That growing (gay) UCC Nashville flock

Since day one, a major theme here at GetReligion has been the need to portray the specific beliefs of specific believers whenever possible, instead of taking the easy road and settling for simplistic labels.

Why? Truth is, there are all kinds of people on the religious left who disagree with one another. There are all kinds of people on the religious right who have major disagreements with one another. Folks in the middle? Why do you think they’re in the middle?

Godbeat veteran Bob Smietana at The Tennessean recently served up a perfect example of this reality in a news feature about a church in Nashville that is on the religious left, except that its style and some of the content of its message clearly stand in contrast with many others over on the more liberal, oldline side of church life. And the key is that this church is new and, in the context of the mainline world, it’s growing.

You need to read the whole top of this story until you hit the loaded word that ticked off a few GetReligion readers and caused them to send us this URL. Wait for it.

It’s standing room only at Holy Trinity Community Church as the Rev. Cynthia Andrews-Looper wraps up her sermon for the 10:15 a.m. service, one of three she’ll do this morning.

She strays from the pulpit, pacing in front of an architectural rendering of a planned multimillion-dollar expansion to the church.

“Let’s make God-sized goals,” says Andrews-Looper, a former standup comedian.

Like many of her parishioners, Andrews-Looper grew up in an evangelical church — in her case, Independent Fundamental Baptist — and found she was no longer welcome when she revealed she was a lesbian. She started a Bible study with a handful of other gay Christians in July 1996, which eventually led to starting Holy Trinity, affiliated with the United Church of Christ denomination.

Andrews-Looper used conservative theology combined with a progressive view of sexual orientation to grow the congregation to 600, making it one of the largest gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender congregations in the Southeast.

Wait just one minute, huffed these readers, how can this church be described as having “conservative theology” when it has clearly abandoned centuries of Christian doctrine on sexual ethics?

Well, in this case the word “conservative” is all about context and Smietana goes out of his way to note that this is a church that includes members from a wide range of denominational backgrounds. However, it now finds itself in the midst of a denomination built on a polity that stresses both the loud voice of the national church and the freedom of local congregations to stake out their own positions on some issues.

In other words, the debate here is not so much whether Holy Trinity is “conservative” in the context of Nashville, as much as whether it is conservative in the context of the United Church of Christ.

The “big” church language also needs to be seen in context. The need for a new 600-seat sanctuary is small potatoes in the context of Nashville megachurches. But in the mainline world? In the context of a gay-friendly flock? That’s huge.

And back to the issue of the “conservative” doctrine. Later on, readers learn:

Candy Akins is a member of the vestry, a group of lay leaders, at Holy Trinity. She and her partner, Anna Landry, have been at the church for about seven years. Both grew up Southern Baptist and say that the church feels like home — the preaching comes straight from the Bible, the message is that only Jesus saves and the music is contemporary Christian. …

Holy Trinity teaches members to believe in the Trinity, the virgin birth and the Resurrection. Church members say they have a high view of the authority of the Bible but don’t believe that it teaches that homosexuality is a sin.

The Rev. Cameron Trimble, executive director of the Center for Progressive Renewal, an ecumenical group that starts new churches and helps revitalize older ones, says that Holy Trinity’s theology fits well in the South. …

“You can go to many mainline churches and experience a really interesting essay about God,” Trimble said. “At Holy Trinity, you experience God.”

Belief in the virgin birth? The Resurrection was a real event in history? Salvation through Christ, alone? I think that this is why, in the oldline context, this flock can accurately be described as “conservative.”

When I finished reading this story, the following questions popped into my head: How is the growth of this congregation affecting the local branch of the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church (assuming that there is one)? Does the rise of Holy Trinity offer any insights into the doctrinal evolution of the MCC, which began as a phenomenon among gay evangelicals and Pentecostals and now appears to have moved to the mainline left?

A Google search found an MCC congregation, but one with a very low profile (which is rare) on the World Wide Web. Very interesting.

Just saying. This might require a follow-up report.

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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.

