Bill Nemitz: Breaking their silence on abortion – bless them every one
Spurred on by the Maine Council of Churches, clergy members prepare to celebrate a ‘Sabbath for Reproductive Justice.’
BY BILL NEMITZ COLUMNIST – PORTLAND PRESS HERALD January 16, 2022
They will rise to their pulpits next weekend, the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and they will talk about abortion. For many of these men and women of the cloth, it will be the first time they’ve ever preached on the topic – a silence that has persisted for far too long.
“Too often, the only voices of faith that are raised are the ones shaming, blaming and judging those who seek or provide abortions,” the Rev. Jane Field, executive director of the Maine Council of Churches, wrote in a recent letter to the council’s members. “I urge you to not make the same mistake I did, being silent all those years.”
It was a letter of invitation, co-authored by Fields and the Rev. Marvin Ellison, Ph.D., a former professor of Christian ethics at Bangor Theological Seminary and later at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Their goal: Encourage clergy across the seven denominations that comprise the Maine Council of Churches to observe a “Sabbath for Reproductive Justice” next weekend. To address abortion not as a grave sin worthy of condemnation, but as a “morally acceptable decision” worthy of compassion and support.
The move comes at a pivotal time. While the U.S. Supreme Court appears poised to substantially undermine if not overturn Roe vs. Wade – the landmark 1973 decision that affirmed a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy – Republican-led state legislatures far and wide are hard at work passing myriad laws that severely limit access to abortion.
For decades, that political pendulum swing has been propelled by churches, from fundamentalist Christians to the Roman Catholic Church, which left the Maine Council of Churches in 2018 after the council became a majority-rule organization rather than one that required unanimity on all public positions.
Now, with so much on the line, silence from other faith communities around abortion is no longer an option. As Field and Ellison put it in an interview on Thursday, it’s time for clergy members who support a woman’s right to make her own reproductive decisions to stand up before their congregations and say so.
“Our project is one effort to try to challenge the toxic shame around this whole topic,” Ellison said.
Added Field, speaking of the mainline Protestant, Quaker and Unitarian Universalist churches that belong to the council, “People are surprised even from those traditions to find out that we affirm the decision to have an abortion can be a moral decision. That it is not in conflict with their faith.”
Why the surprise? Because, as Ellison put it, conversations that should be taking place inside the church have for too long been relegated to whispered confidences out in the parking lot.
“Too often, (women who abort a pregnancy) have had to stand alone,” Ellison wrote in a sermon he’ll deliver next Sunday at the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in South Portland. “Too often, they’ve been castigated as sinners, but the truth of the matter is that they’ve been the sinned against – judged rather than listened to, honored and supported, as we all need to be, in making tough decisions.”
Field, a Presbyterian by training who led congregations for 30 years before shifting to full-time with the Maine Council of Churches last summer, confessed in the recent letter to other clergy that in all that time, she never once spoke about abortion from the pulpit.
“Maybe I was afraid of the conflicts it might stir up … of not being able to find the right words or scripture to frame a sermon,” she wrote. “I now deeply regret having given fear that much power.”
Ellison’s epiphany about the void created by all that silence came while volunteering in recent years as a chaplain for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. His purpose, he said, is “not to proselytize women, not to judge women, not to disrupt women, but rather to listen and support and show respect.”
Ellison recalled counseling a mother whose 18-month-old baby was “the joy of her life,” yet she did not want to have more children. Her husband felt otherwise.
“Her husband forced her to go ahead, which with reluctance she did – only to have him turn around and walk out of the marriage,” he said. “So here she was with her husband abandoning her and her child. She was now a single parent. … She was experiencing great grief, but it wasn’t grief about having an abortion. It was a grief about her circumstances and her sadness. And this is where she found herself.”
Field, who spends much of her time in Augusta, testified a few years ago at a legislative hearing to affirm the Maine Council of Churches’ support for increased access to abortion services. Before heading out to her car following her remarks, she ducked into the ladies room.
“A woman followed me in, burst into tears, threw her arms around me,” Field said. “Then she talked about her own abortion story and how grateful she was for the first time in her life that someone put a theological framework around it and affirmed that she made a moral decision.”
And thus relieved her of her shame?
“It felt that way,” Field replied. “Because that’s what the tears were about.”
There’s no way to know exactly how many clergy will participate in the Sabbath for Reproductive Justice, although a half dozen or so logged on last week for an online preparatory session with Field and Ellison. And because many of those sermons will be livestreamed rather than delivered before a packed congregation, it will be hard to gauge the immediate impact.
But Fields had a word of advice for her colleagues – something she learned years ago when she took a hiatus from her ministry to give guest Sunday sermons around Maine on domestic violence: If you normally take Monday off, as many clergy do, don’t next week. Some in your congregation, maybe more than you think, will need your time and attention.
Not people who were offended, or people who think abortion is a sin, or people who want to nip this long overdue conversation in the bud.
“People wanting to tell their stories.” Field said.