“What if you just went to an Open and Affirming church?”

We regularly receive questions from people asking us whether we have considered attending an Open and Affirming Church instead of our current home parish. These questions have increased as we shared our “10 Things We Wish Our Church Family Knew” post because many people were mystified as to why we would remain in a church community in which any of those concerns are present. Some people have asked us the question because they know we live in a large city where it’s easy to find a church that has adopted an official stance as an Open and Affirming Church. [We know the specific language that church communities can use to indicate a high degree of acceptance of LGBT people varies across different Christian traditions, but for simplicity we’re going to run with the term “Open and Affirming” throughout this post.]

Yet, we do not feel particularly welcome or safe at Open and Affirming Churches either. Our goal in this post is not to critique Open and Affirming Churches. We are grateful for all of the work of so many Open and Affirming Churches do to provide sanctuary to LGBT Christians and those who love them. Our goal in this post is to highlight some of the shortcomings we see with the question “What if you just went to an Open and Affirming church?”

It is important to remember that churches who decide to become Open and Affirming also have statements regarding other theologically important issues. Even though we are members of the LGBT community, we do not regard how a church approaches LGBT people as the single most important of all theological issues. We are not saying that approaches to LGBT people don’t matter. After all, we found it critical to point out areas in which our own parish community falls short when it comes to accepting us as a couple. But to put it succinctly, we are not comfortable selecting a church or, more broadly, a type of Christian tradition based upon its teachings on LGBT issues when we are more concerned with its theological views on Christology, salvation, scripture, grace, and sacraments, to name a few. Responding to our concerns about our current parish with, “What if you just went to an Open and Affirming church?” implies that we should be able to forgo all other theological concerns for the sake of being in a church where people would support the presence of an LGBT couple. We understand and respect that many LGBT individuals and couples do make the the decision to leave more conservative traditions for Open and Affirming churches, and we do not wish to make light of that decision. Experiencing constant rejection is incredibly painful. Many LGBT Christians have been able to find Open and Affirming churches that embrace teachings they consider theologically sound. Different people find diverse ways of balancing the need for acceptance in a local parish with the need for a particular theological approach. All we ask is that others who reach different conclusions than ours on this issue respect our decision to remain in our current parish and our Christian tradition instead of leave.

We are both of a very firm conviction that being in the Church is supposed to be challenging. We believe that the Church envisioned by Jesus Christ is a place where absolutely everyone has the opportunity to connect with Him. What Christ calls us to is not supposed to be easy. We doubt that His vision for the Church included its members gathering in segregated rooms, each of us choosing the room where everyone looks like us, agrees with us, and enjoys the same music we do. The question “Why don’t you just find an Open and Affirming church?” suggests that the best course of action is for us is to forsake trying to be Church with our current congregation in order to find another community where we would be welcomed as an LGBT Christian couple. Every person in our current parish, even the ones capable of making extremely unkind remarks about LGBT people and issues, challenges us to be better Christians. We are doing our best to journey with this current parish as long as we are geographically able. We are very careful to consider what might be necessary reasons to change churches. We are skeptical of the idea that a person is obligated to move to a different church because of conflict with other members. Some of the coolest stories we know have come from situations where an LGBT person was committed to doing life within one church community that previously had no positive experience with LGBT issues. At the Gay Christian Network Conference in Chicago, we heard of a church who decided to break fellowship with their denomination rather than deny a lesbian couple membership. That sort of story cannot happen if people are constantly hopping around churches.

