July 7, 2017
Looking for a place at the CBF table
To the editor:
Baptists from around the world gathered last week in Atlanta for the annual General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. It is a week of fellowship and business, of networking and community, of remembering and reflecting.
When I first went to seminary, I was struggling with my Baptist identity. I grew up in a tradition that says women can’t be pastors; a tradition that told me to conform in order to be included; a tradition that didn’t and wouldn’t respect or honor my call into ministry, much less my sexuality.
I discovered the CBF during my first year in seminary and felt welcomed in a Baptist context for the first time in my life. The CBF was why I stayed a Baptist at that point. They welcomed me for who I am; they affirmed my calling, and the calling of so many other women. At long last, I had found a faith home that embraced and affirmed who I was.
Or so I thought.
Then I found out about the CBF’s anti-LGBT inclusion policy — a policy that discriminates against and excludes LGBT individuals, a policy that states that CBF will not hire a “practicing homosexual,” a policy that restricts funding to pro-LGBT missions projects.
And I have struggled to reconcile — or attempt to reconcile — the love and appreciation I felt for the CBF with my sexuality, not to mention how LGBT individuals (myself included) have been treated by the CBF.
LGBT inclusion in the church — as clergy, lay leaders, and field personnel — has become a topic of discussion and division in CBF life. Many churches are split on it, many are opposed to it, but a growing number of CBF Baptists — individually and corporately — are becoming, or have been, affirming.
At General Assembly last year, the CBF launched the Illumination Project — a committee to discern how to remain unified through cooperation with so many varying theological opinions. This installment of the Illumination Project is focused on LGBT inclusion — partially focused on the current policy.
Wednesday afternoon, I attended an unofficial and offsite workshop about LGBT inclusion in the church. In attendance were two members of the Illumination Project, which gave some hope that they’re actually listening to people who are LGBT or allies — until they walked out partway through.
On Thursday, I was present for a presentation by the Illumination Project in the morning business session. They talked about some of what they have done this past year and some of the next steps in their process. The presentation was disappointing and disheartening, to say the least. It highlighted the continuing discrimination that LGBT Christians have felt in the CBF. The presentation focused on “personas” of people they’ve interviewed this past year. These “personas” are stereotypes. They are perpetuating the dichotomy that LGBT Christians and allies hold a lower value of scripture than those who are non-affirming — which isn’t the case at all. While many people do fall into those stereotypes, broadly that isn’t the case. While the Illumination Project committee did state that they were still developing “personas” and that they were likely to add more, thus far the “personas” have not been helpful in this discussion and has instead driven a wedge farther between non-affirming and affirming Christians.
The exclusion of an LGBT individual(s) on the Illumination Project ad hoc committee is just one example of how little the CBF actually cares about the feelings and well-being of LGBT people who are part of CBF churches. In many ways, the CBF is functioning as if LGBT people aren’t already in CBF churches, but rather treating LGBT inclusion as a hypothetical situation.
On Thursday evening, I sat in worship (in this case, I am referring to the musical aspect of worship, not the message that was delivered) and felt like an outcast. I felt unwelcome. I felt judged. I felt afraid.
Those feelings aren’t new. I’ve felt them for years, but that night I experienced a heightening of those feelings after hearing the Illumination Project’s presentation in the business session.
In the worship program that night, one of the songs highlighted how little the CBF really cares about LGBT individuals. First, the song contains a line about everyone having a place at the table. As we sang this song, I couldn’t help but think about how the LGBT community isn’t represented in the Illumination Project. We aren’t welcome at the table. There is no LGBT representation in the boardroom as the committee talks about LGBT inclusion. The Illumination Project has interviewed LGBT people (supposedly), but there is no continued input from an LGBT person in their process.
Second, the chorus talks about us being “creators of justice.” LGBT inclusion is a matter of social justice and social justice is at the core of Christianity. Jesus ministered to those on the margins. He lived and taught an ethic of love that was — and is — extremely radical and transforming, but Christianity (and the CBF) picks and chooses who they view as “marginalized” and who they will embrace and love as Christ did. If the CBF is going to claim to be advocates for justice, that means all justice. But if they aren’t going to promote social justice for all, they need to make that plain when they talk about justice. They can’t say that they are “creators of justice” when they aren’t creating justice for all marginalized groups — specifically the LGBT community. Not to say that CBF isn’t doing great justice work — such as economic justice and refugee advocacy — but they can’t claim to be doing justice broadly when they’re putting a limit on justice.
On Friday, I attended the workshop on the Illumination Project, which mostly involved those in the audience making statements or asking questions of the committee. After hearing how the previous day’s workshop had gone (where the conversation was dominated by the voices of un-affirming and straight people despite there being a large presence of LGBT people in the room who held up their hands to talk), I walked into that room expecting the worst. But the voices that spoke up on Friday were affirming and calling for an end to the discrimination toward LGBT people that the CBF policy has perpetrated for years.
I left the General Assembly with a heavy heart. CBF became my faith home when I most desperately needed one. The CBF church that I attended in Atlanta became my faith home, but when I started coming out, I no longer felt welcome.
For a faith network that was founded on fellowship and unity to feel unwelcoming and harmful to anyone on the margins shows that there is something wrong with how people are being treated within the CBF.
I don’t feel welcome or safe within the Fellowship. And the message coming from the denomination has been clear for years: LGBT people aren’t welcome at the table.
But the time for change is now. LGBT Christians have been a part of CBF since the beginning and we should not be discriminated against because of how God created us to be.
If the CBF is sincere about having this conversation and desires unity among the Fellowship, LGBT Christians within the Fellowship deserve an equal place at the table.
If the CBF truly believes that everyone has a place at the table, they need to demonstrate that belief.
For everyone born, a place at the table.
Haley Cawthon, St. Petersburg, Fla.
The writer is formations minister at Redeeming Church in St. Petersburg, Fla.