Allies in the Church

I confess I have often failed as an ally. Even when I thought I was participating in the work of LGBTQ+ justice, my blind spots permeated my efforts. Despite doing this work full-time, despite having invested nearly two decades of my life, despite hundreds of relationships and some of my closest loved ones being LGBTQ+ folks, despite my open heart and mind, despite seeking to be incarnationally present, despite my tentative curiosity about my own queerness …. I have failed in my desire to show up as an ally.

The failure has often come in the context of working with churches where I seek to meet folks where they’re at, honour the congregation’s journey, readiness, and diversity, and accompany, rather than direct, their process. I still believe that those things are important, that being attuned to a congregation’s contextualized realities matters, that honouring the agency of a congregation rather than marching in with my own agenda is critical. And in every case I have tried to navigate the paradox of priestly and prophetic presence – seeking to both do no spiritual violence within a community by embodying a humble, caring, and loving posture and discerning when to speak words of challenge and expose systemic issues that perpetuate injustice.

None-the-less, in my own fear, desire to serve well, to be invited back, to cultivate good relationships, I have at times leaned on the pastoral to the deficit of the prophetic. As an empath, I have to wonder if I have internalized the fears so often present in the leadership and congregations I work with: fear of moving too fast, fear of hurting those with traditional views, fear of losing people, fear of consequences from the denomination, fear of getting our interpretations wrong. And I must confess that in my mainly straightness and mostly cisgenderness, I don’t embody, the way my LGBTQ+ siblings do, the deep awareness of what concepts like, “separate but equal” or “welcomed but not fully affirmed” or “affirmed – oh except we can’t let you in leadership or officiate your weddings”  or “affirmed but we prioritize space for those whose conscience doesn’t affirm you” really truly mean. Perhaps I do more than the average straight, cis person – but I have to confess that sometimes it just isn’t enough.

Additionally, my own internalized shame that still makes me question my own worth inevitably acts as a blind spot in my participation in the work of LGBTQ+ justice. The ways I still accept being treated like a second-class citizen as a woman make it hard for me to fully see the way the church does this to LGBTQ+ people. When I glimpse the bravery and resoluteness to be fully affirmed and fully celebrated of my LGBTQ+ siblings, it is a fierce faith that I rarely see in the church-at-large. It feels both powerful and dangerous. Dangerous because so many of us in the church still stagger under the weight of worm theology and the toxic ways it colours every filter through which we see ourselves. The passion for full liberation seems scary to those still clinging to their chains as a sick sign of righteousness.

Recently, the Presbyterian Church in Canada held its General Assembly. I spoke at a conference the day after their decisions wrapped up, an event attended by several from that denomination. The pain in the room was palpable. I began to pick up bits and pieces of what had transpired. The assembly was faced with a number of options on which to vote related to affirmation of LGBTQ+ people. The most affirming option passed with majority vote. But then those who hold to traditional interpretive views on marriage began to voice the impact of the vote on their conscience and if this vote remained, the necessity of them leaving the denomination. And so, it seems, that through some backroom negotiations concessions were made, without consulting any actual LGBTQ+ people, and another vote was taken which gave the lee-way for individual congregations to choose to be non-affirming. This is my understanding of the basic gist of the process.

As I listened, and later observed the conversation in an online forum of affirming folks from this denomination, I experienced some typical dynamics:

  1. Straight cis allies reminding others that this is a positive step forward

  2. Straight cis allies reminding others to be patient

  3. Straight cis allies reminding others that this was needed so people wouldn’t leave the church

  4. Straight cis allies asking LGBTQ+ people to “keep fighting”

I heard LGBTQ+ people expressing:

  1. Anger

  2. Pain

  3. Exhaustion

  4. Betrayal

I witnessed LGBTQ+ people expending emotional energy to call out what this vote/amendment/vote process actually communicated to them:

  1. Apartheid

  2. My value as a child of God is up for a vote

  3. People who have historically held the power and privilege were once again prioritized over my life, my family, my love

  4. I can no longer trust allies – when push came to shove they threw us under the bus for peace in the church

  5. Even though we were right there, present in the room, we were not consulted about proposed changes

And it struck me, at a deep visceral level, the ways that I have failed as an ally. I wasn’t at this particular church governance meeting – nor have I had official opportunities to vote in similar situations. I could point to the three years I committed to being on a study committee in my own denomination seeking some tiny bit of generous space to open dialogue about LGBTQ+ affirmation. I could point to many meetings with church folks over the years. I think I’ve participated in some important work through the years. But that doesn’t change the fact that I have also failed: times that I spoke when I should have passed the microphone to an LGBTQ+ person, times that I allowed the energy of the majority to colour my discernment about steps forward, times that I counted something as progress even though my LGBTQ+ siblings in Christ were still not fully embraced and celebrated in equitable ways.

I’m weary of straight, cisgender people patting themselves on the back, expecting a gold star simply because they aren’t being overtly (in their minds) hurtful or exclusionary towards LGBTQ+ people. I’m tired of straight cis church leaders claiming to be affirming but when push comes to shove they really don’t understand that withholding leadership or withholding God’s blessing over marriage and children is not affirming. I’m tired of the ways so-called allies make it about ourselves and “what good people we are” when LGBTQ+ people are still aching and hurting and raging in light of ongoing micro-aggressions, exclusion, and marginalization. And if I feel weary, how much more infuriating, exhausting, and painful must it be for my LGBTQ+ siblings?

Truth is, it is costly to be an ally – most of the time it is really uncomfortable. You will mess up more than you will get it right. Some days you’ll wonder if you’re making any difference at all or if you’re just getting in the way. You’ll need to resist the internal defensiveness you feel, the desire to prematurely put a silver lining on things, your own need to fix and make things right. It is spiritually demanding, emotionally draining, physically exhausting, and mentally taxing – and that is just a glimpse of what it is like to actually be LGBTQ+ and navigating the truth that you are Beloved and you Belong in a church context that so often tells you the exact opposite.

I’m grateful for the straight cis church people stepping up to participate in the work of LGBTQ+ justice. But I think it is important to know that we must keep confession front and centre. We must recognize our failures, our blind spots, the ways that we fail in courage, or discernment, or vision. And we must remember that we don’t engage this work for our own sake (“look at me doing the work of LGBTQ+ justice”), we do it because justice for those on the margins, for our LGBTQ+ siblings, is justice and liberation for all of us – and this is the heart of the good news. Until LGBTQ+ people are free to fully flourish as their authentic selves, free to fully love and build family, we are all impoverished. My liberation to know in the depths of my being that I am Beloved and I Belong is inextricably linked to everyone knowing they are Beloved and they Belong.

And so my rainbow family, hear my confession. Let us together walk uprightly in the light of Christ’s forgiveness. And let us lift up our heads to the One who calls us Beloved and reminds us that we Belong. Let us step forward, determined to embody this truth as we take our rightful place in the Body of Christ.