1. What does “Open and Affirming” (ONA) mean?

Reflecting the Open and Affirming action of the General Synod (1985) and the Transgender action of the General Synod (2003):  “Open and Affirming” means that a church has publicly and specifically declared that those of all “sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions” (or “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender” people) are welcome in its full life and ministry (e.g. membership, leadership, employment, etc.)   It bespeaks a spirit of hospitality and a willingness to live out that welcome in meaningful ways.

To become an Open and Affirming congregation we need to draft and adopt a statement declaring ourselves to be Open and Affirming and, in addition, to model our congregational behavior in such a manner that our declaration rings true.

2.    Why is “ONA” used for “Open and Affirming”?

“ONA” is the “caps” version of “O ‘n A” (as in “salt ‘n pepper”).  The Open and Affirming Ministries in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) use “O&A” to identify their welcoming congregations

3. Are all UCC settings required to be ONA?

No. The UCC’s General Synod “speaks to but not for” local churches and other settings of the denomination.  Because we are in covenant with one another, we are called to prayerfully consider all actions taken by General Synods; other settings of the church are then free to respond faithfully, according to their discernment of the leading of God’s Spirit.

4.What is the process for becoming ONA?

Most local churches and many other settings engage in a time of study, prayer, and conversation before adopting an ONA statement. Each process is different in order to address the interests and concerns of the setting.

5. We already say: “We welcome everyone.”  To whom does it matter that UCC settings make public statements of welcome specifically to LGBT persons?

Too many LGBT people and their families live with the pain of having believed that “everyone” meant them, only to discover otherwise.  No one should have to guess about the “boundaries of inclusion” of a congregation or other ministry.  A clear welcome matters to LGBT adults who, seeking to share their faith and gifts with the church, often wonder if they will meet with silence or condemnation if they are “out” in church.  It matters to LGBT youth who need the guidance of faith communities as they question and establish their understandings of sexuality, spirituality, and relationships, but fear the same disapproval of their lives or dismissal of their gifts.  It matters to families which too often hide the fact that they have LGBT children or other relatives.  Fearing the indifference or rejection of their church, they are cut off from support and sharing which would enrich them and their congregation.  It matters to LGBT clergy who often feel that to serve the church they must hide their true selves and lives.  It matters to all Christians who believe that God’s affirmation of the gifts of loving relationships and sexuality are not restricted to those who are heterosexual, and who look to their church to witness to God’s inclusive love and help them to better understand and live it.

6.    Are we talking about giving special privileges to gays?

No.  We are talking about giving equal privileges to gays.  Most gay people have experienced significant levels of discrimination in the church.  In some congregations gays are actively expelled, in some they are allowed to show up for regular service, but are shunned or ignored.  In many congregations gays are welcome only if they hide the fact that they are gay and hide their relationships from the rest of the congregation.  That is, they must keep significant parts of their essential personality hidden.

To give a simple example of how this can affect people, most heterosexuals wouldn’t attend a church where they had to hide the fact that they were married.  Most gay people aren’t allowed to attend a church if they don’t hide the fact that they are living in a committed relationship with another person who just happens to be of the same gender.  So if, for example, one partner in a heterosexual relationship falls ill, is injured or dies, the healthy or surviving partner will generally receive significant support and consolation from the rest of the congregation.  Such support and consolation is not available to the healthy or surviving partner in a homosexual union if the union must be hidden. 

7. I’m ok with being “open,” but doesn’t being “affirming” mean I think being gay is somehow a condition I should encourage people to attain? 

No. People can’t attain a gay condition. They are either born that way or they are not. What you are affirming is that all people, including those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, are children of God and deserve to be treated as such by us.  We are, in essence, affirming the essential humanity of us all.  It’s one of those “many gifts, but all one body” kinds of things. That is something that, as Christians, we are expected to acknowledge. The point of being Open and Affirming is to make it clear to all that we take seriously our Christian commitment to “love one another,” and that we value the gifts each of us brings to the church or body of Christ.

