Having an LGBT-affirming policy isn’t just the right thing for faith bodies to do – it often has the side benefit of putting people in the pews.
That’s the conclusion of several clergy and staff at some of the largest LGBT-friendly Christian and Jewish congregations in the U.S. and Canada. Granted, it’s based only on anecdotal evidence, but it’s the experience of these faith leaders that welcoming LGBT people – without expecting them to deny their identity – makes others feel welcome as well.
“I have seen it in my own parish,” says Bruce Garner, a member of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Atlanta and president of Integrity USA, which works for full LGBT inclusion in the church.
“The fact that the congregation reflects the demographics of the wider city is a plus for all of us involved,” says Marlin Lavanhar, senior minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Okla.
This may seem counterintuitive, given a recent study that showed the 100 largest congregations in the U.S. – often dubbed “megachurches” – are uniformly anti-LGBT, although many take care to downplay that fact. Church Clarity, a crowdsourced database that monitors whether churches’ LGBT policies are clearly communicated, looked at the 100 largest congregations as ranked by Outreach, a Christian magazine, and found that exactly none are LGBT-affirming, but two-thirds of them obscured that policy to some degree. So some who are drawn to megachurches, which often offer amenities like coffee bars, bookshops, and exercise facilities in addition to spiritual guidance, may not know their home church is anti-LGBT until same-sex partners seek a church wedding and are turned away.
The faith leaders interviewed for this Advocate story serve at churches and synagogues that are hardly “mega” institutions – most of these houses of worship have a few thousand members, while megachurches report attendance by tens of thousands each weekend. Nor are they members of the largest U.S. denominations, as the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the United Methodist Church remain far from LGBT-affirming, although there are forces, especially in the Methodist Church, pushing them to become more so. (Many megachurches, by the way, have no denominational affiliation.)
But the LGBT-affirming churches we spoke to are nonetheless substantial, and they are affiliated with mainline denominations such as the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and Reform and Conservative Judaism – and, of course, the Metropolitan Community Church, founded by and for LGBT people but welcomes allies as well. While denominations are often reluctant to designate one congregation as the largest, and this is not an exhaustive list, we are able to offer a look at some of the largest congregrations in these and other affirming faiths.
Metropolitan Community Church: The LGBT-focused denomination was founded in 1968 by the Rev. Troy Perry, who had been defrocked as a Pentecostal minister because of his homosexuality. But he wanted there to be a spiritual home for gay Christians, and so the MCC was born with a service for 12 people in his living room in Huntington Park, a suburb of Los Angeles. Today there are more than 160 MCC congregations in 33 countries. The one that MCC leaders usually cite as the largest is the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto, which has about 2,000 members.
It’s also one of the older MCCs, turning 45 years old this year. And it has never shied away from activism. “MCC Toronto has never been afraid to wade into the sphere of politics,” says the Rev. Jeff Rock, its senior pastor. That activism has seen some dramatic moments. In the 1970s, city officials called on Rev. Bob Wolfe, then the church’s pastor, to counsel a gay man who was threatening to kill himself by jumping off the roof of City Hall. Wolfe talked him down and then observed that the church needed to have a presence inside City Hall, not just on the roof. MCC Toronto has had that presence not just in City Hall but in Parliament, where Rev. Brent Hawkes, Wolfe’s successor, led sit-ins over bathhouse raids. Then in 2001, Hawkes married two same-sex couples but the government of Ontario refused to recognize the marriages; the church took the government to court and ultimately won, with Ontario beginning to recognize same-sex marriages in 2003. Legislative action by Parliament brought marriage equality to all of Canada in 2005. The church also houses Canada’s oldest LGBT high school. The mayor of Toronto has called the congregation the conscience of the city.
“We’re blessed in Canada that many of the battles for LGBT rights have been fought and won,” Rock says. But now LGBT activism can take new forms, he says, by starting conversations on race, poverty, disability, and other issues. And while addressing a diversity of issues, MCC Toronto also has a diverse congregation. The church is rooted in the Christian tradition, but it welcomes worshippers from others, and MCC Toronto has some Jewish members, Rock notes. And it has attracted some young straight couples with children who want their kids to experience an inclusive church environment, he says.
