Young evangelicals are leaving church. LGBTQ bias may be driving them away.

By Yonat Shimron

For Ethan Stalker, the break unfolded in a now familiar way.

On March 18, 2019, Stalker announced on a blog post he was gay. The next day, he got invited to a coffee meeting with a pastor at the evangelical church in New York City where he was serving as a lay leader. The pastor told him he no longer qualified to be a small group leader.

His life choices, he was told, were not “God’s best” for him. The church allowed the 25-year-old, who works in marketing for healthcare companies, to continue to volunteer on its broadcast production team.

Three months later, Stalker quit the church.

“They loved to tell me my sexuality doesn’t define me,” Stalker said. “But they shoved a handful of verses down my throat that completely sexualize me as a gay person and put a cap on what I can do. It dismissed who I am as a complex human being. That was a huge problem for me.”

Stalker’s story is one shared by thousands of LGBTQ young people who grew up in evangelical churches that deny them full participation. LGBTQ people are typically excluded from serving on church boards and from leading worship or other church groups. They are not ordained or allowed to marry same-sex partners in the church. That’s causing many younger evangelicals — gay and straight — to question the integrity of their church’s theology and the consistency of its biblical interpretation.

Amid widespread acceptance of LGBTQ people, evangelical church attitudes toward the group have not budged, and the consequences have been dire

A study last month by the Public Religion Research Institute found the number of Americans who identify as white evangelicals has declined dramatically, from 23% in 2006 to 14.5% in 2020. Those leaving in the greatest numbers are younger evangelicals whose attitudes toward sexual minorities are starkly at odds with their elders. Take same-sex marriage: While only one-third (34%) of white evangelicals age 50 and over favor same-sex marriage, 51% of younger white evangelicals ages 18-49 now favor it — a majority, another PRRI study found.

To be sure, evangelicals, like people of all faiths, leave church for many reasons: changing politics, shifting cultural tastes, spiritual restlessness. But among younger evangelicals, the church’s attitude on sexuality is emerging as one of the big causes for the decline.

“Most people know and love someone who’s openly gay,” said Julie Rodgers, a Christian writer, activist and lesbian whose story is featured in the new documentary on Netflix, “Pray Away.” “It causes them to wrestle with the implication of teachings that say, ‘We’re bad and wrong and sinful.’ It creates a significant conflict for them in a way that (evangelical allegiance to) the Republican Party more broadly feels like an abstraction, and they don’t see the effect of that on human beings they know and love.”

In contrast with most mainline Protestant denominations where LGBTQ members are routinely ordained and their marriages solemnized in church (the United Methodist Church being the exception), white evangelical denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the Presbyterian Church in America, the Anglican Church in North America and dozens of others have resisted offering gay people equality. LGBTQ people are allowed to attend church, to be baptized and in most cases to take Communion — but not much else. All three denominations doubled down on their opposition to fully affirming LGBTQ people at their annual conferences this summer.

In evangelical circles, LGBTQ equality has become the litmus test. Churches that stray from those policies risk losing their evangelical bonafides.

“If you make space for marrying or ordaining queer clergy or parishioners, you’re now decidedly out of the evangelical world,” said Michael Rudzena, pastor of Good Shepherd New York, a non-denominational church that is welcoming for LGBTQ people, many of them fleeing evangelical congregations.

One of the hallmarks of evangelicalism is its high view of Scripture. Evangelicals take the Bible to be the literal or authoritative word of God. That leads them to highlight a handful of passages that condemn gay sex.

Yet many evangelicals have found a way to embrace and minister to divorced people, even though the Bible, and Jesus, specifically, frowns on it.

“There’s some selective literalism that ignores divorce and remarriage but can’t make the adjustment on this yet,” said the Rev. Fred Harrell, pastor of City Church San Francisco, a Reformed Church in America congregation that fully affirms LGBTQ people.

City Church decided in 2015 to be a fully inclusive church. Overnight it lost 300 members. Its $5.8 million annual budget shrunk to about $2.8 million today. It laid off staff, cut other people’s salaries and had to shut down one of its campuses. Yet, Harrell said he has no regrets. About 15% of the church’s 336 members (with another 360 who attend but do not belong) identify as LGBTQ. Harrell said they’re among the most active and dedicated members.

“They’re really solid people who have been an enormous blessing to the church,” Harrell said. “I tell my non-affirming friends, ‘You’re really missing out.’”

