Note: This sermon deals primarily with the struggles of a particular congregation from the period of 2000-2005. I share it here so that current and previous congregants might be able to reference it, and with the hope that it might be helpful for other congregations struggling with similar issues. Be warned: it is very, very long. During the service, I divided it up into 3 parts, linked to here for easy navigation:
Part 1: Sex
Part 2: Secrets
Part 3: Power
Part 1: Sex
Americans, at the very least, are obsessed with who has sex with whom, and when, and how. Some of us wonder how far we have come from the Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne and taking place around 1650. In this classic, Hester Pryne has a child outside of wedlock and in punishment is shunned by the community and forced to wear a scarlet A on her dress at all times. Those Puritans embraced sex inside of marriage, but heaven help you if you indulged pre or extra-maritally. But by the 18th century, Americans had come a long way. In fact, by many standards, we’re actually more puritanical than we were then. At that point, American men loved telling dirty jokes and playing sexual pranks, “they sang outrageously ribald songs, they drew scandalous cartoons, and they masturbated in the churchyard when they thought the sermon was boring.” – Please do not take that as a suggestion! “They spied on each other through the cracks in the cabin walls, they had sex in haylofts, and they told everybody they knew when they got laid. There was no expectation of privacy” in 18th century America. Of course, one on one heterosexual sex was the norm – no one was doing anything like this around same-gendered sex. And I doubt it was as much fun for women.
Thankfully, we are a bit more civilized than they were back then. Certainly we’ve come a long way in understanding the equality of genders, privacy, consent, and same-sex relationships. But there’s at least one thing that we’ve brought forward from 300 years ago: our undying curiosity with who is having sex with whom, and how they do it.
In our hetero-normative society, where male/female sexual pairings are considered the norm, the curiosity is pretty basic. But add some variety in there and our curiosity has a tendency to move into the realm of dehumanization: we no longer see the people involved as human beings with inherent worth and dignity. Instead, we sexually objectify them and see them as no more than the sum of their genital parts and what they do with them.
This was played out on the main cultural stage during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s – people assumed everyone who had AIDS was gay and had therefore indulged in anal sex, which, apparently, was reason enough for you to be shunned by society. Those who were diagnosed were dehumanized in such a way that Hester Pryne would have felt like her sentence was pretty light in comparison.
Straight people in power reduced the gay community to a single sex act. There was no room for being a whole person, for forming loving relationships, for living as a human being with all the attendant messiness, wonder, pain, struggle, joy – the whole kit and caboodle of life. Even today, though many of us struggle to change the standard, for much of the population calling something “gay” is still a put-down.
Thankfully, the tide has been turning on the dehumanization of gay & lesbian people for quite a while. As same-sex marriage becomes more recognized and accepted, the cultural mind doesn’t immediately go to a sexual act when they hear the term “gay couple” but instead are beginning to picture a family where the adults happen to be gay.
Bisexual and pansexual folks are often still often sexually objectified, though – people seem to assume that these descriptors mean that you are unable to be in a committed relationship because you must have sex with everyone you see. Which is ridiculous. It simply means that you have the capacity to love people regardless of their biological plumbing.
Unfortunately, the cultural jury is also still out on whether intersex or transgender people are really human beings. I haven’t yet seen Diane Sawyer’s interview with Bruce Jenner which aired earlier this week, but the interview Katie Couric did last year with Laverne Cox, a trans woman who is phenomenal in her role, as a trans woman, on Orange is the New Black, demonstrated this cultural sexual objectification. Rather than focus on Cox’s activism, or her character on the show, or any of the other successes and trials in her life, Couric focused on her genitalia, in an effort, she claimed to “educate” people. Cox’s response was wonderful. “By focussing on bodies,” she said, “we don’t focus on the lives realities of [the] oppression and discrimination of transgendered people.”
