Pursuing LGBTQ+ Justice in the Church

Twenty Years of Church Stalking

I’ve been observing the dynamics of churches in Canada in the LGBTQ+ conversation for more than two decades. It has been a time of significant evolution with interesting thresholds along the way.

Note: What follows are general observations. I acknowledge that there are exceptions to everything I describe below both in terms of churches and their approach and LGBTQ+ folks and their journeys, priorities, and expectations. This blog is meant to offer a broad-stroke overview.

One of the first threshold moments during my time of observation was during the public debate about marriage equality. On one hand, you had Rev. Brent Hawkes, then pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto, leading the charge as a high profile activist, and on the other hand, you had pages of petitions and busloads of protestors streaming out of Evangelical churches in resistance to opening the benefits of marriage to those outside the heterosexual majority.

When marriage equality passed in 2005, many Evangelical churches hunkered down to protect themselves from this new civil reality. The trend was to adopt painstakingly clear statements on marriage to avoid any situation of a church rental scandal refusing LGBTQ+ people the right to use their buildings. Denominations put together committees to write laboriously long statements on marriage and sexuality and give crystal clear boundaries to their clergy and leaders. Stakes were planted, lines drawn, and self-protection maintained. The polarity between affirming churches, eagerly officiating marriage ceremonies for LGBTQ+ people, and those opposed, could not have been more stark.

Relationships Pave the Way

In the mid 2000’s another threshold emerged. As social visibility of LGBTQ+ people increased, more and more church people developed relationships with co-workers, neighbours, and family members who were out as LGBTQ+ and living lives that didn’t seem all that different than their straight counterparts. In the context of relationship, caricatures of queer people were crumbling and many church leaders struggled with how to engage the LGBTQ+ folks within the relational networks of their congregation. Additionally, parents with LGBTQ+ kids, who in earlier years may have been fairly quiet, became more visible and vocal in the effort to make their churches safer places.

The Church’s Image Problem

In 2012, the book, “unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why It Matters”revealed that 91% of 16 – 29 year-olds outside of the church perceived Christians to be anti-gay. More than 80% of that same age demographic within the church felt the same way. Clearly, Evangelical Christianity had some work to do if they wanted to offer faithful witness to a God who defines themselves as love and Jesus the rabbi who consistently engaged those on the social margins.

A Third Way?

Ideas like bridging the gap and crossing the divide explored how to have respectful conversation across difference – though the difference was typically seen as the church on one side and LGBTQ+ folks on the other. The LGBTQ+ Christian voice, if heard at all, was often the ex-gay testimony or resilient celibate. Ideas like a third way, were explored with a genuine heart to undo exclusion while honouring theological boundaries and personal convictions. In many applications, however, it was essentially a new iteration of “welcoming but not affirming.”

More progressive, community-based churches seeking to attract the young and unchurched, began to obfuscate the limitations LGBTQ+ folks would encounter if they joined their church. Slogans offering unconditional acceptance and belonging failed to clarify the limitations for LGBTQ+ folks. To suggest that there is unconditional acceptance as-long-as one lives a sexually abstinent life fails to recognize the deeply conditional nature of denying that the way one loves, of which sexual expression is but one element, is an intrinsic aspect of personhood.

The Impact of Privilege

What I believe is crucial to note is that many of the third way type experiments did not acknowledge the tendency to continue to privilege the straight majority. Most third way approaches notably lacked an anti-oppressive lens. Instead of dismantling systemic hetero-cis-sexism, such approaches tend to seek pastoral concessions that perpetuated a subtle, yet devastating, second-class citizen mentality for LGBTQ+ folks and their affirming allies. This happened without adequately challenging the interpretive filters of the majority. At the end of the day, it was often still about maintaining the comfort zone of the majority without sufficiently challenging inherent biases and cultural blinders.

The LGBTQ+ Christian Movement Picks Up Steam

While the focus of church leadership often kept them in the weeds of scriptural exegesis and hermeneutics, the LGBTQ+ Christian movement, particularly energized through online connection, was focused on community building, pastoral care, and discipleship. LGBTQ+ folks were certainly doing their own biblical exploration, but in the context of connection with other LGBTQ+ people and reading, perhaps for the first time, resources developed by queer Christian theologiansand