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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Patricia Long, November 14, 1996. Interview G-0215. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Process through which Pullen Baptist Church decided to allow holy union

Long describes the process through which Pullen Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, decided to sanction holy unions between gay and lesbian couples. Because Long was a member of the church's board, she is able to offer an insider perspective on the process. Long stresses the leadership role of Mahan Siler and she explains how the board went through the process of exploring the issue of holy union in relationship to church doctrine. She concludes by describing what happened when the board put the plan they devised out for the congregation to vote upon. Ultimately, the resolution to allow holy unions passed by approximately two-thirds of the congregation in favor.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Patricia Long, November 14, 1996. Interview G-0215. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Well, we're kind of on the subject now of the gay union and the process that Pullen went through before it came to that vote. Could you outline the steps that the church took?
Yeah. Kevin and Steven went to Mahan and asked him if he would be willing to officiate at a blessing of their commitment to each other. That took place in September of '92. Excuse me, '91. Mahan had been involved with the Raleigh Religious Network for some time and in that context, had discussed the issue of holy unions because our friend Jim Lewis had performed holy unions at his parish in West Virginia back in the late seventies and had had considerable fallout from that decision. But that was a decision that he took personally that his church wasn't involved in making. In the course of those discussions, particularly on Long Retreat that RRNGLE had down at Shalom Place at Topsail Island, the house that Mahan has used as a retreat center for fifteen years, we talked about holy unions and ramifications and authority within denominations and what kind of repercussions one might expect, and Mahan had expressed his willingness to perform such a service if he were asked, but this was the first time somebody actually had asked. What he did was, he spent about a month, well, a little more than a month—he had three sessions with Kevin and Steven to talk to them about what their intentions were and why they wanted to do this, and were they prepared for possible consequences and that sort of thing. And what you might call marriage counseling, sort of built in—I guess we need another word for it—committed relationship counseling. Marriage tends to sort of send up a red flag for folks. And then he spent some time on his own being clear about what he believed was the appropriate response and why. And actually he put this in writing, he put out six or seven steps that he had gone through in his own understanding of homosexuality and of sexuality in general, and God's intention for human life and so forth. The steps that he had gone through to come to a point where he believed it was appropriate to respond positively to Kevin and Steven. He put this in a letter to the Board of Deacons. Which, I had been elected to the Board the year after I came out to the Board, which is another commentary on Pullen. He presented it to the Board, it was the last item on the agenda in the November meeting. He presented it to us in letter form, he asked—he passed it out, asked us to read it, asked us not to respond immediately, and asked that we spend at least a month in discussion and prayer, and reflection before we made any decision at all. This is what folks on the Board referred to as "The Jolt." But the response after we read it was that he and Jim Powell who's chair of the Board, asked each of us in turn to tell them what information, or what resources we would need to be able to make a decision on this issue, rather than "What's your position", but what kind of help do you need? So we did that. We also called a meeting for two weeks after that that was on this issue only. And that was one of the most remarkable meetings I've ever lived through. Every one of the deacons had spent a lot of time, a lot of soul searching, trying to figure out how to respond, and from what point of view. And everybody came at it from a different angle. But since I was the only gay person on the board, or the openly gay person, I was kind of the focus of what people had to say. We agreed at the meeting that Mahan should follow his conscience in terms of his own participation. We agreed that the decision on whether this should be part of the church ministry, and the symbol of that being whether you can use the church building for it, should be made by the congregation. In a subsequent meeting, in the regular December meeting two more weeks from then, we took votes on the issue divided up into four pieces so that it would be clear where we agreed and where we didn't. We were unanimous about Mahan's—the appropriateness of him following his conscience. We were unanimous about the congregation's decision. There was a split vote, 14-5, about recommedning that the service be part of the church's ministry and about recommending that the building be used for such services. A couple of days after that meeting, forgive me, back up—a couple of days after the mid-November meeting, five of us had been appointed as a committee to try to plan a process. So we sat down and went through all the options, appreciating the fact that we had gotten the issue presented to us in a safe environment with some respect and confidentiality built in. We wanted to be able to present it to the congregation in a similar way, but there was no way to get everybody together at once, and it would be hard to do it in little pieces without its beginning to be spread by rumor rather than facts, so the best we could come up with—especially with Christmas right ahead—was to send out a letter to the congregation similar to the one we'd received, but with some additional stuff from the deacons. Then plan a whole series of small group meetings, of opportunities for people to get together and talk. We ended up scheduling like fifteen meetings. Some of them were morning, some of them were at church, some of them were in people's homes. We had some at outlying communities where you have a lot of members. Some were night for folks who work and some were in the daytime for people who don't drive at night and that sort of thing. We tried to create enough opportunities so that no matter what your schedule is you could attend at least one. And people were invited to attend as many as they wanted to. We had two deacons at each of those meetings, and we tried to have somebody from Open Forum—actually it was suggested that we have someone who had been a participant in Open Forum at each one just for information purposes because we'd gone through a lot of study together, dealt with a lot of different issues. And that was a group that was about half gay and half straight, so it wasn't just a matter of having a gay person at each meeting but having someone with that background. So those meetings went on. The trouble is that somebody took the letter directly to the newspaper, the day it went out. It was in the newspaper on Friday before some folks had even gotten their letters. And before the first meeting which we'd planned for Sunday. So immediately it took on this sort of life of its own in the public. And it was all this debate and letters to the editor, and all the Baptist stuff got whipped up before we even got a chance to consider, much less make a decision. That was really a crazy time. For four months straight we were in the newspaper all the time. The church got hundreds of calls and letters. Some of them were very reasonable but very concerned. Some of them were just nasty. Some of them were extremely supportive. We have collections of them at church. There's one whole notebook of positive letters and one of negative letters. They kept a log in the office, I feel for the secretaries, because they had to field a lot of stuff during that time. The difficulty was that we had an internal process that was fairly reasonable and allowed a lot of opportunity for exchange. But this external stuff going on kind of superimposed itself. Kids were being teased on the schoolbus, people were having to defend the whole issue at their workplace even before we made a decision. Whether or not they agreed with it. We had about a third of the congregation who did not agree with it, with the holy union piece. Now, it was almost unanimous that we agreed that gay and lesbian persons would be accepted in full membership. That was never in question. But the offering services to bless couples was the piece on which about a third of the congregation did not agree.