Talking, teaching, and learning about homosexuality at church may seem out of place in an American religious context in which polarized denominational debate about homosexuality regularly leads to newspaper headlines like “Nation’s Churches in Turmoil over Gays,” “Conservative Group Amplifies Voice of Protestant Orthodoxy,” and “Church is Rebuked on Same-Sex Unions.” While these headlines certainly describe one aspect of the debate over homosexuality in mainline Protestant churches, they overlook the experiences some people are having as they study and learn about homosexuality in their congregations. The national headlines beg the question of how local congregations are responding to the issue of homosexuality: Are they addressing it or ignoring it? If certain congregations are addressing the issue, do these congregations include only people who agree or do their members disagree on the subject? Are clergy facilitating studies and conversations about homosexuality or are they trying to keep the issue out of sight? And are local congregations as divided about homosexuality as national denominational debate might lead us to think?
Three of my colleagues and I addressed these and other questions through a sociological research project that examined how 30 congregations in three mainline Protestant denominations—the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Methodist Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—responded to homosexuality in recent years.1 In an effort to better understand what is taking place around homosexuality in local congregations—below the national media radar screen—we focused on how a wide range of congregations in one northeastern region responded to the issue. (In accordance with the customary promise of confidentiality to those who participate in sociological research, we have not identified the precise geographic region studied and we have used pseudonyms when referring to the congregations and individuals included in our study.)
Through our interviews with clergy and lay leaders, we found that a broad range of congregations are talking about homosexuality in study groups, Sunday school classes, adult educational forums, and in other ways. Despite the conflict and anxiety that often surround the topic, the congregations we studied are not generally divided over the issue; instead, they are bringing together people with diverse opinions about homosexuality who are learning a great deal through ongoing conversations with one another.
In the majority of these congregations, conversations about homosexuality first arose in response to national denominational debates rather than national political events or related issues in local congregations. Some congregations, particularly Lutheran congregations, focused on homosexuality at the request of their denomination, as one part of the national denominational study of sexuality the ELCA initiated nationally in 2001. At other congregations, particular events sparked discussion of the topic.
Being with Difference
For instance, at “Trinity Lutheran Church,” a 200-person congregation in a northeastern suburb, the topic of homosexuality came to the fore in multiple ways, starting with the sudden death of the organist’s same-sex partner. Although, according to Pastor “Martin,” most members of the congregation were not aware of the organist’s sexual orientation, the majority of the church’s members attended his partner’s funeral. Several years later the issue emerged again when two gay couples joined the congregation and two heterosexual couples from more conservative backgrounds left as a result, telling the pastor that they believed she and the denomination had an “agenda” around “alternative lifestyles.” The pastor was concerned that these families were leaving the congregation and brought the issue of homosexuality before the congregation as a whole. She decided that, with the assistance of two laypeople, she would lead the congregation through a study of homosexuality using the materials the ELCA had created during its 2001 national sexuality study (see www.elca.org/faithfuljourney). Fifty of the 70 church members who regularly attend worship at Trinity Lutheran participated in the study, which took place every Sunday afternoon for seven weeks.
Martin began the study by having participants take a short anonymous survey in which they were asked to check which of a long list of potentially controversial behaviors (such as suicide, gambling, euthanasia, adultery, promiscuity, and prostitution) they considered sins. When they tallied the list, they saw that they were not in agreement about a single item, even those about which the church has positions. That fact became a sort of “trump card,” Martin said, in the sense that “we worship together, we have fellowship together, we love one another, and we don’t agree on anything.” After revealing the results of the tally, Martin then asked church members to agree to participate in the study, “knowing that we’re not going to be in agreement but that we’re going to be respectful of one another.”
As expected, church members disagreed with one another as they went through the study materials, but the tone of their discussions was civil, and people shared their thoughts and feelings. “We kept reminding them every session … we’re not trying to come to any kind of consensus and our survey already showed us that we don’t agree on anything,” Martin said. At the end of the study, the congregation put together a booklet in which one congregant described the experience as follows: “In the end, what happened is that people respected each other more even when their opinions differed. I have thought about this dilemma for a long time and have changed my mind a few times. Our pastor taught us about grace in our study and that helped me… . The Holy Spirit was really part of our work, and those who did not participate missed out on an awesome event.”
