LGBTQ+ church bid

— ‘I was told being gay would send you to hell’

Betty Harper’s first attempts to talk about her sexuality with her family did not go well

By Natalie Grice

Betty Harper is so “sick and tired” of trying to find a church where she feels truly welcomed as a gay woman that she is planning to start her own.

The 21-year-old charity worker from Llanddulas, Conwy county, is engaged to her partner of two years. Both are Christians who want to find somewhere accepting to practise their faith but have so far not found what they are looking for locally.Betty has travelled a long road to accepting her sexuality. Raised in a “very, very strict” Christian household, the message she heard growing up was that same-sex relationships were sinful.But she knew from an early age that was what she wanted.

She explains: “When I was younger I felt different to my friends. I wasn’t attracted to the boys [but] I was attracted to the girls.

“My dad was a pastor of a church at this time and all I’ve known my entire life is ‘being gay is wrong, and being gay will send you to hell’.”

‘It didn’t go down very well’

Betty remembers first mentioning her ideas about her sexuality when she was in Year 8 and entering her teenage years.

“I told my dad, I think I like this girl at school, and it didn’t go down very well, and that’s when I kind of shut off conversations any further about that,” she said.

Betty Harper Betty Harper (right) and her fiancee Hannah
Betty and her fiancee Hannah first met through a church

“As a Christian, when you’ve been brought up to be taught it’s not OK to be gay or to be in a same-sex relationship, but you are. You can’t change how you feel.”

She even tried to use her faith to alter who she really was because of her conditioning.

“Believe me, I’ve prayed and prayed and prayed to try and change how I see boys and how I see girls,” she says.

“[But] I was made this way. God made me who I am.”

Betty’s life is intimately bound up with her religion. She works as centre manager for a Christian charity offering community support and aid to the people of Rhyl, Denbighshire, taking over from her mother who helped establish the charity out of a church during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Her personal faith and relationship with Christianity is strong – it is clear to see it permeates every aspect of her life, and this remains the case despite some of the experiences she has had with churchgoers who disapprove of homosexuality, and have made that plain to her.

However, when she initially embarked on a relationship with a woman, she went through a crisis of belief.

“It was the first serious relationship I’d had with a woman and I really struggled.”

‘Disowned’

She and her current partner are now “unravelling” elements of past conditioning after “all those years of being drilled, ‘you’re going to hell, you’re going to hell'”.

It has led to a breach with her father’s side of the family. “We no longer speak. They’ve kind of disowned me because I’m with a woman,” she says.

She has been told by one family member they pray they can go to hell in her place so she can go to heaven.

Andrei Daniel Production Father Lee Taylor, Fabiano Da Silva Duarte and Right Rev Gregory Cameron
Fabiano Da Silva Duarte, left, and Father Lee Taylor were believed to be the first same-sex couples to receive an official Church in Wales blessing on their marriage in 2021, even though they could not wed in church

“That is so hard-hitting for me, because I believe there is a heaven and a hell. That’s really hard for me to hear and it made me doubt myself, and it’s that conditioning that needs to be unravelled,” she says.

Perhaps ironically, it was through a church that she and her partner Hannah first met, after Betty and her mother visited an old place of worship that her future partner attended.

Although Hannah had not come out at the time she became a Christian, she still experienced anti-gay sentiments through Sunday services.

Getty Images Two women getting married
Marriage between two same-sex people is still a “taboo” in some churches, in Betty’s experience

“She was preached at and told it was not OK to be gay just in a general Sunday service. She was like, ‘hang on that’s ridiculous, why can’t you be accepted for being gay?’,” she said.

Betty acknowledges steps have been taken in some Christian churches to welcome and accept LGBTQ+ members, but so far has not found somewhere she feels accepted.

“We’ve been to many, many churches around the area and a lot of them say ‘you’re welcome’. But if you’re married it’s a bit of a taboo subject,” she says.

At one church, initially welcoming to the couple, Betty says she was told after consultations with members of the congregation that she could attend choir rehearsals.

But she was also told not sing or perform on stage because “we wouldn’t want you to influence the younger people, and you couldn’t be a role model for them”.

