and what to look out for when searching for an affirming church.
Written by Georgia Day.
A Gathering guide to
Looking for a church is tough. Looking for one when you are LGBTQ+ is even tougher.
At The Gathering, we know the importance of a space where you feel safe – one that is not just welcoming, but wholly affirming, and understands that the divine resides in your queer body.
We know that, often, a church is only as affirming as its least affirming member. We know that a healthy distrust of church is usually a defence mechanism born from experience. We believe that queer people have the right to participate fully in the life of the church and in the kin-dom of God.
We exist as The Gathering to be that safe space for exploration, conversation, and healing. Come and check us out every Sunday from 19:00-20:30 either online or in person at the City URC church in Windsor Place, Cardiff. But you may be looking for a morning church, or feel called to attend another church, and we would like to help you be able to do this as safely as possible.
With that in mind, this is a compilation of potential red flags you might get from churches during your search. This is not a prescriptive list. There is, of course, nuance in all of these. But these are the patterns we have collectively noticed through our own personal experiences and our work with other churches.
Red Flag #1: Coffee With The Pastor/Priest/Reverend/Leader Etc
This is a classic red flag. It’s so commonplace it’s almost a joke among queer Christians. We say almost, because it has the potential to cause some serious harm. The context for it being a very big very flaming red flag goes something like this: you enquire about a church’s stance on LGBTQ+ affirmation. You don’t get given an honest answer either way, but instead are invited to coffee. Since this is usually in a coffee shop or other neutral space, you falsely think that it will be a productive and illuminating conversation. It won’t be. The pastor will probably buy your drink and then spend the next hour either belittling your experiences or saying some of the right things without committing to any affirming stances or action. The ‘coffee with the pastor’ will leave them feeling accomplished and you feeling, at best, emotionally drained and unsure of how to proceed, and, at worst, traumatised. This is something that we want to avoid.
Here are some ways to proceed if you are asked to grab a coffee with a leader of an unfamiliar church.
1) If you can help it, don’t go. Instead, send them an email or text (something that you can refer back to) enquiring about whether they have any policies in place for queer people. Give them a list of specific questions that you want answers to, and make sure you say that you want the answers. We believe that clarity on LGBTQ+ participation is both reasonable and vital. Would they let an openly queer person in a leadership position? Would they allow them to participate in youth work? Do they marry or bless same-sex couples? It’s okay for a church to not have thought about this before, or to not be on the same page you are, as long as they are honest about it. That’s the crux of it: honesty.
2) Ask around if anyone has had previous experience being queer in that particular church. If it’s one local to Cardiff, ask us. We might be able to help. This information can empower you to make the decision that is best for you. 3) If you feel like you want to proceed with the coffee meeting, bring someone that you trust with you. That way, you can have an advocate, support, and a second person to corroborate what’s been said.
Red Flag #2: We Welcome Everyone But…
This one is tricky. It’s hard to know if a church is actually welcoming to everyone, or if there is an unspoken “but” at the end of that sentence. Often, an unaffirming church will say that they are welcoming as a cop-out of sorts. They say they are welcoming, and they are – to an extent. The extent to which you will feel their welcome is often tied to how explicitly queer you are or present. This flag is especially dangerous for those of us who are visibly gender non-conforming, queer, or are looking to attend a new church whilst clearly in a same-sex partnership. That’s because this welcome is very often dependent on discretion – it requires an incomplete participation from behind closet doors. This is not always the case, of course. But, more often than not, in these scenarios, you can be queer in this church for as long as you hide it. You can play in the worship band or sign on to the ushering duty for as long as you can keep your church life (cis-het) apart from your personal life (queer). This is not a sustainable model for participation in a church. Quite apart from the homophobia that will more than likely become apparent when you disclose your queerness, any church that expects you to be in community with them whilst also holding back or omitting key parts of yourself, is not a church that should be trusted.
Red Flag #3: Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin
This is probably the most overt red flag we’ve seen so far – a flippant remark that is more and more being recognised as the blatant sign of homophobia that it is. With this remark, a church or a church-goer is letting you know that they think your sexuality is a sin. They may also believe things like queerness is a choice, a disease, or a social contagion, but not necessarily. The key issue for proponents of this belief is usually sex. If you are trans in a setting like this, similar assumptions are likely being made: you are committing the dual sins of homosexuality (often by association), and not performing your assigned gender well enough. For these places, you can be a “good” queer person in their eyes if you are celibate, refer to yourself as same-sex-attracted, and agree with their views on the “sin” of homosexuality. Churches with this view of sexuality at their heart are incredibly dangerous and damaging for queer people. It is in this setting that conversion therapy is most likely to take place: after all, if you are “struggling with the sin of homosexuality”, then God can take away that “temptation”, right? He can cure you of your disease. You can become “normal” if that’s what you want. And if conversion therapy isn’t working for you, then you clearly don’t want it enough, and it shows how weak in faith you are. Obviously, this theology is harmful and causes direct and sustaining harm for queer folk. Internalising this level of homophobia and self-hatred can also lead all-too-easily to feelings of helplessness that lay the foundations for self-harming behaviour and suicidal intention. This is potentially the easiest red flag to spot, and the biggest red flag. If anyone says this to you in your search for a church, get out as soon as you can. Even if you think you can change them, it is not worth your life. There are better places out there – places that will love and celebrate and affirm you. We promise.
Red Flag #4: God Loves Everybody
This one is very similar to numbers 2 and 3. Sure, God loves everybody. That’s a fairly easy statement to agree with. But, like number 2, there’s usually a catch. There’s usually an unspoken second sentence that goes something like this: “God loves everybody, and that’s why he loves you too much to stay in your sin”. Your sin, of course, being queerness. This red flag is less overt than number 3, but more insidious than number 2, since you probably won’t be able to compartmentalise as easy in this environment. With a church espousing red flag 2, they are probably as keen as you are to not have this discussion under any circumstances. For as long as you ignore your queerness in a church setting, they will be a normal church, welcoming and kind. It’s only if and when you start talking about your queer experiences that your trouble will start. With red flag 4, however, they will likely want to ignore it for a little bit, to “get to know you”, before they begin the gentle insistence that God loves you so much that he wants you to stop being queer. Again, the implications here are that you can change your sexuality if you want to, or that you can easily be coerced into celibacy. Celibacy, whilst a wonderful thing, is a gift – a calling like any other vocation. It isn’t something you should feel obliged to do, especially not just because you are LGBTQ+.
If you are looking for a church, here are a list of questions that would be good to get straight-forward and honest answers for, taken from SCM’s brilliant Honest Church Toolkit:
Do you have a policy about inclusion, in particular thinking of LGBTQ+ people?
Are there any openly LGBTQ+ people in the church at the moment?
Would you marry same-sex couples? If not allowed yet in your denomination, would you if it was allowed?
What is said about LGBTQ+ relationships from those in positions of leadership? Are they affirmed and celebrated?
Do you think people in the church are generally supportive of Trans people and their right to live as their authentic selves (for example by transitioning)?
Remember: you have the right to feel safe and affirmed in a church setting. You are beloved of God, who made you exactly as you are. God, who resides in you, loves and celebrates your queerness. And you are welcome at The Gathering any time – whether you need sustained support, or just a few sessions to remember that communities like this exist.