Pentecostal Possibilities Beyond the “Gay Ghetto”:
Crave MCC, Paddington, New South Wales / 22 January 2017
A Community Drawn from the Edges
Photos from the Crave MCC Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/CRAVEMCC/
Crave MCC, a congregation of the international Metropolitan Community Church, founded in the United States in 1968 by a gay former Pentecostal minister as a haven for Christians excluded from their churches because of sexual orientation or gender identity, gathers weekly in the parish hall of Paddington Uniting Church in suburban Sydney, just down the way from Sydney’s Oxford Street corridor of gay clubs and nightlife. Both the congregation’s relative nearness to and noticeable distance from the social and cultural hub of Sydney’s “gay scene” suggests this congregation’s nearness to and distance from the traditional touch-points of its own denomination and the Pentecostal and evangelical churches from which its members hail. This participant-observer was once the director of liturgy at Dignity/Chicago, a Roman Catholic eucharistic community not unlike Crave founded in the 1970s to provide a welcoming faith community for sexual and gender minority Catholics, experience which surely colours my observation, though now as a presbyter in the Episcopal Church in the United States, which is now actively pursuing more inclusive practice by ordaining members of all sexual orientations and gender identities, and witnessing as sacramental the marriages of same-gender couples.
Crave’s mid-afternoon service had a “soft” beginning, with members chatting at the doors of the parish hall seated around a table. Inside, tea and water were available for a hot day at the back of a large, mostly empty room. At the front, banners describing Crave’s mission, defined as “dynamic – inclusive – progressive,” reflected the stylish design found on Crave’s website. Between the identical banners were placed an electronic keyboard and microphone for the worship leaders. As the time for the 3 p.m. service grew near, a group of between 20 and 25, along with a couple of dogs, took places in the three rows of chairs facing forward; a few others joined as the service got going, necessitating an extra row of chairs. Each seat had placed on it a Crave “Keep in Touch” card and a laminated “12 Promises” sheet, which includes a version of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 Steps, each with an adapted “promise” followed by a verse from scripture, and included reference to a page on the Crave website for the group that meets around “recovery.” (A conversation with the pastor, Karl Hand, revealed that, while Crave reflects MCC inclusion of LBGTQI+ persons, its particular membership, no doubt like other pastoral communities, includes a number of persons pursuing addiction recovery who were attracted by Crave’s “inclusive” approach, signaling perhaps a feeling of exclusion from their home church traditions analogous to that felt by LBGTQI+ members.) Apart from the welcome card and laminated sheet, no other printed materials were provided to participants. An overhead projector provided song lyrics, a list of announcements, and some biblical passages from the preacher during the sermon. To the right and somewhat set apart from both the “central” area and the rows of chairs was a square low table covered with a white cloth and holding a candle, a plate with a loaf of bread and a separate dish of gluten-free wafers, and a glass cup of what turned out to be grape juice.
Those gathered included an opposite-gender couple (male and female) with a baby, and at least one same-gender lesbian couple (introduced to me by the pastor). The majority appeared to be made up of gay men in a range of ages, a mix of older and middle-aged adults, and also a number of younger-looking men. None of the men appeared to be with partners or introduced themselves as partnered. Some in the congregation appeared to be of Asian and/or Pacific Islander or Filipino heritage (about four members), while others, a majority, appeared to be Anglo-Australian, though one woman noted that she was from “Christchurch” (Aoteroa New Zealand). None of these differences of cultural heritage was noted in an explicit way in the liturgy, nor were the words “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual” or “transgender,” or “straight” ever used in relation to members’ sexuality or gender identity, though there was reference in the announcements to the coming Mardi Gras celebration, Sydney’s annual “Pride” celebration. It is possible that the more implied rather than explicit references to sexuality and gender identity had to do with what the pastor described as Crave’s original planting as a “post-gay-ghetto” church.