Unitarian Universalist Association: Rooted in liberal Christian traditions but also embracing principles of other faiths, Unitarian Universalism has long supported LGBT equality in the church and elsewhere. It has ordained gay, lesbian, and bisexual clergy since the 1970s and ordained its first transgender clergy member in 1986. It has offered union ceremonies for same-sex couples since the 1980s and has fought for an end to anti-LGBT discrimination in the civil sphere. In addition to the denomination’s generally LGBT-affirming policies, it has a Welcoming Congregations program to help individual churches deepen their understanding and advocacy.
One of the largest such congregations is All Souls in Tulsa, with about 2,200 adult members. In the early 1980s the church housed the LGBT group that eventually became Oklahomans for Equality and built the city’s Dennis R. Neill Equality Center; its activist namesake is a member of All Souls. The congregation was active in the fight for marriage equality in Oklahoma and has had LGBT ministers and other staff members, says Lavanhar.
“Here in the Bible Belt our role as a strong public advocate for LGBT issues and as a place for the spiritual care and growth of LGBT people and their friends and families has been an oasis in a sea of conservative religion,” he says. Over the past decade, the congregation, once largely white, has become more racially diverse, he notes. “I am pretty sure that we are one of the only churches in Tulsa that is serving a significant number of African-American LGBT individuals and families,” he says.
Episcopal Church: The Episcopal Church was much in the news 15 years ago for the election of its first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, who served as bishop of New Hampshire. Robinson has since retired, but the church has appointed several more out LGBT bishops and other clergy, and it remains a largely LGBT-affirming denomination, even though that stance has caused some Episcopal congregations to leave and affiliate with Anglican dioceses overseas. The Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the global Anglican Communion, led by the Church of England. Not all the members of the communion – including the Church of England – are anywhere near as affirming as the Episcopal Church.
The process of developing an affirming and inclusive church has been a long one, says Garner. “We’ve been at this for well over 40 years now,” he says. In 1976, both houses of the denomination’s bicameral legislature, the House of Deputies and House of Bishops, adopted a statement saying, “Homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the church.” Since the 1990s, being gay, lesbian, or bisexual has been no barrier to ordination, and transgender people have subsequently gained access to ordination as well. Garner recalls meeting in the 1990s with Rev. Edmond Browning, then the church’s presiding bishop, and Browning made the statement that there will be no outcasts in the Episcopal Church. The church adopted a liturgy for same-sex marriages in 2015. But it also allows local bishops to decide whether clergy can marry same-sex couples, and there are several, mostly in the South, who won’t allow blessing of these marriages.
Most Episcopal congregations are not huge, Garner notes; 80 percent of them have 200 or fewer members. But his home church, All Saints’ Episcopal in Atlanta, is one of the bigger and more inclusive ones, with about 3,000 members, and it has a large LGBT presence, with about 70 same-sex couples. It’s diverse in other ways too – its associate rector, the Rev. Kim Jackson, is an African-American lesbian married to a Muslim woman.
“There are gay and lesbian people all over the place,” says Garner. “We’re all used to having gay clergy.” The local diocese sponsors an Episcopal contingent in the Atlanta Pride parade, and it always gets much applause, he says. He credits acceptance to visibility. “When the faggot has a face, he’s no longer a faggot,” he says.
United Church of Christ: This is another denomination that has long stood for LGBT rights in the church and society, ordaining out clergy, marrying same-sex couples, and advocating for LGBT equality in the political area. Many of its congregations participate in the Open and Affirming program, making a public commitment to LGBT inclusion, but a substantial number of others are also welcoming to LGBT people.
One of its larger congregations is the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, which was affiliated with the MCC until 2006. “The leadership didn’t see eye to eye with the denomination,” says Scott Stout, executive assistant to the senior pastor. However, LGBT inclusion was never a point of contention, and a few years later the congregation affiliated with the LGBT-friendly UCC. “It was really a good fit,” says Stout. “Our association has been very well received.” The cathedral draws about 2,000 worshippers a week, and about 80 percent are LGBT, he says, adding, “Our straight allies are amazing.” The congregation is about 15 percent African-American and has a weekly Latino-focused service, attended by an average of 150 people. The church also puts video of its services online, making them available worldwide.