After conditions were also put on her partner working with the Sunday school, Betty says she “walked away”.

“I said ‘we’ve been together two-and-a-half years and we need to find a church that is completely accepting, and I don’t think we’re going to find that. So I’m going to start something’,” she added.

“And that’s kind of how that snowballed.”

She says the “spur of the moment” decision is something she has run with “because it is so needed”.

‘Everyone is accepted for who they are’

She is now trying to find a wider group of people who are interested, locate a building and a “wholly accepting” pastor for the church, and has already had positive responses to the idea online.

“It’s not specifically for only LGBT people. Straight people are welcome. Everybody is welcome, even if you’re not a Christian,” she said.

Betty is looking for “anywhere in Wales” where there is a good building in a welcoming community, suggesting somewhere “youthful” and “modernised” such as Llandudno.

“I think of a church I would like it to look like – [such as] the churches that have very upbeat music. I suppose it would be mainly directed at younger-ish people, unless some of the older people love the music; they’d be more than welcome,” she grins.

She envisages a place where people can “do what they want” in worship.

“It shouldn’t be something you’re reading [from a leaflet] constantly. You should dance, express yourself how you best express yourself. That’s the kind of church I’d like to start.”

Getty Images St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh
The Scottish Episcopal Church is one of the religious groups in the UK which carries out same-sex weddings in its buildings

Betty and Hannah are hoping to marry in 2025, and if things go to plan hope they will be able to have a blessing in their own church after a civil service.

Currently, same-sex couples are unable to marry in Roman Catholic churches, the Anglican Church of England or the Church in Wales, although the Church of Scotland has voted in favour of the move.

Other denominations, such as the Methodist Church, United Reformed Church, Quakers and the Scottish Episcopal Church perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples.

After years of hearing her sexuality was sinful, Betty just wants to be in a place where she and other gay people are accepted.

As she says: “All you’re doing is loving somebody. It’s not like you’re murdering or anything like that.

“You’re just loving somebody, and God is love, so how can he discriminate [against] you for loving someone?”

Complete Article HERE!

Greece legalises gay marriage

— Becoming first Orthodox Christian country to allow same-sex unions

Members of the LGBTQ+ community and supporters celebrate in front of the Greek parliament.

By Prisha

In a historic decision, the Greek parliament on Thursday (Feb 15) passed a law which legalised same-sex marriage and made it the first majority Orthodox Christian country where marriage equality for all has been established.

In spite of opposition from Orthodox Christian clergy and conservative segments of society, the decision received the support of 176 out of 300 lawmakers in the parliament. The bill introduced by the centre-right government was opposed by 76 lawmakers, after months of polarised political and public discourse.

The country’s LGBTQ+ couples welcomed the parliament’s decision as the onlookers in parliament cheered and dozens celebrated on the streets of Athens.

“This is a milestone for human rights, reflecting today’s Greece – a progressive, and democratic country, passionately committed to European values,” said Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, in a post on X after the voting.

“People who have been invisible will finally be made visible around us, and with them, many children will finally find their rightful place,” said the prime minister in the parliament, ahead of the vote.

“The reform makes the lives of several of our fellow citizens better, without taking away anything from the lives of the many,” he added.

The historic law has given the right to wed and adopt children to same-sex couples, decades after the LGBT community campaigned for marriage equality in the socially conservative country.

Even though civil partnerships for gay couples were introduced by Greece nearly a decade ago under the left-wing Syriza government, the government recognised only the biological parents of children in those relationships as legal guardians.

However, as per the new law, same-sex parents can now be recognised as legal parents of the children.
<h2”>‘Proud to be Greek’: LGBT community celebrates on streets

“This is a historic moment,” said Stella Belia, the head of same-sex parents group Rainbow Families, while speaking to Reuters news agency. “This is a day of joy,” she added.

LGBT communities rallied outside parliament and one of the banners read: “Not a step back from real equality.”

“I’m very proud as a Greek citizen because Greece is actually – now – one of the most progressive countries,” said Ermina Papadima, who is a member of the Greek Transgender Support Association.

