Crossing the T

Life at the intersection of Church and Trans with Rev. Allyson Robinson

Are LGBT Baptists inside or outside of the New Baptist Covenant?


In an op-ed published in today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ken Pennings and Heather Rittenhouse of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists share some hopeful impressions of the recent New Baptist Covenant Celebration:

During the three-day event, former President Carter noted that Baptists hold diverse opinions about gay people. Best-selling novelist John Grisham called for the church’s inclusion of gay people. Rev. Tony Campolo wore a rainbow-colored stole. Hundreds of participants sported rainbow stickers to proudly reveal their support for gay people.

These are positive signs, to be sure.  And yet it’s important to remember that organizations like AWAB and the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America (which also affirms the lesbian and gay experience) were not permitted to join the celebration as “official participating organizations.”  In a July 18 e-mail to these two groups, Alan Stanford, one of the Celebration’s organizers, justified the exclusion of welcoming and affirming organizations by saying, “We can not hold together the large coalition of Baptists needed to create a new Baptist voice in North America and address the issue of sexual orientation at the same time.”  Individual members of these organizations were allowed to attend the event, but the organizations themselves were excluded.  Stanford asked for LGBT Baptists’ “forbearance and understanding.”

In their editorial, Pennings and Rittenhouse describe why the chose to participate in the event despite the official marginalization of the AWAB:

It seemed to us that if we built a response of protest, we would only have proved that we were operating from the outside rather than persistently and gracefully demonstrating that we were, in fact, on the inside. In effect, a protest would have broken down even further the ties that bind us as Baptists.

While I affirm their “bridge-building” approach and applaud their courage for undertaking a ministry of presence at the Celebration, I question the ultimate effectiveness of this kind of “demonstration.”  Their attendence may have demonstrated to some that LGBT Baptists exist, and it may have helped to put a face on what, for most Baptists, has been an impersonal issue from which they could previously claim detachment.  In the Baptist world, these are anything but small achievements. 

But their approach did not and could not show that LGBT Baptists are “on the inside” of Baptist life.  If anything, it accentuated the ongoing marginalization not only of LGBT Baptists, but of any Baptist who speaks out for a welcoming and affirming theology.  “You can ignore us, but we’re not going away” may be a great slogan, but it is a poor strategy.  It may preserve the appearance of unity–it keeps people on both sides of the issue happy–but it doesn’t promote justice.  It doesn’t advance the Kingdom. 

Organization is the heart of activism and the engine of social justice.  As Ecclesiastes’ Preacher taught, there is strength in well-organized numbers.  Majorities frequently deny minorities the right to organize as a way to maintain their status, which is precisely why freedom of assembly was enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Within a culture like ours that values such freedom, the next best way for a majority that wants to maintain its status to marginalize a minority is to downplay or deny the legitimacy of minority organizations.  From my perspective, this is precisely what occurred at the New Baptist Covenant Celebration–and we offered no organized response. 

Shortly after the Celebration’s organizers announced they would not let LGBT-affirming Baptist organizations participate,  some of our leaders began to consider the possibility of holding an “auxiliary event…to discuss gay rights and other peace and justice issues,” according to Evelyn Hanneman, who was at the time the interim director of the Peace Fellowship and now serves as its operations coordinator.  Such an event would have powerfully demonstrated that LGBT Baptists refuse to be marginalized or denied legitimacy.  It is a shame that such an auxiliary event did not materialize; a great opportunity was lost.

As long as we allow our organizations to be treated as less legitimate than others’, our voice will be muffled.  As long as we allow our issues to be thought of as less urgent than those of other constituencies, our issues will be brushed aside.  The courageous support of straight allies such as Grisham and friends of unity such as Carter and Campolo will be squandered if we don’t do more than simply show up.  A ministry of presence is vital, to be sure, but it is insufficient.  We must “make the most of every opportunity in these evil days.”  We will never see the change we long for, and we believe God longs for, if our motto is, “We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re not going to say it too loudly if that makes you uncomfortable.” 



  Evelyn Hanneman wrote @

While BPFNA was not officially allowed to help plan the NBC celebration, we did have individual members on the planning committee and invited to be presenters at the special interest sessions – and since Tony Campolo is also a BPFNA member, we had a member as one of the major speakers. That is one of the joys of being a grassroots organization! Our members continuously extend our reach into new areas.

