What to Expect After the Supreme Court Rules on Gay Marriage: An Interview with AWAB’s Rev. Robin Lunn

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What to Expect after the Supreme Court Rules on Gay Marriage: An interview with AWAB’s Rev. Robin Lunn

By Mike Greer (June 8, 2015)

Rev. Robin Lunn, the Executive Director of the Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists (AWAB), has announced that she will be stepping down from her position on June 30. Under her leadership AWAB has grown to one hundred member churches that come from the American Baptist, Alliance of Baptist, Cooperative Baptist, and National Baptist traditions. Rev. Lunn and her wife Shayna, who is also a minister, reside in New Hampshire.

I recently had this conversation with Rev. Lunn about what to expect after the anticipated ruling on gay marriage by SCOTUS this month.

What are your thoughts about the biggest challenges facing organizations like AWAB in the near future?

For the last ten years much of the Welcoming Movement within the religious community hitched its wagon to the rights-based marriage equality movement. This has been necessary, to a large degree, because funders have wanted a win on this issue. And while AWAB has been supportive of this agenda, our focus has always been about seeking to live out a gospel imperative of full inclusion within the Christian community. For us it’s not so much about banging away at policy. It’s about hearts and minds all the time.

As the SCOTUS ruling approaches, and we all know what’s going to come down, the dynamics of funding are changing. Small donors, that many organizations like ours depend on, are saying that soon everybody is going to be able to get married and that their $25 or $50 is no longer needed. The big money donors, who have funded the larger movement-building process, have become much more transactional in their expectations and have turned their interests toward building a results-oriented movement in the evangelical community. This makes raising funds particularly difficult in the Baptist context where our organization focuses on building relationships and doesn’t dictate what happens in the local church.

The church in America is in a profound period of transition and there’s no way to predict what the iterations of this sea change are going to look like as we move forward. The Welcoming Movement will certainly need to look at its own lifecycle issues. AWAB must be ready to morph into something new. We will need to find new ways to be a part of the mission to create open communities of love, grace, compassion, inclusion, and hope. If we do this we will inspire funders both large and small.

What are your thoughts about the Religious Freedom debates and the recent events in Indiana that seemed to take everyone by surprise?

Although we do not always choose to live it out, we Baptists have in our DNA a particular capacity to dialogue about our differences without demanding conformity. I have recently had conversations with fellow Baptists about whether it is important to go after the baker, the florist, or the pizza guy. I understand the importance of legislation, but I also understand that there are times to be gracious, to let people have their convictions, and to stand alongside of them and weep together about our common brokenness as opposed to saying “I am going to sue you.” I think organizations like AWAB help make space for relationship-based changes. There will always be a need for a religious voice that is focused on hearts and minds and not just on legislative and judicial outcomes.

I have heard you say that the expected SCOTUS ruling will have some unintended adverse effects on the LGBTQ community. What do you mean by that?

My wife and I live in New England where we have had civil union laws for fifteen years and gay marriage has been in place for ten years. We enjoy all sorts of rights and privileges and that’s wonderful. Those of us who are economically privileged and have access to marriage are now assimilated members of the hetero-normative class.  My fear is that as we celebrate the successful assimilation of some we will ignore those who can’t or don’t want to conform to this assimilation model for whatever reason. We forget that assimilation has its price too. I believe we will continue to see more queer identified kids on the street and more LGBTQ youth suicides. These realities are already epidemic in America and my fear is that we, the assimilated gay and lesbian class, will stop working for those who will need our help to survive.

The diehard hardline opponents of gay marriage have indicated that if SCOTUS rules in favor of gay marriage they plan to implement a strategy of abrogation that systematically eats away at LGBTQ rights, just as they did with abortion rights after Roe v. Wade. What does this portend for LGBTQ community?

What is different now is that there is at least one powerful force that will effectively counter all attempts to employ that post-Roe v. Wade strategy. There are a lot of very wealthy white gay men who are Republicans for fiscal reasons. They will use their influence in the business community to quash the agenda of eating away at gay rights. The RFRA bills are the opening salvo of this strategy and the immediate pushback by the business community demonstrates how rapidly this society is changing its mind in favor of LGBTQ equality.

