Local churches talk about open worship and the county’s gay population
by Sara Milledge
smilledge@annistonstar.com
Jun 14, 2013 | 5520 views |  0 comments | 83 83 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Illustration by Jessica Stephens
Illustration by Jessica Stephens
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Last Saturday, former Methodist youth pastor Philip Noble marched with the Anniston-Gadsden chapter of PFLAG in the Central Alabama Pride Parade. Under the streetlights and in between the clouds of balloons and plastic beads, his sign read, “Str8 X-ian ally loves LGBTQ.”

Noble was invited to his first PFLAG meeting three years ago by a Methodist youth pastor, who had been invited by a gay member of his church. He remembers exactly how that first meeting felt.

“The stories I’ve heard from them about growing up within the church, it’s unbelievably heartbreaking,” Noble said. “And it makes you wonder how people label themselves as Christians when they treat gays or lesbians to make them wish they had never been born.”

Noble is a straight ally at the Anniston-Gadsden chapter of PFLAG — Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. It is a support group that meets the third Thursday of each month at 6:30 p.m. in the library of Grace Episcopal Church.

Gary Hunt, the co-president of PFLAG and a founding member, said the group has been meeting in Anniston for a decade. For nine of those years, PFLAG has gathered at Grace.

“Grace is very gay friendly,” Hunt said. “Shafer is a phenomenal outreach to the gay community.”

Lee Shafer has been the priest at Grace for nearly five years. She said that while PFLAG is not connected to Grace, the church welcomes members of the county’s gay community.

“We are a very diverse church … By design we have a wide variety of people,” she said. “We welcome everybody.” Which, Shafer said, includes gay members.

Recent surveys conducted by the Williams Institute at UCLA found that more than 9 million adults in the United States identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. That’s roughly equal to the population of New Jersey.

“From my understanding, 10 percent of the population is gay,” Shafer said. “That means 10 percent of Anniston is gay and they need to have a place of worship. We’d love to have them worship here, or anywhere for that matter.”

Saint Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church interim rector the Rev. Dr. Hugh Jones echoed Shafer’s thoughts.

“Every human being, regardless of sexual orientation, has the need to be part of a community of faith, unless they’re an atheist and don’t feel that need,” he said.

Jones said Saint Michael’s has had a number of gay members, many of whom include musicians who “have served the church beautifully and well.”

But Jones admits not everyone in the congregation is as open-minded as he would like them to be.

Church members don’t “flaunt anything,” he adds, struggling to find the right word, and no one presses the issue of the church’s gay and lesbian members. “I think people know and they’re comfortable in knowing.”

The Rev. Michael Rich, the priest at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jacksonville, cautions against the terms “welcoming” and “gay-friendly.”

It’s difficult to define exactly what “inclusive worship” means. In some congregations, it may mean gay partners can openly attend services together as a couple, while others might implement a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Rich said the use of such terms furthers the “us-versus-them” mentality often found in churches. Instead, he advocates for more inclusive language.

“What it is, is ‘we,’” he said. “We are a welcoming church. Period. We open the doors and you never know who will walk in. Don’t open the doors unless you want just anyone to walk in.”

For Noble, communication is key, especially for younger members of the LGBT community.

“They need someone they can talk to and feel safe around,” he said, adding that’s something the PFLAG meetings offer.

Hunt said the Anniston-Gadsden chapter of PFLAG averages between 35 and 40 people per meeting, many of whom are high school-aged straight allies.

“It’s amazing with these youth,” Hunt said. “All their buddies come to the meetings for support.”

When he was a youth minister, Noble said he encouraged his students to be inclusive and supportive of their gay friends, whether they were church members or not. He cited bullying and suicide as dangers to young members of the LGBT community. Noble did not experience any public pushback from his students or their parents. Although he’s not naïve enough to believe it didn’t happen behind closed doors, he said it did not bother him.

“I felt that if I didn’t do that, I was shirking my responsibility to the youth and as a Christian,” he said.

It’s no secret many Christian denominations struggle with homosexuality. Noble said, while it is not officially inclusive like the Episcopal Church, he thinks the Methodist Church has been “softening on the issue.”

The issue is tricky for the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), too, according to pastor Laura Hutchinson. Because the national church does not have an official policy regarding inclusive worship, it is up to individual congregations to decide if their church is gay-friendly.

Hutchinson said some congregations are “open and affirming, but there are others who don’t go all the way to saying they’re open and affirming, but are in every other way.”

If the congregation supports it, gay deacons and elders can be ordained and the pastor can perform commitment ceremonies.

“We do have an open-table policy,” Hutchinson said, regardless of the congregation. “The table is open to everybody who wants to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Nobody is barred.”

Hutchinson added this summer, the national church’s general assembly will vote on the issue of inclusive worship.

“It’s a somewhat controversial vote,” she said, adding some pastors view inclusiveness as a civil rights issue, some are concerned a decision will cause a split in the church and others are downright opposed to it. Regardless of the outcome, Hutchinson said the vote will not affect how the congregation operates.

“We’re just simply living, loving and worshiping together,” she said. “Anyone who wants to come visit with us, they’re welcome.”

Brian Roden, who has a master’s degree in Christian apologetics and is chapter director for the Ratio Chrisi student group at JSU, cited Old and New Testament passages that condemn homosexuality. He said these verses are the basis for many Christian teachings that can hinder inclusive worship.

“I speak as someone who was also broken. My sin was and is just as harmful in the eyes of God as any homosexual act,” he wrote in an email. “If there is one thing that culture’s current polarization on this topic has taught us, it is that we as Christians ought to approach our gay family, friends, neighbors and coworkers with grace, dignity and truth in love.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints takes a similar stance, and even has a website devoted to the issue titled Love One Another: A Discussion on Same-Sex Attraction. Sidney Kooyman, bishop of the Anniston ward of the church, was not able to comment, but according to the website, the church takes a clear stance that sexual activity should only occur between a man and a woman. It adds, however, homosexuality should not be an excuse for exclusion, condemnation or cruelty.

While no local Baptist churches responded to requests for comments, Dr. Timothy George, the dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University and an ordained minister in the Southern Baptist Convention, touted the importance of distinguishing between “welcoming” and “affirming” churches.

“There are a number of churches that go by the name ‘welcoming and affirming,’” George said. “That is not a position I would recommend to any church ... Welcoming, yes, welcome everybody. But not affirming.”

George added that Jesus did not exclude anyone from fellowship, and neither should churches.

“The invitation is wide open,” he said.

He added churches should treat members of the LGBT community with dignity, respect and love.

However, George also thinks being “affirming” of homosexuality contradicts the scripture and what’s best for human nature.

The issue of homosexuality and inclusive worship is less polarizing in the Jewish faith.

“There’s not a particular stance we take. We welcome anyone who wants to worship with us,” said Rena Schoenberg, a congregant at Anniston’s Temple Beth-El. “Jewish congregations in general, and ours, are open to people who want to share in the Jewish experience.”

Many of the county’s places of worship, including the Islamic center, JSU’s student ministries, the Calhoun County Baptist Association and 12 Baptist churches,did not respond to requests for comment for this story. But with other national organizations addressing gay-inclusiveness, like the Boy Scouts of America, it seems this issue isn’t going anywhere.

For Grace’s Shafer, in a community of different beliefs and preferences, it is much more difficult to discriminate than to be accepting.

“I think that’s what Jesus was like. He just said ‘Follow me.’ Everything he did was love,” she said. “It’s just so much easier to love everybody.”
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Local churches talk about open worship and the county’s gay population by Sara Milledge
smilledge@annistonstar.com

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