We were invited to have an exhibit booth and were given an excellent location. We had many people stop by to purchase books, pick up their “Seek peace, and pursue it” pins, and talk about our work on justice issues, especially in New Orleans through Churches Supporting Churches.

We also held an auxiliary event “The HIV/AIDS Pandemic: A Deeper Conversation” at a nearby church the afternoon the NBC event began. Those attending were grateful for the opportunity to have a fuller discussion on this important issue than what occurred at the NBC offering.

The Alliance of Baptists had invited both AWAB and BPFNA to join them in their exhibit booth. Since the Alliance is not a member of the North American Baptist Fellowship, they were not in on the planning but, like us, were invited to have a booth. Stan Hastey of the Alliance told me that he let the NBC planners know of their invitation to AWAB, and were told the Alliance was welcome to have whoever they wanted join them in their booth.

I think we made a number of people uncomfortable, especially as they saw that we had much in common in our concerns for justice issues – but disagreed on some of them. One person let me know that he didn’t like our stance against war!

We had a booth this week at the predominately African-American Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference in New Orleans. While our major focus was on finding partner churches for the congregations we are working with there though Churches Supporting Churches, we did have several GLBT resources available for purchase. One young woman stopped by, picked up Mahan Siler’s book, “Embrace or Exile” and said, “This better have the right message, or I’m not interested.” I said that the message was of being welcoming and affirming, and she replied, “That’s the right one!.”

  Allyson wrote @

Evelyn, thanks so much for stopping by to comment and for sharing more about the wonderful work BPFNA is doing! I really am thankful for that work, moreso than I have words to express.

I still hold that the NBC organizers’ decision to deny official status to the welcoming and affirming minority’s organizations was an act of marginalization, whether that was their intent or not. My heart is deeply burdened for unity (and I’ll be sharing more about that here in the future), but not at the expense of justice.

I think the NBC organizers’ justification–that officially recognizing W&A organizations would damage unity–is based on a false dichotomy. Ecclesiology is not a zero sum game; we can come together in unity while still affirming those beliefs or practices unique to each of us. This has been perhaps Baptists’ greatest contribution to ecclesiology, historically speaking. Sadly, the last 25 years of Baptist history in the U.S. would seem to show we’re no longer practicing what we once preached.

  lucas wrote @

isn’t this precisely a symptom of the free church tradition that has the potential to unite, but ultimately has no authority to maintain unity? seems like an inherent problem even within the strength of our baptist heritage. more authoritarian, hierarchical denominations have much better chance to make some sort of ruling or statement concerning glbt issues and enforce unity. perhaps not as ideal as the voluntary unity of the free church, but maybe all we can hope for this side of the veil.

have i been reading too much niebuhr? methinks so.

  Allyson wrote @

I’m not sure one can actually read “too much” Neibuhr. I found a collection of his sermons on CD somewhere recently, but it will have to wait until I come into my inheritance.

I think your statement of the problem is telling, Lucas. Free church ecclesiology “has the potential to unite, but ultimately has no authority to maintain unity.” I’m shooting from the hip here, so bear with me, but maybe we’re working from the wrong paradigm? Maybe the unity to which we’re called cannot be maintained by authority, but by the relinquishment of authority? By divesting ourselves of power, we find the power we need?

…and then I run across something from Paul to the (fractured) church in Corinth that was in yesterday’s daily office and left me much troubled: “I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit” (1 Cor 4:19-21)?

  lucas wrote @

your concern about paradigm is probably right. however, don’t read too much into my use of the word authority. it might have been better to say “ability”. I appreciate so much about the free church tradition, but I don’t know that we have a good idea of how unity happens or continues without the top-down structures of other denominations. what i mean is there has to be some guidelines and rules that provide a process for unity to be maintained and continued in a more democratic, consensus-based system. niebuhr’s skepticism about the ability of collections of individuals to even approximate the ideal of democracy or unity plays into my thinking here.

[…] of a strategy for moving forward. We must secure for ourselves a place at the table. As I wrote in my own evaluation of the New Baptist Covenant Celebration, As long as we allow our organizations to be treated as […]

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