And it’s not just sexual orientation and gender identity that raise the cultural eyebrows when it comes to sex. Women who have had an abortion, or who are raped, are in a constant battle against a society that objectifies them by erroneously labeling them as “promiscious” or suggesting that they must have been “asking for it”. It wasn’t long ago that divorced women were thought to be promiscuous simply by nature of not being in a marriage anymore. Single women who chose to have children without being married had their sex lives placed under intense public scrutiny as recently as the early 90s, when the TV show character Murphy Brown stirred up a controversy when she decided to have and raise her child alone after the biological dad decided it was too much trouble.
By focusing on bodies – on biological plumbing, or on how people have sex or whom they have it with, we dehumanize people and disregard their inherent worth and dignity. And the reality is, for the most part, it is none of our business! Consensual, informed, and welcomed relationships between adults should not matter to anyone else.
Alcoholics Anonymous has a saying: “”You’re only as sick as your secrets.” And they are so right. Though decorum and civilization require a certain amount of privacy – we certainly don’t need to share everything with one another – there are some truths that if we keep them bottled up inside become like a poison, eating away at us and making us sick emotionally, spiritually and even physically. Yet out of shame, or because of a family rule, there are things in many households and families that get permanently swept under the rug and that you just are not allowed to talk about. The same is true for churches.
Ten years ago, this congregation effectively institutionalized a secret. And it has eaten away at us ever since.
On April 24, 2005, First Unitarian Church called a special congregational meeting. This was not the annual meeting, but a separate meeting that was called to discuss and vote on one particular motion.
The motion had several parts:
- first, that the congregation would not be affiliated with polyamory or any group chiefly concerned with polyamory;
- second, that no group at the church that is “chiefly concerned” with polyamory would be allowed to become a special interest or affiliate group, a status that gave groups certain privileges;
- third, that no group with polyamory as its chief concern would be allowed to use First Unitarian Church in its name or in any way “otherwise purport to be affiliated with the church.”; and
- finally, no such group would be permitted to advertise itself or its meetings through newsletters, orders of service, distribution of materials, bulletin boards, brochure racks, etc.
This motion overturned existing Board AND Council decisions that were in contradiction with the above.
There were 141 people at this special meeting, and they narrowly ruled in favor of passing the motion. Though it was never in the text of the motion, this meeting became known, and talked about in shorthand, as the day it was decided that we just don’t talk about polyamory. It was the day we swept the elephant in the room under the rug.
How did we get to that point?
First, a primer on what polyamory is. Polyamory is the potential for romantically loving more than one person at a time. Another term for it is “responsible non-monogamy”. Polyamory is a general term covering a wide variety of relationship styles, including polyfidelity (which means group marriage), open marriage, expanded family system, intimate network, and some kinds of intentional community. It means having the potential for a serious, intimate, stable, affectionate bond with more than one person.
Polyamory is not cheating, as honesty and forthrightness are crucial between all partners. And it is not swinging. Swinging is an expression of recreational sex, whereas polyamory is about relationships and sharing lives together.
If you would like more information about what polyamory is, there are brochures about it on the table by the doors as you head out. (readers: I invite you to check out the UUPA website).
So how did we get to the point where the church took such an adamant stance which, in retrospect seems to be not so much on the side of love, certainly not on the side of multiple loves? How did we get there? It all started about 8 years before that meeting in 2005. At that time, eighteen years ago now, the first discussion about polyamory was had at the church in an adult religious education class. I wasn’t there, but I would guess that the conversation had something to do with what polyamory is about, and how it is about a lot more than sex.
Three years later, in 2000, upon request, the Board of Trustees approved the creation of a local UU’s for Polyamory Awareness (UUPA) group. Bless that board – they certainly had NO idea what they were getting into. This was back in the time when we had announcements before the service, and so the first UUPA group meeting was announced, and the group meeting apparently went well. But people immediately complained to the Board, enough so that the Board asked UUPA to not make announcements anymore – they didn’t revoke UUPA’s group privileges at that time, but began to set boundaries on what the group could do. UUPA protested the restrictions, which were eventually lifted.
Within 3 months, a special Board meting was held just to discuss the polyamory group. At this time, the previous restrictions, plus some more, were put in place. Primarily, these restrictions had to do with what the group could call themselves and how they could publicize their meetings. Meanwhile, the minister was on his way out, and really didn’t want to deal with this issue in his final months. Remember, this is 2000, five years before the congregational meeting of April 2005.
