutherans
approved a progressive statement on human sexuality by the slimmest of margins last
week, while the Presbyterians narrowly defeated a measure in the spring that
would have permitted the ordination of openly gay and lesbian clergy. 

Every time, the media played up the schism angle.  And every time, the media missed the
bigger story. 

Every controversial vote and painstaking step forward shrouds
what are, in fact, stunning advances for LGBT people of faith.  The mainline traditions are either
moving forward on this issue or, at worst, standing in place.   The Presbyterian vote, while
leaving existing polity unchanged, revealed a notable shift in favor of gay and
lesbian clergy, enough to put opponents on their heels when the question is considered
again.  In the Episcopal Church,
the attention paid to the election of gay and lesbian bishops overshadowed a host
of other actions:  resolutions
supporting transgender civil rights, pastoral support for blessing same-sex
marriages and unions, and new liturgical resources for same-sex ceremonies to
be considered in 2012.

As for the Lutherans, the adoption of the social statement Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,
spurred convention delegates to approve a measure allowing partnered lesbian
and gay persons to serve in ministry. 
What’s significant here is that the Lutherans not only upheld the
equality and dignity of lesbian and gay persons as individuals, but of lesbian
and gay persons in relationship.  The newly approved Lutheran statement
treads tantalizingly close to recognizing same-sex marriage before pulling
back.  But it is clear where
Lutheran theology is leading.

All in all, it has been a blessed summer for LGBT
Christians.  Opponents are,
predictably, predicting
– that membership in Lutheran and Episcopal congregations will
continue to decline.  But who is to
say whether denominations suffer from too much progressive action or from too
little of it?  Some congregations
that have taken deliberate steps to welcome LGBT persons and families have
suffered temporary declines in membership.  But many find they attract new members over time, including
same-sex and heterosexual couples who want to raise their children in inclusive
communities of faith. 

So rather than counting how many people march out of
Episcopal and Lutheran parishes, how about we watch for how many march in?  If the arc of history truly does bend
toward justice, then perhaps the Episcopal and Lutheran leadership have not so
much gambled their immediate futures as invested in their long-term vitality.

That is the future I am counting on – one painstaking step at a time.