  • Steve

    Both funny and telling, that when I clicked the link on MCC’s move to the mainstream left, to the page named

    http://mccchurch.org/overview/beliefs/

    I got the message, “Error 404 Page Not Found…”

    The local MCC in San Francisco, at least, moved out of Christianity years ago and now is “a home for queer spirituality”. Their church sign says “Diverse beliefs, shared values”, which means that the Pentecostals and the Buddhists and the Goddess Worshippers all vote Democrat.

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.com/ Randy

    The trouble is consistency. How do you throw out traditional Christianity on one issue and not on all the others? You might be comfortable with that but how do you deal with those who are not? On what basis do you say you can’t reject the virgin birth or any of the other liberal doctrines? Metropolitan Community Church could not find one so they drifted further and further left. What is to prevent that from happening again?

    I guess it is a little much for a reporter to ask for doctrinal consistency. Just asking the pastor what would she say to a member who simply declares the bible does not teach the bodily resurrection of Jesus? Would she treat them exactly the way the Independent Fundamental Baptist church treated her? If she would not then how does she prevent the continual watering down of the church’s doctrines?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Steve:

    Well, honestly, it was there just a few days ago, when I first started work on this post.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com bob smietana

    Thanks for highlighting this story — it’s a fascinating congregation.

    There was an MCC congregation in Nashville that closed a number of years ago.

    The word conservative did get some criticism — that’s the word that Holy Trinity, which began as an independent church, uses to describe their theology.

  • Steve

    Randy’s question is a good one and it would be fascinating, but way out of the usual depth for secular journalism…or even a lot of religious journalism…to explore the question of how you maintain traditional doctrinal orthodoxy while departing on the moral question of sexual behavior.

    To say nothing of having a female pastor in the first place! While not quite in the same category as homosexual activity, for a serious sola scriptura church, there are quite a few barriers to ordaining a woman.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    tmatt–you rightly a number of times pointed out how words –like ‘conservative”–fit in context. What I wonder is why the reporter couldn’t have worked the words “in context” into his story at the proper times.

  • Lori B.

    Good thing I read GetReligion, so I can keep up with the goings on in my own town. Although I am “conservative” in the traditional, Nashville sort of way, I still understood what Bob meant about this particular UCC church being “conservative.” But that might be because I have the added context of having had a discussion with an acquaintance who told me all about her UCC church not believing in Satan or Hell, or Jesus being the only means of salvation. She then told me about the stirring sermon preached by the transvestite – or maybe it was transgendered – guest pastor. I’m not being glib; I truly can’t remember which one it was. I think I was a little too stunned to focus properly at that point, having been unfamiliar with the UCC until then. So compared to her church, this one sounds pretty conservative to me.

    As for the “big church” language, Nashville does have several mega churches that would dwarf this one. However, we also have a church on every corner, so I would venture to say that the majority of the hundreds of churches in Nashville are well below 600 in membership. And frankly, I think any church that seats 600 would be deemed a large church.

    As an aside, I glanced at the comment section on Bob’s article. Usually the haters come out in full force over his articles on faith, because obviously we are supposed to have a separation of church and society! I noticed those particular haters were silent. However, the Evangelical haters were out in full force over this one. No matter what he writes, Bob makes somebody unhappy…

  • Martha

    That ad continues to make me laugh, because let’s face it, people going flying unexpectedly through the air is always funny. Also, the rich aura of self-satisfaction at the end is vintage.

    As to theology, wouldn’t “orthodox” be a better word than “conservative”? After all, “conservative” can mean no more than “continue to wear/continue not to wear verstments” and other matters of peripherals, while the theology goes soggier and soggier. I don’t want to be picking on the Episcopalians/Anglicans about this, but there is a tendency for some parishes or congregations to be “We perform Anglican chant, have Evensong, and follow the liturgical year, but don’t worry if you have to cross your fingers while reciting the Creed, we just treat that as poetry anyway!”

  • Steve

    “the rich aura of self-satisfaction at the end is vintage.”

