Rosalie Sugrue wrote this illustration for a sermon she preached in England. She is a lay preacher from Aotearoa / New Zealand and the church she cites in the story was one that she attended in Hokitika where she and her husband were moteliers. They stumbled into it because the service was at eleven and they could not attend worship at 10:00 because it was check-out time. She is remembering to the mid 1990’s to give cultural context …
Once, a certain church fell on hard times. Long had it been a loyal witness in the valley but modern life-styles had stripped it of its Bible Class, Sunday School, Boys Brigade, study groups, and tennis club. Only the Women’s Fellowship and the indoor bowls group survived. No more than ten persons regularly attended worship.
It so happened that the national church, after due consideration decided it could no longer provide a presbyter (minister) for this church. Members of the regional judicatory that had oversight of seven congregations, murmured among themselves that the Valley Church was a financial burden they could well do without.
Now, a certain young man, who was gay and an ex-Baptist minister, happened to be completing a doctorate at the nearby university and he heard how this small group of parishioners cared for each other and he offered to give part-time ministry to the Valley Church.
He proved to be a presbyter of exceptional talent in all areas of ministry – preaching, teaching, pastoral care, music, and administration. The young man preached ‘unconditional love’ and meant it. The marginalized heard of his teaching and came to sample it. The ‘different’ found succor and the alienated found a family. Those whose marital status was unconventional discovered a warm welcome. Women who had experienced church as second-class citizens were liberated from patriarchal attitudes. Maori found equal partner status in the bi-cultural journey. Students discovered a stimulating depth in his words that excited them.
The building was altered to provide easy access for the disabled. An attractive lounge was added as a sunny gathering place. The pulpit was lowered and the Communion rail removed. The barrier free sanctuary encompassed the nave prompting dialogue during the services – sermons were debated, stories shared, and lives changed.
The original elderly congregation was delighted. They loved their young pastor and the people he attracted. The time came when the congregation saw fit to declare itself A Reconciling Congregation meaning, they truly welcomed all people regardless of gender, race, religion, disability, or sexual orientation. An inclusive congregation was born and named. However, some members of other churches within the judicatory objected to the name the Valley Church claimed and to the young man who had brought about the changes. He was pressured to leave. The Valley Church retained its declaration but other part-time ministers did not have the skills and charisma of the young man and membership declined.
Who was a neighbor to the Valley Church – the national church, the regional judicatory, or the queer minister?