Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Why Gay Guys Are Churchier Than Their Straight Brethren (Contribution)

As America's leading Christian denominations are once again feuding and splitting over whether they should allow gays and lesbians to marry, or ordain them as clergy, is it a miracle there are any gay Christians?

Given Christianity's history of exclusion and often outright homophobia, and the current bloodletting over their role, why do homosexuals bother staying, not to mention believing?

They do both in numbers that might surprise you: A new survey of 9,000 gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans from George Barna, a well-known evangelical pollster, showed that 70 percent of gay adults describe themselves as Christian and 60 percent say their faith is "very important" in their lives.

Granted, those figures are lower than the population as a whole, which register 85 and 70 percent on those rankings, respectively. But Barna, himself a Bible-believing, born-again Christian, points out that the numbers demonstrate that "popular stereotypes about the spiritual life of gays and lesbians are simply wrong."

"People who portray gay adults as godless, hedonistic, Christian bashers are not working with the facts," Barna said. "A substantial majority of gays cite their faith as a central facet of their life, consider themselves to be Christian, and claim to have some type of meaningful personal commitment to Jesus Christ active in their life today."

Moreover, while Barna's data indicate that homosexual believers tend to avoid active participation in an institutional church, both anecdotal evidence and some research shows that gays and lesbians who are involved in their churches and denominations are often more committed to the church and more involved in ministry than their straight brethren.

To Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research and co-editor of the volume, "Gay Religion," Barna's results are no surprise. Thumma has been studying gays in churches since the 1980s and he has found gay congregants in every denomination -- including evangelical and Mormon congregations and other conservative churches.

Why is this so? Both research and gay Christians point to several factors. The most obvious is that homosexuals find the same things in the church that heterosexuals do: community, family, and a place to live out their calling -- their vocation -- to help others even as they find their faith enriched. "While I am not going to be ordained in my home denomination of the Reformed church because they have yet to recognize my calling, that doesn't mean I am going to give up," said Ann Kansfield, who co-pastors a Reformed congregation in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her partner, also a lesbian.

(Kansfield's father, former head of the national seminary of the Reformed Church in America, lost his position in 2005 because he presided at his daughter's wedding.)

"Nothing is going to keep me from serving the people God has called me to serve, which is something I don't think a lot of people understand. The Reformed Church has been really horrible to me and my family . . . But if I were to leave this congregation in the lurch, I think I would be committing a sin," she said.

Thumma notes that most gay Christians -- like most other Christians -- join congregations because they like the pastor or the music or the community, with "denominational pronouncements" carrying less weight. In most churches, the attitude toward gays is one of "live and let live," or, quite often, "don't ask, don't tell."

It is when gays and lesbians come out publicly, or seek the affirmation of sacraments such as ordination or marriage, that conflicts occur.

There are also other factors at work that may be particular to the Christian LGBT -- lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgendered -- community and psychology.

One of the more controversial theories came in a study some years ago by sociologist Darren E. Sherkat, who compared the rates of religious activity of straights and gays and found that gay men showed significantly higher levels of religious involvement than heterosexual men. (And they were more religiously active than lesbians and bisexuals.) Gay men, Sherkat argued, attend church "without having to be dragged to services by female partners -- as is the case for heterosexual men."

Among the factors Sherkat cited to explain this phenomenon was a desire by gay men to "avoid the risk of eternal punishment by gravitating towards religious consumption -- much like heterosexual women do." Sherkat also wondered whether gay men gravitate to a male-oriented religion with a male savior, Jesus. There are other, perhaps more satisfying, explanations as well.

One is that gays and lesbians are drawn to ministering to others as a result of their own experience, and that the Christian journey of forgiveness and redemption and acceptance resonates deeply with them. "One reason that homosexuals are drawn to service in the church is that many of these people have been wounded themselves. They know what it's like to feel broken, and they want to help others in whatever way they are hurting," said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author, who knows gays and lesbians who work in ministry despite the fact that they cannot openly identify as homosexual. "The Christian paradigm of the scapegoat -- the marginalized one, the one who suffers unjustly -- is quite powerful, especially for gay people."

In a similar vein, others cite Christian de la Huerta's powerful book on gay religiosity, "Coming Out Spiritually," and his argument that gay people are, among other things, forced to mediate across the gap between their sexuality and spirituality, a divide straight Christians do not have to negotiate. So that makes LGBT people especially adept at helping others navigate a world of binaries, in particular the frontier between the physical and spiritual worlds.

Moreover, the process of coming out as a homosexual is often seen as analogous to the Christian pilgrimage of self-discovery and acceptance. "I have a theory that once you discern one call -- that God has created you to be gay -- that you are more adept at understanding God's call in other ways, as into ministry," said Kansfield.

Homosexuals who have come to terms with their sexuality also tend to be active in church, and especially in lobbying to change church policies on homosexuality, for the same reasons they are involved in these causes in the secular sphere: because they want Christianity, and America, to live up to their stated beliefs.

