by Reverend Rebecca Bryan
“While worship is our collective act of celebration, affirmation, challenge, and inspiration, it does not ask of us what attending an annual meeting does. Experiencing our worship without participating in the community’s decision making is to comprehend our faith superficially.” These words nearly flew off the page when I read them. “Experiencing our worship without participating in the community’s decision making is to comprehend our faith superficially.”
Had my colleague Reverend Parisa Parsa been a fly on the wall at our annual meeting two weeks ago? I knew of her as a gifted mediator and facilitator and as the Executive Director of Essential Partners, a group from Cambridge, Massachusetts that helps groups and cities learn how to have difficult conversations across differences. She has since moved on from that position.
As an important aside, Essential Partners, the organization Reverend Parsa led, is facilitating our upcoming city-wide conversations about the possibility of renaming Nock Middle School, the hanging of the thin blue line flag on the Newburyport Police Station, and the possibility of changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I hope you will participate. You can find information in the Order of Service; you do need to register, and spaces are limited.
Our annual meeting this year was difficult, coming on the ends of the pandemic, and catching most if not all of us by surprise.
I am sorry.
I’ll recap it briefly for those of you who weren’t there. The Governance Committee had been working for two years on a proposal to revise the use of pronouns in our bylaws, moving from “he/she” to “they.” The Parish Board supported the recommendation unanimously, as did I. We were hoping to bring this proposal before the congregation at last year’s annual meeting; however, we choose to delay it in light of COVID, recognizing the challenges of holding our first virtual annual meeting. Instead, we included it in the warrant for this year’s meeting.
The proposal elicited questions, and I believe misunderstandings ensued. In hindsight, I think we made several unintentional missteps.
There was important conversation about this proposal that should have happened before the annual meeting, allowing for dialogue and shared discernment before bringing it to a vote.
The second misstep, and the most detrimental in my estimation, is that we conflated two issues, one concerning grammar and the other about gender identity.
The question about whether to change the pronouns in our bylaws is a grammatical question as, in every case, it refers to unknown people whose gender is also unknown. It is an inclusive word and refers to all people. The bylaws are not specifying a specific person, as in Rev. Rebecca or Rich Johnson.
Merriam-Webster and the Modern Language Association (MLA) have changed their protocols and now agree that “they” is an acceptable use of the pronoun when we don’t know the person and gender of the person or people we are referencing.
This grammatical question is different from the issue of what pronouns individuals use to identify themselves; be that he, she, or they. “They” is a pronoun that people may use if they are trans, gender fluid, or questioning and do not identify with the gender binaries of she and he.
Though this is not the use of the proposed pronouns for the bylaw, it is critically important. We are a welcoming congregation, open to and affirming of all people. We made this decision years ago to affirm our support of and alliance with LGTBQ+ people, who have been under attack for generations. Hate crimes and attacks, especially toward transgender people, are on the rise today. It is our time to stand with and for them.
The final misunderstanding at the annual meeting happened near the end of the meeting when I spoke out about what I saw happen during the meeting. You may not have had the visual viewpoint I did.
What I was receiving in text messages and emails and what I saw happening on the Zoom screen in real time was pain, pain of those who do not identify with a binary concept of sexual identity and pain on the faces of those who love them.
I watched a 12-year-old youth, one of our youth, flee from the meeting crying, believing who they were was being diminished or disregarded. I saw parents and grandparents cry and sit in shock. I’ve sat with couples and youth from several families who wondered if this is still their church.
It was their faces and hearts I was speaking for when I spoke about the difference between the intent and impact of what we say and asked us to be aware of the impact.
Later, I prayed that we could be forgiving, humble people, willing to acknowledge mistakes we made. I was thinking of the mistakes I had made coming into this meeting unprepared as much as anyone else. I was not intentionally calling anyone out or shaming or ostracizing anyone. I wouldn’t do that. I care too much about you.
I was, however, speaking up for our LGBTQ+ members and their families. That’s my job, and my theology, and I would do it again, the same way I speak up for Black children, victims of gun violence, people in domestic violence, and survivors of sexual assault, the same way many of you do, all the time.
I am far from perfect. I am sorry if my words hurt or confused you.
I could stand here and preach about the growing and changing grammatical standards around the use of epicene pronouns, or pronouns we use when we don’t know someone’s gender, as in the case of the bylaws. However, there are much better ways to help us learn such things.
I could preach about gender identity, inclusive language, and how to respect all people. Again, many of you are better suited to do that, and I am learning from you and will continue to learn from you.
What I am called to do is stand here and preach about love. I am called to model authentic connection and work toward collective liberation. I am called to remind us that none of us is perfect and all of us are beautiful. I am called to remind you this is your spiritual home and to encourage you to stay in relationship, even when it’s hard and you may want to flee. We need you and we love you.
Ours is a faith tradition and congregation built on covenant or promise to one another. There is no theological creed, but there is a doctrine of love, with service as our prayer, a place where all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine, however they understand the word divine.
Rev. Parsa went on to say in the passage I quoted earlier, “This greater demand of religious community (participating in the democratic process) means that the people who stick around are truly remarkable…the people I want to be my people – the ones who have compassion for the ways in which others have failed them, who have learned from the ways in which they have failed others, and who stay to pick up the pieces and deepen their understanding of their own journey and the community’s rewards.” 
We have our work cut out for us next year – and it is good work, including, among many other things, the work around being a welcoming congregation to LGBTQ+. We have a covenant to create together in which we agree on and put into writing how we will treat one another and what happens when we make mistakes, as we will.
Our work will change us all, as it should, for we believe evolution and revelation are not sealed. Remember this, my friends: love is not easy, love is transformative.
Thank you and amen.
 Brandenburg, Ellen, Editor, The Seven Principles in Word and Worship, Skinner House Books, Boston, MA, 2007, pg. 81.
 Brandenburg, Ellen, Editor, The Seven Principles in Word and Worship, Skinner House Books, Boston, MA. 2007 pg. 81.