In March of 2001, there was the first all-church meeting about the issue. Discussion continued, an interim minister was hired in the summer and in November 2001, the Board voted to designate UUPA as an outside group, which would disallow certain privileges such as publication and room usage. By March of 2002, however, the poly group was being asked not to use either a chalice logo OR the name of the church on their brochures and publicity. UUPA was tenacious, though, and would not let the matter drop.
In August of 2002, the new settled minister started, and in March of 2003 he told a representative of the poly group that polyamory was not a problem for the church, and that he would not discuss either polyamory or UUPA anymore. But by June 2003 he had recanted and announced that the problem was killing the church.
September of 2003 had another special congregational meeting on the topic. The next day, the Council, the programming arm of church governance, denied UUPA’s application for special interest group status, but they invited UUPA to reapply after a year. Which UUPA did. In November of 2004, the Council decided to postpone the decision on granting special interest group status to UUPA until June 2005, at the annual congregational meeting.
UUPA appealed the Council’s postponement to the Board. The Board chose not to rule, but in January 2005 the Council reopened the discussion. They surveyed the congregation on their opinions, and got mixed messages. In February 2005, the Council approved granting UUPA special interest group status. Within a month, there was a congregational petition to call the April 24 special congregational meeting.
During those years of controversy, there were a range of concerns expressed about why there should not be a polyamory group at First U. There was concern that the church would get to be known as “The poly church” in the larger community, which some felt would sacrifice 175 years of built up social capital in the community.
There were concerns expressed about the children – what would it be teaching or modeling to them? Would the children be at risk of predatory behaviors from the poly folks?
There were arguments that the church was not in the business of sanctioning lifestyle choices. And there were concerns that more of “those people” would show up at the church.
Perhaps these arguments sound familiar to you. Many of them are the arguments that were made against embracing GLBT people in our congregations many years ago. (FYI: I am using the abbreviations from the time period, not the currently accepted alphabetic string that indicates people on sexual orientation & gender identity spectrum.) And, indeed, they are the arguments that were made against incorporating the Pagans into our churches many years ago.
These arguments don’t come from facts. Neither gay men, pagans, nor poly people have any higher incidence or predatory behavior towards children! And, frankly, we sanction lifestyle choices all the time, though usually they’re the lifestyle choices that are already sanctioned by our larger culture and so don’t stand out.
Instead of a place of facts, these arguments come from a place of fear: fear of safety, and fear of loss of prestige. And, really, First Unitarian had good reason to fear, particularly around issues that connect, even peripherally, to sex. We have some troublesome history.
In 2000, it had not been long since the youth group had been disbanded due to sexual encounters and drug use on church premises. Many in the congregation could still remember a minister who engaged in what today would be considered sexual misconduct with a congregant. The 70’s era free-love key swapping that swept through Unitarian Universalist communities landed here as well, and caused harm to several marriages. Divorce was thought of as “catchy” as people saw their friends ending long-term marriages and were afraid it would happen to them, much like some people today are concerned that same-sex marriage will somehow hurt traditional marriage. Fear is not always rational.
And the church was no stranger to conflict: there had been intense debate around ultimately deciding not to join the Sanctuary movement in the 80s, which would have provided safe-haven for Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict. Plus there was the fire in 1985, which in church life was just yesterday to those in 2000 – we now pride ourselves on staying downtown but many didn’t agree and left the church over the decision, or over the decision to worship in the West End while the church was rebuilt. And I’ve heard several times how difficult the rebuilding process was.
Add to these factors a lack of trust in the congregational lay leadership, 3 ministers (none of whom handled this well), and a push to grow, grow, grow because congregations during this time were told that if they were not growing then they were not healthy or, even, worthwhile.
Combine all these factors and you get a powder-keg that was ready to explode. It almost didn’t matter what the issue was. Meanwhile, polyamorists were starting to come out all over the Unitarian Universalist Association, with some of the leaders being from this congregation. Across the country, UUs were having a hard time discussing polyamory because we were afraid. We were afraid we would lose prestige. We were afraid what it would mean in regards to our firm stance on sexual orientation and gender identity justice. We were afraid that “they” would take over.