City Church is one of a handful of churches once considered evangelical that have offered LGBTQ full inclusion. GracePointe in Nashville and EastLake Community Church in Seattle are two others that broke from the evangelical pack at the same time. The toll was steep. In the four years that followed — years that coincided with the Trump administration — few others made the move.

That’s not to say there have been no shifts on the part of evangelicals.

Conversion therapy, the discredited practice of attempting to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity, has increasingly come under fire, as the documentary “Pray Away” reveals. At least 20 states have banned the practice among minors. Once a common approach embraced by many churches, conversion therapy has even been denounced by evangelical elites such as Russell Moore, formerly the Southern Baptist Convention’s top ethicist.

In addition, more Christian publishers — such as Convergent, HarperOne, Broadleaf and Eerdmans — are willing to publish books affirming LGBTQ Christians.

Those changes have been too little, too late for some.

Jake Dawkins, a 26-year-old software engineer from Greenville, South Carolina, who growing up attended evangelical churches, dropped out over the churches’ view on sexuality. A straight man, he lived for a while in New York City where he met lots of committed gay Christians.

“Meeting people with different viewpoints opened my mind up to what Christianity could be,” Dawkins said. “That started separating me from more traditional Christianity. That disconnect or discomfort that I felt with the church gave me the opportunity to recognize other things about the church I wasn’t a fan of.”

Jonathan Merritt, a senior columnist at Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic, who recently came out as gay, said he foresees a gradual evolution in evangelical circles.

Churches might begin treating LGBTQ people as they do divorced people, directing them to support groups and allowing them to take on service-oriented projects.

“At the end of the day, the history of evangelicalism is a history of pragmatism,” Merritt said.

Just as the churches once opposed rock music — now ubiquitous in the form of Christian rock or praise songs — so, too, evangelical resistance to LGBTQ people may soften.

The question is whether that will happen quickly enough for the people who are fed up with the homophobia still tolerated in evangelical circles.

Elliot Rossomme, a 26-year-old gay man who had been attending a nondenominational evangelical church while studying for a graduate degree in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, made the break two years ago.

He had grown up in an evangelical church in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When he got to Berkeley he noticed the church he was attending never discussed sexuality. So he proposed leading a support group for LGBTQ members. He was told he could start the group, so long as he forswore dating, promised he wouldn’t disparage the theological position of the church or advocate for other positions. (Some evangelical churches have accepted the reality of same-sex attraction but require gays to be celibate if they are to serve in leadership positions.)

“That day, I realized I couldn’t go to that church anymore,” Rossomme said.

Two years ago, he decided to try City Church San Francisco. At the end of the first service he attended, as the Eucharist, or the bread and the wine, was about to be celebrated, he said he cried.

“There was a sense that I don’t have to fight for my place at this table here, and they want me to come forward and don’t have qualms about me participating in this meal,” he said.

Here, he no longer felt like a theological outsider and could dedicate positive energy toward building a community he believes in. He joined the church

Ethan Stalker, the New York City marketer, has also found his way to a church — Good Shepherd New York, which welcomes a number of LGBTQ refugees.

But after volunteering all his life for various church projects (he was a theology major at Anderson University in South Carolina, a Christian school) and finding all his social connections through church, he’s more tentative now.

“I’m still recovering and working through the hurt and trauma I experienced being in leadership roles at churches,” Stalker said. “I’m not sure if I will ever be ready to step back into a leadership role. I’d like to think one day I will be able to, but only time will tell.”

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Catholic Church bankrolling opposition to biz-backed LGBTQ rights expansion

FILE UNDER: Insulated, monolithic, callous, tone deaf church power structure

BY

The Michigan Catholic Conference has contributed nearly $240,000 to a campaign committee opposing a business-backed initiative to expand Michigan’s civil rights law to include protections for LGBTQ individuals.

Campaign finance reports filed on Monday show the Lansing-based Michigan Catholic Conference, which bills itself as “the official voice of the Catholic Church in Michigan on matters of public policy,” has made $238,874.80 in direct and in-kind contributions to Citizens for Equality, Fairness and Justice, an organization formed in April that has actively opposed the LGBTQ initiative. The MCC made up nearly all of the committee’s $204,175 in direct contributions this funding cycle.