“I think the mindset is going to change… We have to wait, but I think the laws are going to help with that,” she added.

Celebrating the law, many people sang passages from the Bible, read prayers, held crosses and displayed banners in the capital’s Syntagma Square.

However, the head of the Orthodox Church, Archbishop Ieronymos, said that the measure would “corrupt the homeland’s social cohesion”.

Complete Article HERE!

Decoder Replay

— Can Catholicism embrace all sexualities?

One parishioner argues that the Church should welcome gay members. The Pope is just now cracking open the door by offering a small blessing.

By

Editor’s note: On 18 December 2023, Pope Francis issued a ruling that priests could bless same sex couples, as long as the blessing was not part of a marriage service. It was a small but important step considering that the Catholic Church has long condemned homosexuality. In October 2023, the Pope announced that the Church will now allow transgender people to be baptized. The rulings sparked a backlash in some countries, and in response the Vatican issued an 8-page clarification.

In this Decoder Replay, we republish a personal reflection essay by Joseph Katusabe originally published April 2022, that argued that the Catholic Church should welcome people of all sexualities. Katsube is a citizen of Uganda, where homosexuality is now a criminal offense punishable by death. At the time of publication, Katusabe was a student at the African Leadership Academy, a News Decoder partner institution.

We launched Decoder Replay to help readers better understand current world events by seeing how our correspondents and students decoded similar events in the past.

“Let’s go to church, people!” my mother shouts to us every Sunday morning.

My sleep is not essential because the enthusiasm I wake up with is astounding. I love my religion. I love Catholicism.

The older I get, the longer my prayers and the more I realize the importance of the foundation that my family and church have given me: a belief system with answers to all questions man hasn’t answered. This same belief system has shaped the calm person I am. Without it, I would be lost, without meaning.

I’m far from alone. The Roman Catholic Church is one of the largest faiths on the planet — and growing. The faith claims more than 1.3 billion followers worldwide. For most of these Catholics, religion is the foundation of their identity; however, for a significant minority, religion prevents them from embracing their identity. The more they discover who they are, the farther their authentic selves are from the doctrines of their founding religion.

I am talking about gay Catholics.

You are either gay or Catholic.

While I’m not gay, for others, like Matthew LaBanca, being gay means having to choose between Catholicism and one’s identity, but never both. LaBanca’s story, one of many, about him as an LGBTQI+ member losing his job as music director in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn parish the moment he married his boyfriend, attests to the inexistence of a middle ground.

You are either gay or Catholic.

Logically, because of Catholic rules, he could not wed his boyfriend in the Catholic Church, which had witnessed his best and worst moments for 46 years. Why? If the Bible says that we, as humans, have to stick to the core principle and commandments of the Catholic faith — “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” — then why do individuals not accept everyone as they are? If you would love to be fired from your job because of your identity, then fire people for who they are.

I am Joseph — a name with a religious legacy that my great-grandfather trusted me to inherit. I have attended staunch Catholic schools in the formative and adolescent years of my life. I have assumed leadership roles that require me to go to the Basilica every morning to teach my peers how to perform Mass correctly. These positions often meant that I addressed questions about religion and why things are done differently in the Catholic Church. Although I rarely had solid answers — if anything, I had even more questions — one thing I knew for sure was that in Genesis 19, God destroyed Sodom and Gomora for their grave sins, specifically their acts of homosexuality, which implied that God opposed homosexuality.

But I believe that only God can make a final judgment on who lives or dies; therefore, I reject the prejudices and the othering of the LGBTQI+ community by the Catholic Church, and I will continue to hope, pray and speak out about my belief that the Church should do so as well.

It takes a staunch, straight Catholic to dismantle prejudices against gays.

I know that some might ask, “Why not just leave the Church and find one that is more open and liberal?” My response is that just as it takes a Ugandan to effect change in Uganda, it takes a staunch, straight Catholic to dismantle the prejudices against the LGBTQI+ community in the Catholic Church. Besides, no human is perfect; the Church leaders are also human. Thinking of them as flawless humans is a misleading mindset. This is a fact that Jesus recognized.