And, if we’re really honest (and hey, we do believe in vulnerability), then we need to say that we do not feel especially welcome in Open and Affirming churches either. The Gay Christian Network has connected us with fantastic, fabulous, and generally wonderful LGBT Christians. Every year, GCN hosts a conference where we gather as an incredibly diverse group and do our best to show Christ to one another. In a way, it is like attending our own Open and Affirming church once a year. A very large percentage of conference attendees are lay members or clergy within various Open and Affirming churches. However, despite knowing and loving these people for a very long time, we have seen that many of our friends from Open and Affirming churches have an odd way of balking at the idea that we have a vocation to celibacy. We often get questions like, “Don’t you know that Jesus will still love you if you have sex?” or “Are you still recovering from your time in ex-gay ministry?” We also get statements like, “Let us know how celibacy is working out for you in 5 years.” or “You really have a great way of glorifying the fact that you hate yourself.” When we try to share our personal struggles with these friends, we occasionally hear things like “I’m sure I’d have trouble believing God loved me if I thought I could never have sex,” and “Of course you’re struggling in areas of your life. You are so sexually repressed.” It seems to us that many Open and Affirming churches have a “zone of acceptability” for what constitutes a valid LGBT relationship; since we are not sexually active, we find ourselves outside of that zone. It’s worth saying that, at this current juncture, we have had more critical questions about our lack of a sex life from people with a liberal sexual ethic than we have had biting statements about our relationship from people with a conservative sexual ethic.

We have noticed that positive change happens slowly and surely. Even in our own parish, we have seen positive change. It is clear that a lot this change has happened through various people who love us sitting down and having a cup of coffee with other people who have been immensely challenged by our presence. Both of us have also seen this kind of change in other parishes that we attended before the beginning of our relationship. We would venture a guess that virtually every church has at least one person or family willing to get to know an LGBT individual as a real person in order to try and share life together. While these friends might be precious and few, they are also the same people who show interest in getting to know just about every other person in the church community. When we have shared stories about how Helen has made us feel a bit unwelcome in the parish with our close friends, nine times out of ten our close friends will make a point to talk a bit more with Helen. Those conversations make a huge difference. Additionally, we are our own best advocates when we go to church to encounter Christ, to pray, and to participate in the life of His Church. We should never discount the power of quiet fidelity.

In summary, we are exceptionally grateful for all our friends committed to walking on this journey with us. Sometimes, the best way to support us on our journey is to listen. There is power in being heard. The question, “Why don’t you just find an Open and Affirming church?” is much more seeking a solution for a perceived problem. We hope this post has been beneficial in helping you to understand how that particular solution carries with it its own difficulties.

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31 thoughts on ““What if you just went to an Open and Affirming church?”

  1. Man…I can’t believe people that you’re hanging out with at GCN conference would say those kinds if things to you. I mean, I get the idea that there’s always that “one guy” who says stupid stuff, but from this post it sounds like a lot/most people are saying stupid crap like that to you all. If that was a big part of my experience with O&A church members it is not a movement I would want anything to do with!

    • I think the perceptions people have about celibacy and celibate couples are often influenced by their own past experiences within conservative Christian traditions. Personally, I don’t consider these remarks as reflecting stupidity. I think they’re more indicative of the possibility that the person saying such things has had an extremely hurtful experience within a non-Open and Affirming Christian tradition. Lindsey and I respect their perspectives and want to do what we can to be supportive of our friends in Open and Affirming churches who have been deeply wounded in other traditions. We just wish that folks in Open and Affirming traditions would realize that in some ways, the messages we hear from more liberal theological contexts can also be hurtful to us. -Sarah

      • I am saddened by the comments you quoted above. I suspect that in some ways tgey are indicative of the problem with leaving church and returning only when you find a “safe” place to worship. Celibacy and other topics related to sexuality are often avoided in O&A congregations. Unfortunately if you don’t tslk about these topics you don’t learn about the spiritual gift of celibacy. Much like the spiritual gift of poverty – it is not for everyone to walk this path but would anyone deny the testimony of Mither Teresa who walked in poverty and touched souls wolrdwide.
        I am humbled by your willingness to walk your path and remain in your congregation. Truly, people who stay the course are an important piece of the puzzle that will ultimately save Christianity from self-destruction. We need to be in conservative congregations, in O&A congregations and in coffee houces and internet cafes to allow the gospel to reach people where they are.
        Thank you for sharing your walk with us.

  2. This a wonderful reflection. Dealing with other human beings, in any context, can be trying and difficult because we are all sinners who fall short of the perfection of God. But, being challenged is the only way we can grow and become more perfect, as our Father is perfect. You are gift to your parish because you challenge the ideas of what love is. In all the debate over LGBT rights, many Christians have forgotten that we are called to love everyone, not just our spouse(s) and family. If Church is to be challenging and since we are Church, we must challenge where we see a diminuation of the Gospel.

