Holy Union Focus for Worship February 26, 2017 – Pat Long
Twenty-five years ago this month, the Pullen congregation decided to offer services of holy union for same-gender couples as part of the church’s ministry. That decision has helped shape our identity ever since.
Gay issues surfaced at Pullen some 31 years ago. In 1986 Pastor Mahan Siler preached a sermon in which he said, “I do not believe that AIDS is God’s judgment on homosexuals.” Conservative pastors were saying so. The next year he preached a sermon in which he compared the gay person to the Good Samaritan, “the most hated and discredited person in Jesus’ world.” He said gays deserve our caring because they are human beings, our neighbors, our colleagues, our relatives.
Mahan was invited to testify before the Raleigh City Council. He heard three hours of testimony of discrimination and violence against gay and lesbian people. He felt called to take a stand on their behalf.
As a result of the hearing, Mahan and other west Raleigh clergy formed the Raleigh Religious Network for Gay and Lesbian Equality, or RRNGLE. We held annual conferences at Pullen, the only church that would have us, for 9 years. Guest speakers included Carter Heyward and James Nelson. RRNGLE members participated in the Gay Pride march in June 1988 at great personal and professional risk.
The next day Mahan would preach his third sermon in a series on human sexuality. I had written an anonymous letter to him that began, “Some of us, whom the church has driven to pretense or exile, are waiting to hear whether we are really the children of God or merely the skeletons in the family closet.” Mahan responded that sexual orientation is a given, not a choice. It would be cruel of God to allow some to be inherently homosexual yet condemn any responsible, caring expression of that gift. He changed my life.
As a result of his stance on homosexuality, both Mahan and his wife Janice were fired as adjunct faculty at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
By 1990 Mahan wondered whether Pullen might be ready for a formal churchwide study leading to a vote on the acceptance of gays in the church. That acceptance was already tacit. I went to the July 1990 meeting of the Board of Deacons to propose the Reconciling Congregations program, a Methodist model for study and decision. I came out to them in the process. The deacons declined a path leading to a vote but encouraged education on homosexuality.
So we started a group called Open Forum on Homosexuality and the Church. Just having that name in the newsletter made some Pullenites very uncomfortable. When we went around the circle at the first meeting on October 7, 1990, the gay people gave just their first names. There was real risk in being known. We met regularly for education, Bible study, worship and mutual support. The group represented a good mix of gay and straight, young and old, but was a very small part of the congregation.
On September 12, 1991, unbeknownst to Open Forum, Pullen member Kevin Turner, a doctoral student in physics, and his partner Steven Churchill met with Mahan to ask that he officiate at a holy union service for them. Mahan spent a month getting clear on why he believed an affirmative answer was appropriate and on enumerating five stepping stones in his own evolution on the subject of homosexuality. He put the request and his thinking in a letter to the deacons which was presented on November 3. The request came as a shock. He and deacon chair Jim Powell asked for strict confidentiality and that no decision be made at that meeting. A special meeting two weeks later showed the depth of soul-searching the deacons had done. In true Baptist fashion, Mahan believed the ultimate decision was up to the congregation.
I was concerned that this was the most difficult decision a congregation could make on gay issues and that the groundwork had not been laid. But as the only openly gay deacon I shared why it is important that we be recognized as couples and not just as individuals. When my Betty died in 1982, we were out to no one. Nobody at Pullen realized what I had lost. If we are to be church to one another, we need to be able to share our deepest joys and sorrows in community.
The deacons wanted to avoid presenting this question to the congregation during the Christmas season. It was decided that a letter from the deacons, to include Mahan’s letter to us, would be mailed the first week of January 1992. We designed 15 small group meetings at a variety of times and places soon after the mailing, so that everyone could speak their peace in a safe environment. There was a deacon and a gay or lesbian person at each meeting. Many powerful experiences took place in those meetings. Friendships were made and deepened. An atmosphere of mutual respect was maintained between those of opposing views.
We also provided a town hall meeting, an open mike opportunity for the whole congregation. It was an amazing, spirit-filled event.
As soon as the letter was mailed to the congregation, someone gave a copy to the News and Observer, so that while we were trying to have a respectful and orderly internal process, we were facing a firestorm of controversy in the media. Other Baptists were furious that we were even considering such a question. We were put on trial by letter to the editor in the Biblical Recorder. We receive a barrage of letters, both of angry condemnation and of grateful support, enough to fill two large notebooks in the library. Pullen kids were being taunted on the school bus.
Before the congregational meeting, the deacons drafted four graduated motions, from accepting gays in the church, on which most could agree, to the holy union, whose outcome was unknown. At the congregational meeting itself, where attendance broke all records, it was decided that the final vote should be by confidential mail ballot. So double blind ballots were mailed out. We waited. Five of us deacons counted the ballots on February 27 and had to keep the results secret until Sunday, March 1.
The motion that all are welcome passed by 98%. Affirming the full participation of gays in the church passed by 93%. Setting up a task force to write a sample service and to study such services in church history passed by 75%. Offering holy unions to same-gender couples passed by 64%. News of our vote was broadcast as far away as Australia.
After the vote Pullen was expelled from the Raleigh Baptist Association in a meeting Miriam Prichard described as “raucous, hard, unyielding and cruel.” It felt to me like a lynching. By the summer we had also been expelled from the North Carolina Baptist Association and the Southern Baptist Convention by huge margins.
We lost many Pullen members who felt they could not in conscience remain, disagreeing as they did with the decision. That was a great sorrow. But we had a net gain in members for the year, as others were attracted to our congregation by the stand we had taken. For gay and lesbian people and their families all over the country, Pullen stood as a beacon of hope. Who could have imagined then, that 25 years on, same-gender marriage would be the law of the land?
The service of holy union for Kevin and Steven took place two weeks after the vote was announced, on March 15, 1992. We were concerned about security and hired an off-duty policeman. We had everyone enter through the back door, since the parking lot was our property, so we could keep the media and protestors away.
Two men in tuxedos stood in front of this communion table and took vows to love each other for life. Mahan spoke words that brought tears to our eyes. He said, “The committed love between two men or two women can be as holy as the love between a man and a woman.” We take that for granted now. Then it was astounding.
On August 1, 1993 Pullen held its second holy union. My partner and I were better known among the congregation than Kevin and Steven had been. This time there were few security concerns. Of the more than three hundred people who attended, most were heterosexual. It was an opportunity for the congregation to celebrate what we had made possible together.
I would like to ask everyone who was at Pullen 25 years ago and who participated in the holy union vote to stand.
Thank you for your courage.