Cleveland--Progressive religious leaders from around the country descended on Ohio for a semi-annual meeting of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force�s National Religious Leadership Roundtable on September 26 and 27.
According to media liaison Richard Lindsay, the Roundtable�s decision to meet in Cleveland was prompted by two factors.
The first was the opportunity for leaders in various denominations to learn from the United Church of Christ, whose national headquarters is attached to the Radisson Gateway hotel where members were staying.
The UCC passed a statement in favor of full same-sex marriage at their national meeting in July. In the aftermath of that decision, a small handful of congregations threatened to leave, while most others reported an increase in membership, inquiries about the denomination and about creating new congregations.
�This is the kind of vision that people want,� said Rev. Jay Emerson Johnson, the programming and development director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California.
Johnson, ordained as an openly gay Episcopal priest in 1988, outlined the second reason for meeting in the state.
�Ohio really became the center of the storm of controversy on this whole moral values business,� he noted, indicating that one of the purposes of the Roundtable was to ensure that there was more than one religious voice on �moral values.�
�There�s a rather pervasive assumption that you�ve got religious people here on one side, and LGBT people over here on this other side,� he noted, saying that the Roundtable tries to �amplify the voices of the progressive religious community.�
�The Roundtable works and endeavors to lift up the voices of progressive people of faith,� said Rev. Cedric Harmon, director of religious outreach for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a minister in the Missionary Baptist Church.
�Most of the changes we�ve seen have come from the congregation up, not the hierarchy down,� he noted. �The Roundtable informs individuals in small communities that there are leaders and organizations to work on their behalf.�
Harmon noted that the stereotype of the African American church as more homophobic than �mainline� Protestant denominations is not necessarily true. He pointed to a June meeting in Chicago where a coalition of progressive African American religious leaders examined new approaches and ideas about the interaction between LGBT people and the Scriptures.
He also acknowledged the work of the National Black Justice Coalition, which has strived to include religious leaders in their efforts and takes to task other leaders in black churches who speak out against LGBT civil rights.
�Scriptures have been used traditionally as a tool of liberation,� Harmon said. �A lot of that comes from the autonomy of the congregations. The congregation can dismiss the minister if they don�t like what he�s saying.�
Another of the 21 people at the meeting was Debra Weill, executive director of Dignity USA, the largest organization of LGBT Catholics. Her denomination has been wracked in recent months, first by the selection of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at Pope Benedict XVI and then by an impending �reform� of seminaries that would remove all gay would-be priests, regardless of celibacy.
As head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger�s pen was behind many of the Vatican�s anti-gay proclamations of the last decade.
The purge of gay seminarians comes as an in-depth review of seminaries across the country starts, mandated by the late Pope John Paul II as a response to the clergy sexual abuse scandals.
�Sources say what�s coming is pretty ugly,� Weill admitted, noting that the coming order will probably ban all seminarians with a sexual orientation that the Vatican calls an �objective disorder.�
�This will probably be very harmful, not just to LGBT Catholics but to the entire church,� she said. �It will cost the church some highly qualified priests and further exacerbate the priest shortage.�
Weill said that this feels harsher than previous edicts barring gay men from serving as priests. She said that the teams visiting the seminaries are giving out surveys with 50 questions, many of which are designed to ferret out gay men.
�It certainly gives a clear indication of a brewing witch hunt, which is not what the church needs today,� she said. �LGBT people have served the church well for centuries. Gay men have serves as priests for centuries and continue to feel the calling, yet the Vatican appears to be about to slam the door on these gay would-be seminarians.�
The different experiences from the three representatives at the meetings is a minor illustration of the diversity of faith traditions represented on the Roundtable, Lindsay noted, pointing out that there are Protestant, Catholic, Hindu, Muslim and Jewish leaders representing a total of 40 mostly national organizations.
�I think the Roundtable really speaks to the breadth of religious traditions in America that are accepting of LGBT people,� he said. �When we have people from across the spectrum, it shows that people who continue to use their faith to justify homophobia are doing so by choice.�
Lindsay also noted that this year�s Creating Change conference, held November 9 to 13 in Oakland, California, will continue illustrating that morality and faith are not the sole province of the conservative Christians.
A pre-conference institute entitled �Empowering People of Faith to Create Change� will show people how to use their religions to fight for equal rights, and there will be a spiritual track in the conference, which will feature Bishop Yvette Flunder of City of Refuge United Church of Christ in San Francisco, who is the presiding bishop of Refuge Ministries/Fellowship 2000.
Creating Change is an annual LGBT activists� convention sponsored by the NGLTF. This year�s event will also feature the Pride Techno Ritual created by Q-Spirit and its leader, Christian de la Huerta, which integrates music, movement and spirituality into a �circuit party for the soul.�
More information about the National Religious Leadership Roundtable is available at www.ngltf.org/religion.
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