The Fair and Equal Michigan campaign launched the ballot initiative to expand Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 to enshrine protections in employment and public accommodations for LGBTQ individuals and ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Michigan Board of State Canvassers voted unanimously on Monday to reject Fair and Equal Michigan’s petition signatures, claiming the campaign didn’t have enough valid signatures to advance the proposal.

Fair and Equal Michigan officials have vowed to appeal the Board of Canvassers’ vote to the state Court of Appeals.

The Fair and Equal Michigan campaign has received widespread support from some of Michigan’s largest employers, including Consumers Energy, DTE Energy, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and General Motors, to name a few. Executives have said expanding the civil rights law is not only a human rights issue, but also a key component to attracting and retaining talent to the state.

Earlier this year, Citizens for Equality, Fairness and Justice filed a challenge against Fair and Equal Michigan before the Board of State Canvassers, as Michigan Advance previously reported. The newly formed committee had ties to attorneys who had previously fought LGBTQ measures, but it was unclear at the time who was funding the organization.

Campaign finance reports show the Michigan Catholic Conference directly contributed $200,000 to Citizens for Equality, Fairness and Justice on July 2, and gave another $38,874.80 in in-kind donations on July 7. The committee has also received $3,000 from issue advocacy group Michigan Future First, and $1,000 from the Lansing-based Michigan Family Forum. The committee reported $80,389.55 in expenditures, leaving nearly $124,000 in cash on hand.

Citizens for Equality, Fairness and Justice Treasurer Daniel Wholihan declined to comment for this story, referring questions to committee spokesperson and Republican political strategist Patrick Meyers.

Meyers said in an emailed statement to MiBiz: “The Board of State Canvassers got it right: the so-called “Fair and Equal” petition clearly submitted an inadequate number of signatures for their initiative. They got a fair and equal review by the Bureau of Elections, but fell well short, and we’re pleased that their poorly drafted, misleading proposal is now off the table for 2022.”

Officials with the Michigan Catholic Conference did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The organization issued a press release Monday about its effort to support challenges to Fair and Equal Michigan.

“The Fair and Equal Michigan proposal includes an unprecedented and likely unconstitutional provision to define religion only as a person’s individual beliefs and would restrict the ability for religious organizations to provide humanitarian aid and social services in the public square,” MCC Vice President for Communications David Maluchnik said in a statement. “The proposal would have a crushing impact on the poor of Michigan by harming many Catholic and Christian, Muslim, and Jewish organizations who daily and outwardly express their faith as a way of life out of love for their neighbor.”

Fair and Equal Michigan Spokesperson Josh Hovey told MiBiz: “When we have every major business group in the state … endorsing us, it’s not necessarily suprising but it’s transparent to see who’s out there funding the opposition. And unfortunately it’s the opposition.”

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Vatican moves to tamp down spat with Italy over LGBT rights

In this Oct. 4, 2020 file photo, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin talks to journalists during a press conference at the Vatican. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, attempted to tamp down controversy Thursday, May 24, 2021, over a Vatican diplomatic communication to Italy, saying that the Holy See’s intention was not to block passage of a law that would extend additional protections from discrimination to the LGBT community.

by COLLEEN BARRY

The Vatican’s Secretary of State attempted to tamp down controversy Thursday over a Vatican diplomatic communication to Italy, saying the Holy See was not trying to block passage of a law that would extend additional protections from discrimination to the LGBT community.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s No. 2, told Vatican News that he personally approved the diplomatic communication, which was intended to express concerns over the proposed Italian legislation. The Vatican is against any “attitude or gesture of intolerance or hatred toward people motivated by sexual orientations,” he added.

The chief concern, Parolin said, is that “vagaries” in the text of the proposed law could expose anyone expressing an opinion about “any possible distinction between man and woman” to prosecution.

The letter, which has been published by Italian media, claims specifically that the law would violate a landmark treaty establishing diplomatic ties between Italy and the Vatican by putting at risk the right of Roman Catholics to freely express themselves. It cited as an example a clause that would require Catholic schools, along with their public counterparts, to run activities on a designated day against homophobia and transphobia.

The law would add women, people who are homosexual, transsexual or with disabilities, to those protected by a law banning discrimination and punishing hate crimes. The lower house of parliament passed the legislation in November, but it has been stalled in the Senate by right-wing concerns that it would limit freedom of expression.