    Well, and charitably, put.

  • sari

    Could the word traditional have been used instead of conservative?

  • Matt

    I don’t think “traditional” says anything useful that “conservative” doesn’t, and it does seem that their positions on many or even most issues really would be described as conservative.

    I think the appropriate word is clearly “moderate”. :P

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    How about “creedal”?

  • sari

    Creedal means something to a certain subset of Christians, but it would be meaningless to most readers.

  • sari

    “…Sari’s correct in positing that many (too many, in my humble opinion) Christians would stare blankly at you, if you used that term.”

    The Tennessean is a secular paper with a mixed readership of practicing and nominal Christians, non-Christians, and people who are entirely secular. Creedal is a church word (for lack of a better definition) when many, if not most, readers are not church people.

    From your own faith, I first became aware of LDS garments when one of my son’s teachers asked him about his tzitzit, ritual fringes worn by observant Jewish males. He explained the what and why, and then she talked about her garment, which seems to serve a similar purpose. The exchange kind of gave them something in common, but, unexplained, the religion-specific words would have left them both confused.

  • Confidence Man

    First off, one needs to be skeptical of the term “growing” with regards to liberal churches. Religion reporters tend to take the word of the ministers – trust that is not always justified. To most people, “growing” means attendance numbers are going up. Having read about liberal churches that are “growing” and then one can find information online that attendance is flat or even declining. And building programs don’t always mean increasing attendance.

    Secondly, even if the term “growing” is the common definition, this is a man bites dog story but the reporter should acknowledge the dog biting man over and over. The UCC was an early adopter of the “inclusive” business (meaning conservatives are shown the exits). It is a prime example of how “inclusive” causes massive systemic decline. See Mark Tooley’s analysis of the sad state of the UCC.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Confidence Man:

    No need to single out “liberal” churches in the first part of your comment. Any story involving church statistics deserves some skepticism.

  • Confidence Man

    tmatt, agreed. Religion reporters tend to be too gullible. Trust but verify.

  • Stan

    Randy wrote: The trouble is consistency. How do you throw out traditional Christianity on one issue and not on all the others?”

    Yeah, Roman Catholics, Southern Baptists, Methodist, Episcopalians, Lutherans, all believe exactly the same thing.

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    The issue that this story uncovers is that the common conservative/traditionalist depiction of their opposition as being completely unorthodox isn’t and hasn’t ever been true. Lots of clerics are able to combine a non-traditionalist perspective on moral theology with an traditional and orthodox theology of pretty much everything else.

  • Bob Smietana

    Religion reporters tend to be too gullible. Trust but verify.

    Confidence Man: Churches exaggerate their numbers? Say it isn’t so. Thanks for enlightening us.

  • Bob Smietana

    TMatt:

    “Creedal” doesn’t fit Holy Trinity. The congregation are mostly free church congregationalists – Baptist, Church of Christ, Pentecostals, who aren’t creedal. The church, while it is UCC now, spent its early years as an independent community church. Besides, lots of churches are creedal but not conservative.

  • Hector

    Re: The issue that this story uncovers is that the common conservative/traditionalist depiction of their opposition as being completely unorthodox isn’t and hasn’t ever been true. Lots of clerics are able to combine a non-traditionalist perspective on moral theology with an traditional and orthodox theology of pretty much everything else.

    I think this is near the core of it, right here. Even more to the point, some clerics or churches might be quite conservative on some aspects of moral theology while more liberal on others. A growing number of Christians, both clerics and lay (particularly among the younger crowd) are strongly pro-life but increasingly liberal about gay marriage (as well as sympathetic to the left about issues like the environment).

    I realize that ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ have their place (as do ‘orthodox’ and ‘heterodox’, which at least are somewhat more valid and specific terms), but there are lots and lots of us who aren’t really well described by either one. In other words, I strongly agree with TMatt’s first sentence. It’s much better (when possible) to describe the beliefs of the church rather then to settle for labels.

