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Nashville churches are embracing LGBT congregants, and the spiritual questions and challenges they raise

Those Culture Wars Aren't Ours


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For many religious people, the journey to finding a worship community is complex. The music at one congregation is amazing, yet the preaching at another brings the sacred text alive. The rituals at one seem to transport you into transcendence, yet the outreach ministry at another speaks to what you see as essential to your faith. The annual pie supper, which really shouldn't influence any faith-filled decision, might be an embarrassing tipping point. And yet your spouse hates pie and your kids love their friends' youth group down the street because they play flashlight tag.

But joining a worship community when you are ground zero in the culture wars can be even more exhausting. You listen for subtle cues and your body tenses when folks talk about "healthy relationships" or "how we are called to love" or even "we are all sinners saved by grace." Am I safe here? Can they tell I'm gay? When and how do I want them to acknowledge it? Do I have to talk about it? Why aren't they talking about it? What if this congregation fully affirms gay folks, but I can't stand their hymns? And really, all I want to do right now is ask why the communion wine tastes more like bourbon.

That choices even exist for gay parishioners, however, may be a sign of progress. Many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have been — and continue to be — deeply scarred by religious communities certain of their eternal damnation. For them, it's a matter of spiritual rejuvenation to find churches that proclaim good news and foster healing specifically for vulnerable LGBT believers, even in a region that's been at the center of some of the past century's most heated social and religious controversies.

Culture wars have a long history in Tennessee. Even the shortest possible list would have to include the Scopes trial in 1925, the Nashville sit-ins in 1960, and the Murfreesboro mosque controversy of 2010.

In the past year, the Tennessee state legislature worked hard to add the state to the list of major battlefields for issues targeting LGBT Americans. From passing "Don't Say Gay" legislation in the state Senate and nullifying Metro's nondiscrimination policy to debating religious speech exceptions for bullying, the majority of our state legislators placed LGBT residents at the center of a social-issue agenda that resurfaced throughout the year. (See Steven Hale's related article.)

Yet as most research shows, state-level battles over these social issues seldom reflect the complex opinions and lived reality of everyday citizens. For example, Pew Research Center polling reports that while 60 percent of the population opposed same-sex marriage in 2004, only 43 percent still oppose it in 2012. Moreover, a PRRI/RNS poll showed that 74 percent of Millennials (ages 18-29) compared to 33 percent of seniors (65 and older) support legalizing same-sex marriage.

Where religion and LGBT concerns intersect, the reality is more complicated still. To be thorough, any mapping of Middle Tennessee's religious landscape would have to recognize a range of congregations in which LGBT people are not only affirmed and welcomed, but also are ordained and called to minister. It also means acknowledging religious communities that are openly wrestling with where they stand on an "issue" that is no longer abstract but rather embodied by people they love deeply.

Finally, it requires understanding how questions about LGBT issues are deepening theological discussions about the nature of sexuality, marriage, scriptural interpretation and ordination writ large.

Several Nashville congregations are currently led or co-led by LGBT ministers, including Holy Trinity Community Church and Glendale Baptist Church. But even more have trained and ordained LGBT personnel for ministries such as hospice chaplaincy, pastoral counseling and varied social service positions. Many communities in Middle Tennessee have undertaken deliberate processes (sometimes taking years) to study their sacred scripture, theological traditions and experiential witness before adopting official statements welcoming LGBT persons to their communities. Just a partial list of these congregations includes: Edgehill and Hobson United Methodist churches; Second Presbyterian, Woodland Presbyterian, and Trinity Presbyterian; St. Anne's Episcopal; Brookemeade Congregational Church; and First Unitarian Universalist and Great Nashville UU.

Other religious communities are currently having regular conversations about LGBT issues through film screenings, workshops and facilitated scripture studies. In fact, such opportunities pop up on Facebook feeds all over town each week. So much focus on "sexual politics" can be exhausting even for LGBT congregants.

"I think that LGBT persons choose to attend because of the depth of shared life experience in our community of faith," says the Rev. Dr. Amy Mears of Glendale Baptist Church. "We try to be very explicitly welcoming and affirming while not putting people on parade. ... I think that these are very similar reasons for 'straight' persons' entry." In other words, no one wants to be tokenized or reduced to one dimension of who they are; faith is often most full when it is shared across the diversity of life experiences.

Yet the heat generated by the culture wars can serve a higher purpose, in prompting wider-ranging discussions about religious life. Requests for same-sex commitment ceremonies can lead congregations into larger discussions about their theologies of marriage. Should there be an automatic relationship between legalized civil marriage and religious marriage? And particularly for Christians, can Bible study raise fruitful questions about what it means to worship a single, seemingly asexual Savior?

The Rev. Becca Stevens reflects this larger theological journey as she describes one of her key pastoral tasks at St. Augustine's Episcopal Chapel. Both there and as founder of Magdalene House, a residential community for women escaping lives of prostitution, addiction and homelessness, Stevens says she works to "help people unite their sexuality and spirituality."

"People carry shame and trauma from wounds caused by others or ourselves bifurcating our bodies and our spirits," Stevens explains. "Love is about healing bodies and lifting spirits so we can respect and love the dignity of every human being."

These challenges are not limited to a certain identity segment of the population. Even some of Nashville's neo-evangelical congregations, while more theologically conservative regarding human sexuality, now focus less on rigid doctrinal stances and instead initiate relationships through a message of love of neighbor and hospitality to the stranger. Conversations about "sin" now entail robust discussions of whether sins can be ranked and how various sexualities must been viewed in light of a gracious God's desire for human flourishing. In stating her support for same-sex marriage this past week, country music singer Carrie Underwood reflected this shift as she noted that her nondenominational church (located in Middle Tennessee) is "gay friendly" and that "above all, God wanted us to love others. It's not about setting rules, or [saying] 'everyone has to be like me.' "

To be sure, some of these congregations are wrestling anew with theological questions because of the presence of LGBT fellow travelers. And LGBT people of faith are also challenged by their journey with these same communities. As the Rev. Sonnye Dixon of Hobson United Methodist Church explains, one of his major challenges with an affirming congregation becomes working with "LGBT congregants [who] have not been able to look beyond their own hurt and to see how their issues of classism, elitism, racism [and] ethnic or gender bias might be obstructions in the community's commitment to inclusi[on] and reconciling."

These mutual challenges and the harm, healing and hope they entail are not easily captured by culture-war categories. But then again, neither is God.

Dr. C. Melissa Snarr is associate dean for academic affairs and associate professor of ethics and society at Vanderbilt University Divinity School.

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