Historic United Church of Christ Transgender Consultation

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #097, Spring 2002.

by Pat Conover

The United Church of Christ created a bit of transgender and Christian history when it sponsored and paid for a consultation of transgendered members, November 15-18, 2001, to give guidance to the denomination on relating to its transgendered members and clergy and to the importance of supporting human and civil rights for all transgendered people. Eleven people were chosen for this consultation, representing the wide diversity of transgendered people: man-to-woman and woman-to-man, transsexual and other varieties of transgendered people, laity and clergy, and a diversity of race, class, urban and rural, and region of the United States. Vanessa Sheridan and Pat Conover, both of whom have previously written for Transgender Tapestry, were among the participants. Pat served as liaison to the religious community for the IFGE Board of Directors for 5 years in the 1990?s.
The United Church of Christ has 1.4 million members in 6000 congregations and has long led the Protestant denominations in the affirmation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered members. It has welcomed the gifts of clergy and laity both as pastors of local congregations and in national leadership. Pat Conover is Legislative Director for Justice and Witness Ministries of the national UCC and has served in the Washington Office for 15 years. The United Church of Christ Coalition for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns is the only such coalition in a Protestant denomination to officially name and include transgendered people. Since the Coalition is officially recognized by the UCC, with seats on various governing Boards of Directors, transgendered people are recognized in the constitution of the denomination and welcomed to participate in overall governance.

The consultation participants had a long meeting with John Thomas, President and General Minister of the United Church of Christ, and with other national leaders and staff. The meeting was not merely historic?it was a tender and significant moment. Many stories of pain and joy were shared. The difficulty of being out in a local congregation, even when there is official welcome and good intentions, was made clear. John Thomas responded with great depth to what he heard, sharing his feeling that the UCC must provide opportunities for listening to what transgendered people have to share and must make sure it does not squander any of the gifts transgendered people bring into the life of the church.

Part of the work of the consultation was contributing to the first stage of the development of a fully-funded professional video that will be made available to local congregations and public television stations. The video is part of a transgender resource packet being developed by Wider Church Ministries of the UCC, under the leadership of Bill Johnson. Bill was responsible for managing the funding of the consultation and is similarly managing the funding for the video and the resource packet. Bill made history 30 years ago as the first openly gay clergy person to be ordained in the UCC and a scholarship fund to support the seminary training of sexual and gender minority has been created in his name.

We gathered to worship as transgendered Christians, creating a sacred space by the welcoming of God?s presence, a safe space in which our tears could flow and the exchanges of pastoral support and celebration was deeply known. We gathered to share our personal stories and to tell of our ministries. We were all moved when we heard of the life-giving work of the Arc of Refuge ministry of the City of Refuge UCC in San Francisco. This church has a long history of working with street people in San Francisco, including transgendered sex workers, many of whom were thrown out of their Christian families when they didn?t conform to those families? understanding of the Christian message. Now they have a Christian home where the good news of God?s acceptance and love is made known in word and deed. These transgendered sisters and brothers not only have a home, they have what may be the only local church gospel choir of transgendered singers.

One of the joys we celebrated together was the publication of Vanessa Sheridan?s new book, Crossing Over: Liberating the Transgendered Christian. This book is one of several recent Pilgrim Press publications that include transgender concerns. It has the honor of being the first book by an openly transgendered author published by a press affiliated with a Protestant denomination.

Historic or not, there was never any doubt among the participants that the work to create understanding and acceptance for transgendered people within the United Church of Christ is just beginning. Doors have been cracked open, but there is a lot of sharing and meeting and praying still before us. Pat Conover, who has been an ordained minister in the UCC for 36 years, led the participants in a prayer of confession that names both spiritual grounding and challenges for the ongoing work.

Loving God,

It is time to lay down confusion, for you give us

beacons and guiding stars.

It is time to lay down our quest for identity,

for you know our true name.

It is time to lay down our alienation,

for you reach across all barriers to find us.

Easier said than done.