In Matthew 16:23, Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” From this Bible verse, Jesus rebukes the rock of the Church, Peter, indicating that the Church heads don’t have the right to judge what’s good or bad because they are not perfect beings themselves. The role of the Church leaders is to provide a safe space for everyone to grow and a belief system with answers to questions man hasn’t answered.

I believe that denying the existence of gay people is questioning God’s choice of creating a very diverse world. Everyone should be celebrated regardless of their sexuality.

It is my prayer that gay Catholics should keep their jobs, that the Catholic Church should welcome everyone and that only God should judge what is right and wrong. Amen.

Complete Article HERE!

How to deal with same-sex unions?

— It’s a question fracturing major Christian denominations


FILE – Shelby Ruch-Teegarden, of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, joins other protestors during the United Methodist Church’s special session of the general conference in St. Louis, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. United Methodist rules forbid same-sex marriage rites and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” but progressive Methodist churches in the U.S. have increasingly been defying these rules.

By DAVID CRARY

Catholics around the world are sharply divided by the Vatican’s recent declaration giving priests more leeway to bless same-sex couples. Supporters of LGBTQ inclusion welcome the move; some conservative bishops assail the new policy as a betrayal of the church’s condemnation of sexual relations between gay or lesbian partners.

Strikingly, the flare-up of debate in Catholic ranks coincides with developments in two other international Christian denominations — the global Anglican Communion and the United Methodist Church — that are fracturing over differences in LGBTQ-related policies.

Taken together, it’s a dramatic illustration of how – in a religion that stresses God’s love for humanity – divisions over marriage, sexuality, and inclusion of gays and lesbians are proving insurmountable for the foreseeable future in many sectors of Christianity.

Ryan Burge, a political science professor at Eastern Illinois University and pastor of an American Baptist church, says it’s become increasingly difficult for Christian denominations to fully accommodate clergy and congregations with opposing views on same-sex relationships, particularly as such marriages have become legal in much of Europe and the Western Hemisphere.

“A lot of denominations are in the position where you have to make a decision — you can’t be wishy-washy anymore,” said Burge, a specialist in religious demographics. “That’s the tension they’re facing: how to keep older conservatives in the fold while attracting younger people.”

For global denominations — notably Catholics, Anglicans and United Methodists — Burge sees another source of tension: Some of their biggest growth in recent decades has been in socially conservative African countries where same-sex relationships are taboo.

“African bishops have this ammunition,” Burge said. “They say to the West, ‘We’re the ones growing. You have the money, we have the numbers.’”

Kim Haines-Eitzen, a professor of religious studies at Cornell University, said Christianity — throughout its history — has been divided over differing theological views, such as whether women could be ordained as clergy.

FILE - Same-sex couples take part in a public blessing ceremony in front of the Cologne Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, on Sept. 20, 2023. Pope Francis formally approved allowing priests to bless same-sex couples, with a new document released Monday Dec. 18, 2023 explaining a radical change in Vatican policy by insisting that people seeking God's love and mercy shouldn't be subject to "an exhaustive moral analysis" to receive it. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)
Same-sex couples take part in a public blessing ceremony in front of the Cologne Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, on Sept. 20, 2023. Pope Francis formally approved allowing priests to bless same-sex couples, with a new document released Monday Dec. 18, 2023 explaining a radical change in Vatican policy by insisting that people seeking God’s love and mercy shouldn’t be subject to “an exhaustive moral analysis” to receive it.

“Christianity is incredibly diverse — globally, theologically, linguistically, culturally,” she said. “There are bound to be these incredibly divisive issues, especially when bound up in scriptural interpretation. That’s what keeps world religions alive — that kind of push and pull.”

ANGST AMONG ANGLICANS

Among Christian denominations, the Anglican Communion is second only to the Catholic Church in geographic spread. Divisions over marriage, sexuality and LGBTQ inclusion have roiled the communion for many years, and they widened Dec. 17, when Church of England priests offered officially sanctioned blessings of same-sex partnerships for the first time.

