On that Sunday in 1968 when Troy Perry borrowed a minister’s robe and started a church for gays in his living room, the world was a very different place.
His Metropolitan Community Churches were then a lone spiritual refuge for openly gay Christians in the U.S., an idea so far from the mainstream that the founders were often chased from places where they tried to worship.
Four decades later, some of the most historically important denominations, which had routinely expelled gays and lesbians, are welcoming them instead. MCC now has a presence in dozens of states as well as overseas, reporting a total membership of more than 240 congregations and ministries.
But as acceptance of same-sex relationships grows _ gay and lesbian clergy in many Protestant traditions no longer have to hide their partners or lose their careers, and Christians can often worship openly with their same-gender spouses in the churches where they were raised _ the fellowship is at a crossroads.
Is a gay-centered Christian church needed anymore?
“There are many more options than there used to be,” said the Rev. Nancy Wilson, moderator, or leader, of the Metropolitan Community Churches. “But there is not a mass exodus.”
The denomination has never been gays-only. But for a long time, straight allies were scarce.
Few people had ever heard the argument that the Bible sanctioned same-gender relationships, and no one of any influence in the religious world was saying it. MCC congregations became targets of arson, violence, pickets and, in at least one case, a vice squad.
Today, MCC pastors say they see a growing number of straight friends and relatives of gays and lesbians among their congregants, along with heterosexual parents who want their children raised in a gay-affirming environment. While some MCC congregations haven’t changed much over the decades, Wilson said, many are emphasizing a broad social justice agenda, including serving the homeless and poor.
“We don’t have a rainbow flag on our website, nor do we have it on our building,” said the Rev. Dan Koeshall, senior pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church of San Diego, which draws about 220 people for Sunday services.
“It wasn’t a decision that caused any controversy or split. It’s just been moving in that direction. We know that our target audience is the LGBT community. But we’re also attracting people who are saying, `Yes, I stand in solidarity with you and I want to be part of this.”’
The fellowship expanded relatively quickly from its humble beginnings. Within months of founding the first congregation in Los Angeles, Perry started receiving letters and visits from people hoping to establish MCC churches in other cities. Two years later, new congregations had formed as far away as Florida. Within five years, the church had spread overseas.
Then, the 1980s arrived and with it, the AIDS crisis. Metropolitan Community Churches plowed its resources into ministries for the sick, dying and grieving. The fellowship lost several thousand members and clergy to the virus, and the business of starting new churches slowed. As a result, Wilson and others say the denomination missed out on crucial period for potential growth.
But the church has also lost some congregations, including its biggest, to other denominations. The Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, with about 4,200 members, split off around 2003 and eventually joined the United Church of Christ. Cathedral and MCC officials say the break resulted from disagreements between local church members and local leaders, not a rejection of MCC’s mission. The Cathedral maintains its focus on reaching out to gays, lesbians and transgender people.
Still, the United Church of Christ, which has more than 5,000 congregations and roots in colonial New England, can offer much that the MCC cannot, including more resources, greater prominence and a broader reach.
Like many other churches coping with a weak economy, the MCC has cut or restructured staff jobs in the last five years, Wilson said. Some smaller MCC churches have closed.
Yet, despite the losses, Wilson and others see a continuing role for Metropolitan Community Churches, given the wide range of responses to gays and lesbians in organized religion, even in the more liberal churches.
Of the mainline Protestant groups, only the United Church of Christ supports gay marriage outright. The Episcopal Church last month released a provisional prayer service for blessing same-sex unions. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have eliminated barriers for gay clergy but allow regional and local church officials to decide their own policies. One of the largest groups, the United Methodist Church, with about 7.8 million U.S. members, still bars ordination for people in same-sex relationships, although many individual Methodist churches openly accept gay and lesbian clergy.
Wilson said a large percentage of newer MCC members are from conservative Christian churches teaching that gay and lesbian Christians should try to become heterosexual or remain celibate.
Like most denominations, MCC is seeing its strongest growth overseas. In Latin America, the fellowship had seven churches in five countries a decade ago, and it now reports 56 congregations or ministries in 17 countries, according to the Rev. Darlene Garner, director of MCC’s emerging ministries. A congregation in Australia for young adults, called Crave, is thriving, Wilson said.
MCC has already conducted its first virtual baptism on the web, a relatively new practice that is gaining popularity among evangelical churches with online worship.