Stout has been a member of the Cathedral of Hope for 12 years and on staff for two. “It took me 30 years to get to a job I truly love,” he says. He was brought up a Southern Baptist and attended a high school affiliated with the Church of Christ, which is a separate denomination from the United Church of Christ and not at all LGBT-friendly. “Most members will tell you they come from churches that spewed toxic rhetoric and turned them off from church altogether,” he says. “What we are trying to do is dispel that toxic theology. We believe that God created us exactly as we are and loves us exactly as we are.”
Being LGBT-affirming definitely draws worshippers, Stout says. “We are reaching people who don’t have any other avenues for being gay and Christian,” he says. Some are moved to tears at finding a place where they can bring those aspects of their identity together. “We literally keep boxes of Kleenex in every pew,” he says.
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ): Despite the similar name, this denomination is separate from the UCC and the Church of Christ, but it’s more like the former when it comes to LGBT affirmation. In 2013 delegates to its General Assembly voted to welcome and affirm LGBT people in all aspects of the church, including leadership, and many of its churches perform same-sex marriages; however, it’s up to each congregation to decide how welcoming it wants to be. The denomination, based in Indianapolis, spoke out against Indiana’s 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, seen by many as a license to discriminate against LGBT people. Its congregations tend to be small, but its two largest LGBT-affirming congregations are Central Christian Church in Lexington, Ky., and Lee's Summit Christian Church in Lee's Summit, Mo., each of which has more than 300 members. That’s fairly substantial in a denomination where the average congregation size is about 80.
Being LGBT-friendly increases a congregation’s appeal, says Rev. Dr. Mark Johnston, executive director of the Disciples LGBTQ+ Alliance and its Open and Affirming Ministries program. “A church that makes it explicit that LGBTQ people are welcome is also making it clear that everyone is welcome,” he says. Like officials with some other denominations, he says this draws families who want to raise their children in an inclusive atmosphere, and it especially helps racially mixed families see they’re welcome.
Reform Judaism: One of the three major branches of Judaism (the others being Conservative and Orthodox), Reform Judaism has a long history of being LGBT-supportive. Its U.S. governing body, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, has taken stands against discrimination in both the religious and civil spheres since the 1970s. It has ordained out clergy since the 1990s and has blessed same-sex marriages for years.
There are several LGBT-focused Reform synagogues in major cities (you can read about one of them here), and many other large congregations with a significant LGBT presence. Temple Emanuel-El in Dallas has a membership of about 2,500 households; it doesn’t break down demographics by sexual orientation or gender identity, but Rabbi Dan Utley estimates about 6 percent to 10 percent are LGBT. It was one of the first synagogues in its region to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies, long before marriage equality was the law of the land, and it’s committed to being inclusive and welcome of transgender members, says Utley. Its board just approved a design for gender-neutral restrooms, and it has a program to help staff be fully supportive of trans congregants.
While being inclusive may help increase a congregation’s appeal, that’s not the main reason for doing so, Utley says. “What drives our approach is our genuine interest in asking people what they need,” he says.
Conservative Judaism: This branch of Judaism, representing a more traditional approach than Reform but a more liberal one than Orthodox, has become LGBT-affirming in recent years. Ordination has been available to out LGBT people since 2006, and in 2012 the Conservative movement adopted model wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples, although each individual congregation can decide whether to allow same-sex marriages. Sone congregations performed marriages or commitment ceremonies before then. The movement has also taken public stands against discrimination.
One of the larger LGBT-affirming Conservative synagogues is Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., which has about 5,000 members. “We’re known in general as a diverse congregation,” says Rabbi Aaron Alexander, who leads the congregation alongside Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt. “We affirm anybody who walks through our doors who is interested in growing in their Jewish identity.”
One factor in Adas Israel’s reputation is that its previous senior rabbi, Gil Steinlauf, came out as gay in 2014. Seeing an openly gay rabbi, a first for some people, “became empowering to many members of the LGBTQ community,” says Alexander. Steinlauf left the synagogue in 2017 to help create an innovation lab for the denomination.