    This is maybe less true with Catholic or Orthodox believers, who have a defined and unambiguous standard of orthodoxy, but once you leave those two communions, ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ become increasingly slipper.

  • Hector

    Re: First off, one needs to be skeptical of the term “growing” with regards to liberal churches.

    True, but that goes for conservative churches as well as liberal ones. If the Mormon Church was growing as fast as some of its spokespeople claim, large swathes of the world would be majority Mormon right now.

  • Martha

    “Lots of clerics are able to combine a non-traditionalist perspective on moral theology with an traditional and orthodox theology of pretty much everything else.”

    C. Wingate, I await with interest the disclosure of which clerics in which denominations have a non-traditionalist perspective on the moral theology of theft, or violence, or murder. Let’s face it, we’re usually talking about sexual issues when we’re talking about these kinds of cases, which is a shame to reduce all teaching to one hot-button issue, but is what happens.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    MARTHA:

    So how does your judgment affect news coverage? What are you saying about the story itself?

  • Dave

    Sari @10: Conservative and traditional are different concepts. It is perfectly possible to be traditionally liberal (for example, the current occupant of the Oval Office).

  • sari

    Dave #26. While the distinction may seem clear, the two terms have become virtually interchangeable–so much so that one needs to know the person speaking (or writing) to determine the meaning. We can play semantics all day long (for instance, I have no idea what constitutes a traditional liberal), but the reporter of the article could have made himself clearer by giving a briefly highlighting the main points of the group’s ideology. Readers could then determine for themselves where this church sits of the spectrum of observance/belief.

    Within my own religion, many Orthodox synagogues bill themselves as “traditional”, because the traditional liturgy, doctrines, and customs have been retained, making Orthodoxy both traditional -and- conservative.

  • http://www.theoanthropos.blogspot.com/ Matthew

    Very interesting! I agree, many words have different connotations than what the denotations themselves logically state.
    {My blog is http://www.theoanthropos.blogspot.com/}

  • Confidence Man

    The premise of the article which C. Wingate makes explicit is that one can be “conservative except in area of sexual ethics”. The reporter fails to ask how a so-called “conservative except for sexual ethics” church can join the most liberal denomination? The UCC and the Unitarians have been very difficult to distinguish. The UCC espouses universalism, most deny the miracles of Jesus and/or his divinity. From the UCC website:

    Jesus is not God, but God is like Jesus. Life is full of mystery and much we cannot explain. But in Jesus we see that, at the heart of it all, God’s love pulses and often surprises us, turning many a grim situation upside down.

    While the church has debated the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity, the New Testament is not doctrine. And the Bible is not theology: it’s an anthology of stories about God often culminating in twist endings that bring O’Henry to mind. In these narratives we see God imperfectly, “as in a mirror dimly.” But we still see.

    Yet, the reporter doesn’t ask, “You say you are conservative and you join the UCC???” Perhaps the premise is nonsensical – just perhaps, but this is certainly journalistic malfeasance to not ask the obvious question.

  • Bern

    Wait just one minute, huffed these readers, how can this church be described as having “conservative theology” when it has clearly abandoned centuries of Christian doctrine on sexual ethics?

    I realize TMatt is paraphrasing here but it’s not clear to me from the story that Holy Trinity is “abandoning centuries of Christian doctrine on sexual ethics” Yes, the unconditional condemnation of homosexuality, obviously, but are they also tossing out things like no sex before marriage, lifelong monogamy, etc.? Or are these not doctrine?

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.com/ Randy

    Randy wrote: The trouble is consistency. How do you throw out traditional Christianity on one issue and not on all the others?”

    Yeah, Roman Catholics, Southern Baptists, Methodist, Episcopalians, Lutherans, all believe exactly the same thing.

    Sure, they all have to deal with the issue. All of these, except for Roman Catholics, were liberal once. So they do need to ask why they believe traditional Christianity was wrong once, maybe in the 16th century, but they are sure it is not wrong now. Ask everyone hard questions. But those are less directly relevant to a “conservative” pro-gay church.


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