Right-wing leader Matteo Salvini, for example, has complained that anyone saying that a family is formed with a man and a woman would be exposed to possible prosecution.

Backers of the law have dismissed such concerns, saying that the threshold for prosecution is inciting hatred or violence against the protected classes.

Premier Mario Draghi on Wednesday rebuffed the Vatican’s attempt at influencing the legislative process, telling parliament: “Italy is a secular state.”

But the controversy has ignited outrage over Vatican meddling, with many calling for the cancellation of the so-called Lateran Treaty, originally established under fascism and revised in the 1980s, establishing diplomatic ties between the Vatican and predominantly Roman Catholic Italy.

LGBT activists have vowed to transform Gay Pride events in Rome and Milan on Saturday into protests against what they say is the Vatican’s unprecedented interference in the Italian legislative process.

In decades past, the Vatican objected to Italian laws legalizing abortion and divorce and backed unsuccessful referendums after the fact to try to repeal them.

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Cork priest in call for conversation to be held in church on pastoral outreach to gay Catholics

Fr Tim Hazelwood, who is the parish priest of Killeagh, is one of four signatories to a letter sent by the Association of Catholic Priests.

By Ann Murphy

A CORK priest has written to Bishops asking that a conversation be held in the Irish Catholic Church about a sensitive and pastoral outreach to gay Catholics.

Fr Tim Hazelwood, who is the parish priest of Killeagh, is one of four signatories to the letter sent by the Association of Catholic Priests.

It follows the publication of a document in March by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which said Catholic clergy cannot bless same-sex unions because God “cannot bless sin.”

Letter to bishops

In the letter, the priests said the need for the conversation “has been underlined recently by the insensitive and unnecessary intervention by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) that has brought such pain and distress to gay women and men, to their families and friends.”

It said that “the content, language and judgemental tone of the CDF’s statement reflect an increasingly out of touch and uncaring Church and exactly the kind of attitude that provokes more and more Catholics into walking away from our Church.

“Messages we have received from gay people and family members spoke of the hurt and anger they are made to feel and they write of the struggle they have remaining part of the church. Only one Irish Bishop had the courage to respond to the CDF statement and his words were deeply appreciated.”

The letter continued: “More worryingly, the CDF intervention runs counter to ‘the synodal path’ that Francis has told us is God’s way of being Church in the future and which the Irish Bishops have recently endorsed through their commitment to move the Irish Church along that pathway in preparation for a national synodal event within the next five years.”

‘A conversation that needs to take place’

In pointing out that times are changing, the priests said that a recent ACP webinar on the pastoral care of members of the LGBTQ+ community as memorable, continuing: “There were many heartfelt contributions from people who continue to feel hurt and shame. Stories that could be replicated in every parish but sadly are often unwelcome or unheard.”

The letter added: “Why are we so cold and uncaring in the Church around this topic? Why the lack of knowledge and understanding that still informs inappropriate sermons and comments? Why are we afraid to welcome gay Catholics? Why are we afraid to listen to their stories?

“There is a listening and a conversation that need to take place in our Church and we respectfully request the Irish bishops to facilitate it and to participate in it. A refusal to engage runs counter to the synodal pathway.”

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German Catholic Priests Defy Rome to Offer Blessings to Gay Couples

More than 100 Roman Catholic parishes in Germany held services to bless gay couples, in defiance of the Vatican’s refusal to recognize same-sex unions.

The Rev. Wolfgang Rothe blesses Christine Walter and Almut Muenster during a service at St. Benedict’s Catholic Church on Sunday in Munich.

By

More than 100 Roman Catholic parishes in Germany offered blessings to gay couples on Monday in defiance of church teaching and their own bishops.

The call for nationwide blessings came in response to a decree issued by the Vatican on March 15, reinforcing the church’s prohibition of priests asking for God’s benevolence for gay couples, stating that God “does not and cannot bless sin.”

A group of 16 German priests and volunteers organized a petition that within days collected more than 2,000 signatures. Encouraged by the response, they decided to take their action one step further and declare May 10 — chosen because of its association with Noah, who in the Bible is recognized by God with a rainbow, a symbol that has more recently been adopted by the L.G.B.T.Q. community — as a day to hold blessing ceremonies for any and all couples, but especially those in same-sex unions.

“In view of the refusal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to bless homosexual partnerships, we raise our voices and say: We will continue to accompany people who enter into a binding partnership in the future and bless their relationship,” the group said in a statement. “We will not refuse a blessing ceremony.”