And so we sexually objectified practitioners of polyamory – we focused on who was sleeping with whom, or what the sexual logistics and mechanics of their relationships were. Here at First U, there were even multiple incidences of different poly women being sexually objectified by the male minister. We sexually objectified polyamorists, rather than focus on whether their relationships were consensual, informed, and welcomed covenants between adults.
There was almost no way that the church could have handled it well. Let me say that again: given all these factors, there was almost no possible way that the church could have handled this situation well. And we didn’t. I don’t say this to shame those of you who lived through this era, I say this with love and deep compassion, knowing I truly cannot comprehend how tumultuous and painful the time was.
After five years of intense conflict in which everyone was on a side (even those who purported to take no side), the congregation was exhausted. In many ways, the congregation needed to pass the resolution 10 years ago just to move on – it was getting nowhere. The church was being ripped apart.
And what was the result of the resolution? We effectively institutionalized a secret that would slowly poison us over a decade. The problem with a “keep the peace no matter what” attitude in the wake of the congregational meeting was that it forced people to leave quietly rather than stay and continue the hard work of community. Many people on both sides of the issue left the church. As I recently listened to the tape recording of the meeting, I was struck by how I’ve never met approximately half the people who spoke, and I arrived only 4 years after the meeting.
At least 3 board presidents left the church right after their tenure, as well as many others in leadership. A large number of those who left the church were gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender folks, who heard the poly people being talked about as “those people” – an othering phrase that had been used on them in the recent past.
Interweave, the GLBT group at the time, absorbed the poly folks. Meeting twice a month, it would offer a GLBT-focused program one week, and then a poly -focused program the next time. Some of the poly folks stayed. Most left.
Four years and two more interim ministers later, and I arrived in 2009. The poly conflict was all throughout this congregation’s materials. My first reaction when reading the information about this congregation was, honestly, pity – y’all seemed so down on yourselves. But the poly issue didn’t scare me, because I had written my thesis in seminary about it. Some friends of mine had asked me to solemnize the union of the three of them and I’d had to do some heavy thinking about whether or not I would. In my research, I learned that the institution of marriage had changed throughout human eons, and in fact was still changing. Who was I, I decided, to judge the rightness or wrongness of a consensual, informed, welcomed relationship? I realized my friends came to me, knowing that their union was far outside the norm, wanting someone to uplift them, to see them, to support them. Don’t we all want our love of another person to be honored by our community?
So I was not afraid to become your minister. And pity rapidly changed to deep love and appreciation for the many, many wonderful things here. And over the past 5.5 years we have done much, so much, healing together. The congregation is in a healthy enough place that on this, the anniversary of that special congregational meeting, it is time to address the elephant that we swept under the rug ten years ago.
For the past 10 years, there’s been an elephant under the rug. No, there are no official sanctions against talking about polyamory, but the unofficial line is that we don’t do it much. Those of you who are newer probably had no idea that there was such a time of intense conflict at the congregation not that long ago, though I would guess you might have suspected something.
Some of you, undoubtedly, wonder why I am bringing it up now. We settled that 10 years ago, right?
Not really. We settled it for the short term, but that resolution was not one that contributes to the longterm health of a congregation.
That resolution prevents us from being a truly sexually healthy congregation because it does not permit exploration of the whole range of healthy relationship possibilities. We offer OWL to the whole spectrum of ages here because we want to be a sexually healthy congregation.
We also want, need, to be able to talk about hard stuff, to take a stand on difficult issues, but we can’t do that if we can’t talk about this. We cannot claim our power in all areas of life if some areas are considered off limits.
And we need to recognize that there are steadfast, loyal, loving poly people and their allies within this church who are still suffering from the pain this controversy caused them personally. These are people who have been and are leaders in our congregation, who are valued members, who are raising their children here and their grandchildren. Do we tell beloved members of this community that they can only bring part of themselves here?
