Chip off the old mainline?

Long ago, when I was the religion-beat reporter and columnist for the Rocky Mountain News (please pause for a moment of silence), I thought that one of the most interesting stories in town was the growth of the local congregation of the Metropolitan Community Church.

This was the 1980s and AIDS was a topic that dominated the news and bled over into all kinds of different subjects, including — obviously — religion. Denver was a liberal mainline Protestant town in those days, yet the Colorado Front Range was also evolving into a major center for Evangelicals.

On one level, it would have been easy to paint the MCC flock near downtown as the gay church, period, the church that was at the center of many questions linked to ministries to people with AIDS. But it was clear to me that this congregation was more than that.

First and foremost, it was interesting as a church in and of itself. The clergy I knew there were candid enough to talk to me about many of the theological questions linked to their jobs and it was clear that gays and lesbians in their flocks had radically different views on, for example, what words such as “faithful” and “monogamous” meant. The congregation also included many people who were quite evangelical in their approaches to most basic theological issues, while the pews also contained many women and men from liberal church backgrounds.

To get a sense of that mix, you might want to glance at the following from the online biography of the Rev. Troy Perry, the founder of the MCC. You can also click here for some additional MCC denominational history.

Perry began his vocation in Florida at the age of 13 and was licensed as a Baptist minister at 15. During this period, he became aware of his sexual orientation and felt — as many gays did in rural America — that he must certainly be the only one in the world who felt that way. In 1959 he married his pastor’s daughter, and a year later he, his wife and newborn son moved to Illinois where Rev. Perry planned to attend Midwest Bible College. While studying at Midwest, Rev. Perry worked for a plastics company that transferred him to Southern California to open a new plant. Rev. Perry, with his wife and two sons, made the move in 1962.

Once in California Rev. Perry was assigned to pastor the Church of God of Prophecy in Santa Ana. It was there that Rev. Perry experienced an “uneasy” coming out and came to terms with his gayness.

See what I mean? Suffice it to say that Perry was not alone, in terms of his Pentecostal and Baptist roots.

Now, this brings me to a story that ran the other day in the Dallas Morning News, which still covers religion events and trends from time to time. The headline was very, very basic: “Dallas’ Cathedral of Hope, world’s largest predominantly gay church, celebrates 40 years.”

Sadly, the story is very, very basic as well. This is especially important because the Cathedral of Hope is, as you would expect, a rather important and symbolic flock. In part, this is because Dallas is a rather important and symbolic American city, when it comes to American Protestantism. Ask the folks at Christianity Today about that.

The roots of this congregation date back to 1968 and, since then a number of important gay voices have been linked to its work and pulpit ministry, including the Rev. Michael Piazza and the Rev. Mel White.

To cut to the chase, the church has evolved quite a bit and there is a hint of this in the story.

A big, unabashedly gay church in a Bible Belt city may have struck many as surprising, and it certainly drew media attention. But others say it’s no wonder that Cathedral of Hope flourished where it did.

“In some ways, Dallas is the perfect place,” said Bernard Schlager, executive director of the Pacific School of Religion’s Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry, in Berkeley, Calif. “It’s a churchgoing culture, and Dallas is known for having an open and vibrant gay life.”

Through the ’90s, Cathedral of Hope would grow to more than 3,000 members, and by mid-decade had commissioned renowned architect Philip Johnson to design an entire church campus. But finding money to realize Johnson’s vision has proved a challenge — some say an albatross. The church has never come close to funding the centerpiece sanctuary. By 2003, critics within the church raised questions about Piazza’s financial management, prompting an investigation by the Metropolitan Community Churches. A nasty fight ensued, with Piazza resigning his Metropolitan Community Church credentials, and the church voting to leave the predominantly gay denomination. …

Soon members voted to join the United Church of Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination that welcomes gay people, including as clergy.

In other words, this church started off as a gay-friendly church in church-happy, largely evangelical region, yet in a city that also had a major liberal mainline Protestant community. My assumption is that the early congregation was even more theologically diverse — other than in its essential affirmation of same-sex relationships — than the church I covered in Denver. At that point in time, the MCC was a pretty complex crowd. Today? I cannot say.

But the Cathedral of Hope has now tied the knot with one of the most doctrinally liberal bodies — arguably the most liberal — in Christianity in North America. This is President Barack Obama’s church, the denomination that began openly ordaining gays and lesbians in 1980. There is no clearly theistic church to the left of the UCC.

So, what do the people at the Cathedral of Hope belief and preach today in terms of basic faith issues? How has the church changed? It seems to me that the News has fallen for a very old trap and has painted this important congregation as the gay church, period. That is way too simplistic.

Photo: The Cathedral of Hope in Dallas.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Mark Byron

    There is no clearly theistic church to the left of the UCC.

    Do the Unitarians count as “clearly theistic?” They are a bit more liberal than the UCC, but their welcoming of just about everyone, including a few atheists, might put them off the reservation.