    Also, one must be a part of the ecclesial community through which the light of the Gospel shines brightest. There are dark corners in every church community because we allow ourselves to stand between the Light of Christ and the rest of the community and world. The intentions that lead us to become more door than window may be good, evil or non-existent. But our calling, as Christians is to become attentive to how we cast shadows in the world and change ourselves so that the shadows become less dark.

    • We agree with you, Ed. It’s all too easy to forget that Christians are called to love everyone. Regardless of whether we come from a more conservative or more liberal Christian tradition, there are so many ways we all fall short of loving as we should.

  3. You have gotten those comments, a lot, since you decided to embark on your vocation? Really? Don’t such people realize that Christ our God and various apostles were celibate? It isn’t up to those people to decide or judge your calling. But meanwhile, I do grasp that some Open and Affirming churches are not where you would be, theologically. I’m glad that others grow from your presence! 🙂

    • It may sound difficult to believe, but yes. I’d guess that at least 8 times out of 10 when a friend from an Open and Affirming denomination finds out we are celibate, that person decides that he/she has to convince us of the fact that God would love us even if we had sex. We got plenty of positive responses to our “10 Things We Wish Our Church Family Knew” post, but–I just calculated–of the negative responses we received, 97% of those came from people in Open and Affirming traditions. That was our impetus for writing this post. But we do hear those types of comments on a regular basis offline as well. We hope that we can continue learning more about what it means to be Church within our current parish and faith tradition, and we’re glad that so many people have been supportive of us. -Sarah

  4. I stand as usual astounded by your conviction, faith and desire to keep your membership at your current parish. I pray that you may continue to enlighten others as our Lord has enlightened your vocation and minds. Your example has strengthen me in my vocation of celibacy.

  5. At one time I was a member of a very, liberal, open and affirming church. They were over the top with celebrating the couple thing to the point where relationships (modeled after sexually active couples in the herteronormative binary) seemed to become a false god. I remember an older lesbian (in a relationship) commented that she wished the pastor would talk more about Jesus. That was kind of odd. I must say these people were not into gay politics and activism either. They were a very insular group. It was all about getting the partner as is with some Christian churches that are only about getting married and having a family. Single people are on their own. I am now back at a “renegade” Catholic church and I realize how important the eucharistic community is. It is about ritual and sacrament and prayer and not just about praising God because I got the gf.

    • Thanks for sharing your own experience with an Open and Affirming church community. We think it’s important for all churches to reflect constantly on their focus as it relates to encouraging Christian discipleship. Some Open and Affirming churches have discovered very effective ways at promoting spiritual growth among LGBT Christians and their allies while others have may consider other community goals more important.

      We’re so glad you’ve found a community that nourishes you and your spirit!

  6. As a couple, we in the gay community need to affirm, celebrate, and champion the love that you have for each other. Your commitment, fidelity. Whatever our proclivity physically with our partners, commitment such as yours is the template for the core of a relationship that should be our own. How we purport to want to be known by those in the broader Christian community. I agree that any hurtful comments are hurtful to others who admire these aspects of what you have.

    I also appreciate your desire to find a faith community and work within it. Open and affirming churches within a denomination are nice, but the real work and courage comes (to me) outside of the doors of a church, in the broader community. That could be a non-affirming church, at a Christmas gathering at home, at the office every day, etc. Changing minds and hearts there is a true challenge, and takes courage. Thank you for bringing up the importance of seeking a strong theological base for yourselves. That’s awesome.

    Bright blessings. Kenny

    • Thanks Kenny! We know many fantastic LGBT Christians who center their theology upon Christ. Some of these people have found homes in Open and Affirming churches while some of these people attend churches that wouldn’t regard themselves as Open and Affirming. Thanks for your words of encouragement.

