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 writers.
Forums like, “Waiting Until Marriage”, explored how to live into an Evangelical sexual ethic as an LGBTQ+ person. In-person gatherings became more accessible and grew exponentially starting around 2010. At such conferences and retreats, the intermingling of Christian traditions offered a rich and diverse consideration of theology, sexual ethics, justice and anti-oppression work, and inclusive language and worship practices. Progressive Christianity, sex positivity, liberation theology, intersectionality, and queer theory, all became part of the growing momentum of LGBTQ+ Christian experience for Evangelicals, Mainliners, and everyone in between.
With this evolution, LGBTQ+ folks formed and shaped within Evangelical contexts were understanding matters of privilege and systemic hetero / cis-sexism. They not only had the language with which to articulate their concerns, they were often also growing in confidence. A key message within the LGBTQ+ Christian movement was the empowerment of equity and the detriment to any community complacent about or failing to do the work of dismantling inequity. In other words, LGBTQ+ folks began to believe that if they settled for being treated as second-class citizens in their churches, it not only hurt them but hurt the church and its witness to the radical, liberating mutuality of the gospel.
No longer were LGBTQ+ folks willing for churches to discuss this topic without their voices centered in the conversation. No longer were LGBTQ+ folks grateful to be merely welcomed into worship and to contribute to the offering plate. Relational warmth, as lovely as that can be, could no longer function as a smoke-screen to crucial questions of participation, representation, and contribution.
The Clarity Challenge
So while some church leaders were unconsciously patting themselves on the back for taking the risk to raise the LGBTQ+ subject in their congregations and seeking to concretize intentional welcome within the restrictions of not officiating same-sex marriage or ordaining partnered LGBTQ+ people, many LGBTQ+ folks themselves had moved on. In light of embracing the values of justice and equity, queer folks wanted to know, upfront, whether a church was actually affirming or just a well-meaning iteration of welcoming-but-not-affirming. This presented another pivotal threshold.
In 2017, many churches began to hear something about Church Clarity a crowd-sourcing website that scored churches on how clear they were in public communications about their LGBTQ+ policies. The key categories were “clear-affirming”, “clear-non-affirming”, and the unclear designation which meant that people couldn’t easily decipher where a church stood. They also added the category of “actively discerning” with the challenge of identifying when a clear decision would be made.
I encountered a lot of church leaders who felt both frustrated and overwhelmed by the pressure this put on them to offer a cut-and-dried answer while they felt weighted down in the complex process of navigating denominational obligations and diverse congregations. What is critical, however, is that leaders the church engage the increasing narratives of harm recounting how LGBTQ+ people experience the bait & switch of churches that initially seem warm and welcoming but blind-side folks with rigid, exclusionary policy. The efforts to call churches to be publicly clear on their policies around LGBTQ+ affirmation were energized by the urgent necessity to reduce the harm. It is critical for church leaders to de-center themselves and pay attention to the experience of LGBTQ+ people. Rather than bemoaning the pressure to provide a clear answer in the midst of complex dynamics, leaders need to listen deeply to LGBTQ+ people’s experience of harm.
Projects like Church Clarity flipped the power script from the comfort and care of the majority, to the protection and need of the minority. As the adage suggests, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equity feels like oppression.” The ultimatum of clarifying your LGBTQ+ policies, whatever they may be, can feel like undermining genuine efforts to become safer, more hospitable places. However, seen from the perspective of LGBTQ+ folks, clarity simply offers the information needed to make wise, discerning choices about how to mitigate harm and invest one’s finite energy and time.
The Song of Exile
In the midst of the increasing pressure for churches to be clear, there were other layers of complexity emerging. For years, LGBTQ+ folks have been able to find clearly affirming churches. However, for many, these churches were in completely different traditions than the churches they grew up in. And while for some this radical departure was liberating and healing, for others this carried a sense of loss and exile. The conviction of birth-rite, covenant, being part of the family, or however it was described, meant that for LGBTQ+ folks there was a rightful sense that they should be able to fully and freely worship, participate, and contribute within the traditions that had formed them. Where this was unsafe, harmful, or restricted, there could be a deep and complicated grief.
Just a few weeks ago, Ralph Carl Wushke, a gay pastor, was the first to be reinstated as an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada after nearly forty years since his departure and long-term ministry in the United Church. This is a hopeful sign of things to come where exiled, rejected, and excluded LGBTQ+ people will find their way back to the churches of their youth, after repentance and reparation, with full restoration and celebration. I pray for these days to come, and to come quickly.
Another reality that must be recognized is that like many post-Evangelicals, LGBTQ+ people are increasingly deconstructing not only the toxic elements of their religious upbringing, but diving into a wholesale evaluation, and sometimes rejection, of their Christian faith. In the Generous Space community, for example, we have a thriving group we call Triple-A where our atheist, agnostic, and those ambiguous about faith find a sense of connection and safe place to process their journeys. The church doesn’t have the luxury of dragging their feet on this matter, as risky and scary and complicated as it may seem. Silence is so often perceived as violence. Blind obedience to denominational requirements convey complicity with injustice. The cost will be a steady stream of folks filing through the back door.
