Thursday, July 12, 2007

Pastor Bob Cornwall on the Welcoming Church

Pastor Bob Cornwall, pastor of First Christian Church of Lompoc, California, has a wonderful blog and is always worth reading. He is a progressive Disciples of Christ minister with an interest and passion in social justice, I just discovered that he also posts on the Christian Century blog, where he discusses a critical issue: how can a church be a welcoming church. In particular, he tells his own story of how a personal experience changed his view on welcoming gays and lesbians into his own church:

When my congregation decided that being a place of welcome would be one of our core values, we had to figure out what this meant in practice. We had to ask if there were limits to welcome.

For generations churches have wrestled with this question, and in many ways we’ve not evolved very much. The role of women and the challenges of segregation remain with us decades after the suffrage movements and the Civil Rights movement. Now homosexuality is the issue that vexes our congregations and denominations and threatens to divide global fellowships. Many in the church would like to see this issue go away; they try to ignore it, believing it won’t affect their church. But if we run from this issue, our claims to be places of welcome become hollow and superficial—unless being a place of welcome simply means that if you’re like us, we’ll be nice to you.

For a long time I believed that homosexuality wasn’t an appropriate Christian lifestyle. Homosexuals could come to church, but if they wanted to be part of the church then they needed to change who they were. Then my brother came out.

I had to face some choices, including how I would read the scriptures. Experience is an important resource when we’re wrestling with difficult issues, and my new experience told me that my preconceived ideas needed to change. Moving from that personal transformation to providing leadership to a congregation that hasn’t dealt with the issue is a long, arduous and even dangerous trek, which is why many of us who have come to new understandings shy away from taking the next step.

My own first steps were subtle. I’d slip the phrase “sexual orientation” into a sermon, hoping no one would catch it. But some caught it and I got in trouble. I’ve become bolder in my new congregation, and we’re wrestling with this question of welcome, but any progress remains fragile. We’re “sort of” open, but we’ve not begun the process of moving toward being affirming, at least not yet. Steve Kindle, a Disciple pastor like me, and executive director of Clergy United for the Equality of Homosexuals (, likes to say, “Taking an open church to an affirming position is one of the great joys of pastoral leadership. Taking a closed church to open is grounds for sainthood.”

We’ve made some strides—one of our newest members is a lesbian—but not everyone has processed what this really means in practice. We have a long way to go before we can say that we have truly become a place of welcome. We’re looking at how we read and apply scripture, and our elders have talked openly about what the issue of homosexuality and the church. Still, we’ve not yet had the kind of congregation-wide conversations that can help us flesh out our claims to being a place of welcome, and we haven’t talked about ordination and marriage. Membership is one thing, leadership and explicit recognition of relationships is another thing, so there is more to do before we can say that this is more than a safe place for gays and lesbians to worship, before we can say it’s become a place where everyone’s gifts and callings from God, whether gay or straight, are welcomed and honored.

Read it here.

This post is quite timely. Over at Father Jake's several of us have been having a conversation about the next steps in the Anglican Communion. The conversation has evolved into several interesting directions, one of which is the importance of a parish priest in changing attitudes in the church on gays and lesbians. Pastor Cornwall has made an important contribution to this discussion.

His post also reinforces what I have emphasized before--personal experience with GLBT persons is often a critical step in changing views about the theology of sexuality.

1 comment:

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...


Thanks for your kind comments! I hope I live up to your recommendation.