Some Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about “Open and Affirming” (ONA) Congregations

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Reflecting the Open and Affirming action of the UCC’s 1985 General Synod and the Transgender action of the UCC’s 2003 General Synod, “Open and Affirming” (ONA) 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). An ONA congregation explicitly embraces a spirit of hospitality and a willingness to live out that welcome in meaningful ways.

To become an ONA congregation, members of a local church must draft and adopt a statement declaring themselves “Open and Affirming.” The congregation must then model its behavior in such a manner that its ONA declaration rings true.

“ONA” is the “all-caps” version of “O ‘n A” (as in “salt ‘n pepper”). The UCC has chosen to designate Open and Affirming ministries as “ONA” to help distinguish its work from parallel efforts being undertaking in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which uses “O&A” to identify their welcoming congregations

No; the decision regarding ONA is left to each congregation. Within the UCC, congregations are in covenant with one another. As such, the UCC’s General Synod “speaks to but not for” local churches and other settings of the denomination. When it comes to actions taken by the General Synod, each congregation is called to respond prayerfully; other settings of the church are free to do the same, responding faithfully in accordance to their discernment of the leading of God’s Spirit.

Becoming an ONA congregation requires special discernment. In working toward the ONA designation, local churches and other settings engage in a time of study, prayer, and conversation, which may then lead them to adopt an ONA statement and to live out its ONA covenant. The specifics of the ONA process differs in response to the interests and concerns of the particular setting.

The ONA designation makes absolutely clear that “everyone” means “everyone.” For LGBT adults and youth, such clarity is critical. 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. The clear welcome that comes with being an ONA congregation 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.
  • LGBT youth, who need the guidance of faith communities as they question and establish their understandings of sexuality, spirituality, and relationships, but who often fear the same disapproval of their lives or dismissal of their gifts.
  • families of LGBT people, 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.
  • LGBT clergy who still sometimes feel that to serve the church they must hide their true selves and lives.
  • 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.

No. ONA is all about giving equal privileges to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals.

Most people who identify as LGBT have experienced significant levels of discrimination in the church. In some faith communities, LGBT individuals are actively expelled; in some they are allowed to attend services, but are shunned or ignored; in yet others, LGBT people are welcome only if they keep significant parts of their essential personality hidden from the rest of the congregation, including – and especially – the children. In an ONA congregation, LGBT individuals are fully included in all aspects of congregational life, thereby allowing them to live openly and freely as the divinely-created and divinely-blessed people they are. There is no reason to hide.

No. It’s important to understand that people can’t “attain a gay condition.” They are either born that way or they are not. What members of an ONA congregation affirm is that all people—including those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered—are children of God and deserve to be treated as such at all times and in all ways.  We are, in essence, affirming the essential humanity of us all. It’s all about acknowledging that Gospel truth about “many gifts, but all one body.” The main 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.

That’s not likely—even if there were such a thing as a “gay church.” We are “the church”: gay, straight, rich, poor, married, single, young, old, and from a multitude of ethnic backgrounds. One church.

That said, it should be noted that out of about 1,100 UCC congregations, there are perhaps six or seven ONA churches with a predominantly LGBT membership. When ONA churches publicize their welcome effectively, new members include both LGBT seekers those who identity as “straight.” Indeed, young heterosexual couples who are starting a family and who are looking for a church family with the values an ONA covenant represents are part of the growth curve for new ONA churches.

UCC congregations that elect to enter into the ONA discernment process do so with as much sensitivity and care as they can. They commit to making 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. Because each congregation consists of many people, all will seldom agree on any one issue. In recognizing this fact, we must endeavor to provide all persons the space and time they need on their journey as a member of the church. It’s important to remember that the ONA discernment experience is not hurried. Moreover, because the process seeks to treat everyone with respect and to create a safe space for all members of the church, it will usually help a congregation grow in numbers, enthusiasm, generosity and passion for the Gospel.

The short answer is:  yes.” How this situation plays out in each faith community remains to be worked out through a process of prayerful discernment. At this time, however, the primary focus of the ONA movement is on welcoming and including LGBT individuals.
It should be acknowledged that 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!

While there are still many who believe as much, it is very important to understand context when considering the message of the scripture. Consider the following:

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

In the UCC, all of God’s people are valued and cherished.

As an ONA covenant affirms the full and unfettered inclusion of LGBT people in all aspects of church life, it would be wholly appropriate to celebrate the marriage of two same-sex individuals. “All in” means “all in,” weddings included.

In the Spring of 2012, the First Church in Swampscott’s 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 undergoes a pre-marriage counseling process.

No, not at all! There are currently about 20 UCC churches within 20 miles that have affirmed their commitment to being Opening and Affirming, 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. To learn more, visit http://ucccoalition.org/ona/find/.

These FAQs have been compiled and adapted from several sources, including the UCC’s Coalition for LGBT Concerns; the ONA Committee at the First Congregational Church of Reading (UCC), as documented my committee member L. G. Piper (http://www.lgpiper.net/Spirituality/ONA_FAQ.html) and subsequently adapted for the First Congregational Church of Camden by Jane Babbitt; the UCC’s ONA website (http://www.ucc.org/lgbt/ona.html); and members of The First Church in Swampscott’s ONA team, including a document prepared by Bruce Cole of our church.