Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The "Gay Church" Paradox

Put simply:  as mainstream churches become more accepting, the churches founded specifically to serve gay Christians are tanking.  

Such, at least, is the hypothesis put forward in a Southern California newspaper article, linked above.  In fairness, the article gives no evidence of being based upon an extensive survey of the the churches affected.  Looks more like a couple of telephone calls, a brief one to a local MCC pastor, and a longer one to the founder and Archbishop of a micro-denomination called the Ecumenical Catholic Church.

And these calls turn up one particular oddity.

The ECC bishop, Mark Shirilau, is pictured in his mitre and carrying a crozier, but says that he actually worships in an Episcopal parish.  This is just as well, since the ECC has declined from its 1995 high of 2000 members to 500, spread over 20 parishes, many of which gather infrequently.  The MCC pastor, the Rev. Nori Kieran-Meredith, says that "she is a practicing Catholic."

We're not sure what to make of this.  Perhaps the reporter didn't get the quotes right, or know enough to follow up on these curious remarks.  But it easy to see why small start-up religious movements are going to suffer when their leaders actually prefer to worship somewhere else.


Anonymous said...

Regardless of the lack of evidence, this isn't surprising in the least. If a church is founded to serve a population that is positively diminutive, what did they expect?

Found a church to be a church, not to be a special interest group!

Father said...

That's nicely said, and it also speaks to something we have talked about a bit at the Egg, which is the inherent weakness of what an ELCA evangelism staffer has recently called "the ethnic strategy."

In the days when, say, German immigrants with limited English were a major part of the population in certain urban centers (NYC, Philadelphia), it made a certain amount of sense to build congregations around them. This was very effective for Lutherans and Roman Catholics in the 19th century.

There is a still a modest place for this sort of work, as for example in a recently-founded congregation meant to serve expat Finns working in NYC.

But latterly, the strategy has been applied without adequate reflection, leading to two different, but equally foolish, mistakes:

1) Targeting ethnic and language groups that are at best marginal in a given locale -- Hmong, for example, or Croatians. The odds of building a stable congregation around such an extremely small group are slender.

2) Targeting ethnic and language groups in which Christianity, or one's own form of it, is truly alien. New York has many Chinese people, but will never likely be home to many Chinese Lutherans. One or at most two such congregations may eventually scrape by, at least for a few years, but that's about it.

Now, these mistakes aren't new. In the 1930s, for example, New York was home to Polish and Italian language Lutheran churches, neither of which ever had much hope.

Nor are the efforts always fruitless -- beginning in the 1930s, NY Lutherans made several tentative steps toward ministry among black people, which have (arguably, at least) made possible the continued existence of many contemporary parishes.

But even so, the "ethnic strategy" has not served us especially well in the past half-century. At best, it has raised false expectations, and saddled the community with many hard-to-staff and expensive-to-maintain parishes, only a few of which actually thrive.

So, expanding on the comment above, we might encourage synodical and diocesesan strategists to "found churches, not ethnic social clubs."