While a number of congregations went through formal study processes around homosexuality, as Trinity Lutheran did, others addressed homosexuality in broader congregational spaces like Sunday school classes, youth groups, and adult education forums. Denominational differences were quite clear, with Lutheran congregations generally hosting congregational studies of sexuality in line with the denomination’s national sexuality study, and United Methodist and Presbyterian congregations generally addressing the topic in a wider range of forums. At one urban Presbyterian church, for instance, homosexuality became a focus of conversation for the congregation in the midst of a particularly divisive denominational debate and was then addressed in a Sunday school class by a representative of One by One ministries, a group that supports people who previously understood themselves to be homosexual but no longer do.
In all of the 30 congregations studied, clergy played central roles in facilitating conversations about homosexuality by actively including people with different viewpoints in these events, facilitating conversations among those people, and often arguing both sides of the issue so that all viewpoints were heard. Rather than advancing particular positions, many clergy spoke about creating spaces in which all perspectives could be heard and considered. “I saw my role as really facilitating the discussion,” explained the pastor of one small congregation, who offered communion at the end of each study session, and closed the session with a prayer. “I really saw my role as helping everyone have a sense that their view was heard and appreciated,” said another pastor. That role was not fulfilled without difficulty, however. As one pastor explained, it was sometimes difficult “to get people to say what they honestly mean, but … in a way that doesn’t cast judgment on everybody around them.”
who participated in the study also reported that keeping discussions balanced was not always easy. A number of them spoke about the hesitation with which they approached the discussions and the challenging positions in which they sometimes found themselves. Reverend “Brown,” pastor of “Grace Lutheran Church,” said he went into his congregation’s study with “fear and trembling,” feeling that his responsibility was to create a space in which any perspective could be respectfully articulated. Brown decided to teach the class at his church when national church leaders asked him to do so and provided the necessary study materials.
For six weeks, 12 members of his congregation gathered for an hour before worship service each week to read about and discuss homosexuality from biblical and cultural viewpoints. Despite his own trepidation and the difficulty of facilitating discussion on such a sensitive topic, Brown views the study as a very worthwhile endeavor, as do his study group participants.
After completing the program, one church member, “Phyllis,” reported that “knowing the biblical and historical background” helped her better understand homosexuality and led her to think that “if two men or two women are committed to each other for the rest of their lives” it is not so different from the commitment she has made to her husband. “My husband and I are very committed to each other,” she explained, “and I would have trouble denying that to anyone else.”
Not everyone in the class agreed with Phyllis, Brown explained, saying that he could see “some discomfort in even talking about it [homosexuality]” among more conservative church members. “And yet they were there,” he said. “They came.” Thinking of recent national debates over gay marriage, I asked Phyllis if she spoke about issues related to homosexuality or gays and lesbians in places other than her church. “Not really,” she responded, saying that at work she is “too busy to do much talking with others,” and in her neighborhood people are quite conservative and she “would not broach the subject with them” because she knows “they are very fundamental in their beliefs.”
All but one of the congregations studied responded to homosexuality in a calm, civil way, with minimal conflict. While the pastors of a few congregations reported losing a few members, many more were surprised by people’s interest in and commitment to ongoing conversation about the topic. Rather than fostering the anxiety many clergy felt when the issue of homosexuality began to be discussed in their congregations, many clergy described themselves as “pleasantly surprised” by the results, specifically the extent to which people with different viewpoints listened to each other. Participants in these studies, as one Lutheran pastor described it, “experienced an atmosphere that proves that we can disagree on an issue and still kneel next to each other at the communion rail.”
Because of people’s general anxieties about sexuality in general, the church’s historical silence on these issues, and the challenges of balancing conversation among people with different viewpoints, few clergy described their experiences of teaching and learning about homosexuality as easy. Reflecting on the kinds of conversations about sexuality they can create and facilitate, a Presbyterian minister said, “There are very few people who actually openly engage in a free discourse. I think on one level Christians should be able to be free to do that, because if we’re grounded on sound principles, that kind of gives you the freedom to venture out and hear and listen…” It was conversations about difficult issues, another concluded, that Jesus Christ modeled and local congregations should as well.
Tips for Conversation
We asked each of the clergy interviewed what suggestions they would make to other clergy considering addressing homosexuality in their congregations. Here’s what they told us:
1. This research was supported by a summer stipend from the Louisville Institute. Research colleagues included Christopher Wildeman (Princeton University), Heather Day (Bowdoin College), and James T. Harrison (Bowdoin College).