Prophetic Witness & Civil Disobedience
Of late, I have observed another place of liminality affecting an increasing number of church leaders who are part of non-affirming denominations. These are folks who aren’t interested in blind obedience. They have a healthy sense of the urgency and have made intentional efforts to enter the narratives of religious-based harm that LGBTQ+ people have experienced. They have done their homework, carefully studying liberationist interpretations of scripture and searching for case studies of churches who have moved to clear affirming policies.
And the examples are increasing. Across North America are congregations both small and large, urban, suburban or rural, that are intentionally stepping into affirming postures. They are led by those who have embraced fully affirming theology, who have centered the voices of LGBTQ+ folks in their congregational process, and have either created affirming policy or are enacting civil disobedience in light of the non-affirming policies of their denomination.
While some congregations have been ejected by their denominations, what I am also seeing across a variety of denominational bodies is an elongated process of appeals to return to conformity but unwillingness to pull the trigger and initiate expulsion.
Pastors are refusing to sign statements of faith that include exclusionary statements about LGBTQ+ people. They are proceeding with officiating the same-sex weddings of their church members. And they are opening leadership roles such as elder or board member to partnered LGBTQ+ folks. These acts of civil disobedience, that may have triggered immediate dismissal ten years ago, are now met with periods of silence and lack of action, followed by attempts at dialogue, followed by more silence.
It would seem that there is a reluctance on the part of denominations to kick out these churches, some of whom are among the more innovative, and fruitful ministries in the denominational family. Part of the reluctance may be the sense of loss of such vibrant churches.
But one has to wonder if denominational leaders aren’t also concerned about the optics of kicking out churches seeking to concretely address the religious-based harm that their LGBTQ+ kids and siblings have experienced. Nobody wants to be perceived as anti-gay, bigoted, or hateful.
Influence on the Edge of the Inside
While each community needs to discern its way forward, and for some that may mean initiating departure from their denomination, there is something very powerful about remaining on the edge of the inside. This puts the ball in the denomination’s court. This isn’t an easy place for a local congregation to be.
It may be perceived by LGBTQ+ folks as complicity with unjust denominational policy. Fellow denominational colleagues might not respond charitably to candid acknowledgment of mis-alignment with the denomination’s exclusionary policies. Caught between a rock and a hard place isn’t for the faint of heart. However, I wonder if it isn’t a particularly fertile spot at this time and in this place in the journey. Might this be a crucial threshold?
By simply leaving a denomination, a congregation has the liberty to set its own policies. And this may be essential to mitigate the harm LGBTQ+ church members have and are experiencing. It also lets the rest of the denominational body off the hook if all the affirming folks depart and walk away.
Leaving a denomination is no small thing. The church may have folks who have generations of denominational affiliation and loyalty in their family – and more than mere nostalgia, this profoundly rooted identity and formation isn’t discarded without a deep and complicated grief. Remaining within a denominational family means one still has a voice, still has the opportunity to steward influence. Remaining holds feet-to-the-fire in a way that leaving never can.
A Time for Protest and Resistance
In other situations, a denomination makes it clear that the expectation is that affirming folks will simply walk away. Just recently, the Vineyard church in Canada announced their clear unaffirming stance. However, they put the onus on those who are affirming to leave and maintain mutual friendship. I must point out how such a request seeks to mask the injustice and harm of unaffirming positions. This sort of request pretends that such theological difference is neutral. It is not.
In Generous Space we honour the reality that individuals hold different convictions about how they ought to faithfully live their sexual lives. We give each other the benefit of the doubt that we are all on a journey and that we can entrust one another to the Holy Spirit’s leading. We also seek to share with one another, in the context of healthy dialogue, what we are learning about scriptural interpretation, communal discernment, and our experience of God’s presence in the midst of our searching, shaping, and confirming our sexual ethics. Our different convictions do not restrict our belonging, participation, or capacity to contribute fully in our community. Our differences do not limit our celebration of the fullness of each other’s humanity. We lean, without apology, on the extravagant love of God that transcends our differences.
Institutional positions that exclude, limit, or invalidate the personhood of an entire group of people by refusing to acknowledge the goodness of their faithful love and family commitments and rejecting their spiritual gifts and mature servanthood, are not simply matters on which to agree to disagree. Such positions perpetuate injustice and must be protested and resisted with non-violent passion and conviction if one is committed to the vision of shalom and human flourishing that Jesus embodies throughout his ministry, especially in his embrace of those on the margins.
Such a development calls for a united response that challenges a denomination to enact the injustice their decision perpetuates. Affirming folks need to come together in solidarity to, again, flip the power script. Injustice ought not get the upper hand by forcing affirming folks to be complicit.
What is the call of love?
