How much has the MCC changed?

Time for a bit of personal history, as I react to a disappointing little news article that ran recently in the San Francisco Chronicle.

I arrived at the Rocky Mountain News (RIP) in Denver in the early 1980s and, naturally, one of the biggest stories that I immediately began covering was the AIDS crisis and the complex and not always predictable responses in local religious bodies. Many groups on the left (many, but not all) stayed away from hands-on care, for example, while one or two (I stress, one or two) very theologically conservative groups jumped into the gap with funds and volunteer help to do early hospice work.

There were, therefore, surprises on both the left and the right sides of the sanctuary aisles and I learned to look for them.

Early on, I began covering the local branch of the Metropolitan Community Church, a small but lively national body that focuses most of its ministry (but not all) on ministering to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and the transgendered. In my early talks with the clergy, many stressed that the denomination’s clergy came from a wide variety of backgrounds and, early on, I found that to be true.

For example, one local MCC minister’s background was solidly oldline Protestant and, on basic doctrinal issues, he was quite liberal. Then another arrived whose background was Southern Baptist. He backed his church’s liberalized doctrines on sexuality, of course, but on most other issues he was quite conservative, even evangelical. As an MCC insider once told me, and I paraphrase: There’s a reason many of our members didn’t just become Episcopalians. They think that the Episcopal Church is too liberal.

Again, it pays to remember that the founder of the MCC — the Rev. Troy Perry — was a Pentecostal pastor before he left the closet. For more information on his testimony, click here.

Now, I get the impression that in recent decades the general theological drift of the MCC has been to the mainline left. However, the denomination’s statement of faith continues to proclaim:

Our faith is based upon the principles outlined in the historic creeds: Apostles and Nicene.

Yes, note the vague word “principles.” However, the statement continues:

We believe:

In one triune God, omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient, of one substance and of three persons: God — our Parent-Creator; Jesus Christ the only begotten son of God, God in flesh, human; and the Holy Spirit — God as our Sustainer.

That the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God, showing forth God to every person through the law and the prophets, and finally, completely and ultimately on earth in the being of Jesus Christ.

That Jesus … the Christ … historically recorded as living some 2,000 years before this writing, is God incarnate, of human birth, fully God and fully human, and that by being one with God, Jesus has demonstrated once and forever that all people are likewise Children of God, being spiritually made in God’s image.

That the Holy Spirit is God making known God’s love and interest to all people. The Holy Spirit is God, available to and working through all who are willing to place their welfare in God’s keeping.

Every person is justified by grace to God through faith in Jesus Christ.

There are mainline Protestant touches in there, such as “Parent-Creator” in the Trinitarian language. However, as a whole, one would have to say that this is a safely center-left Christian statement.

This is why one key passage in the Chronicle article jumped out at one or two GetReligion readers and then me. This article is basically a shallow public-relations piece for a fundraising effort at the local MCC congregation — the selling of gold memorial bricks. Nevertheless, there are a few quotes from the faithful about what sets their congregation apart, even in the context of San Francisco.

Thus, readers are told the following about some of the church’s unique programs:

Collectively, the messages reflect the church’s unique mix of religions, genders and sexualities. In the words of one woman: “A spiritual home for this atheist ho.”

Buddhists, pagans, Jews, Christians and nonbelievers regularly crowd under the church’s roof.

Several bricks invoke the period, starting in the 1980s, when AIDS swept through the neighborhood. Religious figures then accused gays and lesbians of invoking God’s wrath. The Metropolitan Community Church responded with a slogan that will soon be memorialized underfoot: “We are the body of Christ, and we have AIDS.”

Now, if I was a reporter and I was writing about this interesting denomination, I certainly would have spent a minute or two (after one or two mouse clicks) reading its easy-to-find doctrinal statement and, maybe, even the longer essay on its history.

Suffice it to say, atheists, Buddhists, pagans, Jews and many other non-Christians would have trouble with that doctrinal statement that I quoted earlier. Right? In other words, I think that either (a) the reporter missed the true breadth of the diversity in that MCC flock or (b) that the MCC has changed quite a bit in its essential beliefs and, thus, the reporter missed a deeper and more interesting story.

Let me repeat something that I have said since early in GetReligion’s history — the press needs to devote more time and energy to covering the RELIGIOUS and DOCTRINAL stories on the religious left, as opposed to assuming that everything on that side of the sanctuary aisle is just politics with a touch of fancy theological language. There are solid religion stories on the left, too.

Just saying that. Again.

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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.

  • dalea

    tmatt says:

    Suffice it to say, atheists, Buddhists, pagans, Jews and many other non-Christians would have trouble with that doctrinal statement that I quoted earlier. Right? In other words, I think that either (a) the reporter missed the true breadth of the diversity in that MCC flock or (b) that the MCC has changed quite a bit in its essential beliefs and, thus, the reporter missed a deeper and more interesting story.

