The Very Idea of “Gay Church”

This October marks the fortieth anniversary of the first worship service for the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches or MCC. The story of the service has been told often enough to count as mythic. It is a great story, especially when the denomination’s founder, Troy Perry, preaches it in the operatic style of his Pentecostal boyhood. He has also written it over the years, not least in his autobiography, The Lord is My Shepherd and He Knows I’m Gay (1972). When it describes that founding service, the autobiography gives most space to the Bible readings and to the sermon Perry entitled “Be True to You.” But when I retell the story, at second- or fifth-hand, I put the emphasis elsewhere. I don’t change it on a claim of scholarly objectivity—I like the story just as a myth of origin, without any pretensions to critical history. I tell it differently to better show why a ‘gay church’ always becomes something else—something bigger. For me this anniversary stands as another sort of Reformation Sunday.

Here’s how the story can go. After being driven out of churches in which he had repeatedly been called to minister, Troy Perry found himself working a day job and navigating the gay networks of Los Angeles right before Stonewall. He felt himself called to start a congregation that would minister to the needs of “the gays”—not by calling them to repentance or reorientation, but by blessing them as children of God. He wasn’t the first person to have this idea—not even the first person in Los Angeles. Chuck Rowland, an early member of the Mattachine Society and the ONE Institute, tried to do something similar twenty years earlier—much to the displeasure of his activist comrades, who had little use for religion. Perry didn’t know that already ancient history. He writes that he felt the call to minister as fresh, personal, urgent—the way founders do. So after praying and brooding, he decided to announce a service. The news circulated among his friends, but Perry also persuaded the owners of The Advocate to accept an advertisement for it despite their suspicion of religion. The Advocate has since become a national glossy magazine, but it was then closer to being a local bar rag (a term I use tenderly, as if describing a vanishing art form.) In fact, the date for the first service in October was set not because of some liturgical calendar—say, not because October contains Reformation Sunday, but because of the magazine’s publication schedule. Twelve people showed up in Perry’s living room—new disciples, new apostles. With that entirely appropriate number, a church began.

At the first service, Perry tried to describe the church. He announced that while it would “serve the religious and spiritual and social needs of the homosexual community of greater Los Angeles,” it would soon “reach homosexuals wherever they might be.” Perry then “made it clear that we were not a gay church, we were a Christian church.” This may sound like a casual contradiction, but it is the heart of Perry’s inspiration—at least on my retelling of his reform. Having suffered such bitter exclusion from churches, he was not about to establish a new church on the basis of a reversed exclusion. Given his background, he could never conceive church as anything other than intrinsically expansive. If Perry imagined a movement that would reach homosexuals everywhere, he equally insisted that it could not be confined to the homosexual ghettos (as they were already called). Spreading everywhere, it would spread even into other churches. The gay ministry must become a general church reform—and not only on issues of sexuality.

Perry made two other choices that exploded any narrow conception of a gay church. During the first service, he declared MCC a sort of ecumenical movement in miniature: “I said that we would be a general Protestant church to be all-inclusive.” In fact, “all-inclusive” quickly overtook “Protestant.” MCC has attracted Anglicans and Roman Catholics from its earliest days. Part of its genius has been to improvise liturgies in which assorted Christians could recognize themselves in some part of each service. The sequence of styles can be dizzying, but also exhilarating. So the impulse to minister to the homosexual community of Los Angeles began almost immediately to undo the old divisions incised across Christian history. As Perry describes it, “God wanted me to start a new church that would reach into the gay community, but that would include anyone and everyone who believed in the true spirit of God’s love, peace, and forgiveness.” Notice how fluently the specific ministry becomes not only ecumenical, but universal.

Perry made another decision at that first service—for me, the more powerful one. After the sermon he declared that any of those present could come forward to receive communion. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.” Everyone in that place sympathized with what it was to be denied communion, to be debarred from communion, for being a homosexual. Jim Mitulski, a longtime leader in MCC, sometimes says that the denomination has earned an honorable place in church history just by opening communion to those long-despised by churches. I agree. I too have attended MCC communions where there wasn’t a dry eye in the place, mine included. Part of it is the extraordinary spectacle of Jesus’ table opened at last to honestly queer people. But part of it is watching Christian communion now offered generously—instead of being withheld to enforce every cruel exclusion.

Some members of MCC will celebrate the anniversary of the first communion as the founding of a gay church. I’m happy to celebrate with them, but I’ll then propose another motive for festival. I’ll tell the story again to show how unpredictable and uncontainable the most familiar Christian rituals remain. A disgraced preacher, an ad in a bar rag, a suburban living room—and then this endlessly abused rite produces tears of joy. Troy Perry’s inspiration makes him not only a denominational founder, but a church reformer—for “the homosexuals,” if you like, but for everyone else in the pews. That is his disconcerting promise. There is no gay church, only church—which is never reformed, only reforming.

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