The Great Banner Controversy
History of the Great Banner Controversy
This account brings together information from several different people. It reflects the Forward Chats discussion on April 28 plus later email correspondence in which details were added and clarified. The record of the original vote to be Open and Affirming was provided by the Church Clerk. Deacons confirmed details relating to Deacons. The rest is based first-hand experience and on the memory of the Worship Committee.
UCC Definition of “Open and Affirming”
As stated on the UCC website, “Open and Affirming (ONA) is the United Church of Christ's (UCC) designation for congregations, campus ministries, and other bodies in the UCC which make a public covenant of welcome into their full life and ministry to persons of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions.” http://www.ucc.org/lgbt_ona
A list of UCC policy statements regarding gender issues can be found at www.ucc.org/lgbt_statements. The earliest is dated 1969. The resolution to calling on UCC congregations to declare themselves Open and Affirming was passed in 1985.
Second Church’s Vote to be Open and Affirming - 2011
Second Church held a special congregational meeting on January 30, 2011 to consider the proposed Open and Affirming (ONA) statement. With 85 members attending the meeting, the following statement was adopted, 84 to 1 :
Second Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Beverly, Massachusetts, is an Open and Affirming congregation. Our hearts are open; our minds are open; our doors are open to all. We recognize that we are all children of God and so we welcome, respect, and support people of every race, ethnicity, creed, class, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, marital status, socioeconomic status, age and physical and mental ability. We welcome you into the full life and ministry, rites and sacraments of Second Congregational Church. Our faith calls us to share God's love in the face of prejudice, injustice, and exclusion, and to express in word and deed our hope for healing, justice, and inclusiveness for humanity.
Formation of the Worship Committee – about 2016
First a short historical diversion: Our congregational tradition developed in the early 1600s when the printed book was really coming into its own, and when each believer’s access to a Bible in their own language was a triumph. But the flip side of that focus on the written word was the distrust our theological ancestors felt for the statues, paintings and stained-glass images that filled Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. These images were designed to help congregations—who were at that time mostly illiterate—learn about the scriptures and the saints. But to the Calvinists and Congregationalists, such images were superstitious idolatry. They forbade images in their own churches, and when they came into power under Oliver Cromwell, they destroyed a significant portion of the medieval artwork that had escaped Henry VIII’s destruction of the monasteries. This theological heritage is why New England churches like ours are so plain.
But in the past few decades, scientists and pastors have come to question the wisdom of relying solely on the written or spoken word as the means of teaching and learning. Research shows that human beings often learn better from more concrete experiences that engage other senses and depend less on the language centers of the brain. When Tara Olsen was pastor here, she was interested in the concept of “multisensory worship,” the idea that human beings have multiple modes of intelligence and that for some people sermons and hymns are not the only, let alone the best, way to experience God (see James Nathan Hodge’s 2007 thesis titled Multisensory Worship in Traditional Settings http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.630.8873&rep=rep1&type=pdf)
Hoping to explore multisensory worship at Second Church, Tara formed a Worship Committee that was organized as a sub-committee of the Deacons. The lay committee members were Marty Brandt, Nancy Koch, Wendy Linares, and Lauren Swiniuch. On various occasions the committee made our services more multisensory by bringing incense, a water fountain with trickling water, and visual images such as banners and prayer flags into the sanctuary during worship.
The Rainbow Doors were an idea proposed by the Worship Committee and Tara, and they were approved by the Deacons in the spring of 2017. With Alan Froggatt’s help, a set of doors was obtained and painted, and Barney Bouton attached them to the front door railings (apparently with some difficulty). They were installed in time to be up for June, Gay Pride Month, in that year.
The doors remained in place after the end of June, which some people liked, and other people didn’t like. Because most of the doors were interior doors, they did not fare well when exposed to the weather, and there was concern about their condition and also about their position, which obstructed the railings on the stairs. After discussing it with Tara, Barney Bouton removed the rainbow doors in the fall of 2017 and put them outdoors on the ground behind the shed, where they continued to deteriorate. At some point, they were brought inside to the boiler room to await repair. The purple door remains in Lauren Swiniuch’s garage. The Deacons discussed repairing the rainbow doors in 2017-18. Nancy Koch thought that her handyman might be able to work on that project, but he turned out not to be available, and no action was ultimately taken.
Interim Rainbow Flags
After the doors were taken down in the fall of 2017, rainbow banners were installed. This writer has not been able to remember or confirm exactly what they were like or where they were put, but they existed, and they gradually faded in the sun.