"I am deeply invested in the United States, as a country, living up to its constitutional ideals, and the vision of democracy we espouse is deeply moving to me," said the Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, a lesbian and United Church of Christ pastor, who leads faith outreach efforts for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "Likewise, part of my DNA is as a Christian, as a member of the United Church of Christ. The vision of what the church stands for and espouses really is my identity." (Voelkel notes that many of the toughest skeptics come from within the LGBT community, which understandably equates organized religion to organized opposition to its agenda and its very identity.)

The presence of homosexuals in the Catholic Church can be especially confounding to outsiders, as Catholic leaders are not only sworn foes of gay marriage, but church teaching denounces homosexual acts as a "grave depravity" (and that is some of the tamer language). Moreover, such negative rhetoric crops up despite the longstanding, and some say growing, presence of homosexuals in the clergy and hierarchy and despite new Vatican policies against allowing self-identifying gay men to enter the seminary.

What gives? In addition to all the factors cited above, there is the sacramental view of baptism as sealing Catholics to the church in a bond no one can dissolve. "So the question is not so much why should they feel part of the church, but why shouldn't they?" said Father Martin.

Others note the esthetic synchronicities between Christian culture and gay sensibilities, especially in the old-line traditions like Catholicism. Mark Jordan, a scholar of gay religion at Harvard Divinity School and author of several provocative books, such as "The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism," has argued that this sense of drama in the Mass makes churches a favorite stage for "Liturgy Queens," an epithet that Jordan reclaims as a badge of honor. "The liturgy creates its own divas, on both sides of the communion rail. It is a show that makes for ardent gay fans," he writes. "Liturgy Queens need not be members of the clergy, but they are typically found in the vicinity of the altar – or at least in the choir loft." Or, as Father Martin noted somewhat more benignly, Michelangelo was likely gay: "If we didn't have gay Catholics we wouldn't have the Sistine Chapel."

Perhaps the simplest and most convincing explanation for the dedication of gay Christians is found in their very high, and highly orthodox, view of the theology of human dignity -- that God created them as they are.

"Once you experience God's grace, nothing on earth could make me give up the faith that has allowed me to experience the life-changing power of God's grace," said Kansfield. "No homophobe, no one who wants to beat us up or get us out of the church, nothing is going to chase me away from loving God, and being grateful for the gift of God's grace." (Being trained in the Reformed tradition -- and possessing a wicked sense of humor -- Kansfield also likes to frame the argument as one of Calvinist predestination: "When you're among the elect, being gay, I mean, why give that up?")

The upshot is that gay Christians are not going away anytime soon, and thus neither are the arguments and divisions and the often-overheated rhetoric.
At their General Convention in July, for example, clergy and laity in the Episcopal Church USA decisively ended a moratorium on electing gay bishops (and approved blessings for same-sex couples) just weeks after a potent faction of conservatives split from the main body over the growing acceptance of homosexuals by the church. The splinter group hopes to form a new American province of the worldwide Anglican Communion, perhaps under the jurisdiction of a conservative African prelate.

In June, regional bodies of the largest Presbyterian Church rejected a plan to allow the ordination of homosexuals, the third such defeat in 12 years. This one was by a narrower margin than ever, however, signaling that the struggle will continue to roil the PCUSA.

The United Methodist Church has been similarly divided. It announced last month that its regional bodies had failed to approve amendments (passed the previous year by church leaders) that would have opened church membership to any professed Christian regardless of sexual orientation. The proposal grew out of a 2005 case in Virginia, in which a pastor rejected a gay man for membership because the man would not agree to change his sexuality.

Meanwhile, representatives of the nation's main body of Lutherans will convene in Minneapolis this month to debate a controversial proposal -- crafted after years of divisive arguments -- to allow a kind of "local option" for churches to ordain openly gay clergy. ("Openly gay" or "in a relationship" are key phrases, as some churches will ordain homosexuals as long as they foreswear sexual activity.)

Add to this ferment Rome's increasing efforts to exclude gay men from the Catholic priesthood, where some fear a "lavender mafia" is taking over. Moreover, the demographic center of gravity in Christendom is rapidly shifting to the Southern Hemisphere -- to Asia and Latin America and, in particular, Africa, where sentiments against homosexuality are especially strong. As those churches gain influence in their worldwide denominations, they may force churches in North America to choose between a global church or their gay congregants.

On the other hand, Christianity has throughout its history faced crises over whom to include and how to include them -- from the disputes among the apostles over welcoming gentile believers, to the split in the Reformation, to divides over race and roles for women. "Each one is in my mind an opportunity for the church as a whole to make the decision: Are we going to choose extravagant welcome and hospitality and justice as that which guides us as a community? Or are we going to choose fear and inhospitality?" said Rebecca Voelkel. "Over and over again, when the church chooses extravagant welcome and hospitality, it makes itself stronger and truer to its core Gospel."

Besides, as the orthodox George Barna noted in his survey, while most homosexual Christians have rejected elements of traditional church teaching in order to remain in the fold, they do so "to nearly the same degree that the heterosexual Christian population has rejected those same teachings and principles."

"Although there are clearly some substantial differences in the religious beliefs and practices of the straight and gay populations," Barna concludes, "there may be less of a spiritual gap between straights and gays than many Americans would assume."

Perhaps we all have something to learn from each other.

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