The Vatican had no comment on Monday, but the head of the conference of Roman Catholic bishops in Germany, Georg Bätzing, who is also the bishop of Limburg, rejected using public blessing ceremonies as what he called “instruments for symbolic actions on church policy or for protests.”

“It is part of the pastoral ministry of the church to treat all of these people fairly in their respective concrete situations on their life’s journey and to accompany them pastorally,” Bishop Bätzing said in a statement, speaking for the country’s bishops. “In this context, however, I do not consider public actions such as those planned for 10 May to be helpful or a way forward.”

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, because that is God’s plan for the creation of life. Church doctrine says that while gay people must be treated with dignity, homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered.” Pope Francis has not changed this teaching, but has occasionally raised the hopes of gay Catholics by speaking of the need to love and welcome gay and transgender people.

The German church is among the most powerful and liberal in the world, and Roman Catholics everywhere were watching the response to the blessings for signals of how the church might respond to attempts at reform from those in the pews and from the priests who are often among those most active in finding ways to include gay men and lesbians in the church.

“There has been this incredible discussion in Germany about same-sex couples specifically that has not taken place anywhere else,” said Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry, which represents gay and lesbian Catholics in the United States. “No other group has done something like that.”

A few German parishes held blessing services on Sunday and dozens more took place Monday, many of them in churches in the heavily Roman Catholic western regions of the country, home to many of Germany’s most liberal Catholics. Some were streamed live, while others offered virtual blessings over social media, “whenever and wherever you want.”

By contrast, only a few parishes in the heavily Roman Catholic southern state of Bavaria, the more deeply conservative region where Pope Benedict XVI grew up, held services.

Churches that were not offering ceremonies were encouraged to fly a rainbow flag or other banners recognizing and celebrating love in all of its forms as worthy of God’s graces.

The Rev. Bernd Mönkebüscher, pastor in the Church of St. Agnes in the western town of Hamm and one of the initiators of the campaign, said that every Valentine’s Day, his parish holds blessings for all couples, including those from same-sex unions and those who remarried after a divorce.

“We held a blessing service this Valentine’s Day, but it was important to us in view of this story from Rome to send a clear signal that the church must recognize, honor and appreciate life in all of its many colors,” said Father Mönkebüscher, who identifies as gay. “It is an important gesture toward those people who the church for years, if not decades, has viewed as second-class citizens.”

At least 30 couples had registered to take part in the ceremony in his parish on Monday, he said, adding that the number of participants was limited because of restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. “We are fully booked out,” he said.

During the ceremony, Father Mönkebüscher walked around the nave, approaching couples who sat in pairs, socially distanced and masked. They rose as he placed a hand on their shoulders and spoke a blessing as they bowed their heads. After one lesbian couple had received their blessing, they dropped their masks and shared a kiss, wiping away tears.

Not everyone has been receptive of the initiative. One parish in Bavaria received threats from members of an arch-conservative Roman Catholic group and had to call the police to ensure the safety of participants at their ceremony.

The initiative is the latest strain between the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church in Germany. Many parishioners in Germany have left the church, including those frustrated with what they see as an outdated approach to sexual morality and a failure to punish priests accused of abusing children.

According to official statistics, 272,771 people formally quit the Church in 2019, a record number that helped to galvanize efforts among the bishops to discuss with the church a series of issues they believe were contributing to the loss of members. Among them were the role of women in the church, its teachings on sexual morality, priestly celibacy and clerical power structures.

In 2019, they began a series of talks on these topics, discussions of which would be off-limits for the church in many other countries. The talks were to take place among the faithful and church leaders over the course of two years but were extended because of restrictions on gatherings that were introduced last year at the outbreak of the pandemic. They are now to continue into February 2022.

Among those leaving the Church in Germany are many same-sex couples, who are tired of feeling they are not accepted for who they are, said the Rev. Reinhard Kleinewiese, who held a blessing at the Church of St. Mary in the western town of Ahlen on Sunday evening. Ten couples attend, all of them heterosexuals.

“We can’t ignore the fact that a lot of homosexual couples have already left the church. There are many who don’t come anymore,” Father Kleinewiese said. “Nevertheless, it is good and important for this situation and beyond that we make clear that we are not in agreement with Rome on certain issues and prohibitions.”

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