Australia's churches must welcome LGBT+ people of faith

by Nathan Despott | Brave Network Melbourne
Thursday, 25 October 2018 11:48 GMT

A man walks his dog as he passes a fellow pedestrian along a footpath next to a church on a winter day in central Sydney, Australia, July 12, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Many churches are now 'welcoming but not affirming' of LGBT+ people but does that stance go far enough?

Nathan Despott is a co-leader of Brave Network Melbourne, a support and advocacy group for LGBT+ people of faith and allies, and works as a research and development manager in the intellectual disability sector in Australia

As a gay person who spent his late teens and twenties in Melbourne’s evangelical community, the image of a large church with arms open to welcome LGBT+ people is familiar but foreboding.

Most of my experience in the ex-gay or “conversion” movement was through long-term involvement in local Christian communities that, rather than condemn my sexuality, intimated that I was loved but “broken”. This led to a 10-year quest for healing that was all-consuming and overwhelming.

Since leaving the movement in 2010, it has been fascinating to watch most formal ex-gay/ex-trans/conversion programmes shut their doors, often replaced by a new wave of churches that call themselves “welcoming but not affirming”.

Welcoming is the point at which a church shifts from viewing LGBT+ people as utterly intolerable to seeing them as “broken” and in need of support. LGBT+ members often experience close fellowship here, but cannot usually hold positions of leadership or, in some cases, work with young people and children.

According to a recent report, Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice, from the Human Rights Law Centre and Melbourne’s La Trobe University, “while the ‘welcoming but not affirming’ posture appears less hostile than overt opposition to LGBT+ rights, when its ‘not affirming’ aspects are withheld or disguised… it can be deeply harmful”.

The report traces the development of the conversion movement and its ideology of “brokenness” from this point to the present day, where it has become virtually the mainstream lens through which evangelical communities – whether focused on orientation change or celibacy – engage LGBT+ people.

The report also found that the conversion movement invests significant resources and energy in transmitting this ideology through myriad channels and activities. A coalition of survivors of the movement recently developed the SOCE Survivor Statement, outlining the core tenets of the conversion movement and a range of recommendations that very much align with those in Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice.

Yet there is a solution for the church – and that is by ascribing to an affirming ideology, rather than welcoming. While welcoming churches may have opened their arms to LGBT+ or even actively shunned the conversion movement in favour of celibacy, only affirming churches have completely rejected the brokenness ideology and accept LGBT+ people for who they are.

Responding to pastors who considered their churches to be “affirming” following a shift from condemnation to support, survivor support and advocacy group Brave Network Melbourne developed a model statement of affirmation. Could pastors and their leadership teams readily state “We believe LGBT+ people are a loved and essential part of God’s intended human diversity”? Many could not.

Do not misunderstand me.

For some of these churches, their forward movement is honourable. Theologically and personally, their journey has been significant – particularly if their welcoming stance has led to rejection from conservative brethren. However, for LGBT+ people of faith, the safety line lies between “welcoming” and “affirming”.

Brave Network and similar organisations have called on churches to explicitly state their theological stance regarding LGBT+ people rather than engaging in ambiguities such as “welcoming but not affirming”, which is widely seen as code for “you’re broken but we still love you”.

This would prevent people of faith spending years ensconced in communities that slowly erode their mental health.