I believe that these threats from the right are the last gasps of a boomer generation that has, up until recently, been in a dualistic struggle over the so-called “moral agenda.” My observation is that the rising Millennial generation is extremely fluid about all things. They live in a mindset of no boxes. They are the “AND” generation. They don’t live on a flat plane of dualities like we Boomers do. For them, rights are rights, and equal rights for all is a given. They will have no interest in any future attempts to disenfranchise the LGBTQ community.

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What do Southern Baptists Have in Common with the LGBTQ Community?

Southern Baptists are often heard bragging about their numerical size as “the largest group of protestants in America” even though they are quite anxious these days about the seemingly irreversible reality of their numerical decline.

It may be impossible to arrive at a completely reliable accounting of how many Southern Baptists reside in America. The statistics gleaned from the most recent Annual Report of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) are helpful but they do not tell the whole story. That report may, however, hint at a steeper rate of decline than that which Southern Baptists are presently admitting. There perhaps is no intention to mislead in this annual report but there most likely are nowhere near 15.7 million Southern Baptists in America.

Ask any Southern Baptist pastor about their church membership roll and he (ordained women are verboten) will tell you that many listed on that roll that are no longer associated with their congregation. Usually he will reluctantly tell you, if you press, that perhaps only about half of the people on the church roll are considered to be currently classified as active members of their congregation. For this reason most Baptist churches have formal membership classifications of “active” and “inactive.”

Southern Baptists are loathe to remove names from their church membership rolls. They rarely clean up or purge their rolls for fear of angering their local community. The attempt to do so also typically results in an internal church conflict over the question of qualifications for church membership.

The typical SBC church roll lists names of people that cannot be located. It has names of people who have moved and left no forwarding address. Sometimes the names of congregants are duplicated on the rolls of other Baptist churches where they formerly were members. Sometimes the rolls contain names of people who have joined another denomination. Many listed on church rolls have dropped out of the institutional church altogether. On some rare occasions, either by neglect or because of a lack of information, the roll contains names of members who are deceased

For these reasons the 5.8 million weekly average attendance statistic in the annual report is an important indicator in determining a reasonable membership figure. It should be noted that not all active members attend regularly and that the collective attending membership rarely gathers together on any given Sunday. Even taking into account those members who are not able to attend for reasons such as physical infirmity, this statistic is an important indicator that informs a sincere effort to identify a reliable membership total. It should also be noted that some Southern Baptist congregations do not submit an annual report and this adds to the uncertainty over accurate statistics.

Taking all of these factors into consideration, I would suggest that a fair and somewhat generous estimate would be that there are 9-10 million Southern Baptists in America. This must be qualified by the admission that there is little available research that would allow for a complete resolution of the question of a reliable Southern Baptist census.

So what do Southern Baptists and the LGBT community in America have in common? The percentage of people who identify as LGBT in this society is most likely about the same as the percentage of practicing Southern Baptists in America. The percentages of both are somewhere in the 3-5% of the national population range.

The undeniable reality of numerical decline is forcing Southern Baptists to begin to think of themselves as a minority. For many Southern Baptists this requires adopting a new and foreign mindset. Last year, Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s public policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, candidly stated that “Southern Baptists can no longer pretend to be the moral majority and should instead seek to be a “prophetic minority.”

Some Southern Baptists are focused on the cause(s) for their decline. Most are publically attributing their dilemma to a loss of passion for evangelism. Few are willing to entertain the notion that their decline is a consequence of Southern Baptists’ internecine conflicts that led to a formal schism. Some cautiously attribute numerical decline to the SBC’s aggressive involvement in the prevailing culture wars and society’s subsequent association of Baptists with intolerance. Some see these declines as early warning signs of a coming persecution. Many Southern Baptists merely shrug this reality off and comfort themselves by saying that this period of decline is sadly a common experience for all mainline denominations.

Meanwhile, SBC leaders have been busy building political coalitions with other socially conservative elements within the Mormon and Roman Catholic communities. These alliances will, they hope, mitigate the effects of cultural marginalization that will likely diminish Southern Baptists’ political and religious influence in the new American social landscape. In the meantime, it would be best if they would be honest about their numbers when they are tempted to throw their political weight around.

