Leaving the Vineyard
An evangelical congregation splits over gay rights.
From the December, 2015 issue
Ken Wilson founded what is now the Ann Arbor Vineyard Church in 1975, when half a dozen people gathered in the living room of his home on Walnut St. By 2008, the charismatic evangelical pastor was preaching to 750 people in a onetime roller rink on Platt Rd.
Last year, he left the congregation. Driving the split, Wilson says, was Vineyard USA's stand on LGBT rights: while lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals are welcome to attend its churches, they can't become formal members or be ordained as pastors, and Vineyard pastors cannot officiate at their weddings.
"What this really boils down to is exclusionary policies," says Wilson. "In the evangelical world you have to own the harm that the traditional policies have caused. It's easy to ignore until you're face to face with people.
"People can weigh in on the Internet and post their opinions. But they don't have to sit down with the two women who've formed a lifelong bond and are raising kids together. And they don't have to say: 'You can't be a member.'"
"I didn't know anything about homosexuality growing up in the Fifties and the Sixties," says Wilson. "My first experience as a pastor with people who were gay was they were conflicted about their sexuality and treated it as a temptation or an addiction.
"Then I started meeting gay people who were not conflicted. We started seeing people and hearing their stories, and once you hear the stories, you realize the biblical texts [condemning homosexuality] do not fit these people. The biblical writers were aiming at married men having sex with boys, slaves, and prostitutes: exploitative relationships."
So in 2012 Wilson began writing what became a ninety-page letter to his congregation, outlining his new understanding and explaining why he could no longer in good conscience observe the national church's strictures. "It was a pretty long letter, so many people didn't read it," he admits. "The majority of those who did seemed to appreciate the heart
and thought that went into it. Those who were gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender were very grateful. Those who wanted the church to be fully inclusive were also grateful.
"Some respectfully disagreed with my conclusions but gave me an 'A' for effort. And some who supported my conclusions were upset by the prospect of displeasing or upsetting loved ones who disagreed."
There was also a financial impact, though Wilson says "it's difficult to tell [how much], since this occurred after I lost my wife, who was also a beloved pastor. Since conservatives on this and other issues tend to be more generous financial contributors, there's always a disproportionate loss of income when a pastor leads in the direction I did--and we saw that too."
Two years ago, Wilson expanded his letter into a book, which caused a stir in evangelical circles nationwide.
"If you're in the evangelical orbit, and you write on this question and don't toe the party line," Wilson says, "you're going to create a firestorm."
When Vineyard USA reaffirmed its policy against gay members and pastors, Wilson left the church. "With the support of the board, we sent out an email to the congregation that we're planning on planting this new church," says Wilson.
They held an organizational meeting last December, and the first service was in early January at Genesis, the building on Packard shared by St. Clare of Assisi Episcopal Church and Temple Beth Emeth.
"I'm friends with James [Rhodenhiser, St. Clare's pastor]," explains Wilson. "I'd remarried Julia Huttar Bailey, who served as the worship director [at St. Clare's] for twenty-three years. [James] is the one who introduced us. When we knew we were going to be planting I sent him a text, and I heard back from him very quickly: 'Do you need a place to meet?'
"Finding a place to meet was the thing we were most concerned about," he continues. "There're not many open venues for starting a church in Ann Arbor. And it's pretty unusual for a congregation to rent out their facility at the same time as they're meeting." (The new church worships in the building's social hall.)
Former Vineyard pastor Emily Swan, a married lesbian, joined Wilson as co-pastor.
"We brought our single moms director, Penny Johnson," says Swan--and children's ministry director Diane Sonda, administrator Carolyn Kittle, and worship director Cassie Brabbs."
They don't have any ministries now, not even the popular single moms ministry. "We're trying to get the basic infrastructure up, trying to get Sunday morning working," says Wilson. "We'll eventually do some of those other things. Hopefully, we'll partner with St. Clare's and Temple Beth Emeth [to do them]."
When Wilson, Swan, and their congregation left the Vineyard, they joined the Blue Ocean Church.
"Blue Ocean is an emerging network of churches," Wilson explains. "The original churches were part of the Vineyard in the same way we were. There were about a half-dozen churches in the beginning: Cambridge, Massachusetts; Iowa City at the University of Iowa; lower Manhattan; Madison, Wisconsin. Some left for the same reasons--or were urged to leave."
Wilson says Blue Ocean "is all about connection. The blue ocean connects all the land masses. Nobody owns the blue ocean." Blue Ocean and the Vineyard differ on more than LGBT. "We're more focused on helping people from a secular background who have spiritual longings but are religiously averse to make a real connection with God."
"Our weekend attendance is about two hundred," Swan says. "We're trying not to grow, because we're trying to establish a church service and then grow a little more slowly and at our own pace. But we do have new people. Last week we had eleven new people show up."
Are any of the new folks LGBT? "We don't ask," Swan smiles.
[Originally published in December, 2015.]
On January 10, 2016, Don Bromley wrote:
I served as associate and then executive pastor with Ken from 1997-2011. It's disheartening to read this mischaracterization of what the Ann Arbor Vineyard did, and what the national movement is doing. Over a decade ago we (the Ann Arbor Vineyard) decided that we would not make issues of sexual morality (extramarital, premarital, or same-gender) an issue for membership, baptism, communion, or service in the church. Ken's statement in the interview that LGBT people could not become members is demonstrably false. The unfortunate church split was a result of Ken's attempt to withdraw the church from the Vineyard denomination without an open debate, discussion, or vote by the membership.
On January 9, 2019, Robert Kight wrote:
The Vineyard USA made their policy very clear. The Ann Arbor Vineyard is free to behave differently and not make sexuality an issue for either membership or leadership. I am distressed at the split and would have preferred the Ann Arbor Vineyard had managed to find the clearness to avoid it. Nothing said by Mr. Wilson in the article sounded derogatory to the Ann Arbor Vineyard. There is certainly nothing "demonstrably false." Rather, he had to follow his convictions and leave the denomination that he could no longer find unity with. So, either the entire congregation would leave the denomination with him or he would leave the congregation. I wish both congregations the best as they continue to follow the Light of Christ.
On May 16, 2019, Don Bromley wrote:
Robert, my comment was that Ken Wilson statement that "LGBT people could not become members" is demonstrably false. I was the executive pastor of this church at the time, so I am know of what I speak. I have the church membership materials from that time if you'd like a copy.
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