Have Faith: Open and affirming

The Federated Church unanimously approves the terms “open and affirming” church.


The Federated Church in Edgartown has some news to share. Last week I received a press release from the congregation, letting us know that they voted unanimously to become an Open and Affirming church, “embracing a welcoming covenant.” To get there, the whole congregation worked together, a monthslong process, and came to this conclusion. 

We take for granted sometimes our positions or thoughts on inclusiveness, preferring to just assume that of course, we’re welcoming people: “I am a welcoming person.” But what the Federated Church did was take time to discuss, ask questions, and learn about what it means to be truly welcoming. The process included Bible study, a panel discussion, testimonies, book reviews, articles, a movie review, surveys, and group meetings. Karen Meeks headed up the task force in charge of the process, and she said the church has always been welcoming, but that “affirming” means they embrace each and every person as they are as a whole person, no matter their sexuality, family structure, race, financial background, or anything else that we tend to use to separate us. Instead, Meeks said, the congregation wants to be “a place where everyone can come to be loved and supported for who they are,” which sounds like a very Christian thing to do. 

I’ve met the Federated Church pastor, the Rev. Dr. Mark Winters, before, and I have to say the first impression is what you see is what you get. And I like that. I sent him a few email questions about the church’s process, because he’d gone away last week to visit family in Michigan. He got right back to me, which I always appreciate. I asked him why this decision is important to the congregation, and how it is important to him as leader of the congregation. 

The answer to this is probably as broad as the range of opinions in the congregation, but generally, to me, it’s affirming something that has already been true about [the] Federated Church — we are a welcoming community; we just needed to clarify some of our language, and be explicit that Federated is a safe and welcoming congregation for LGBTQ individuals and families,” Winters wrote to me. 

We have seen individuals take down rainbow flags at places of worship, so we know that not everyone is onboard with this philosophy. Even if a church or the Hebrew Center or any other place of worship declares their place as open and affirming, there likely will always be folks on the opposite end of that pronouncement. Part of being a spiritual person, in my book anyway, is that you meet people where they are. You don’t have to agree with them, but you do have to respect each person you meet — even when it’s the last thing you want to do. 

Winters wasn’t surprised that the Federated Church embraced this new initiative; he explained that a previous pastor, the Rev. Gerry Fritz, and the parish council at the time, in the mid-2010s, worked on a similar initiative. 

“I suppose the journey began when marriage equality passed in Massachusetts. My predecessor, Gerry Fritz, and the church council at the time agreed to perform and host weddings for same-sex couples,” Winters wrote in his email. “The process for this official designation, however, began with a conversation at council last fall, when they created a task force to help the congregation through our discernment.”

That task force included Karen Meeks and also Jim Butterick, among others. Having a devoted group of parishioners who step up when it comes time to study and implement something was likely core to the success of the announcement. 

I think it’s really brought our church together through the conversations we’ve had,” Meeks says. “There are people who have been very vulnerable, and I feel like this has made us even more of a family then we were before. Hard questions often make for better understanding and room for a closeness to develop. Going forward, we will continue to have periodic meetings about what it means to be open and affirming, and to support people. We’re very excited about the opportunity.”

One thing that she made clear to me was that the statement that the church is open and affirming is “a loving Christian statement, not a political statement.” Jim Butterick, also on the task force, and a longtime member of the Federated Church, explained that it was time for the congregation to make the announcement. 

The world has changed, and our country has changed since 2016,” Butterick said, mentioning that it became acceptable to say nasty things about other people — making the decision to be Open and Affirming even more important today. The Federated Church worked with the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury along the way, with support from the parish administrator there, Molly Conole, and the pastor, the Rev. Cathlin Baker. I asked Jim if they were worried about losing members, and he said, “Cathlin Baker said, ‘You may lose some, but you’ll gain more when you have those colors,’ and I believe that.”

The church will add signage outdoors, and they’ll wear pins that feature the Christian fish symbol and incorporate rainbow colors in the design. Butterick says that what brought the decision home for him was when a visiting pastor filled in back in January, and during the announcements at the service, told the congregation, “This is an important thing you are doing. People who are LGBTQ need to know that it’s safe for them here, and you need to say this.”

There are other places of worship around the Island that have made similar announcements, and it sounds like it’s still something that needs to be done formally, so I applaud the Federated Church’s efforts to become open and affirming. Seems like a place of worship should be a safe space for all people.