The Church of England’s ban on church weddings for gay couples remains, but the decision to allow blessings has infuriated several conservative Anglican bishops from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific.

FILE - The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby walks through Westminster in London on Sept. 14, 2022. Welby, the top bishop of the Church of England and ceremonial leader of the Anglican Communion, says he won’t personally bless any same-sex couples because it’s his job to unify the world’s 85 million Anglicans. That hasn’t appeased some conservative bishops, who say they no longer recognize Welby as their leader. (Richard Heathcote/Pool Photo via AP)
The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby walks through Westminster in London on Sept. 14, 2022.

Caught in the middle is the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby — the top bishop of the Church of England and ceremonial leader of the Anglican Communion.

Welby says he won’t personally bless same-sex couples because it’s his job to unify the world’s 85 million Anglicans. That hasn’t appeased some conservative bishops, who say they no longer recognize Welby as their leader.

The decision to allow blessings of same-sex couples followed five years of discussions about church positions on sexuality. Church leaders apologized for a failure to welcome LGBTQ people but also affirmed the doctrine that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.

“What we have proposed as a way forward does not go nearly far enough for many, but too far for others,” said Sarah Mullally, bishop of London.

UNITED METHODIST SEPARATION

A slow-motion breakup is underway in the United Methodist Church. A few years ago, it was the third-largest denomination in the United States, but a quarter of U.S. congregations have recently received permission to leave over disputes involving LGBTQ-related policies.

Of the more than 7,650 departing churches, most are conservative-leaning congregations responding to what they see as a failure to enforce bans on same-sex marriage and the ordaining of openly LGBTQ people.

There’s no firm estimate of how many members are leaving, as some who belong to departing congregations are joining other UMC churches. But UMC officials are preparing to cut denominational agencies’ budgets in anticipation of lower revenues from church offerings.

FILE - Pope Francis arrives to celebrate mass at the John Garang Mausoleum in Juba, South Sudan, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023. Catholics around the world are sharply divided by Francis’ December 2023 declaration giving priests more leeway to bless same-sex couples. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, File)
Pope Francis arrives to celebrate mass at the John Garang Mausoleum in Juba, South Sudan, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023. Catholics around the world are sharply divided by Francis’ December 2023 declaration giving priests more leeway to bless same-sex couples.

United Methodist rules forbid same-sex marriage rites and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” but progressive Methodist churches in the U.S. have increasingly defied these rules.

Conservatives have mobilized like-minded congregations to exit; many are joining the new Global Methodist Church, which intends to enforce such rules.

More than half of United Methodist members are overseas, many in conservative African churches. When UMC delegates meet this spring, they’re expected to debate proposals to liberalize ordination and marriage policies, and make it easier for overseas churches to leave.

SPLITS IN OTHER PROTESTANT DENOMINATIONS

Presaging the UMC schism, several other mainline Protestant denominations over the past two decades endured splits resulting from irreconcilable differences between supporters and opponents of LGBTQ inclusion. For example, after the Episcopal Church ordained an openly gay bishop in 2003, some dioceses and conservatives formed the Anglican Church in North America.

Similar liberal/conservative differences prompted hundreds of congregations to leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) after they embraced LGBTQ-inclusive policies.

Some conservative denominations — such as the Southern Baptist Convention and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — have adhered firmly to policies that reject recognition of same-sex relationships and ordination of openly LGBTQ people. These policies have prompted departures, but no major schism.

Brent Leatherwood, president of the Southern Baptists’ public policy commission, reiterated the SBC’s position in a statement asserting that the Vatican — under Pope Francis — “has been on a trajectory that seems destined for the allowance of same-sex marriage.”

FILE - The Rev. Catherine Bond, left and Reverend Jane Pearce react after being blessed at St John the Baptist church in Felixstowe, England, on Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023 after the use of prayers of blessing for same-sex couples in Church of England services were approved by the House of Bishops. (Joe Giddens/PA via AP, File)
The Rev. Catherine Bond, left and Reverend Jane Pearce react after being blessed at St John the Baptist church in Felixstowe, England, on Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023 after the use of prayers of blessing for same-sex couples in Church of England services were approved by the House of Bishops.

