Friday, May 03, 2013

Breaking News from America's Heartland

Community of Christ Temple
Independence, Missouri, USA
The Examiner is a newspaper that serves Kansas City's eastern suburbs, particularly Independence, Blue Springs, and Grain Valley. There was a day when The Examiner alone satisfied the news appetite of many citizens. Others of us chose to complement it with a subscription to the Kansas City Star.

Today it survives because people like me can't break the habit of receiving its daily fare of cucumber salad recipes, stories about local kids advancing to the state science fair competition, and (yes, I have to admit it) the obituary column.

The Examiner is hanging on, knowing that in the not far distant future the obituary column will likely be reporting its own demise rather than that of its readers. In the meantime we have the opportunity to enjoy some charming disconnects.

On Wednesday, April 24, 2013 the five column banner headline in The Examiner was "Waffle House Getting New Sign." That kind of heart-thumping journalism is not atypical of a good news day for our local paper. But it jarred me, knowing as I did that the international conference of a religious denomination was going on in town. I went to my stack of newspapers, some read and some not, and pulled out the previous day's edition.

On Tuesday, April 23, 2013 the five column banner headline in The Examiner was "Delegates Urge Church to Open Door." The lead paragraph in that article was as follows:
After a weekend of discussion and prayer, national delegates have recommended that the Community of Christ recognize same-sex marriage and ordination regardless of sexual orientation.
At first look it would seem that the action of the national conference of a religious denomination to embrace marriage and ordination of gay and lesbian persons would attract media interest almost anywhere. The fact that the denomination is headquartered in Independence, Missouri would lead one to expect extensive follow-up by the local paper. That it was bumped from the front page, or any page, by the Waffle House sign is perhaps an egregious oversight that speaks to the decline of newspapers around the world.

Or perhaps it means something else altogether, something about faith and culture and social networks and the blurring of all kinds of boundaries in a global society.

Here are a few quick facts that may be helpful to those unaware of the context of this remarkable story. (At this point I should acknowledge that I served for 33 years on the church's denominational staff, and for over eight years as president of the church, departing from full-time service in 2004. While I had no involvement at all in the 2013 Conference, my perspective is obviously shaped by that leadership experience and by my lifelong love of the movement.)
  • The Community of Christ is a religious denomination of approximately 250,000 members with a presence in around 50 nations; its world headquarters are in Independence, Missouri.
  • The church was birthed in the 1830's as a part of the movement that is commonly known as Mormonism. It shares a 14 year slice of history with that group but separated from it in 1844 and developed an entirely separate identity over time, rejecting many beliefs connected to the Mormon faith, i.e. polygamy, baptism for the dead, secret temple rituals, etc.
  • Beginning in the 1960's the church began to examine the significance of its own global expansion, learning from other cultures and authentically engaging with the issues of its own time--considering the role of women, embracing human diversity, and taking on difficult questions of war and peace.
  • Those explorations over time led to the building of a Temple "dedicated to the pursuit of peace," the changing of its name to Community of Christ, beginning the ordination of women in 1985, adopting progressive positions on capital punishment, gun control, and human diversity, and engaging in interfaith and ecumenical relationships.
Conference Delegates From Around the World Debate Issues in Legislative Sessions
Community of Christ Auditorium, Independence, Missouri, USA
It was a long journey that led a small religious denomination headquartered in the heartland of America to find itself exploring one of the most conflicted issues of our time. As recently as 1982 the official church policy on homosexuality was entitled, "Homosexuality and Other Sexual Perversions." That policy was replaced by one that described homosexuality as an orientation rather than a behavior. As to ordination, the policy provided for ordination of persons with a homosexual orientation but only if the individual agreed to remain celibate. Few accepted the offer.

Over the past decade or so the church engaged in a somewhat more structured dialogue process whereby members were urged to share their personal experiences and viewpoints with the goal of understanding others more than convincing others. That process became even more difficult because of the church's involvement in the developing world. In Haiti, for example, where the church has thousands of members, homosexuality is illegal and churches that accept it are subject to being delicensed by the government.

The recommendations that emerged from the 2013 USA Conference reflected travel down a long path where viewpoints evolved and where part of the agreement was that we will disagree. New ways of deciding and building consensus undoubtedly contributed to unexpectedly high margins of support once the final votes were announced. It was not the vote of a conference. It was the vote of a journey.

The Examiner was there in the 1970's and early 1980's when the struggles over faith and history, politics and justice, were disputed and where protests spilled into the streets of Independence. By 1985, when the first ordinations of women began, thousands of people became inactive or left the church to form independent congregations with fundamentalist theologies and a desire to cling to conservative interpretations of the church's foundational story.

When I was a kid I used to throw newspapers for The Examiner, never imagining the role it would have in chronicling the story of my own church and to some degree my career. Forty years ago the struggles of this faith community were big news to our hometown paper, which also benefited from protestors taking out full-page ads to register their objections to church polity or beliefs. There was drama, intense dialogue, and even coverage on occasion by the New York Times or Newsweek.

But it is a new day. What I have in view at the moment is the remarkable story of a small but global community that chose to look deeply within itself and to follow a path without map or compass but with a faith rooted in story and compelled by a power not its own.

Perhaps it is a story no longer covered in depth by the local newspaper but it was tweeted and facebooked and simulcast via the Internet for all the world to see. I am immensely proud of my church. The journey is not over, but we can pause for a moment and look back with satisfaction over the road we have traveled.

And if you're so inclined, you might want to saunter over to the Waffle House. I hear its location is well-marked.