July 16, 1999
When the 1984 United Methodist General Conference instituted a ban on the ordination of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals," some gays and lesbians in the church sought a way to instill a more welcoming spirit.
Mark Bowman was one of the founders of a United Methodist-related movement aimed at focusing local congregations on the inclusion of all people within the church. He and other members of Affirmation, an unofficial caucus, used the "More Light" program started by Presbyterians in 1978 as a model.
"We had no idea if the church would even respond," he said.
But within a month after the 1984 General Conference, Washington Square United Methodist Church in New York and Wesley United Methodist Church in Fresno, Calif., became the first members of the fledgling Reconciling Congregation Program. Members now include nearly 200 communities 155 churches plus other groups -- and 14,000 individuals.
After 15 years, Bowman is leaving his position as the program's executive director. He plans to take time off to relax and do part-time consultant work.
He will be recognized for his achievements during the group's annual convocation July 29-Aug. 1 at the University of North Texas in Denton.
From the outset, "we intended to offer a different kind of model for thechurch," he said. Instead of merely engaging in contentious debates over the divisiveissue of homosexuality, the Reconciling Congregation Program members believe that welcoming everyone into the church is a way of being faithful to the Gospel.
The 47-year-old Bowman who has two daughters, ages 24 and 21 has personal experience of feeling unwelcome in the church. A graduate of the Boston University Schoolof Theology, he was ordained a deacon in the East Ohio Conference but said he dropped out after an "inquisition-like" experience over his being gay.
Instead, he worked at Bread for the World from 1982-87, nurturing the reconciling movement along the way. For a time, the program's office was in his Washington home, until Bowman moved to Chicago in 1992 to open an office there.
One of the most significant changes over the years has been the active participation of heterosexuals in the movement.
"Back in the early '80s, with a few exceptions, most persons who spoke out were gay themselves," Bowman explained. Anyone else who acted as an advocate "took the risk of being labeled or accused of being gay or lesbian."
As heterosexuals have worshipped and formed communities with their gay and lesbian counterparts, they have realized "how much damage the church has inflicted onpeople's lives," he said. He considers the diversity of the supporters of Reconciling Congregations as one of its chief delights and strengths.
In Bowman's opinion, the recent furor over the issue of pastors performing same-sex union ceremonies is a "smoke screen" that deflects attention from the real problem of discrimination against gays and lesbians in the church. He also believes such ceremonies have been misrepresented. "It's become distorted into some kind of abuse of a Christian ritual," he explained.
Over the years, those active in the reconciling movement have learned that "this issue becomes real when it involves people." For the future, he said, the program is "looking at creative and dramatic ways of getting those stories out."