  7. I am from the Roman Catholic tradition. We have several parishes in Portland, OR that are what you consider open and affirming. I lived across the street from one for over a year and never darkened their doorsteps. Why? They’re too liberal for me. I spent a considerable amount of time as a member of the Cathedral in Portland before finally deciding to find another parish after I learned the pastor was being less than welcoming to LGBT members. It became clear to me I would not be welcome if I wanted to be more involved in the sacramental life of the parish. I am still looking. I’ll be honest, I am not looking actively. I did look at some websites of local parishes (someday maybe they’ll realize web design and keeping things up to date are important!) but haven’t found one that appeals to me. I do know I need to find a place to be a part of a faith community. For me, it’s in the Roman Catholic Church. I don’t care if it’s open and affirming. I do care if I feel welcome. I do care if the priest and the parish are in communion with Rome. It would be awesome if they had decent music and a dynamic priest, but beggars can’t be choosers. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts…as always, I appreciate it. Gives me things to think about!

    • Thanks Heather for sharing your perspective. There is so much diversity in churches, even churches within the same Christian tradition. That’s one of the reasons why we highlighted there are any myriad of theological issues that influence where LGBT people choose to go to church.

      You bring up a great point that people often scope out prospective churches online before darkening the doorsteps. Relative to LGBT Christians seeking communities, it’s amazing how much people need to rely on word-of-mouth to discern where might make a good church home.

  8. Hello Lindsey and Sarah

    I wanted to add a few things to the discussion that I feel are not present yet, and to nuance some of what you said, if that’s ok? I think there are some generalisations and misconceptions about Open and Affirming Churches and I would like to add some of my experience/thoughts.

    Firstly, though, I really want to affirm that there is not a “one size fits all” answer for LGBT individuals/couples wishing to attend a church. Put simply, the important thing is for the individual to find the place to which they are called, to attend faithfully and joyfully and to contribute where and how they can. For me it doesn’t matter what *kind* of church this is, but it does matter that the church is willing to engage with that person/couple, support them pastorally and welcome them into their community. This is the “you know it when you see it” approach – I strongly believe that a person can know, just *know*, that they are called to be with a spefific community.

    I also want to specifically apologise for the things that were said to you both about your choice to remain celibate at an Open and Affirming Church. That must have been very painful. I can only imagine it might come from the ways in which some LGBT people have been told they “should” be celibate, or have been held up to impossible ideals of celibacy in other churches which didn’t understand that celibacy is a precious gift/calling.

    I have attended a lot of churches…I grew up going to Roman Catholic Mass, attended charismatic Evangelical churches as a teenager, joined a Church of England congregation as a young adult, and finally have become an attendee at an MCC (which I think would come under the Open and Affirming category). The MCC I attend is the church in which I have matured as a Christian, and I have been there with my partner for 7 years now.

    Ok, so that was the background, now here’s some observations about Open and Affirming Churches:

    1. Not all Open and Affirming churches are the same. I guess this is obvious, but the idea that they are all much alike is an assumption I see a lot. They can be as different as a Catholic church can be from a Pentecostal one (or even as different as 2 different Catholic parishes can be in one city…). Sure, some of them are very liberal theologically, but others are fairly moderate, middle of the road theologically. In many of them a casual visitor might not notice anything particularly different from any other church. In some, the worship might be very challenging indeed – but this is good…

    2. Open and Affirming Church doesn’t just exist to provide a place for LGBT people to run and hide to instead of staying in other traditions. I see them as offering an alternative *model* for doing church – one in which inclusivity is a key concept. In this way are uniquely placed to offer a challenge to the “traditional” church.

    3. Not everyone who attends Open and Affirming churches are just looking for people who are “the same” as them. In fact, one of the strongest arguments for this kind of church is that it brings people of many backgrounds together – I am constantly amazed by the mix of theological standpoints and denominational backgrounds I see in my church. Also when I look around I see people of different genders (including non binary ones), sexualities, races, abilities and family backgrounds worshipping together. Far from being an unchallenging, homogenous atmosphere, it is incredibly diverse. To me it looks like the Kingdom of God. Other churches I have attended have been a lot less diverse, both theologically and in all the other ways mentioned above. I actually think mose mainstream denominations run the risk of being “people who look just like me/ believe just like me” than Open and Affirming churches, which by their nature attract…diverse and interesting and sometimes challenging people!

