By Claire Thompson
“I’m always going to be an anomaly and a bit odd. The strangest part is we are odd in both circles. We are odd in church circles and we are odd in queer circles. So we are kind of a friend of both but a friend of neither,” Joel Hollier, a same-sex attracted PHD Theology student said.
Christianity is the most common religion among Australian same-sex couples, with the Bureau of Statistics reporting in 2016 32% of same-sex couples identify as Christian.
This suggests many LGBTQ people attend church.
Do LGBTQ find acceptance within the church despite it being an institution which has traditionally not affirmed LGBTQ people?
Charles Webster, known to his friends as Carlos, has found acceptance within the church as a same-sex attracted Christian, however it has not been an easy journey.
As a teenager, when Carlos first came out, he was rejected by his Pentecostal church in Maui.
“They kicked me out because I woke up one day and said I’m gay and I think it’s fine with Jesus…they said no it’s not, and basically the pastor of the church prayed for the destruction of my flesh that my soul might be saved and prophesised within a year I’d have a deadly illness,” Carlos said.
After this rejection, Carlos decided to become an atheist because he felt he could not be a Christian if he was gay.
“I had decided to become an atheist…I didn’t know what else to do. I knew I couldn’t be part of church so I kind of tried to reject it all,” Carlos said.
Carlos got involved in a local LGBTQ group in Maui and through this group found out about a church that welcomed LGBTQ people: the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC).
MCC is a Protestant Christian church for LGTBQ people, founded in 1968 in Los Angeles.
MCC is now international with churches in 37 different countries.
Unaccustomed to a church who affirmed LGBTQ people, Carlos recalls feeling sceptical attending his first service at MCC.
“I was so hesitant. I said do you really believe X, do you really believe Y? And they said, you know what, we do, but it doesn’t matter if you do or not. We don’t care what you believe. We love you, you’re always welcome here,” Carlos said.
When Carlos moved to Australia in 1987, he joined MCC, Petersham, immediately.
MCC Petersham state on their website, “We are a progressive Christian church, open to all people who want to learn more about God. We give thanks to God for people of all genders, sexualities, ages and cultural backgrounds.”
Carlos has stayed at MCC for the past thirty years.
He has visited other churches but has no desire to join them as they do not affirm his decision to openly express his sexual orientation.
“I could not be a part of those communities, I just couldn’t. I found too much freedom where I’m at to be who I am. At the same time, they are my brothers and sisters and siblings in Christ. So I don’t have a total rejection of them or their churches. It’s just not where I’m comfortable,” Carlos said.
However, while Carlos now feels accepted as an LGBTQ Christian at MCC, he still experiences rejection from not only Christian groups but other members of society too.
This rejection was exacerbated by the 2017 same-sex marriage plebiscite.
“At times it was incredibly painful. Personally I got obsessed with following social media…I thought I could reason with these people…I have never experienced that level of homophobia and hatred. Just lies, saying things about me and my friends and my community that I’m like, I don’t know who you’re describing but it’s not us. But people didn’t want to hear that. You couldn’t dialogue. And I think by the end, unfortunately I became quite angry…I’m still trying to recover from that,” Carlos said.
“The worst experience at our church was during the campaign, at one point somebody came in, sat down, and kind of five minutes into the service stood up and just sort of started abusing all of us. ‘You know you’re all going to hell, you need to repent.’ And it was certainly triggered by the plebiscite.”
Carlos said Australia had been “an incredibly tolerant place, until the plebiscite.”
Joel Hollier is also a same-sex attracted Christian and has found inclusivity within Christian LGBTQ groups.
“I’m part of quite a number of Christian LGBT circles and it’s been amazing. Just incredible support networks…it helped me see that I didn’t need the church to accept me necessarily, because I am the church, I am part of the church and we are the church and the congregation is the church…That became a really powerful support network,” Joel said.
Joel was a pastor at Vine Church in Surry Hills before undertaking a PHD looking at LGBTQ experiences within churches.
The aim of his PHD is to “present a piece of work that is helpful for the church. That is not pushing an affirming theology, but is…offering some pastoral thoughts from an LGBT perspective.”
While both Carlos and Joel believe expressing their sexual identity aligns with Christian theology, not every Christian who is same-sex attracted shares this belief.
Emily* identified as same-sex attracted before she became a Christian.
After becoming a Christian as a teenager, Emily chose not to openly express her sexuality.
Emily attends a Sydney Presbyterian church and despite not going to an openly accepting LGBTQ church like Carlos, she has still experienced acceptance from other Christians.
“I was on a beach mission, which is where we go as a Christian group and run kids’ programs in a caravan park for kids and families who are interested. At the end of one of the days, I was pretty tired…and I was talking with someone…and I was able to tell her about myself and about my experiences and she was super listening and didn’t offer advice or anything like a lot of people will do sometimes…She just gave me a big hug and listened and it was really, really good. So that’s one example, I think, of what the church can be,” Emily said.
Emily’s negative experiences within the church have been when people make unhelpful remarks, even if it is unintentional.
“Sometimes it’s just little comments…I think sometimes they don’t know what they’re doing but they just make comments that are pretty unhelpful. But I think what’s probably hardest is when people don’t know and they make jokes or they talk very ‘us and them’…I just think, how could I ever open a dialogue with these people? Even if they are great in other ways… the assumption is that there’s no one in the room who experiences something that’s not just straight Christianity,” Emily said.
Emily said she does want to be part of all aspects of the church, but does not want to actively campaign for LGBTQ equality within church spaces.
“I don’t want to politicise my identity. I think that would be really exhausting,” Emily said.
While LGBTQ groups aim to be welcoming to all LGBTQ people, Emily feels it is just as difficult to exist in these spaces as it is within church.
“Just as it’s draining to talk about my sexual identity in church…it’s draining to talk about my church identity in LGBTQ spaces. Because I feel like I would have to, and fairly so…justify some of the choices I have made about how I live and how I express my sexuality,” Emily said.
Emily suggested LGBTQ groups could be more welcoming to LGBTQ Christians if there was greater understanding that some people choose not to openly express their sexuality.
“I know we are speaking in broad generalisations, but I think if there was recognition that some people choose not to act on their sexuality or express their sexuality in a certain way and that was also a valid choice to make, and that…you could still have a fulfilled life…then that could be a possibility,” Emily said.
Like Emily and Carlos, Joel said moving forward, the best way the church can provide an inclusive space for LGBTQ people, is to be willing to open a dialogue around these issues.
“There is a dialogue that needs to happen. But it is not a dialogue that happens at the expense of unity, it has to happen within unity, based on our mutual respect and love for Jesus and his people,” Joel said.
*Name has been changed for privacy
Header photo source: The Politic