The challenge and opportunity of gay rights in the church: A look at two congregations

Gay rights is one of the biggest issues facing today's churches, as seen through the struggles and opportunities of two congregations.

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The elegant exterior of First Presbyterian Church of St. Petersburg - Amy Katsouris
Amy Katsouris
The elegant exterior of First Presbyterian Church of St. Petersburg

Let’s say that you went into a random group of Americans and shouted at them to state their opinion on gay marriage. While I wouldn’t recommend doing this, you would probably get a fair variety of responses and opinions. Current American churches also tend to have members who have a broad spectrum of opinions on gay marriage, as well as other subjects revolving around gay rights in the Church, such as ordination of gay leaders or interpreting the Bible passages dealing with homosexuality.

Until recently, it would have been hard to find a long-established denomination that openly accepted gay marriage, participation, and ordination. Churches tended to either openly oppose homosexuality or be neutral on the subject, perhaps hoping that it would go away or be settled with the passage of time. But an increasing number of Christians see gay rights as not just a social but also a spiritual issue, one of the most important ones of our time, and have demanded change.  As the Western world itself has experienced a massive shift of opinion on the subject, some prominent American Christian denominations like the United Church of Christ, the Episcopalians, the Evangelical Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) have allowed for gay marriage and ordination. 

These changes have not come about without long and bitter debate and some cost in membership and donations, which is a burden as these are all denominations that have been bleeding members since the 1960s.  But the short-term pain may yet result in long-term gains.  After all, young Americans are much more supportive of gay rights than older generations and affirming congregations could prove appealing and a key to attracting a skeptical generation.  This article will look at two churches in St. Petersburg that have become congregations open to the LGBTQ community and how this has led to some friction, but also benefits:

First Presbyterian Church With its prime location on 701 Beach Drive N.E. in St. Pete, First Presbyterian is one of the city’s most visible churches. Like many Presbyterian congregations, the church has struggled with the denomination’s decision to permit gay marriage and ordination. As interim Pastor Dr. Will Browne described, the issues came to a head two years ago with the election of an openly gay man as an elder. After much discussion, the congregation decided to be open in its individual church statement regarding its support for all of the sacraments of the church, including marriage and ordination to be open to gay members.

Rev. Browne, who is quite in favor of this new openness, notes that some members did leave the church — and a few of those who left were substantial donors. 

“We can’t be all things for all people,” he notes, adding that the church has also gained members from its decision, though they have not been quite so financially generous (though he hopes that may change in the future). There is still some discomfort among members, as when it was decided not to host a float in the Pride Parade this year, though Browne observed that about 10 other churches will have floats in the parade.

While the issue of homosexuality had been taboo in the past, Browne found that it impacted many members. He recalled being told by an elder of a certain number of members that he knew were gay, while Browne actually knew of three times that many. Beyond that, many others in the church had children, brothers, sisters, and other loved ones who were gay. He feels that the church is now solidly in favor of being a welcoming church.

A main objection to homosexuality in Christianity has come from certain Biblical passages against it. For his part, Browne believes that people often pick and choose passages and ignore verses with which they don’t. He feels the scripture is against abusive and errant sexual behavior — for homosexual and heterosexuals alike — but that there had been no room in religion or society previously for gay couples to have acknowledged life-long relationships. One member who would agree with Browne’s views is Robin Lyle, who undertook his own study of the Bible on the subject of homosexuality, and was inspired to write his own class and curriculum called “A Life Together at the Foot of the Cross.” An excerpt from his study explains his view and that of many in First Presbyterian: “In my own life of prayer and discernment, I have come to understand that in Christ, all people, including people who are LGBTQ, are in Christ’s unrestricted and unqualified grace, love, and forgiveness.”

Rev. Andy Oliver posing with posters made for the Pride Parade - Amy Katsouris
Amy Katsouris
Rev. Andy Oliver posing with posters made for the Pride Parade

Allendale United Methodist Church 

The United Methodist Church is not a denomination that allows gay marriage or ordination, but the issue is definitely causing discussion — and discomfort. The UMC recently had its first openly gay bishop, Karen Oliveto, whose standing is still up in the air. There will be a special session in 2019 dedicated to the issue, but many United Methodist churches are not waiting until then to declare their support of the gay community.  One of these affirming churches is St. Petersburg’s Allendale United Methodist Church, at 3803 Haines Rd. (full disclosure: I am a member at Allendale).

 A good deal smaller than First Presbyterian, Allendale had been experiencing decline but has found new life under its current pastor, Andy Oliver. With his approach to ministry centered around social justice, Rev. Oliver believes that change in the congregation regarding controversial issues needs to happen, but should be prepared for and discussed. Before Allendale declared itself to be a fully-welcoming church, he went to various groups and homes for conversation to ready members for the shift, while also listening to stories of gay, lesbian and transgender Christians. 

In the process, Allendale lost about 10 members but gained over 30 and is on track to add as many as 50 in the coming year. Some of these new members are from the gay community, while others just like the new focus on a Christian approach to justice. Among the newcomers is Ben Weger, Allendale’s interim worship leader, whom Rev. Oliver sought to hire after Weger was fired from his previous church for being trans. As with First Presbyterian, there has been some decline in giving but the mood is fairly optimistic at Allendale with some members becoming active in outreach efforts, like Mike and Terry Fitzgerald who recently represented the group Reconciling Ministries at the Annual Conference of the Florida United Methodist Church.      

"The opportunity to serve as part of a church where I am welcomed and celebrated in bringing my whole self to God's table, is one of the greatest gifts I've received," Weger said.

Oliver believes that the UMC will ultimately decide to open up marriage and ordination to gay members. He doesn’t think a split will occur, but that some loss of membership will likely happen. In the district Allendale is part of, there have been gay leaders and marriages, but opinions vary widely among Methodists nationwide.  “We have decided to go all in," Oliver says of Allendale. "People being marginalized deserve a place.”

Amy Katsouris teaches religion at St. Petersburg College.

About The Author

Amy Katsouris

%{[ data-embed-type="image" data-embed-id="58f4d2c257ab46ee6b2474ec" data-embed-element="span" data-embed-size="640w" contenteditable="false" ]}%Amy Katsouris teaches at St. Petersburg College, focusing on how religion impacts the world and local communities. She received her Ph.D. in Religion at the University...
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