    4. Open and Inclusive churches don’t just exist for LGBT people who are already Christians, they can also be the first place an LGBT person who is just starting out exploring faith can visit and feel safe and included – they are also often the only churches reaching out in a positive way to the LGBT unchurched community, whose perception of mainstream churches is usually poor, thanks to the press that intolerant churches get, and things like the ex-gay movement….

    5. Open and Affirming churches are safe, but that doesn’t mean that they are not challenging and that they do not encourage spiritual growth, vocation or personal development. This will vary church to church, as it does in the mainstream, of course. I would personally have not been able to stay at my church for 7 years if it had not offered me such opportunities. I have learned so much from so many wise men and women in the congregation. My faith has deepened and grown, my idea of what God is like has expanded, as has my experience of the Spirit. This is in part due to the way in which my church allows questioning, allows for multiple expressions of faith and safe exploration of what it means to be a Christian. We are not straitjacketed into the “correct dogma” as I was as a teenager in evangelical churches. This is incredibly liberating.

    6.The biggest challenge for the Open and Affirming church is to be open and affirming – that is, to constantly consider “who is on the sidelines?” and reach out to them, beyond the LBGT remit. MCC and other inclusive churches are considering this question now – what will it mean to be inclusive church in the future? In that sense it can lead the way in demonstrating Christ’s radical love and hospitality. Or that is the hope/vision at least.

    Geez, sorry, that turned into an essay!

    Finally, I guess I just want to say that it can be unhelpful to categorise churches, and that I truly think that all churches are a part of the big Church, Christ’s bride; that we all demonstrate aspects of his big, beautiful, varied creation and reflect aspects of his amazing character, that we are complete only as we all stand together in Him, despite minor differences, and that Open and Affirming churches are as much a part of this as any other church…

    • Hi Charlotte, thanks for your comment! Sorry it’s taken us a while to get around to responding. We do our best to add nuance, but conversations on sensitive comments almost always benefit from more nuance.

      Our goal in the post was to talk about the perceived “silver bullet” solution that LGBT couples should seek out Open and Affirming churches. Too often critiquing this question can open the door for people to critique the O&A churches themselves. Now to take your points in turn:

      1. We agree that Open and Affirming churches are incredibly diverse. We rejoice with our friends who have been able to find Open and Affirming churches where they are able to pursue Christ in the context of a particular community.

      2. Your point about the Open and Affirming church offering a new model of doing church is well-founded. Often trying to do church differently can lead to the different theological positions.

      3. Thanks for stressing the diversity found in many Open and Affirming churches. We absolutely adore the Gay Christian Network annual conference for exactly this reason. We’ve never been in a room where people are so radically different from one another but still committed to sharing life as a community. Our reflection on the most recent GCN conference can be found at http://aqueercalling.wordpress.com/2014/01/19/1-week-after-the-gay-christian-network-2014-conference/ and we’d love to encourage our readers to consider joining the 2015 conference in Portland!

      4. It is incredibly true that many LGBT people are able to take their first steps of faith in Open and Affirming churches. Some churches don’t even see the point of trying to share the Gospel with LGBT people, and that fact makes us very sad.

      5. When people stick with a church for any length of time, chances are excellent they are growing spiritually. We’re glad you’ve been able to be so enriched by your time in your current church.

      6. We also think a lot about the marginalized and radical hospitality. It’s so encouraging to have many, many Christians asking these questions from all sorts of background.

  9. benefited greatly from this, so glad I found your blog. Going to church has been an ongoing battle for me between balancing theology with how welcoming the fellowship is. If I am uncomfortable with the doctrine and teachings of the church I won’t be able to stay even if it is a welcoming church. As a result my church experience has been inconsistent for much of my life. I think some of this is my own issues and sensitivities, not always the church itself, I think it can work both ways as long as we have Christ as our focus, so at some point I decided to just stay put for awhile.

    • Hi Kathy, always happy to be helpful! It can be easy to jump from church to church to church, especially if there are theological issues that surface while visiting one community. We agree sometimes it’s best to stay still and fix your gaze on Christ. May Christ be with you always!