8. Won’t we become a ‘gay church?’

Unlikely.  There are perhaps six or seven ONA churches with primarily LGBT membership—out of 1,100. When ONA churches publicize their welcome effectively, new members include both LGBT seekers and straights.  Young heterosexual couples starting a family, who are looking for a church family with the values an ONA covenant represents, typically are part of the growth curve for new ONA churches.

9. Won’t this process risk dividing our church family and causing anger and hurt feelings?

We’re approaching this with as much sensitivity and care as we can, and continue to make the process one of prayerful study and open discussion.  The hope is that members of the congregation will take advantage of opportunities to learn more about this subject.  Becoming an ONA church does not take away the right and privilege of private judgment of an individual.  We are a congregation of many people, and seldom will all agree on any one issue. We must recognize this and provide each person the space and time they need on their journey as a member of this church.

10. Will members leave our church if we become ONA?

An ONA experience that is not hurried, that treats everyone with respect and is a safe space for all members of the church, will usually help a congregation grow in numbers, enthusiasm, generosity and passion for the Gospel.  It is our hope to follow an ONA process that will unite, rather than divide, our church.

11. In our ONA statement, may we welcome persons in regard to other identities in addition to sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression?

The short answer is:  yes.  Given the ongoing, often bitter struggles around LGBT concerns in church and society, it remains clear that we need to be specific about their inclusion of LGBT persons. This is the primary focus of the ONA movement.

However, the misinformation, stereotypes, and prejudices which fuel heterosexism, sexism, racism, ageism, ableism, etc. are numerous and interwoven in our society.  The ONA process gives us the opportunity to purposefully welcome all persons in regard to color, age, abilities, economic situation, etc., and expressing commitment to continually work against all oppressions, in the name of God’s extravagant welcome.  (Such a wide welcome involves, of course, ongoing education, prayer, and advocacy about the spectrum of who we are so that we may better understand one another’s experiences and help shape a world that is just and respectful of us all.)

12. The Bible condemns gay people, doesn’t it?  

As our two sessions on scripture highlighted, it is very important to understand context when considering the message of the scripture.

“The Bible isn’t a rulebook, and Christians cannot lift out of its context any passage from it, and still hope to gain a clear understanding of that passage.

It is important to understand that even the most fundamentalist Christian sects do not take the Bible wholly literally. The New Testament is two thousand years old, the old Testament much older. The Bible’s cultural contexts, along with the translation at hand, is always taken into consideration by any Christian serious about understanding this vast and complex work.”2

13. Will we have gay weddings in church now?

In response to a specific question and situation in the Spring of 2012, the Church Council affirmed Reverend Holland’s ministerial autonomy and his freedom to officiate the marriage (in the sanctuary or at other locations) of any couple who go through his pre-marriage counseling process.   To date, no same gender couples have been married at First Church, but there may be some at some point, independent of the ONA process.

14. Are we the only ONA church in area?

On the contrary, there are about 20 UCC churches within 20 miles that have affirmed their commitment to ONA; including First Church of Christ (Old North Church) in Marblehead, the Tabernacle UCC in Salem, First Church of Danvers, Congregational, Second Congregational UCC in Beverly, Maple Congregational UCC in Danvers, and Center Congregational UCC in Lynnfield.  Take a look at http://ucccoalition.org/ona/find/, to see more.

1 These FAQ’s are a compilation of those conceived by the “UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns”, the First Church of Swampscott ONA Team and some originally conceived entirely by the ONA committee at the First Congregational Church of Reading, U.C.C. and written up by committee member L. G. Piper, then adapted for the First Congregational Church of Camden by Jane Babbitt, with some additions from the UCC’s website and from a document prepared by Bruce Cole of our church. http://www.lgpiper.net/Spirituality/ONA_FAQ.html and http://www.ucc.org/lgbt/ona.html

2 http://notalllikethat.org/taking-god-at-his-word-the-bible-and-homosexuality/