April 21, 2018
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‘Heart orientation,’ not sexual orientation, is what matters

By The Rev. Marvin M. Ellison, Special to the BDN

“A fresh breeze is blowing in the hearts of many clergy today,” observed the Rev. Bob Beaumont, a retired American Baptist pastor from Brunswick who supports the freedom to marry for same-sex couples. I agree with him about the continuous increase in support and so do scores of other ministers and countless congregants throughout Maine.

Not every person of faith, of course, sees marriage for same-sex couples as good news. In a recent opinion piece, Debra Wagner ( “For Liberal Christians, the Marriage Conversation Is Over,” Oct. 26) dismisses the groundswell of support that has been growing throughout Maine to extend marriage rights to same-gender, loving couples.

Since 2009, people within every faith tradition and in communities from York to Fort Kent have been prayerfully, thoughtfully and respectfully engaging in constructive conversations about this topic. Many have come to believe that while allowing two men or two women to marry represents a change in social practice, it is not a change in values. The meaning of marriage remains the same: The union of two persons who enter into a loving, lifetime commitment to become “next of kin” in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer.

Wagner would have us believe, inaccurately, that these marriage conversations are somehow “over” and that the community-building, community-enriching process of sharing our beliefs and life stories with each other only matters to “a few activists” with a “repressive agenda,” who espouse a “theology of power” and seek to “frighten people” into making change. Her final jab is that, while clergy may encourage having conversations about marriage, “just remember that in their own churches they converse with empty chairs.”

As president of the Religious Coalition Against Discrimination, I feel compelled to correct such false claims. Our broad network of clergy and lay leaders represents 18 different faith traditions and includes Jews, Christians and Unitarian Universalists. We have circulated a Religious Affirmation in support of marriage for same-sex couples — available online at www.RCADmaine.org — which has been signed by more than 500 people of faith, including more than 50 clergy. Earlier this fall more than 75 congregations participated in our Sabbath Weekend for the Freedom to Marry for All. They heard sermons, participated in Bible studies, attended educational forums, and engaged in rich and deep conversations about faith and values.

In addition, more than 80 congregations throughout Maine have completed a process of study and prayerful reflection in order to identify themselves as “open and affirming,” which means they publicly welcome gay and lesbian persons as full members and value their presence and contributions. While the process is called something different in every denomination, congregations in most mainstream traditions have begun such a process, completed it, or are contemplating it.

To date, 45 United Church of Christ congregations in Maine identify as “open and affirming,” as do all the congregations belonging to the Unitarian Universalist Association. Lutheran churches in Bangor and Portland have joined. James Hazelwood, bishop of the Northeast Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has explained his support for Question 1 this way: “Rather than confining love, our Sacred Scriptures broaden it. We believe that there is a gift and a promise to human sexuality, regardless of one’s God-given sexual orientation.”

More than 200 United Methodist ministers in New England have signed a pledge to marry same-sex couples when it becomes legal, even though the national church is deeply divided, and many acknowledge the need to reexamine church teachings. Wagner’s own church, the Episcopal Church in the U.S., has recently approved a new rite for the blessing for same-sex couples. As Stephen Lane, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine, recently wrote, “This past summer, our regular national church meeting voted to approve a service for the Blessing of a Same Sex Covenant which we will begin using in December of this year. It may be used by clergy and congregations who choose to support faithful couples in same-sex relationships by offering God’s blessing.”

Time and time again, I’ve heard people of faith say that what has moved them on this issue is trusting that God’s love is, indeed, inclusive of all. Christians resonate especially with how Jesus reached out to those on the margins. After all, as a fellow Christian said to me recently, “What really matters is not your sexual orientation but your heart orientation.”

Over the past months, I have witnessed, again and again, how a gospel of love and inclusive hospitality makes it possible for people to cast off their fears and make joyful room for others, so all may live and flourish. Despite the fears of some, Mainers will benefit when all families are legally recognized and supported. Moreover, in faith we trust that there is enough love to go around, no exceptions.

The Rev. Marvin M. Ellison, Ph.D., teaches Christian Ethics at Bangor Theological Seminary and is president of the Religious Coalition Against Discrimination.

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