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  11. Thank you for writing this. It is so applicable to ALL Christians… gay and straight. I am a straight Christian who is struggling with my current church not embracing LGBT folks. For this reason, I have considered leaving that church. Perhaps though, God has called me to stay in that community so we can grow together in this issue. I totally agree that most Christians are way too apt to “jump ship” and this doesn’t allow Jesus to grow us and others through the tough stuff. I have a lot to think and pray about. Thank you. 🙂

  12. I think this is a very important post. Thankyou for writing it. Often there are only the two opposing views expressed, that either all gay relationships are disapproved of (regardless of celibacy) or all consensual sexual activity is approved of, regardless of the nature or state of the relationship. Personally I wish the more conservative/orthodox Christian traditions would at least celebrate a gay couple who’ve chosen to be celibate rather than make them feel like they’re just barely outside the gates of hell. Most of the public pronouncements of conservatives on the subject make no distinction at all, or the message veers dramatically from cheering celibates to keeping them in quarantine lest they pollute others with liberalism…

    • Hi Tess, we appreciate your perspective. A lot of the more conservative traditions have allowed a view on gay sex to be a defining mark of orthodoxy. It’s most unfortunate. One thing we’d like to point out is that on the level of official documents, many Christian traditions are talking about LGBT issues. We grieve that those same sort of abstract pronouncements happen when the issue blocks a spiritual leader from seeing the real person. For more of our thoughts on spiritual direction, you can take a look at our post here: http://aqueercalling.wordpress.com/2014/02/04/providing-spiritual-direction/

  13. I’m glad I found your blog. You might label me a traditional heterosexual Christian, just to get you in the right frame of reference for my post. I too struggle with sin and how I ought to live. I want to help others come to know Jesus and His gift of salvation. I’m so confused when it comes to gay and lesbian Christians. It is not an “oxymoron” to me, you can be both. But why not more focus on celibacy?
    God will still love you if you have (homosexual) sex? Is that to say it’s ok to sin sometimes for just a little while, He will still love you? I know He will still love you. He still loves me despite my daily efforts to please my sinful self. I want to include all people in our church, but at some point you do have to talk about sin. Little sin, big sin, all the same. I realize what I struggle with is not going to answered in a blog post.
    I’m not really sure I have a point. I’m just glad I found your blog and will look around at some other posts. Thank you!

    • Hello. So glad you have found us! We’re glad that our blog is of interest to heterosexual Christians as much as to LGBT Christians. We hope that in this space, you will be able to find good conversation around some of the questions you have about LGBT Christians. Welcome!

  14. Hi Sarah & Lindsay,

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts surrounding why you choose to do life with your current congregation. As a married heterosexual couple, my husband and I have gone through a similar discussion when deciding to leave the parish we attended for many years. This was a parish where we were very involved in the sacramental life; we felt loved and cared for by the community. As we grew in our faith and relations with God, we began feeling uncomfortable with the theological approach and lack of bible-basis for the teaching we heard on Sunday. We struggled with the thought of leaving the people who had become our God-family. We were, however,(to quote you) “more concerned with its theological views on Christology, salvation, scripture, grace, and sacraments, to name a few.”

    Focusing on the core beliefs of why we follow Christ, and then being willing to do the hard work of learning to live and work together as the body of Christ is what following Jesus truly means. We are called to “love others as I have loved you”, sacrificially, whole-heartedly, and equally. This is not an easy road. Christ did not promise that following him would be easy.

    Thanks for being so open about your life within your parish. You have challenged me to examine where I am right now in my life, and have encouraged me to refocus on what is important.

    Kimberley

    • Hi Kimberley. Thanks for commenting and encouraging us! It certainly isn’t an easy road for anyone who chooses to follow Christ, but we pray that we can continue to follow and trust.

  15. Do you mind if I ask what denomination is the church that you attend? You have said that you aren’t Catholic, but you use very Catholic words (liturgy, sacraments, Church, parish, altar, etc.), and so I find myself having some trouble making sense of that religious language outside of a Catholic context. Does that make sense?

    • Hi Nicholas. We don’t reveal the name of our Christian tradition on the blog for several reasons, some of which we address in our FAQ. But we will say that the language we use to describe our spirituality and theology is present in many other Christian traditions (more in some than others), including but not limited to the following: Anglican, Orthodox, some Lutheran denominations, and some Presbyterian denominations.

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