By Audrey Connor
It was the fourth and final day of the Gay-Christian Network Conference. I was there, thanks to an invitation from a friend, to share in the leadership of the Women’s Retreat portion of the conference. I have never been around so many gay people in my life. Nor have I worshiped with so many evangelical Christians. There were many surprises in store for me through the weekend, but the biggest surprise for me was the final worship. They shared that this last worship would be “liturgical”. I discovered that this meant worship closer to my tradition. As soon as it began, I was amazed by how much that worship allowed me to breathe in God. For the first time during the conference, I felt myself let go of my surroundings and sink into the presence of God. The liturgy spoke to me in ways that I suspect the liturgy was speaking to the evangelical people the previous nights and mornings.
Thank you God for this space, I heard myself murmuring to God through my personal prayer. I accessed parts of myself that are normally difficult to bring to my own consciousness, and I worshiped God with my brothers and sisters in Christ.
This is worship, I said to myself.
I am home from the conference and trying to make sense of those four days. As a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister, I am grateful for the ability to say to LGBTQI people with authority that God Loves You, No Exception. (This became an unofficial motto at the last congregation I served as Family Life Minister.) I am also grateful as a lesbian Christian for a mom who inculcated me with this theology from a young age. I shared with the women at the conference that for me, coming out was difficult enough without a spiritual landscape that condemned me as sinful. The spiritual maturity to claim my identity as a beloved child of God and as a gay person would have been much more difficult.
At the same time, I feel incredibly disappointed by my denomination. So often my beloved mainline denominational saints both clergy and lay will say things like:
“We don’t want to be the gay church.”
“If a person needs a church like that [meaning LGBTIQ affirming], then he or she should go to _______ congregation in our community that is Open and Affirming (or More Light or Reconciling or Welcoming or Whatever-language is being used for that place).”
“We are not ready for telling people that it is okay to be gay – maybe in time… The older generation would not be pleased.”
And I want to believe they are right.
I want to believe that the Spirit is greater than our resistance.
I want to believe that God will help us figure it out.
I want to give permission for people to discern at their own speed.
And I want to give thanks for those churches that have figured out how to minister to the gay niche, and to believe that it is enough.
But it gnaws at me. I know it isn’t true.
I knew it wasn’t true when I ministered at one-of-the-only open and affirming churches in Lynchburg, Virginia. People often came to me as the minister of the open and affirming church wanting help. They needed help learning how to read scripture and accept themselves as gay and Christian. This was the pattern: such said person would come to church, find people to be in conversation about this topic, find books to read, discern with other Christians on the journey, and then – they would leave.
Worship just does not feed me, I heard once from a person.
There is no one my age, another person said.
And ultimately, they would dissolve somewhere into the body of Christ – but not my congregation. I ran into one of these people who later confessed to me that she really preferred a more evangelical worship. She said there was no place in town she felt comfortable worship in her style so she stays home Sunday mornings. There is no doubt, worshiping with a Hymnal is not the same as with a Stephen Curtis Chapman song.
And here is the thing – as a minister, I knew it did not necessarily mean my congregation needed to change its worship. In fact, there is nothing I wanted to change in our worship per se. I knew that the church I served agreed upon the worship that fed them. I could tell you the people who loved the organ. I knew the members who loved the choir, and I knew how many people loved the ritual (including me). I knew that making ourselves more “free” in worship would not serve our needs. This is how I made sense of those people and their comments: I decided that ministering to people with questions about sexuality and faith was simply part of our church’s mission in the world. And like serving people at the soup kitchen, the point was not to put people in pews; instead, it was to share God’s love and exercise our faith. I gave thanks for the ones who found their way into our community and our pews, but I refused to measure the mission of reaching out to that population by counting their membership.
It was on that Sunday morning of the GCN Conference that I finally got it. I always feel like a bonehead when I hear God speak; God’s message is usually so very obvious. Here is what I heard God saying:
If the church is really going to minister to LGBTQI people who are wounded by the church itself, then all the church must make public welcome for LGBTQI brothers and sisters in all congregations. We can’t confine Christian welcome to the handful or one church in town that we know is welcoming to our LGBTQI brothers and sisters. We must extend the welcome to everyone. Otherwise we are missing the boat.
Here is why: Worship is the place congregations are uniquely called to practice the living relationship with God and God’s community. When our worshiping communities do not extend welcome to LGBTQI people, they will be absent. And that is sad for them as well as the church. They need to come face to face with themselves and God, and their church families need their growth to grow too. The lone Open and affirming churches cannot be all things to all LGBTQI people. There must be as many churches as there are as many kinds of LGBTQI believers. Because here is the thing – sexuality is not a Disciple of Christ thing, it is not a Presbyterian thing, a United Church of Christ thing, a Unitarian-Universalist thing, a Methodist thing, an Evangelical thing, or a Catholic thing… Sexuality is part of all of us. We all have non-heterosexual members struggling with how to live in a homophobic world. And most of us have non-heterosexual members wishing we had a church community with which to share that struggle. While O&A Disciples can minister to evangelicals, it doesn’t mean they can make them Disciples. While some Presbyterians can find a safe space at an Metropolitan Community Church, it does mean that those Presbyterians will ever really feel fed in that MCC worship. And while I wished to God I could get into the evangelical worships the first three days of the conference, it was the last day that I finally felt at home with my Christian brothers and sisters (no doubt a lot of those people hated it!). It made me both thankful for a local congregation I can worship, and ever-aware of the loss so many LGTBQI brothers and sisters experience who have none.
So this is my plea to all ministers and lay-leaders in every denomination and each congregation – please remember that this struggle for inclusion in the church for LGBTQI brothers and sisters is yours. It is not just something that can be passed off to the progressive United Church of Christ church in your town, or the progressive Episcopal church in your city. I guarantee there are many whose hearts will only be yours and depend on your openness to the Spirit. And if your congregation does not have the courage to confront the resistance of fear and the misreading of the Bible, those LGBTQI members’ hearts will ache and most probably not find a home in another church family. I write to you to ask you to consider if you were banished to worship with Christians that you do not jive with – would you show up Sunday morning? And if you wouldn’t, how would that affect your life? Your family?
Just imagine if we, who love the church, found the courage not only to love God out-loud, but to love all of our neighbors out-loud. I believe our church would be changed, and our brothers and sisters who need to hear the love of God would find the space to journey with a real relationship with God in community.