When Churches Talk from Both Sides of Their Mouths

In the past week, friends have shared with us two news stories where gay men active in church communities have been effectively forced out of their churches after they entered into same-sex marriages. The first story we saw concerned a Montana gay couple who have been a relationship for 30 years before marrying in Seattle in 2013. The couple was asked to secure a civil divorce, cease living together, and write a statement affirming marriage as being between one man and one woman. The second story we saw involved a Minnesota church music director being asked to resign after marrying his long-term partner. In today’s post, we wanted to focus on one aspect of these developing stories. If you click the above link about the gay couple in Montana, you can read:

Huff and Wojtowick both said they never intended to force the issue of same-sex marriage, or to provoke a conflict with the Catholic Church. If fact, neither man is entirely comfortable in describing their relationship as a marriage, preferring instead to refer to it as a civil union or a domestic partnership.

“Neither one of us believes the term should have been marriage,” Huff said. “We understand that marriage is a union between heterosexual couples.”

Instead, Huff and Wojtowick said they sought a legal union to safeguard their joint financial interests heading toward the later years of their lives.

“We’re getting old,” Huff said. “There is no other avenue for us in the Catholic Church to protect ourselves financially — our Social Security benefits or our home, which is in both our names. If something happened to one of us, we need some protection.”

Let’s begin by clearing the air about our intentions in writing this post. We are not making an argument in favor of same-sex marriage. We are also not arguing that any Christian tradition should change its understanding about the nature of marriage. We are calling out the hypocrisy that results when churches say they want to protect LGBT people from unjust discrimination while also actively campaigning against every form of legal arrangement that would allow couples to commit to caring for one another until the end of their earthly lives.

First, we wonder if some of these churches are at all willing hear why LGBT people want legal recognition in the first place. The gay couple in Montana had been living together for 30 years before seeking legal recognition for their relationship. According to every news source we’ve read, they travelled quietly to Seattle in search of a legally-binding civil acknowledgment. Now 66 and 73, these two men decided it would be a good idea to start arranging for retirement benefits, joint assets, and end-of-life care. We wouldn’t be surprised if when the younger partner hit 65, both men realized, “Wow, we’re getting pretty old,” then began exploring their options for fear of being disenfranchised in the event of one partner’s illness or death. As we’ve read the articles, we’ve found ourselves scratching our heads and wondering, “Is the pastor of this church even listening to the couple’s concerns about retirement and end-of-life issues?” Accessing various forms of legal protection requires that people have legally recognized relationships. When churches resist every possible legal arrangement that confers rights to LGBT couples, those churches effectively communicate that they don’t care about hospital visitation, health care proxies, inequities in employment and housing, financial stability, and end-of-life care. Some people might say, “The church is just protecting marriage.” While one could make that argument, it’s also true that many churches have fought hard to prevent civil unions, domestic partnerships, and other legal options for LGBT couples. Marriage is but one form of legal acknowledgment, and over the past three decades, conservative churches have resisted all forms of legal recognition.

Second, we wonder if conservative churches realize how the “choices” they offer LGBT people are formulated in terms of all-or-nothing. Again, the Montana couple had lived together for 30 years while attending their church on a weekly basis. Everyone knew that the two men were a couple. They’re from a small town. Yet, the pastor asked the couple to divorce civilly and to stop living together even though their living arrangement did not result from their getting a civil marriage. For all we know, this couple might be a celibate pair like us. It’s possible. We’ve known other celibate pairs who have sought civil marriages because after researching legal options, they felt they had no other choice for meeting their legal needs. Our own experiences have shown us that conservative churches are rarely interested in listening to the problems their LGBT members are facing because it’s easier to parrot, “Just don’t have sex. Don’t have close relationships with people of the same sex, or of the opposite sex. Spend the rest of your life making sure that no one thinks you’re sinning sexually.” Lindsey remembers seeking spiritual direction where all of the pastoral advice centered upon avoiding any appearance of evil lest there be scandal. One person when so far as to recommend that Lindsey live on the outskirts of a monastic community. When churches insist that all LGBT members live single and celibate lives that could never possibly be construed as experiencing emotional or spiritual intimacy with others, churches effectively send a message that it’s far preferable for LGBT people to come home to an empty house every night to fight intense battles with loneliness and isolation than to grow from rich human connection. Along with this comes the message that the way a legal arrangement “appears” to others is more important than preventing injustice against LGBT people.

