Two years ago, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Mercer University hosted A [Baptist] Conference on Sexuality and Covenant, which drew hundreds of Baptists of all stripes to the First Baptist Church of Decatur, GA. From its inception, the conference drew a variety of responses from Baptists both young and old, both inside and outside of CBF life.
Some, like me, thought this was a promising signal that CBF might re-think an anti-gay hiring policy passed in 2000, something that could significantly change the direction of the conversation of human sexuality in more moderate Baptist circles. Still, others hoped to look at a wider array of sexuality issues and matters of covenanted relationships, issues that impact nearly every congregation. CBF leadership emphasized that the purpose of the conference was to begin a healthy conversation about human sexuality and covenant, and also to model a way of holy conversation that may prove helpful for such divisive issues now and in the future.
Whatever the case may be, the leaders of the conference set a tone of trepidation for the conference, dismissing hopes that this might be a moment of major policy shift in the Fellowship. “This is not a conversation about organizational hiring policies or official statements from CBF. Rather it is a chance to equip leaders and model conversations that can take place in local churches,” said one conference organizer.
Thus we were ushered into the conversation with fear and trembling, as all issues of faith, polity and personal experience indeed deserve. From my perspective, what the conference lacked in structural changes, it more than made up for in the intangibles. Each plenary was, in fact, modeled as a holy conversation. We invited the Spirit into our conversations with prayer and singing. After each presentation, we took moments of silent meditation, allowing each speaker’s words to settle into our hearts and for the Spirit to form and re-form us into a new creation.
More importantly, for presumably the first time ever, openly gay Baptists were allowed to share their experiences in an officially sanctioned CBF event. In small break out groups, we were asked to speak to one another face to face about our personal concerns about sexuality. We were no longer speaking in the theoretical; anything we said about sexuality had to be aired in a room that might include people who are LGBTQ, people who are celibate, people who are divorced or re-married, and people who are strongly opposed to any perceived threats to traditional understandings of sexuality and covenant.
In the two years since, what have been the major changes? To me, it seems that the Conversation on Sexuality has proved to be a strong indicator of what has taken place than I thought. The anti-gay hiring policy in CBF national offices still stands. A culture of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” still permeates many moderate churches in CBF life. Besides a report at the CBF General Assembly in Fort Worth, no official follow-up to the conference has been arranged.
Though progress is slow, more congregations are having conversations about this and a few are even making bold moves towards are more open stance on sexuality. The past few weeks have been rife with leaders even among the conservative Southern Baptist Convention who are changing their views based on personal connection and interaction with LGBTQ people. A groundswell is occurring in congregations and it is based on face-to-face interaction with the people they were once afraid to engage.
What does it all mean for the future of people who are LGTBQ and the Church, and more specifically churches in CBF? First, it means that it is time for us to talk again. At the Conversation two years ago, there was great promise for continuing conversation about these issues and others that may face CBF churches. With so many changes, it’s time for us to revisit that promise. It was indeed a great time for holy conversation and I think it’s time we had more.
Second, it means that the changes in the traditional understanding of sexuality are all the more acute and the time for churches to play the middle ground has passed. For centuries, the Church has ostracized and even persecuted sexual minorities. As the changes advance outside the walls of the Church, we are confronted with the difficult task of shaping a response. Will we be the ones to follow the scandalous Gospel of Christ to love all or will we stand on the sidelines and muster up our best apology down the road?
Finally, it means that these changes, perhaps like all major changes in the Church, will not come from the top down, but from the bottom. We who are advocates with LGBTQ people in the church can change the conversation, not by pressuring leadership or fighting for policy changes, but through personal conversation. We can be a presence at congregational, denominational and network gatherings and make sure people know they are not speaking in the abstract, they are speaking with the very flesh and bone of people whose lives are impacted by the Church’s neglect of sexual minorities. St. Paul said it best: “For now, we see through a glass darkly but then we will see face to face.” Yes, I believe it’s time to lift the veil and make room for more holy conversation.