“The reality is marriage has been defined by God … It is a union between one man and one woman for life,” Leatherwood said. “Southern Baptists remain anchored in this truth.”

ORTHODOX CHURCH DISAPPROVAL

The world’s second-largest Christian communion, after the Catholic Church, is the Eastern Orthodox Church, with an estimated 220 million members, concentrated mostly in Eastern Europe and Western Asia. To a large extent, Orthodox Christians disapprove of same-sex marriage and relationships.

In Greece, where the government is pledging to legalize same-sex marriage, the Orthodox Church has expressed strong opposition.

Russia’s Orthodox Church has supported tough anti-LGBTQ legislation enacted with the support of President Vladimir Putin.

NON-CHRISTIAN FAITHS

Debate over LGBTQ inclusion hasn’t been as divisive in the world’s other major religions as in Christianity.

In the Muslim world, there’s widespread disapproval of same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage; many Muslim nations criminalize homosexuality. However, some LGBTQ-inclusive mosques have surfaced in North America and other places.

Among Jews around the world, there are varying approaches to LGBTQ issues, but relatively little high-profile rancor. Orthodox Judaism disapproves of same-sex marriage and sexual relations, while they’re widely accepted in the Reform and Conservative branches.

In Hinduism and Buddhism, there is no universal, official position on same-sex marriage. Many practitioners of the two faiths disapprove of such unions; some communities are more accepting.

Complete Article HERE!

LGBTQ+ church leaders share reflections on service

LEAD WITH LOVE: The Rev. Sarah Hulbert, dean at The Cathedral of All Souls in Biltmore Village, says those who aren’t welcoming LGBTQ+ parishoners with open arms are missing God’s greatest commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself.

by Greg Parlier

The Rev. Sarah Hurlbert says she can understand why some fellow members of the LGBTQ+ community never want to step foot in a church.

“Why would you want to be a part of a religious group that has oppressed folks?” she concedes.

But Hurlbert, who identifies as bisexual, says the same God that made her who she is also called her to the priesthood. She is disappointed in those who use the Bible to discriminate against minority communities because of what she says is an improper conflation of politics and Christian teachings.

“The more you study, the more you realize a lot of what’s being preached out there as the Gospel is not true,” she asserts. “And a lot of it is this cultural conservatism, and they’ve gotten the Bible and the flag and the Constitution all mixed up. And so it’s important for us to be in the public square, not proclaiming a political party.”

For Hurlbert, there are two primary commandments given by God to guide human life.

“Love God above everything else; love your neighbor as yourself. Outside of that, we have created all these things, all these hoops that people have to jump through, none of it’s Gospel. So what Jesus came to say was a pretty simple message that we’ve managed to really, really make hard.”

Hurlbert joined The Cathedral of All Souls in Biltmore Village as dean in 2022. It is part of the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina, which, she says, has been on the forefront of expanding acceptance in the Episcopal church, one of the first Christian denominations to officially allow openly LGBTQ+ ministers in its leadership.

While the national Episcopal leaders voted to make the church “fully inclusive” in 1976, it was 2009 before they passed a resolution officially allowing the ordination of LGBTQ+ bishops, and there wasn’t full support for same-sex marriage until 2015, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

At All Souls in the 1980s, the Rev. Neil Zabriskie was on the leading edge, challenging the WNC diocese to “begin facilitating conversations around human sexuality as well as becoming a welcoming and safe church for gay and lesbian persons,” according to All Souls’ website.

That conversation continued into the next decade, and today, the Rev. José A. McLoughlin, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina, says it’s his goal to welcome and earnestly include everyone, regardless of background.

“In a world where division persists, we hope that our commitment to being open and affirming is an example of the transformative power of love,” he says. “We hope also to be a living example of a church where everyone is not only accepted but fully embraced for who they are and that each person can find belonging that leads to full flourishing in the divine light of love.”

Coming out in the church

The Rev. David Eck, who is gay, did not hide who he was from his congregation when he became pastor of Abiding Savior Lutheran Church in Fairview in 1993. That was a risky move at the time.

