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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