I have been in relationship with denominational leaders for long enough to know that none of them are willfully perpetuating injustice. Most denominational leaders I meet with truly agonize about how to extend deep and genuine love to LGBTQ+ people while upholding theological convictions that they see not as hateful but as faithful.
To enact civil disobedience or join in solidarity to compel a denomination to enact the injustice of their decisions, is not about being mean-spirited or resentful or unkind. It is about recognizing that silence is experienced as violence by those most personally impacted by unjust decisions. One can deeply love denominational leaders, especially when there have been years of relationship, and still do the hard and painful work that justice requires. This work, however, should largely be the work of straight cis-gender folks seeking to practice ally-ship rather than falling on the shoulders of LGBTQ+ folks already sucker-punched by the decisions in the first place. You want to be an ally? Step up, speak out, don’t go quietly into that good night. Don’t be afraid of the mess, be willing to count the cost of potentially losing the relief of nice and neat closure. Recognize that the discomfort and exhaustion you may feel in the action of protest and resistance is part and parcel of the work.
Solidarity and Support
So where does that leave us, and what might be some wise and helpful steps forward?
How, for instance, might one both remain on the edge of the inside and avoid spinning one’s wheels in the paralysis of submission to unjust and exclusionary policy that contradicts your convictions?
Generous Space is a founding partner in launching Queering Christian Voices: an ecumenical coalition in Canada. The vision of QCV is: We envision a just world where LGBTQIA+ and Two-Spirit people are recognised, respected, and valued within religious communities in Canada. One of its key strategies is, “To strengthen affirming leaders and increase the number of affirming churches by building solidarity, enlarging our efforts, and cultivating informed, effective, and sustainable action.”
Affirming leaders in non-affirming denominations can feel isolated, exhausted, and unsure about how to move forward. In many denominations, such leaders are finding each other and beginning to meet for mutual support and strategizing. But for others, it can be a lonely and tiring road. QCV hopes to connect such folks in an ecumenical network to increase support, share best practices, and increase the visibility of this growing demographic.
If leaders or churches do get ejected from their denominational bodies, QCV may have opportunity to explore a new credentialing structure that addresses practical needs of individual clergy and also offer potential for mutual accountability and ongoing learning. This may also be a place for independent affirming churches, like Open Way that my colleague Beth co-pastors, to connect with like-minded leaders.
QCV is also passionate about the relations between denominational executives and their affirming leaders. As new advocacy groups form, QCV will encourage open dialogue with denominational leaders. Polarity and enmity don’t serve anyone and certainly don’t represent the way of Jesus. It would be our hope that denominations will be open to ongoing conversation, discernment, and respectful consideration of conscience and conviction of affirming church leaders. Might there be increasingly generous space within denominational families for local churches to embody justice for our LGBTQ+ siblings as a faithful expression of living out the good news of the gospel?
No Matter What – Do the Work
I often tell churches who feel they’re just trying to catch up as they embark on a more intentional process of considering the question of LGBTQ+ inclusion and affirmation, that no matter what, this work is worth it. There could be a sense of “too little, too late” for some LGBTQ+ folks. But there may be others, particularly those who feel that sense of exile, who long to worship in places that feel like home. Such people may have lots of grace for the journey, as long as they have clarity about what they can expect.
Even if this is not the case, even if it feels like a church is risking alienation and communal anxiety without any sense that LGBTQ+ people will even want to become part of their community, this work matters. It matters for the eight-year old sitting in your pews, or comfy chairs as you may have it. It matters that the next generation of queer kids don’t grow up internalizing an insidious, even if unspoken, assumption that there is something deeply wrong with them if the way they love is viewed as sinful. It matters for those who have studied, prayed, and discerned that they must pursue equity for LGBTQ+ folks and have committed to practicing allyship. It matters to the parents and family members of LGBTQ+ loved ones.
But it also matters because you can’t compartmentalize justice. You can’t fully pursue racial justice or seek to dismantle ableism without acknowledging and addressing the systemic inequities of sexually diverse and gender expansive folks. Intersectionality calls us to recognize that Jesus met people where marginality was magnified across gender, sex, class, religion, ability, and presumed morality. The new community that began to form among Jesus-followers was all about dismantling barriers and living a radical equity that subverted their culture, their social norms, their religious upbringing, and the empire’s dictates. This
So on this liminal threshold, where risk and courage and conviction so deeply matter, take heart. There has been a lot of change within the church in the last twenty years. And it would seem that the pace of change is accelerating. This doesn’t make the journey easy, but it acknowledges the urgency and what is at stake.
And remember, don’t try to go it alone. You are most certainly not the only ones trying to navigate the complexity of pursuing LGBTQ+ justice, honouring your denominational family, and finding a hope-filled and life-giving way forward.
Let love be our north star and the wind in our sails. Let God’s heart for justice and uplifting of those on the margins buoy us when the road seems long and arduous. And above all, celebrate the good news for all people, “We are Beloved and we Belong!”