Third, we wonder if churches can see the ways they often force LGBT people to endure public humiliation. Several of our LGBT Christian friends have raised questions about whether other congregants would be asked to write a formal statement affirming a particular set of theological ideas. Should an engaged straight couple have to write a formal statement affirming their belief in teachings on premarital sex? Looking at the local news coverage, we think it’s clear that the two men would be much more comfortable with language like civil union or domestic partnership to describe their relationship because of how they understand the word marriage. The first news story we saw focused on 300 congregants preparing to meet with the bishop to discuss the situation. It seems these two men never imagined that 300 people would even become aware of their civil marriage in the first place. Again, the couple sought to establish a civil arrangement quietly out of state. It doesn’t seem like they wanted to be the center of attention. When churches actively resist every form of legal arrangement that permits LGBT people to care for one another, churches actually create situations that shine a spotlight on LGBT people even when no attention is being sought.

Fourth, we wonder if churches realize how harmful it is to emphasize swift discipline over spiritual direction in an ongoing relationship with the pastor. A little-known detail of the Montana story is that the pastor had only been with the congregation for four days. We don’t know how the pastor even became aware of the couple’s out-of-state arrangement. The couple went to Seattle over a year ago for the purpose of becoming legally recognized, and according to their own statements, they weren’t interested in proclaiming this to the world. Not knowing the full details of the events in Montana, we are left to question whether a person who thought the couple may have made legal arrangements combed public records to prove the couple had indeed married. Yes, this actually happens in churches, and it’s a lot more common than some people might think. Sarah remembers a time at one of Sarah’s former churches when a heterosexual couple contracted their marriage civilly before meeting with their pastor to discuss having their marriage blessed by the church. The couple intended on abstaining from communion until they could have a meeting with the pastor. Before the couple could schedule a meeting, a congregant had searched the public record and had alerted the pastor that the couple had married. The pastor’s immediate response was to deny the couple communion in a public manner before ever discussing the matter with them (despite the fact that they were not seeking to commune at that time). The couple was a bit confused as to how the pastor knew before they had told him what happened, and that the situation played out as it did because another parishioner had searched the public record. While we do not know exactly what happened in Montana, we think this is an important issue to raise more generally because we’ve seen a pattern of people using public records to out others in pastorally difficult circumstances. In situations like the one Sarah witnessed, claiming that the actions of the couple caused scandal seems disingenuous when the matter would not have become public at all if it hadn’t been for the actions of another parishioner. It seems to us that the record-comber is largely responsible for the ensuing public scandal. When churches demand that everyone in the congregation actively resists the evils of same-sex marriage at all costs, including opposing any legal options that could possibly lead to the legalizing of same-sex marriage in the future, churches can inadvertently turn their congregations into guard dogs with a penchant for gossip.

We’ve written a couple of times before about our own legal difficulties, and our frustration with the phasing out of civil unions. Though we intend to follow our own priest’s counsel about working out legal protections for our relationship and we have no interest in getting a civil marriage, the Montana story, the stories of LGBT firings from parishes and religious schools, and other stories like these worry us greatly. Sometimes we find ourselves so worn from the way these issues are discussed in conservative churches that even going to church feels like a chore. If a member of our parish were to ask us what advice we would offer conservative churches for how they discuss LGBT legal issues, our first response would be, “Stop talking out of both sides of your mouth, and acknowledge that issues like healthcare, end of life care, and retirement benefits are not just red herrings in the gay marriage debate.” Conservative churches that are serious about preventing injustice against LGBT people need to, as Lindsey often says, make friends with the question mark. Learn about the real legal problems we face, and the experiences of our daily lives. Consider that supporting a person in solving legal difficulties is not the same approving of same-sex marriage. Ask us what we see as injustices. A church that is truly behaving in a Christian manner cannot speak out against LGBT discrimination while intentionally drowning out the legal concerns of its own LGBT members.

