The Wilton Congregational Church has a long history. Founded in 1726, eight years before the birth of George Washington, the present church building was constructed in 1790 and is one of the oldest in Connecticut.
But while the church may be old, the congregation has embraced a new philosophy by voting on May 19 to become an Open and Affirming church.
As part of the United Church of Christ (UCC), the Open and Affirming designation (ONA) is adopted voluntarily by congregations that wish to make a public covenant to welcome persons of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions.
“I always believed Wilton Congregational Church was welcoming, but the congregation took the welcoming spirit to another level by declaring itself an ‘Open and Affirming’ church,” said the Rev. Dr. Anne Coffman, the church’s senior minister.
The ONA covenant adopted by the Wilton congregation on May 19 reads:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)
“Wilton Congregational Church is an Open and Affirming congregation that actively expresses Jesus’ inclusive embrace of all people. We welcome into full membership, employment, and ministry persons of every race, ethnicity, nationality, age, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability, economic circumstance, family configuration, marital status, and faith background. We believe that God is still speaking and faithfully commit ourselves to the ongoing work of making God’s unconditional love a reality in this congregation, and in the world.”
The UCC is an association of more than 5,000 churches, including Wilton Congregational Church, which has approximately 600 members.
In 1985, a UCC council meeting — called a General Synod — was held in Ames, Iowa. The Synod adopted a resolution encouraging UCC congregations to adopt an ONA covenant, welcoming gay, lesbian, and bisexual members. A later General Synod added transgender members.
The resolution is not mandated on congregations, and is voluntary. New York City’s Riverside Church was the first in the UCC to be listed as Open and Affirming, and the movement has spread over time. As of 2017, more than 1,400 congregations have adopted ONA covenants.
The ONA adoption process at Wilton Congregational Church took about a year and a half. “We realized we needed to be specific about what ‘Open and Affirming’ was and allow people to talk about their children, LGBTQ, and people with disabilities,” Coffman said.
A task force of eight congregants was formed and headed by businessman Rob Eason. Realizing human sexuality was a sensitive topic, the group set out to educate members and listen to their concerns. “We talked about it for a long time and the process brought people together,” Eason said.
The church held discussions about homosexuality and sexual identity. An outside minister provided cultural context about Bible passages that discuss homosexuality. “This enabled many people to learn about the different aspects of gender, sexual identity and expression,” Eason said.
A survey was also sent to members to get their input and feelings. “It was important to make this a period where people could share their ideas and questions without being judged,” Eason said.
Finally, on May 19, the issue went to a vote, and the congregation unanimously voted to become Open and Affirming.
The bottom-line message, Coffman said, is, “No matter who you are and where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome at the Wilton Congregational Church. We’ve been here for 300 years and hope to be here for 300 more.”