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Rev. Emily C. Heath Headshot

The Religious Right (Side of History)

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For Christians in the mainline Protestant denominations, this has been an interesting summer. First, the Presbyterian Church (USA) rejected an amendment that would have opened the church up to blessing same-sex marriages. Then, less than a week later, the Episcopal Church approved a new liturgy to bless same-sex unions and also affirmed the ministry of transgender clergy.

For the rest of us mainline folks (members of the United Church of Christ, United Methodists, Lutherans, Disciples and others) it has been both fascinating and heart-wrenching to watch. Regardless of the outcome, the emotion has been clear. After the PCUSA vote, youth cried on the floor of the General Assembly. The day after the the Episcopal vote, one diocese walked out.

Many speculate that some mainline denominations may be headed for an ideological schism. The narrow margin of the Presbyterian decision -- just 30 votes -- is one indication of just how split that denomination is on major issues of inclusion and biblical interpretation. Other denominations face similar quandaries. It's clear that mainline Christians of all stripes are at a watershed.

It helps to remember that we have been here before, and more than once.

I was ordained in the PCUSA (before having my own departure over LGBT inclusion and becoming UCC). I was always struck by the fact that the denomination had split in two during the Civil War over slavery. The same happened in many of the other major churches of the day. For some, the split was temporary. Methodists rejoined one another in 1939. It took the Presbyterians until 1983. Some never reunited. (Which is one reason the North is filled with American Baptist congregations, while Southern Baptists prevail in the South.)

You would think American mainliners would have learned their lesson, but they didn't. Further splits occurred over the ordination of women, desegregation, biblical inerrancy and more. And now, the splits are coming over LGBT inclusion.

We've known this for years. One of the reasons LGBT inclusion has not yet occurred is that we are so afraid of what a schism will mean. We want to preserve the body of Christ, because that is what we are called to do. But, if we are honest, we also want to remain relevant. Relevance is the catch-phrase in the shrinking church, and a denomination half its size is seen as even more irrelevant.

Except, here's the rub: size does not determine relevance. Doing the right thing does.

When I was in the PCUSA I often heard straight allies decline to push harder for LGBT rights for fear it would "split the church." No one wanted that, but the reality was that the church was already splitting. LGBT people, and their families and friends, were walking out the door. This was true of many churches, and the irony was that each time they failed to do the right thing, the prophetic thing, for fear of losing relevance, they lost it even more.

When Jesus told his disciples to go out two by two, he gave them clear instructions: Preach a prophetic truth. If you are rejected, if your message is not heard, move on. Shake the dust from your feet and keep moving.

I don't think Jesus was telling his disciples to not care about the people who rejected them. I don't think he was saying "give up hope that they will change their minds." I think he was saying this: Sometimes you won't get everyone one board, but the train has to keep moving forward. Otherwise it will derail.

We talk a lot about the power of the religious right to negatively influence the fate of LGBT civil rights, but we are talking about the wrong religious right there. What LGBT people need now is not more of the religious right. We need more religious and on the right side of history. We need more Christians ready to stand up for the right thing no matter what, even if it means some won't follow them. We need religious folks ready to shake the dust of fear and rejection off their feet and follow Jesus anyway. People who are willing to take the big risks their faith demands no matter the cost.

This will not be the last issue to divide the church. Give it 30 or 40 years and something else will come along. By that point the country as a whole will have evolved and moved on and non-inclusion of LGBT people will be an embarrassing chapter in our history, just like all the others through the years. My hope is the mainline church will be re-united by then, but history tells us it may well not be.

That's OK. Because the mark of faithfulness is not found in our membership numbers. It's not found in a commitment to an non-controversial faith that never makes anyone uncomfortable. It's found in how well we follow Christ, who taught us to love one another and work for justice. The only fate worse than schism for the church is being lukewarm when it comes to issues of justice. Jesus never accepted us being lukewarm. For those of us who want to be standing on the religious right side of history, that's a good reminder.