Current Rainbow Banners
Wendy Linares, as a member of the Worship Committee, put the current rainbow flags on the pillars as a replacement for the faded ones that had been hung after the doors were removed. At first these new banners were very bright and noticeable, and they attracted more attention than the set they replaced. At least one person (Gail Pease) stated in Forward Chats that she started coming to this church because of the Rainbow banners. Another member of the community wrote a thank-you note of appreciation, which Pastor Meade posted on his Facebook wall for a time. At least two LGBT couples came to services because of the banners or doors. We also received two emails of complaint, one from an anti-gay former church member, and another from someone we don’t know who appears to be unbalanced.
The bright banners triggered controversy within the church community:
• Group A objected to the aesthetics of the flag wrapped around the columns.
• Group B objected because they didn’t know who had made the decision.
• Group C said that we are open to everybody by definition and that it is not necessary to make a big public statement about LGBTQ folk in particular.
• Group D questioned whether Groups A, B and C above were actually motivated by anti- LGBT sentiments, and they defended the flags because they believe the church should make a public stand about its Open and Affirming status.
• Group E said that the whole controversy was ridiculous and a sad sign that our church was unable to focus on the things that really mattered.
There may be other the objections that have not come to this writer’s attention.
The Bylaw implications
During the April 28 Forward Chats, Chuck Roy asked whether the rainbow banners/doors function as a “public statement,” and may therefore be regulated by Bylaw Article X, Section 6, Paragraph (e), “Declaration to the Media,” which says that “No person, board or committee shall have the authority to publicly claim to convey a position, attitude or feeling of the Church to the media without the specific approval by a three-fourths vote of the Congregation at a duly called meeting.”
While the banners are not exactly the kind of “declaration to the media” the framers of the bylaws probably had in mind, they clearly do convey a position, and the media can certainly see them. The six-band rainbow motif is widely recognized in both the UCC and the wider community as a symbol of support for the LGBT community.
There can be no dispute that what the rainbows symbolize—welcome and support for the LGBT community—is a position officially held by this church. The congregation voted 84 to 1 (99% in favor) in a special meeting on January 30, 2011 to adopt a statement declaring that Second Church “is an Open and Affirming congregation,” a designation defined by the UCC as making “a public covenant of welcome into their full life and ministry to persons of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions.” In addition, the specific statement adopted by Second Church lists sexual orientation and gender expression among the many human characteristics we welcome and support.
Our ONA statement also implies an obligation to publicize our position (welcome and support that is kept secret is not much of a welcome). This inference is supported by:
1. The UCC definition of ONA as a body making a “public covenant of support,” and
2. Our own language that “Our faith calls us . . . to express in word and deed our hope for . . . inclusiveness for humanity” [my emphasis].
In fact, we already make public statements of our support and welcome of the LGBT community every day on our website, and every Sunday in the heading of our bulletin. The banners are only another iteration of what we are saying publicly elsewhere.
Future plans for expressing Open and Affirming values
Since the April 28 Forward Chat, the members of the Worship Committee have been in correspondence with Dale Miller-Bouton who spoke at the meeting on behalf of the complainers. They are brainstorming solutions that will honor our Open and Affirming commitment while recognizing the differences in taste raised as concerns by some members of the congregation. The rainbow on our main church sign remains as a year-round symbol, and the Committee would like to develop something appropriate to make a bolder statement during June of each year. This plan will be explained in the June Spire.
Meanwhile, we will discuss the banner issue more fully in Forward Chats on Sunday May 5 so that the options can be fully explored.
Sanctuary banners and the continuing work of the Worship Committee
As long as Tara was here, she lent her pastoral authority to the activities of the Worship Committee. Now that she is gone, the Worship Committee has been working on its own, mounting a series of banners marking the seasons of the liturgical year in the sanctuary, as well as decorations for Christmas. Like the rainbow banners outside, the banners inside the sanctuary triggered complaints from Groups A, B and E above. LGBT issues were obviously not a factor here, but the question about who had authority was.
Perhaps because it began as Tara’s idea and revolved around her at first, the Worship Committee didn’t establish a solid relationship with the Deacons, even though it was a subcommittee of Deacons and though Deacons were on it. There was never any regular formal report from Worship to Deacons nor any clear, annually-renewed charge providing guidance from Deacons to Worship. As a result, the relationship became less clear over time, and some people not directly involved began to assume that the Worship Committee had no authority for its work at all. This oversight can easily be repaired by having the Worship Committee report its plans and accomplishments to the Deacons and having the Deacons define the scope of work it is giving to the Worship committee. This would ensure both authority and accountability for their work.
The remaining issues are really ones of taste, which is a topic we may wish to address in a future Forward Chat.