Covenanters will be familiar with CHIC, Covenant High in Christ—the triennial event when youth from around the country and world descend upon a campus for a week of experience. In the day, volunteering opportunities, bible studies, worship and prayer, sessions on particular topics, meals and other events spread the youth and their leaders out over campus, grouped by congregation; every night, Mainstage gathers them all together for a performance from a well-known band, worship, and a sermon or talk.
At CHIC 2009, there was a night when a young and brazen preacher, who had grown his church from six to 60,000 or some unhelpful number, gave a sermon that took the time to condemn sex workers and trans people. This man, not a Covenant pastor, later made the news for a stadium service in which he planted people to answer the call to baptism, caught priming the pump of the waters of mercy and regeneration. His pulsating inspirational tracks now sometimes rotate through workout playlists on Spotify.
Speaker Lady Judy (then campus pastor of North Park University, Judy Peterson) spoke the next night, rebuked that man, and spoke of God’s love for sex workers and trans people.
Another night, Speaker Lady Judy invited those in attendance who felt the Holy Spirit calling them to ministry to move to the periphery of the stadium aisles, where pastors would be waiting to pray for them. I felt the call of the Holy Spirit, so I did that. The pastor at the end of my aisle laid hands on me and prayed that God would guide me and bless my ministry to come. That pastor was Gary Walter, then President of the Covenant Church.
It took me years to come out to myself and others as gay, and it took me years to leave the Covenant Church and become an Episcopalian. The parts of me that are uncomfortable as an Episcopalian are the parts of me that were formed by Swedish pietism, e.g., my desire for sermons to talk about the love of Jesus using the Bible as its text, with a ratio of that to anecdotes, New Yorker magazine references, sports metaphors, and poetry at about 95 to 5. That plus losing my physical sense of the intimacy of God, and bishops—adjustments, all.
I didn’t solely become an Episcopalian because the Episcopal Church knows what to do with LGBTQ people and the Covenant Church doesn’t. A sense of the historic Church, the reverence of the Eucharistic rites, the friendly Anglo-Catholicism of my local parish and its history of caring for people with HIV/AIDS—these were all factors. But the part of me most comfortable as an Episcopalian is the part of me that couldn’t exist in the church and life I was born into.
When I left in 2014, it looked like the Covenant Church could yet have a fruitful discussion about what sort of issue sexuality would be for the denomination. Would it break the small church in two as it did every other denomination that had the discussion, or would it find a way to do what the Covenant Church does best, and let it be decided across relationships forged in the intimacy of shared life and worship? When I left, it looked like such an approach was possible, but silence was the route chosen by the denomination’s leadership. The same silence that preserved me from knowing what homosexuality was, preventing me from recognizing myself and growing me up anxious and stunted. To be clear, silence on sexuality is pastoral abuse.
Had I not left in 2014 for my multiple reasons, I would have left this year or last year or the one before for the failure of the Covenant Church’s leadership to promote a conversation about sexuality in keeping with the Covenant Church’s heart and mission. I would have left when I saw they were consulting people like Preston Sprinkle, one of these charming heterosexual pastors upon whose heart the Lord has lain the burden of keeping the Church straight. I would have left when the credentials of two pastors were suspended last year for performing gay marriages. One was Speaker Lady Judy. The other—to my shock—was the pastor of the church I attended from 2003 to 2011, Steve Armfield. Pastor Steve never spoke about homosexuality from the pulpit, and rumor had it his son was gay, so when I heard he risked his credentials by doing his son’s wedding, in that moment, he was my pastor. Had I not left in 2014 for my multiple reasons and had leadership been prepared to speak about sexuality openly and with open hearts, I likely would’ve stayed.
I do not think that the Covenant Church should split over sexuality. The Covenant’s understanding of what it means to be a minister, its ecclesiology, its theology of marriage—not much would change substantially by including sexual minorities. Ordination is not a church-level decision, so were change to come, it would presumably have to be denomination-wide. With regards to marriage, churches could decide on their own whether or not blessing gay relationships is consistent with their faith. In the American church, marriage—gay and straight—is an idol. As the privileged mode of being not only a citizen but a member of Christ’s body, it has for some superseded baptism as a sacrament and rite of initiation. Marriage should not be given the power to pull asunder what God has joined together.
I still think sometimes about the irony of Gary Walter praying for my future ministry, given that he is someone who would have prevented me from carrying it out, as would this new president, John Wenrich, as would an apparently large portion of the Covenant Church. Whether or not I have been led by the Holy Spirit to the Covenant’s periphery or pushed there is hard to tell. Both, I think. Regardless, this is where I will study and work and carry out my ministry, in whatever form it may yet take. There is gay work to be done.
Thanks Sam. Wonderfully written tender thoughts. The Covenent has been a remarkable family to me over these years. As we come to this time there will be many of us who will have to decide whether to stay or leave.
I love your writing. I love your heart. I love the friendship we’ve been privileged to have, nurtured by coffees/teas, lunches, playing music together, and, most importantly, honest and deep conversation. Thank you for sharing these thoughts and speaking up on this important issue for the denomination, the church at large, and the world. ❤️
Sam, I’m honored to mentioned in this post. Blessings to you. Thank you for your writing, for your insight and for your courage. Love to connect with you when you’re in Grand Rapids. Steve Armfield
Sam, I’m honored to mentioned in this post. Blessings to you. Thank you for your writing, for your insight and for your courage. Love to connect with you when your in Grand Rapids. Steve Armfield
Sam,. I’ve been thinking about you? Where are you now and what are you doing? I am holding you in my heart and in my prayers…
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