“I think early on a lot of us sort of flew under the radar,” he says. “In my denomination, I would have been fired had the bishop known.”

OPEN BOOK: The Rev. David Eck has been leading Abiding Savior Lutheran Church in Fairview for about 30 years and was always open with his congregation about his sexual orientation.

It wasn’t until 2009 that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, of which Abiding Savior is a member, voted to allow gay and lesbian clergy to serve openly, he says.

“I would perform all the unions for couples before it was legal to actually marry folks,” Eck says. “And my congregation was supportive of that. And so, you know, we’ve just been sort of quietly affirming a wide diversity of people.”

When Eck did come out to the bishop and his colleagues from other churches, he was the only openly gay Lutheran pastor in the state, but that was less important to him than worship and community outreach.

“Those who know me well weren’t surprised,” he recalls. “Some folks, you know, just can’t seem to get beyond that prejudice. I had to part ways with some people, and there are pastors in the community that won’t work with me. It just is what it is.”

Hurlbert’s journey to the church and self-acceptance went through Broadway. After being raised in the Episcopal church in Central Florida, she moved to New York City, where she worked backstage in Broadway theaters and attended an Episcopal church she liked. But something was unsettled. She met a few women who were ordained in the church and eventually started to realize what she needed to do.

“Something was being stirred up,” she says of her decision to go to seminary. “I took my time and told God a lot of times that God was wrong. And then I did some real conversation in spiritual direction with clergy, and I finally came to realize, yep, this is what’s happening.”

It wasn’t until she was out of seminary and in the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, where there were lots of other LGBTQ+ clergy, that she came out. By that time, in 2014, the church was much more accepting, making her transition to being open much easier than if she had come out during seminary.

Part of her delay to accept her own sexuality had to do with cultural norms around female relationships, Hurlbert says. There is a cultural acceptance that female relationships take many forms, so early on she was led to believe that certain feelings she was having were just a type of platonic female friendship. Later, when she entered the church, she fought the urge to get swallowed up by her ministry, not allowing herself to be loved by someone because she was so consumed by her duties caring for her congregation.

Eventually, she fell in love with her now-wife, Dee Hurlbert.

LGBTQ+ leadership

For Jesse Nelson, who is gay, the presence of LGBTQ+ leaders in the church is important to fostering a welcoming environment, especially with so much divisive rhetoric coming from segments of the Christian community.

“At the end of the day, you can’t be accepting of LGBTQ+ folks as a church and not accept them into leadership,” he argues. “To me, that’s just not possible. If you’re doing that, you’re playing a game that’s causing confusion.”

Nelson grew up in an evangelical Baptist church in Cashiers but began participating in a local Catholic church because it was a little more socially progressive, he says.

He moved to the Waynesville area about four years ago to help take care of his ailing grandfather and wound up joining Grace Church in the Mountains, an Episcopal church in town, because he liked the way the congregation preached “radical love.”

“They take ‘love God’ and ‘love your neighbor’ very seriously. I think that, for me, that’s pretty important to spiritual life,” he says.

Now, Nelson hosts “joyful fellowship events” for members of the church to share in their experiences as members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Hurlbert says it’s vital for church leaders to actively show the wider community love and acceptance, through word and action, especially in the face of hateful rhetoric that is also being attributed to the Bible.

“I preach to our folks that we’ve got to be out there because there are young people growing up in this far-right Christian nationalism that know in their heart that something’s wrong, but they have nothing that they can go to,” she says. “They don’t even know that there’s a place where you can go and be gay and Christian. For a lot of people, it’s a matter of life and death for us to just be out there and be who we are.”

For Nelson, integrating LGBTQ+ people into the church is the only way to build a community that resembles the one taught by Scripture.

“The point of Christianity to me is to grow in love and understanding, and to build peaceful, loving communities,” he says. “And to do that, I think you have to be accepting of the LGBTQ+ community. Not just tolerate it, but you know, integrate it into spiritual life. Because yeah, it is part of our life experience. So it is sacred.”

Complete Article HERE!