  • Rev. Michael Church

    Actually, Mark, a Unitarian seminary student once told me that “belief in one God” was the defining mark of Unitarianism. Of course, that was 20 years ago, and their webite says nothing of the kind. My question is whether they qualify as a “church.” I’m not being snarky. Although they do use the word pretty freely in conversation, I think “association” is their technical self-definition. (And isn’t the Ethical Culture Society even further in the same direction anyway?)

    My question for Terry is whether it is quite fair to oppose “UCC liberalism” to “MCC theological diversity.” Yes, as a denomination the UCC is as far left as mainline Christianity gets. But it is also expressly congregational in polity, which means that there are very, very few doctrinal statements made by the national church, and fewer that bind the member congregations. So under one umbrella are some congregations (and naturally people, but that’s not the point) whose faith is essentially Presbyterian or Baptist, and others who are off in Mary Daly land.

  • tmatt

    I wrote the words “clearly theistic” as a direct nod to the diversity among UUs on, well, Unitarianism. From interviewing top leaders in the UU fold, I know that it is still controversial in some UU settings to talk about God at all. In others, deism is the norm. There are UUs, of course, who are Universalist Christians and would fit in the UCC.

    CLEARLY theistic.

    On the UCC issue, I know all about the body’s congregationalism. Still, the denomination chooses to issue public statements of policy for the whole. I refer to the denomination in that sense.

  • Rev. Michael Church

    I understand. But I don’t think “knowing all about it” exempts you from a responsibility to write as clearly as the other journalists you (and I) criticize on GR.

    Congregationalism poses a challenge both to journalists and to members of non-congregational churches, because its doctrinal authority doesn’t lie in the places we normally look for it — bishops, synods, a national organization. It turns the “normal” situation upside down. Just as a single conservative Episcopal parish doesn’t make the denomination conservative, so a series of Wiccan edicts from the UCC national office wouldn’t make the denomination Wiccan.

    We Lutherans struggled with this when we contemplated entering into an ecumenical agreement that included the UCC. it wasn’t clear to us that the national body had any authority to speak on behalf of the congregations — which in a supposed agreement on doctrine and ministry means any authority at all. (Of course, we signed the agreement anyway, which says something about us.)

  • tmatt

    You have it precisely backwards.

    The comparison is another major congregational body — the Southern Baptist Convention, not the Episcopal Church.

    Does the press cover the statements of the Southern Baptist Convention as if they represent the views of the Southern Baptists, or do they rely on the views of individual congregations as authoritative?

    I am not talking about the views of individual congregations, in this post. I am talking about the professed statements of the majority speaking through the structures they have created. Are they binding? Not on all (other than ordination policies, etc.). Do they matter? Of course. Same as the SBC.

  • Dave

    As a UU I agree with Terry’s caution in the label “theistic.” That describes the UCC but not the UUA; theism is a personal option in the latter.

    Michael, the word for which we substitute “association” is “denomination,” not “church.” You will find a variety of names for UU churches, including church, fellowship, society and congregation. In some small New England towns, First Church of [Town] is a UU church.

  • Dave

    When I lived in Cleveland Heights my UU society rented space to a small local MCC congregation. Calling them a “gay church” would have been wholly inadequate. They were as complex as any group of people who gather for worship.

  • Jon in the Nati

    When I lived in Cleveland Heights my UU society rented space to a small local MCC congregation. Calling them a “gay church” would have been wholly inadequate. They were as complex as any group of people who gather for worship.

    While I don’t disagree that dismissing the MCC as a gay church is inappropriate, I wonder if it matters for journalistic purposes that nearly all of the MCC’s clergy (esp. those who occupy positions of authority within the denomination) do self-identify as LGBT and live that (for lack of a better word) lifestyle.

    How “gay” does a church have to be before it is a “gay church?” I don’t mean that flippantly; I think it is a fair question.

  • dalea

    While the MCC is a GL church, the story does not place it within the GL spirituality framework. Nor does it give much coverage to the role women play in the MCC. My guess is that the MCC is among the most conservative of GL institutions, religiously speaking.

  • Passing By

    The DMN story about the Cathedral of Hope is precisely the sort of religious journalism I enjoy: local, chatty, with lots of the real people talking about their community life. It’s a little puffy, but not entirely, given the exploration of the conflicts and changes the congregation have endured through the years. Anyway, a celebration – an anniversary, building renovation or dedication, or whatever – isn’t the time to be asking the really tough questions.

    They did skirt around one issue I about which I would like to know more: one reason a large gay church like this can make it in Dallas is money. Like the city, the gay community there is affluent and comfortably middle to upper middle class. Moreover, Phillip Johnson is a gay icon, so I was left wondering why the Johnson-designed campus didn’t get funded. I would also have liked access to the whole plan, although I did finally find a a virtual tour of the chapel.

    FWIW, I remember reading (some years ago, maybe on the COH website) that the motivation for the move from MCC to the UCC was to escape the “gay church” ghetto.

  • John M

    Terry, don’t you mean Barack Obama’s former church? I seem to recall his leaving it, and unless something here on GR got by me, I don’t think he’s chosen a new church, UCC or otherwise.