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Are LGBT Churches Headed for the Great Beyond?

MCC Corpus Christi

A Texas congregation of the 49-year-old Metropolitan Community Church shutters, while the denomination ponders its future.

As the worship service came to a close at the Metropolitan Community Church of Corpus Christi, Texas, July 30, so too did the official presence of the longest running LGBT-accepting Christian church in the city. Some 35 years after the church opened its doors in this conservative community and offered a haven to queer people, leaders earlier this month announced the doors here would close, that the congregation would disband, and worship materials from altar candles to clerical robes would be made available to other MCC locations.

"We just didn't have the money to keep going on," says Rev. Dr. Gail Simonds. "It's been a long grieving process. For a lot of people, being able to be in church was a hard-fought battle, and now that's gone."

The repercussions of the announcement reverberated through the South, where many wonder what the future of the MCC denomination, founded in 1968 and preparing to celebrate 50 years of existence, will look like in its second half-century. Once the only haven for queer Christians in search of a place of worship, MCC no longer stands alone as the only church open to and accepting of LGBT people, even in socially conservative areas. But faith leaders also note a generational shift in individuals' approach to faith. As millennials increasingly identify as "spiritual but not religious," Protestant faiths of all sorts report challenges keeping butts in pews; MCC is no different.

But in places like Corpus Christi, where many MCC churchgoers still feel unwelcome in traditional houses of worship, the loss of this place stings the soul. Simonds, though, says this moment should serve not as a system shock but a wake-up call about the role of the denomination in the future. "We are not surviving as an organization if we are not adapting to changes in the environment," Simonds says. "There is no going backward."

MCC in the 21st Century

The question of how MCC should look in the future impacts congregations around the globe, says Rev. Elder Rachelle Brown. Indeed, the question of what MCC should look like in the immediate future loomed as Brown took on the post of interim moderator in October.

"We have 21st-century questions and issues," she said after her appointment. "They are not the questions of a previous generation. Some of the questions are about familiar issues, but the way we ask is for this day and time. We have hard questions to ask ourselves."

Among those questions: What must the faithful do to keep the denomination relevant when young people connect in so many settings besides the church? In truth, the greatest challenge may not be related to MCC's long association with the LGBT movement but with the fact that so many young people seek their spiritual fulfillment outside of religious congregations.

"Many scholars have written about this," Brown notes, specifically citing the works of Harvey Cox, who in The Future of Faith foresees a world where many believe in God but subscribe to no creed. "We don't want the religion of our parents anymore. We want something different."

That could mean a step away from dogma for the church. Even MCC, which first launched as a safe place for gays and lesbians to worship, will not bless a polyamorous relationship with more than two adults, this despite Brown herself being in an "intentional relationship" with a married lesbian couple for seven years.

But even beyond the binds of Gospel teachings, MCC leaders find a great number of young adults claiming to be "spiritual" without expressing a desire to sit in church and have Scripture explained from a pulpit.

That's resulted in the launch of such programs as MCC Oasis, which provides support to "dinner church" and other small worship groups. Creating a house church vibe can work with individuals seeking spiritual fulfillment but who don't feel comfortable even in MCC, or it can allow members of disbanded congregations, like those left without a faith home in Corpus Christi, a way to continue coming together. "There are always opportunities and ways for people to be able to decide how to be a community," Brown says.

That Brown holds her current position as a leader of the faith itself marks significant moment of transition for the church.

Last year, the board of governors began the process to select a new moderator to succeed Rev. Nancy Wilson, who held the post for six years. The process proved contentious, with three governing board members resigning along the way. Ultimately, the board decided to end that process and instead launch a search for an interim moderator instead. Brown was appointed through that process and will serve for three years, at which time the board plans to convene in Orlando to select a permanent moderator.

Jakob Hero-Shaw, a member of the MCC board of governors, says the selection process has proved challenging at times, but that a transition period for the MCC is needed. He notes that the appointment of Brown, who first became involved in MCC around 2001, marks the first time the denomination had leadership not involved with the church since its early years.

"There have been definite growing pains in terms of choosing who will lead us," Hero-Shaw says. "But I think this will be helpful for us in stepping into the future."

MCC launched in 1968 under the leadership of Rev. Troy Perry, who then hosted a 12-member congregation meeting in his Los Angeles living room. Today, MCC boasts 43,000 members in 22 countries. Of course, those numbers alone show the faith is far from withering on the vine. But all involved say they understand some shift needs to happen, especially with a church so young it can't rely on enormous endowments to maintain the status quo.

A Welcoming Environment

Hero-Shaw, who also serves a senior pastor at Metropolitan Community Church of Tampa in Florida, says faith must evolve, but that as long as a message of acceptance remains, the mission of MCC continues. For him, the church remains a vitally important environment to preserve. And few churches, even open and accepting ones, offer the level of tolerance of an MCC congregation.

"I have one person who identifies as atheist but comes because he wants his child to come up in a church family," Hero-Shaw says. "This is a place where asking questions is encouraged. A lot of mainline denominations, you may come and say 'I don't know if I believe in God' and you will hit a wall."

As a trans man and a parent, Hero-Shaw says the environment remains especially important to him as a place where his stepchildren never have to explain their family dynamic to prying outsiders. "MCC is way beyond other churches," he says.

And that's what Simonds sees as the greatest concern for the future of her own congregation. She just arrived in Texas in February, determined to help the Corpus Christi congregation over the next couple years, but is now packing her things for a return to Oregon. In the days since the church announced it would shutter its doors, her goal has been finding a welcoming home for her members.

Even at a time when more churches express support for LGBT individuals than ever before, it's hard to find a nonjudgmental place of worship in Corpus Christi. A local Methodist church still believes homosexuality inconsistent with Christianity, Simonds says. Episcopal churches vary in acceptance by congregation. She did find success during a visit to leaders of a local United Church of Christ that appears ready to absorb MCC members as needed.

Still, Simonds worries where some people will go when they have trouble finding a church to host a same-sex wedding. Or just when they experience rejection at a home church and need a place for immediate spiritual fulfillment. "No one has left the church and said 'I want to return to the church of my youth,' " she says.

In the early days of MCC, some wondered if the church would ultimately serve as a transition place, somewhere gay people could worship while the world caught up in terms of tolerance. Along the way, it evolved into a force for social justice, a haven during the AIDS crisis, and an advocate for compassion. Now the church deals with a host of matters from race to immigration to class struggle. Looking at that list of topics, it would seem MCC's role might be as vital as ever.

Brown says the church still serves that role, even if the environment around it changes. "Having more places for holy conversation about very uncomfortable things is extremely important," she says.

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