    For years my MCC friends invited me to join their church. I kept pointing out that as a Pagan, I would not fit in. Their response always was that all were welcome. And that part of the function of the MCC is to provide an alternative social venue to the bar and club scene. I have also heard Troy Perry (who is still alive) say the same thing.

    The GL press has presented this view for decades when discussing the MCC. But it seems to be unknown outside that specialized press. In the 1970′s when MCC churches were opening all over the country, part of the fundraising was based on having meeting rooms available without alcohol. All sorts of people donated on that ground alone.

    The GL press tends to be overlooked even when it could clarify things.

  • orthodude

    “Our faith is based on principles from the creeds…” So do they cross their fingers/keep silent at certain points of the Nicene creed like a certain bishop of the Episcopal denomination? Are the principles listed afterwards, the only parts of the creeds that they accept? The resurrection? Sacrificial atonement?,… It would be interesting to know if these are also part of the “principles” or not. Inquiring minds want to know. Regardless, the listed principles are certainly enough to exclude Buddhists, pagans, and Jews as well as “atheist ho’s”.

    Does anyone know about recent MCC membership numbers? It is my understanding that they are plummeting.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    orthodude:

    “It is my understanding….”

    We need a URL or some link to info on that. Don’t just throw words around, please.

  • Kelso

    (Sigh…) Reading the headline, I thought this article was going to be about the Marylebone Cricket Club. Oh well.

  • Dave

    It would be journalistically interesting to know how long ago was the most recent MCC doctrinal argument. That would help triangulate how much MCC doctrine is living guidance and how much is words gathering dust in books.

    I say this with affection and fond memories. When I was president of a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Greater Cleveland in the ’70s an MCC church rented our space Sunday afternoons for their services.

  • Harris

    With open acceptance of gays now regularly found in mainline churches, I would wonder if the move left is not a sort of “marketing” move: this is the available niche.

    The MCC was a refuge for those rejected by others, perhaps most notably when Mel White came out roughly 20 years ago. Today, that refuge function has largely been absorbed by other congregations and communions. That would seem to leave them with the more religiously marginal, thus explaining the shift to the left.

    It would also be interesting to track membership statistics against decisions elsewhere in the mainline church: would we see a correlation?

  • Dave

    But, Harris, has the MCC moved left? Or has embrace of BGLTs happened lopsidedly on the Christian left, and what MCC has been doing all along gotten reclassified as “left” to give the illusion of leftward movement.

    It’s worth remembering “liberal” has not always meant “BGLT friendly.” I witnessed that situation come into being among Unitarian Universalists.

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

    I had the opportunity to meet the pastor of MCC LA. He was a kind man, but I would describe him as a very left of center (I say this as an open minded post-conservative anabaptist). He denied the authority of Pauline epistles and was more than open to other religions as access points to God. Yet, he was also someone who loved Jesus. So, in that case… the article was *almost* accurate… but not quite.

    On another note, meeting him inspired this article I wrote called “Sign My Petition for a Constitutional Amendment to Ban Divorce!” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/2011/07/11/sign-my-petition-for-a-constitutional-amendment-to-ban-divorce/

    Anyway, great article…

  • Steve

    The local SF MCC church celebrates “queer spirituality”. It was once a Protestant denomination for gays but now, here in SF anyway, it is much more like a Unitarian Universalist church, who real primary commitments are to inclusion, diversity and lefty social justice.

  • Dave

    Steve, it would be indeed interesting to know if that is just this one church or general in MCC. Queer theology (as it is sometimes called) writing is generally available. SF is unique both in general and as a gay mecca.

    If this were a broad phenom it would indeed constitute leftward movement on the part of MCC.

  • dalea

    Looking over the MCC churches I have know, what sticks out is how much each one reflected the views of its pastor. And the pastor’s own religious roots. If the roots are Pentecostal, the church shows it. If the roots are high church, the church shows it. I once attended a service that combined both: the liturgy of the mass with a sermon that featured shouting and calls from the congregation as well as dancing in the aisles. If I had to choose a description for MCC doctrine, it would be entreprenuerial. The doctrine is what the particular leadership of each congregation believes.

  • Gene

    I joined my local MCC church last year. I really liked the sermons and was hoping to find a place where I could get involved in the gay community as a Christian. The sermons were generally very good and I liked the pastor as well as one of the associate pastors who helped me deal with some personal issues. I am theologically conservative but believe there are valid points to be made on both sides of the fence. Unfortunately, I am finding that this church is more of a social club than a spiritual center. Anything seems to go. Even agnostic lay pastors who host questionable parties at their home and then give agnostic sermons on Sunday. I believe in dialog between Christians and others with differing spiritual views,I even attend a Native American Pipe/Prayer Circle which I do not see as a conflict to my faith in Jesus Christ. But placing people with no faith and questionable practices in leadership roles makes me wonder about how Christ centered and seeking the MCC church and its pastors really are.