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When the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Lost its Prophetic Voice

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In my soon-to-be 67 years on this earth I have struggled to comprehend the numerous seachanges that have occurred in Baptist life in America. I have witnessed firsthand many of the critical events that have led to our current Baptist dilemma. I have met and known many of the Baptists who have shaped our national and international identity. Sometimes I feel like a Baptist version of Forest Gump. A couple of my memories stand out, even today. Please indulge this old man as I take a brief journey down memory lane. In 1990 I traveled with a small group of South Carolina Baptist pastors to meet with Daniel Vestal at his church in Atlanta where he talked about the impending formation of the CBF (Cooperative Baptist Fellowship). In those days I was pastoring a traditional Southern Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C., that in a short time would ordain its first…

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When the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Lost its Prophetic Voice

In my soon-to-be 67 years on this earth I have struggled to comprehend the numerous seachanges that have occurred in Baptist life in America. I have witnessed firsthand many of the critical events that have led to our current Baptist dilemma. I have met and known many of the Baptists who have shaped our national and international identity. Sometimes I feel like a Baptist version of Forest Gump. A couple of my memories stand out, even today. Please indulge this old man as I take a brief journey down memory lane.

In 1990 I traveled with a small group of South Carolina Baptist pastors to meet with Daniel Vestal at his church in Atlanta where he talked about the impending formation of the CBF (Cooperative Baptist Fellowship). In those days I was pastoring a traditional Southern Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C., that in a short time would ordain its first woman to the gospel ministry and that would eventually also ordain its first group of women to the deaconate. It would soon after also admit its first African American member. Those were days of great anticipation and I hoped, in good time, to lead our congregation to become a more progressive fellowship in other matters as well.

A turning point in my hopefulness that still stands out vividly in my memory was the 2001 general assembly of the CBF in Atlanta. By then I was pastoring a CBF-affiliated congregation in Kentucky. The great debate those days was over whether gays should be considered eligible for CBF institutional leadership and missionary placement and whether CBF funds could be granted to affiliated organizations that condoned, advocated or affirmed anything other than a heterosexual lifestyle.

There was a great deal of fear in those days in the CBF regarding the issue of homosexuality. The CBF leadership rightly sensed a very real vulnerability regarding this issue and the newly ascended SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) hierchcy was always ready to accuse the fledgling CBF of being heretically liberal, grossly unbiblical, and openly supportive of sexual immorality. To the Fellowship’s credit there was a great deal of honest debate in the background and in the open about the inclusion of gays in the CBF’s structural vision. In the summer of 2001 as my wife and I headed to Atlanta I had a sense that the convocation there would be a bellwether event in the CBF’s history. And so it was. At least it was for me. There the issue of gay inclusion was first passionately debated in a well-attended break-out session. Then in a hurried and somewhat chaotic special business session on the final morning gathering, after a number of impassioned speeches and comments, as most good Baptists do, it was decided that the disagreement could only be resolved by taking a vote (there are many things Baptists believe can’t be prayed through and this was apparently one that couldn’t). Keith Parks spoke prior to the vote at the assembly. Keith was the ex-FMB (Foreign Mission Board) of the SBC executive director and the recently retired CBF global missions coordinator.  My wife and I had served as SBC appointed missionaries in the Middle East during Keith’s tenure at the FMB. I understood all of the pragmatic arguments about how homosexuality was viewed in many other cultures. Everyone present also understood the argument that this fragile organization called the CBF was still in its infancy and it would perhaps, if a progressive stance was taken, suffer irreparable damage by losing the critical financial and political support that the more conservative members and churches provided. CBF leaders were perhaps also correct in their assertion that the majority of CBF supporting churches were pretty much in line with mainstream Southern Baptists regarding homosexuality and that the open inclusion of gays in CBF Institutions and the forwarding of CBF funds to inclusive affiliates would result in the CBF’s immediate demise.   Today there still are very few CBF-affiliated churches that openly bless same-sex marriages or have a gay pastor. My own prediction is that this will change significantly over the next decade.