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9 thoughts on “When Churches Talk from Both Sides of Their Mouths

  1. “Should an engaged straight couple have to write a formal statement affirming their belief in teachings on premarital sex?”

    Yes. I did. It was part of our Engaged Encounter weekend, which was part of the six months of required pre-marital preparation in the Archdiocese of Portland.

    Having said that, I’m with you on this one. The only *reasonable* and *respectful* way out of the gay marriage debate is a complete separation of marriage and state- and I’m willing to have my own marriage license converted to a civil union to accomplish it.

  2. The few times that I’ve talked about this with people I know, what I hear are claims that LGBT couples – celibate or not – are misrepresenting the troubles they experience with visitation rights, retirement planning, etc., and that even if LGBT couples experienced difficulties in those areas (which they’re clearly just lying about because activism), they could trivially prevent those issues from arising by taking advantage of easily accessible, currently available legal structures apart from marriage or civil unions. (These same people also define homophobia out of existence and think that privilege is a meaningless made up term.) That kind of response makes me want to bash my head against a brick wall.

    Anyway, thanks for expounding on this so articulately; I only wish churches would actually listen.

    • It’s troubling that when we share our own experiences, they are dismissed as red herrings more often than not. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Thanks for a great post!

    There is nothing against Christian doctrine in a gay couple having a state marriage, because there is nothing in the state marriage ceremony contrary to Christian doctrine, and neither is there in living together.

    My Catholic bishops here in New Zealand have supported some form of legal recognition of same sex unions since 2000, for the reasons discussed in this post.

    There comes a point where one has to call certain attitudes and actions of Christian Churches for what they are : unChristian predjudice and injustice.

    My advice to gay Christians is to stay in the Church and work for justice. We will win.

    God bless

    • Hi Chris. We do hope that one day, all churches will listen actively to the experiences of their LGBTQ members. We pray for that all the time. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  4. This isn’t just an issue with legal protections for same-sex relationships of various sorts. This is also an issue with volunteering and charity. I made a passing comment that I was volunteering with a Roman Catholic organization that serves the needs of vulnerable LGBT people (it’s Roman Catholic, these are not a bunch of gay-marriage activists. They serve the homeless, those suffering from addiction, from hunger, and from illness). I was asked why I would “waste” my time with such an effort, instead of spending it toward the food bank which is open to all the poor. I said “this organization serves *all* the homeless teenagers who seek its services, but the reality is that the majority of these teenagers are LGBT kids who were kicked out of their homes because of who they are, and those of us who have been through that have a responsibility to help them in anyway we can.”

    … This too, was called “courting scandal.” Forgive me, but encouraging members to volunteer to feed and clothe and educate and shelter homeless children, the majority of whom are unfortunately LGBT, should be the ***simplest possible*** way for a conservative Church to express love toward the LGBT community. I was so shocked that this could be seen as anything but “Christian Charity,” I still don’t know what to say.

    I can’t even imagine how much worse this is for committed partners, whose needs may not be as simple as mine in the example above. Lord have mercy X 100.

    • Lord have mercy indeed. Thanks for expanding the conversation! Caring for homeless youth should definitely be a priority of churches.

  5. Found this post via twitter. Thank you for some thoughtful remarks regarding this very real issue. I am not surprised to hear that some people will comb through public records searching for something juicy on another congregant. My experience has been that church policing driven largely by homophobia has increased dramatically over the past ten years. I’ve personally experienced being “told on” by people within the church over very benign matters. Such experiences heighten my anxieties over my relational life being misinterpreted and increase my suspicions of what others may be thinking, which is not a healthy way to build community within a church at any level.

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