A Brief History of the Open and Affirming Study Process at the First Congregational Church of Reading, U.C.C.
rainbow line

After both pastors gave notice in the spring of 1998, Church Council established a transition team to study the church in depth. After about a year of intense study, the transition team issued a report in which they suggested a staffing model to direct future searches for clergy. In addition, they also suggested that, during the search process for new pastors, we address certain key issues that affected the life of the church. One of those issues was whether we should consider becoming an Open and Affirming congregation.

In the fall of 1999, the Deacons considered the Open and Affirming issue and in January 2000 proposed to Church Council that an ad hoc committee be set up to study the Open and Affirming issue in more detail. Council approved the suggestion and a committee comprising Melissa Baratta, Lorna Knapp, Tom McCord, Judie Williams, and Janet Parsons Mackey (ex officio) began meeting regularly in March 2000.

This ad hoc committee studied the issue from all sides and designed a process whereby the church membership as a whole could explore what it would mean for our congregation to become Open and Affirming. The process outlined included a number of after-church forums and an in-depth Bible study. The committee provided a report to Church Council with a suggested schedule of events and a proposed budget. Church Council approved the report and directed a new ad hoc committee be set up to implement the recommendations of the first committee. Members of the new committee included Melissa Baratta, Judie Williams, Barbara Philbrick, Larry and Hazel Piper, and, later on, Diane Clinton.

This second ad hoc committee implemented the program outlined by the first committee, made several reports to the church membership as a whole by way of Mission Moments during church services, and provided written documentation in the Parish News to summarize the activities along the way. In particular a set of answers to frequently asked questions, or FAQ were published serially over a period of about six months and subsequently made available on the literature table outside the pastor's office. Midway through the process, in March 2001, the committee gave an oral progress report to Church Council. At that time both Church Council and the Deacons reiterated their support.

The following points summarize briefly each of the events and the things learned from them. More details on the issues covered at these events can be found in the published FAQ.

  1. November 5, 2000 — Forum: What is Open and Affirming, Why are We Studying It, and What are Your Questions?

    This after-church forum included a video followed by lunch and discussion. The video introduced what it means to become an Open and Affirming congregation, highlighted the experiences of several congregations who had explored the ONA issue and explored some of their experiences following their votes to become ONA. A luncheon followed the video, and then people broke up into smaller groups to air their questions and concerns. Members of the ONA committee took note of these questions and concerns so as to ensure that most of them were addressed in the subsequent forums, the Bible study series, and/or the FAQ.

  2. March 11, 2001 — Forum: Contemporary views on Human Sexuality

    Our guest speaker, Cheryl Harrell discussed what was meant by the terms gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered and provided information regarding a number of common misconceptions about people who were gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered.

  3. March 4 – April 1, 2001 — Bible Study Series During Lent

    Using the resource guide, Claiming the Promise, we had a series of four sessions during which we investigated such issues as how to view scriptural authority, whether or not non-Jewish Christians were bound by Old Testament laws, what exactly the Bible did or didn't say about the subject of homosexuality, and what was meant by the concept of reconciling discipleship and whether such a concept had a relationship to our treatment of gays in the church. One of the more interesting things that came out of this series was discovering the large variety of differences in the various translations of the Bible available to us and how our perceptions regarding what was being said differed with the translations.

  4. March 29, 2001 — Forum: What Does the Bible Have to Say About Homosexuality?

    Dr. Simon Parker from Boston University came to discuss what the Bible had to say about homosexuality. During his talk he discussed how views of sexuality and sexual practices had changed in the two to three millennia since the Bible was written. He said that one really needed to interpret scripture with a knowledge of the context in which it had been written.

  5. October 14, 2001 — Forum: Panel Discussion — Family and Friends of Homosexuals

    Members of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) came to tell us about their experiences as parents of lesbian and gay children and the experiences their children had had in the church.

  6. January 13, 2002 — Forum: The Real World: Being an Open and Affirming Church

    We invited guests from three nearby churches which had voted to become Open and Affirming, Ballardvale United Church in Andover, First Congregational Church, U.C.C., Winchester, MA, and First Church in Malden, Congregational. Unfortunately a last-minute emergency prevented the people from Malden from attending. People from the other two churches shared their experiences. All three churches shared the congregational statements they had made to declare themselves Open and Affirming.

  7. February 10, 2002 — Forum: Being Gay in the Church

    We invited two ordained, gay clergy to participate in our service, one as preacher, Rev. Judy Arnold and one as liturgist, Dr. Barbara Livingston. After church we had a forum in which they were joined by several more gay Christians, both clergy and lay, to talk to us about their experiences. Most talked about the difficulties they had faced in hiding the fact they were gay from other people in their congregations and the impact this had on their ability to interact honestly with other people.

Following this last forum, the ONA committee gave a summarizing presentation at the February 26, 2002 meeting of Church Council. At that time Council voiced its support for the ONA process, and in addition, requested that each of the commissions and committees discuss the issue at their March meetings in order to provide feedback to Council during their March meeting. The commissions and committees reported back to Council on March 26, 2002 and indicated that most of their members supported our church's voting to become Open and Affirming.

In the interim, we held an after-church forum on March 10, 2002, at which a number of congregational members gathered to construct a draft ONA statement. This draft statement was presented to the Commission on Christian Ministry and Service (Deacons) at their March meeting and revised slightly by them. The draft statement was then placed as an insert into the church bulletins for services in late March and early April so that congregational members would have time to digest its contents and, if it seemed appropriate, compose changes they might wish to suggest.

A hearing on the draft statement was held in the music room after church on Sunday, April 14th. Congregational members aired a number of last-minute concerns and suggested one minor change in the wording of the draft statement. A final statement was presented to Church Council at its meeting on April 23, 2002. Council voiced satisfaction with the statement and began the process of issuing warrants for a special all-church meeting after the service on Sunday, May 19th to vote whether or not to adopt the statement and, thereby, become an Open and Affirming congregation.

The May 19th special meeting began with a brief discussion of the issues involved and then the statement was put to a vote. The results of the vote, taken by paper ballot, had 106 voting to accept the statement and 22 voting against acceptance. The motion was thus carried by the affirmative vote of 83% of those in attendance. The results of the vote and the statement that was adopted were forwarded to the Open and Affirming Coalition of the U.C.C. They subsequently listed us in their records of ONA churches. We are the 413th congregation in the U.C.C. to achieve such status.

to top    home    What is ONA?    ONA History    ONA FAQ    ONA Statement
© 2003–2006 by Lawrence G. Piper
e-mail me: larry@lgpiper.net
Or use my contact form

Last update: Tuesday, May 30, 2006