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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Black Baptists and Gay Unions

The Washington Post has an interesting story about a rift over gay unions in an affirming African-American congregation in D.C.

The decision of co-pastors Dennis and Christine Wiley of Covenant Baptist Church to conduct the union ceremony of Robert Renix and Antonio Long has caused quite a ruckus. Some members have expressed their worries that Covenant Baptist was getting a reputation as a "gay church." Some estimate that perhaps 200 longtime members have left the church over the unions. However, the majority have chosen to stand firmly in support of their pastors.

Never in a "million years" did Robert Renix think he would find a Baptist church that would accept someone like him: a black Baptist gay man. Never mind one that would allow what happened one Saturday last month, when a tuxedo-clad Renix stood in front of the pulpit at Covenant Baptist Church in Anacostia, exchanging vows with his partner, Antonio Long.

It didn't turn out to be that simple, though.....

In the pews at the church's 10:45 a.m. service on Sundays, gay and transgender people sit among heterosexual families and elderly retirees.

Although the Wileys face opposition, they say they believe they are being called by God to preach acceptance of gays as part of the social justice agenda long embraced by black churches.

"We, as African Americans, should be the last people in the world, based on our history, to turn around and oppress others," said Dennis Wiley, who took over as Covenant's pastor from his father, the Rev. H. Wesley Wiley, 22 years ago....

The 62-year-old church has gone through changes before. It was largely white until the 1960s, when white families began to move out of Anacostia and black families moved in. Covenant slowly rebuilt itself as a black congregation. Its renovated sanctuary features 13 huge stained-glass windows reflecting the African American experience, with images of civil rights figures Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. A shimmering stained-glass black Jesus clad in purple and white towers over the pulpit.

The church also has a long history of activism and community involvement. It was one of the first churches in the Washington area to launch an AIDS ministry in the early days of the epidemic in the 1980s. It offers HIV testing, and church volunteers teach computer classes Saturday mornings and offer college-prep classes to neighborhood high school students.

From the pulpit, the Wileys have preached impassioned sermons urging tolerance of gay, transgender and bisexual people, and they have led Bible studies making that point. "When we look at Jesus Christ, who he was and how he ministered to what he called 'the least of us,' he would be right here with us on this issue," Dennis Wiley said.

The following portion especially captured my interest:
But those familiar with {gay unions} say it isn't surprising at all: Congregations that appear to be accepting of gays often suddenly rebel when it comes to religious rituals that appear to legitimize same-sex relationships.

"It's sort of the ecclesiastical version of the elephant in the room," said Jay Johnson, acting executive director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif. "It's one thing to say, 'Okay, we're going to accept gays and lesbian people in our congregation. We'll even accept having gay and lesbian couples in our pews.' But when you take the step to publicly affirm or bless or recognize, in a liturgical or ritual way, their relationship, then you've removed the possibility of ignoring it."

I guess not all "welcoming and affirming" congregations take the "affirming" part to it's logical extension: gay ordination and gay unions. Also, notice that the reporter used the term "homosexuality" instead of "homosexual behavior." Such is a poor word choice as many Christian bodies differentiate between orientation and behavior. Nonetheless, this is a fascinating story since there are relatively few affirming Black Baptist churches in the world.

HT: Religious Left Online

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