Another congregation that saw a dramatic announcement of inclusion was Valley Beth Shalom in Los Angeles’s Encino district. On Rosh Hashanah, 1992, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis delivered a sermon in which he embraced LGBT people. He told of a member who had informed him of her gay son’s suicide, and of his discussions with LGBT congregants who were trying to reconcile their Judaism with their sexuality.
“I cannot for the life of me look into their eyes and deny them the intimacy, love, pleasure, and sensuality that is God's gift,” he said (the sermon is still available online). “I cannot in God's name, in the name of Torah and Israel, speak in that fashion. Because such a verdict runs against my Jewish sensibility. To bring misery, pain, torture, anguish to innocent people who are created the way they are violates my Jewish conscience. I cannot bury my Jewish sense of fairness and compassion.”
That made Valley Beth Shalom the first Conservative synagogue to be openly LGBT-welcoming, notes its current rabbi, Ed Feinstein. “We finally recognized that [LGBT people] are part of us and we’re part of them,” he says. A few families left the synagogue at that point, but it has continued to be one of the Conservative movement’s larger congregations, with about 1,500 members. It’s important not just for LGBT people but for their families to have a welcoming place of worship, he says, explaining, “I can’t think of a family that doesn’t have somebody LGBT.” His family is among them – he has a sister-in-law who has been with a same-sex partner for 25 years.
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: Not “evangelical” in the conservative, anti-LGBT sense, this denomination was formed in 1988 from the merger of the American Lutheran Church, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, and the Lutheran Church in America. It has ordained out gay and lesbian ministers since 2010, and ordains transgender clergy as well. It allows ministers to perform same-sex marriages, but not all do. (A smaller Lutheran body, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which represents churches beyond just Missouri, is not LGBT-friendly.)
ReconcilingWorks, a national nonprofit organization, works with the ELCA to encourage congregations to fully include LGBT people in church life. Congregations that go through its program are known as Reconciling in Christ congregations. About 9 percent of ELCA churches are Reconciling in Christ, says Aubrey Thornvold, executive director of ReconcilingWorks. The largest is Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lansdale, Pa., with a membership of about 5,000. “We are called to embrace diversity and to connect all generations to God’s family,” its website states.
“For a faith community to become Reconciling in Christ there are asked to spend time as a community in intentional conversation, education, and relationship building about how to welcome, include, and celebrate LGBTQIA people and their families,” she says. “The next step is for the community to create a Welcome Statement, that specifically names people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, gender expressions, and the diversity that make up their community. Once the statement is made, the community votes to approve Welcome Statement so it can become a part of who they are.”
“As a lesbian, I have been to many congregations that say ‘All Are Welcome’ and have found that they don't really mean me,” she adds. “The work of publicly affirming LGBTQIA people through a designation like being Reconciling in Christ is huge for me, and not just because I am the ED of ReconcilingWorks, because it lets me know that the community has done the work to love and accept all of me. The difference in being a ‘welcoming’ church and one that has a public Welcome Statement that names me, lets me know that I get to show as my full self with no expectation of shrinking to make others comfortable.”
Presbyterian Church (USA): The largest Presbyterian body in the U.S., it allows for ordination of LGBT clergy and blessing of same-sex marriages, but the degree of LGBT acceptance varies from congregation to congregation. (A smaller denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, is not LGBT-friendly.)
More Light Presbyterians is a national group encouraging congregations of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to be fully LGBT-inclusive. “More Light congregations affirm their support of LGBTQ people in all aspects of their lives, and commit to learning and growing together into what that looks like from person to person and community to community,” says Jess Cook, More Light program and communications manager. The largest More Light congregation is the First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York, with about 1,000 members.
Located in Greenwich Village, less than a mile from the Stonewall Inn, First Presbyterian has long been involved in LGBT activism. “Throughout our ministries, we look to continue the important conversations of inclusion, equality, and welcome through education and dialogue, opportunities to stand in solidarity with LGBTQ partner organizations, and for a variety of ways in which we can provide a safe space for everyone to worship, serve, and build community together,” the church’s website states. It also has a tradition of handing out cups of water to thirsty Pride marchers who pass by the church on Fifth Avenue.