We do not. In fact, on our order of service each week we proclaim that we are a welcoming congregation, and this means that we “embrace all persons equally, no matter their sexual or affectional orientation, gender identity or expression, age, race, ethnicity, neurodiversity, social or economic class, education level, family structure or abilities.” We proclaim that we welcome all to participate fully and openly in our congregational life. This means you should not be afraid to bring your whole self, and your whole family (no matter the configuration) for fear of how you might be treated or objectified.
Being welcoming also means the ability to connect with others who are in a similar situation so that you can support and accept one another and encourage each other in your spiritual growth and faith development, whether that would be a group for widows, a group for alzheimer caregivers, a UUPA group, or a group for parents of autistic children.
I am so proud of this current Board of Trustees, who just passed a policy removing all special interest group and other group designations. From now on, anyone who wants to start a group or organization simply will need to justify how the group fits into the congregation’s mission. If that is done successfully, the group will have full access to the congregation’s resources. You can check out the new policy in the members section of our website.
And there is more that we can do to continue to move forward into health. Our Ministry Theme for this month is Freedom. Science fiction novelist and screenwriter David Gerrold says that if we want to be free, we need to understand that “freedom is not about being comfortable. It’s about seizing and using opportunities, and using them responsibly. Freedom is not comfort” he says, “It’s commitment. Commitment to the willingness to be uncomfortable.” As we engage in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning in this congregation, there will be times when we are uncomfortable. This is the difficult work of building the beloved community. It is hard, but it is worth it.
In the next few weeks and months, we will have ample opportunity to explore the discomfort that freedom brings, the discomfort that being witnesses for progressive faith brings. We will be talking about, and taking action, on a lot of things that there are disagreement around:
This fall, we are engaging in a renewal of our Welcoming Congregation certification. This is something that has not been undertaken in over 10 years, even though it is supposed to happen every five years. Much has changed in society since the last time we went through this process – I have no doubt that there will be much that makes us uncomfortable!
Before even this fall, though, there is much to challenge us. Two weeks from now, we will be talking about welcoming people of all genders, and what that looks like in regards to creating all gender bathrooms.
This spring, we are talking about joining a social justice organization that is currently Christian and that will require us to partner in areas of agreement with other local congregations with which we perhaps have much disagreement.
We will also be talking about what it would mean to hang a BlackLivesMatter sign on our building and how we would know that the time had arrived when we could take it down.
I suggest that we might even choose to step into the discomfort, to step into right relations with one another, by, at our annual meeting on June 7, repealing the motion made 10 years ago on that fateful day in 2005.
I do not believe we can talk about these issues with integrity and good faith until we acknowledge our history and commit to holding each other in love and care.
I ask this of you in the coming weeks. First, trust your leadership. They are, frankly, amazing. Each of them have educated themselves on the issues they are raising, they have done the internal work necessary to understand the nuances involved. They don’t press us into these areas just out of intellectual conviction but out of a desire to truly live our mission and to honor the interdependent web of which we are all a part.
Second, I ask that you recognize that negotiating our various differences is an essential part of building community. When we are confronted with someone or something with which we disagree, I ask that we first remember that we all want what is best for this congregation. I ask that we look for solutions rather than focussing on the problem – for instance, if this were ten years ago I would suggest that, rather than focussing on what imagined harm a UUPA group might cause the congregation, we recognize that the polyamorous folks in our congregation would like to have a group that explores how their faith is expressed through their family structure and focus on ways to make that happen.
I also ask that we make sure that this issue is not personalized. Each of us is so much more than one thing: I am a minister, a mother, a spouse, a daughter, a friend, a colleague, and so much more. We are each more than our views about polyamory, or about any other individual issue.
And. And I know this is hard. And I know I am asking so much of you. But you are ready. I know you are. You are such a healthy, vibrant, loving congregation. You want to be a force for good in the world and in the community. You want to be welcoming. You want to be healthy. You want to be whole.
For ten years, we have been walking around the elephant that was swept under the carpet. It is time to no longer be held back by the pain in the past, to move forward in loving covenant with one another, and to claim our power together and in the larger community. May it be so. Blessed be.