The following statement was delivered at both worship services on Sunday June 6 by FCC Moderator Gary Holmes
Friends, I am speaking to you today in my capacity as Chair of Church Council, which is the governing body of the church between the annual Congregational Meetings.
As many of you know, June is Pride Month, a communal celebration of LGBTQ visibility, self-worth, and dignity growing out of the Stonewall protests of 1969.Here in Darien, many local institutions, including the town’s churches, were asked to fly the pride flag to show support for the LGBTQ community. You may have noticed these flags on various flag poles around town and in the yards of individual homeowners.
I want to take a moment to explain what our church leadership decided to do in response to this request.
First, I want to make an obvious point – a strength of our church is our diversity of opinion and independence of thought. If you want to belong to an organization where everyone thinks like you do, the Congregational Church of Darien is not the place for you. This sometimes slows down our decision-making, but letting every voice be heard leads to better ideas, greater intellectual development, and deeper, more lasting moral growth.
Second, by way of background, I didn’t do a comprehensive survey, but it is my understanding that only one church in town – St. Luke’s – agreed to display the flag and that in many of these churches, the decision to fly or not fly was made by a small leadership group, not by the church’s governing body.
At First Congregational, we took a different approach. We had two long discussions on this matter at Church Council. These were respectful, honest, good faith discussions. Our country would be a much better place if every conversation about sensitive issues were as open and heartfelt as the one we had about the pride flag. After an inconclusive discussion in our April meeting, Church Council members agreed to reach out and ask others in the church for their opinions. I specifically asked people to talk to other members who had a different view than their own. These conversations were productive and resulted in quite a few members changing their minds between the April and May meetings, some moving from pro-flag and some moving against. This flexibility says a lot about the openness with which Church Council representatives approached this topic.
As Congregationalists, the decision to display a flag or any other symbol is not an easy one. Traditionally our denomination has been reticent to adopt adornments or public displays. We have no stained glass or statues in the church. We do have a simple cross, but even that was added as a permanent feature only 15 years ago after a prolonged church-wide debate about the role of iconography in our faith. The American and Connecticut flags were added to the meeting house only after a similar debate, and they are so unobtrusive than many of you might not have even noticed them until I pointed them out. Our church does not even have a flagpole and when we do display the American flag from the church portico, it’s only for a few days around Memorial Day and The Fourth of July. So as a matter of theology and tradition, we don’t do a lot of flag-waving.
In our church council meetings, the discussions focused around two legitimate competing goals –first, to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible to everyone in the broader community and second, to avoid divisive displays of activism that could set a precedent for the future.
Those in favor of displaying the flag argued that we should state clearly and publicly that we welcome everyone in the community to our church. Some of our church members are LGBTQ; many of us have family members who are LGBTQ; and almost everyone has LGBTQ friends and people who are dear to them. Flag supporters believed that not displaying the flag when so many other institutions in town were doing would send a signal that we are not as welcoming as we think we are. In particular, they worried about the message this would send to young families and the teen members of our Congregation. They also rejected the idea that the Pride Flag is a political symbol, arguing that it is merely a sign of inclusion.
The counterargument was that any flag is inherently political. LGBTQ activists are advancing a number of pending legislative initiatives and pursuing court cases in Connecticut and around the nation, and displaying the flag could be interpreted as supporting those political initiatives. Even the American flag is political. If we had waved the flag during the Iraq war, we could have been making a clear political. Those concerned about showing the pride flag also bridled at the idea that we needed to make a gesture to prove we are welcoming when we have no record of being unwelcoming. They were also concerned about setting a precedent for potential future requests – for a POW flag to show we support veterans, or a Black Lives Matter flag to show we’re not racist. Some also suggested that violence against Asians and Jews is the more urgent issue of the moment.
These irreconcilable viewpoints couldn’t be reconciled after even two long meetingsof earnest discussion. And here we ran up another feature of Congregationalism. We are a church, not a legislature. We strive to avoid votes where there will be winners and losers. We don’t seek out hard feelings that will distract us from the important values and priorities that we do share. To the extent possible discern to achieve a consensus.
One of the church boards, the Stewards – took an advisory poll and split five to five. I also know of quite a few husband and wife couples who came down on different sides of this issue. We didn’t take a vote at Council, but from the discussion we seemed to be almost equally divided. Without an overwhelming consensus we didn’t feel that we could speak for the whole church. Instead, we agreed that I would come to you today and explain Council’s thinking. Each member of Council, regardless of where they stood on the flag, wanted to make it clear that every beloved child of God is welcome at our church. We also agree that the discernment process should continue and that this conversation should proceed in a respectful reasoned way. To recognize those who support the importance of the pride flag, we are making individual flags available to those members of the Congregation want them. We have placed them in the church foyer near the front door. If you want one to display at home, please take one.
Thank you for your time. Our church is founded on love, and I believe a lot of love was demonstrated during these Church Council deliberations: love for each other as we listened respectfully to our fellow disciples of Christ and love for anyone who wishes to worship with us and participate in our community. Bless you all.