But now back to my story. After the business session and the approximately 60/40% vote in favor of effectively prohibiting CBF Institutions from hiring lesbians or gays was announced the assembly was reminded that the last item on the agenda for the assembly was communion. The  announcement that we would all join in communion at the close of the gathering came rather abruptly without any serious attempt to carefully transition from the announcement of the voting results to the invitation to participate in the Lord’s Supper. We were, it seems, unforgivably behind schedule. At that point I looked around and saw a number of couples and individuals weeping in various locations. Some hearts were obviously breaking.   I surmised at the time that some were most likely parents of gay children and some LGBTQ individuals who had hoped that the CBF would be liberal enough and prophetic enough to take a stand for the rights of all those LGBTQ members who had for decades been faithful to their Baptist churches. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the now discordant juxtaposition of the two programed events. The moment was surreal.  I looked at my wife and said, “I cannot participate in communion after such a display of insensitivity to the pain in this room. This supper is no magical ritual that can be employed to heal the wounds just inflicted and the divide that exists, if that is the intention.” And so my wife and I left and walked out into the streets of Atlanta and began our solitary trek back to our hotel. We left without taking communion. In my heart I also left the CBF that day and have remained an outsider, a Baptist without a larger Baptist community to call my home.

When I returned home from Atlanta I did not press my congregation to disconnect from the CBF and it is still CBF affiliated today. That church had gay members who still feel fully included in the congregation’s life. My current home congregation is solely affiliated with the CBF and my pastor has publically taken a stance for gay rights and I am extremely proud of him.  He is way ahead of the curve on this matter. My Baptist church has no exclusionary policies like those adopted by the CBF some fifteen years ago. I am not gay. I have no immediate family members who are gay. Throughout my life I have had many close friends who were gay and I have pastored many church members who were gay. Jesus has taught me that everybody has basic human rights and that heterosexuals are not the only ones who enjoy a deep personal relationship with him.

Now the fascinating reality is that the hyper-accelerated culture we live in is swiftly passing us all by. This is true for Southern Baptists and for Cooperative Baptists. All I can say is Hallelujah! This is the remarkable nature of our age. It used to be that we could say that the next generation will have to apologize for our sins because cultural and religious change will always come slowly and stubbornly. No longer is this so. Perhaps it will never be so again. Our children and our grandchildren will not be able to repent or apologize for us. That will be far too late. I like to think that I am not a bitter man. I am a grieving man. In my life I have watched with a sense of helplessness as the marvelously inclusive institutions of Southern Baptists were turned into instruments of exclusion. Legalism replaced grace in word, creed, and in deed. In a few brief decades a carefully cultivated respect for differences was overwhelmed by intolerance. Closed-mindedness became routine and the scriptures became a tool to do violence to gentle and loving souls. I also grieve that the CBF could not be a sheltering home for me and for many others who had hoped that it would be so for them as well.

Today I identify with no organized Baptist entity outside of my wonderfully inclusive local congregation, although I greatly admire the Alliance of Baptists and AWAB and have found them to be a remarkably prophetic Baptist forces for justice and equality. But these organizations barely have a foothold here in Kentucky. I hope their numbers and their presence here will increase. In the meantime I just hold on to Jesus and to the souls around me who value people more than they do institutions, doctrines, power, money and careers. I pray for all the souls around the globe who have been told that they will never be welcome in the Kingdom of God on earth. Although I grieve I do not have pity for myself. I know that I will not have a right to be comfortable at the Lord’s Table until my LGBTQ brothers and sisters are openly welcomed by all Baptists to sit at that table as well. I know that day is inevitable and I hope that I live long enough to see it.

I still have hope for the CBF. I hope that one day soon, while there is yet time,  the CBF will rescind its official policies that prohibit the full inclusion of LGBTQ Baptists in its corporate and ecclesial structures and apologize for the wrong it has done to them. Whether that apology is accepted or not would of course be up to the community of LGBTQ Baptists that have suffered from the discriminatory stance of the CBF. I do hope to one day soon attend another general assembly business session and communion service that openly affirms and celebrates the equal participation of LGBTQ Baptists in the CBF experiment. I am hopeful that the Fellowship and her affiliated congregations will one day soon display the courage necessary to be found on the right side of history, on the right side of human rights, and more importantly, on the right side of the gospel of Jesus. _______________

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