A Collection of Treasures Old and New
The service was first led in song by a two-person band (both members of apparent Asian or Pacific Islander cultural heritage), which was followed by a prayer from the Anglo-Australian pastor. An Anglo-Australian woman then gave a long series of announcements after first acknowledging the First Peoples of that place. She then prayed extemporaneously for the preacher, laying a hand on his shoulder and asking the Holy Spirit to “edit” the sermon in some helpful way, both in the preacher’s delivery and in the reception of the hearers. The pastor preached for about 30 minutes, then led a prayer, followed by three songs in the “praise” genre. A woman from the second row (the other leaders had been sitting in the front row on the other side of the center aisle) then proceeded to a small square table upon which were placed a loaf of bread and a glass goblet of grape juice, each covered with cloth. She spoke for about five minutes about what communion meant to her and her response the sermon, especially the freedom she enjoyed in not using a fixed text, as had been the practice “in Christchurch,” from which she had come. She noted that the preaching had helped free her from feelings of guilt, which inspired her to “freedom” in coming to the table. Although she did not address God or pray extemporaneously, she mentioned briefly the Last Supper of Jesus, connecting the bread and wine on the table to the bread and wine shared then, and proceeded to invite everyone forward to tear a piece of bread and dip it in the grape juice. All eventually did so. Music began again, after which the pastor introduced the offering, followed by another song, after which the pastor sent the group out.
Music came from a contemporary “evangelical” or “popular” range of Christian music, performed on an electronic keyboard by one leader and led by another single singer. All the music was in English (save some Hebrew in one song, Amy Grant’s “El Shaddai”), and leaned in the direction of a “praise and worship” genre in both text and “feel.” The run sheet (provided by one of leaders) listed the following songs: “10,000 Reasons” (Matt Redman, 2012), “Glory to the Lamb” (Geoffrey Golden, 2015), “Open Heaven” (Hillsong, 2015), “The Heavens Shall Declare” (Geoff Bullock, 1995), “El Shaddai” (Amy Grant, 1982), “Anchor” (Hillsong, 2013). There were no “traditional” hymns of European cultural heritage nor any music from contemporary denominational resources (such as the ecumenical Together in Song, which might be used in the host Uniting Church congregation), though the communion leader noted that one of the songs was from following the preaching (Geoff Bullock’s “The Heavens Shall Declare”) came from an earlier period of evangelical music, while another (Amy Grant’s “El Shaddai”) was also noted by this participant—a native of Amy Grant’s home state of Tennessee in the United States—as a piece from a particular time, both in my home culture and in my religious life at the time. Thus, though the overall “feel” of the gathering was both contemporary and informal, there were also marks of reference to longer worship traditions, including the laying on of hands, extemporaneous prayer, and the sharing of a common loaf and cup, along with a developing set of “traditional” music that bears some ritual memory, even for this visitor from the other side of the world.
Discerning the Patterns
The service more or less followed a “frontier ordo” as described by Gordon Lathrop—songs of praise, announcements, preaching, usually leading to “decision” or conversion—though the “decision” followed by baptism seems replaced by weekly communion, which a congregant (a man who identified himself as Baptist) said was always included in MCC liturgies because exclusion from communion was one of the primary ways congregation members had been excluded from their home traditions due to their sexual orientation. Beyond that difference, the liturgy seemed to follow the worship patterns of the largely evangelical and Pentecostal heritages of MCC. There was not much “ritual gesture” as such, for example, at the communion table, nor any special vesture. The exceptions were a laying-on of hands for prayer for the preacher before the preaching, and occasional lifted hands from congregants or the song leader, sometimes with closed eyes, during singing.
The primary “source” for the liturgy was the Bible, discovered primarily in the preaching; there was no independent “proclamation” of a scripture passage. Four passages were projected onto the overhead screen as they were mentioned in the preaching: Luke 11:2-4 (the prayer that Jesus taught); Acts 3:1-10 (the healing of a man by the apostle Peter); Genesis 1:28 (God’s blessing of newly created humanity and grant of “dominion” over the rest of creation); Luke 18:1-7 (Jesus’ parable of the widow and the unjust judge). The preacher identified the sermon as the last in a series of four on prayer, using the “Lord’s Prayer” as the foundational text; the choice of texts appeared to belong to the preacher rather than any outside lectionary or list of scripture readings based on date or season. These biblical texts, however, were put in conversation with wisdom from outside the Bible, for example, the 12 Steps, though always reinterpreted through biblical lenses, as well as through the personal experience and prayer of the preacher. Above all, the sermon encouraged hearers to believe that their needs matter to God, and that nothing was too small to share with God, suggesting, perhaps, a subtle critique of a sermon that might suggest the opposite.
Most of the songs were also directly quoted or paraphrased from a biblical source, or a blending of several biblical sources, interpreted through contemporary melody originating in U.S., U.K. and Australian cultural contexts. Prayers appeared to be extemporaneous, perhaps with roots in biblical patterns but with no explicit biblical quotations; these seemed more directed to the contemporary gathering, and included words of praise and thanksgiving as well as prayer and supplication.
The focus on “word”—prayed, sung, preached, and printed—was reflected in the space for worship. The gathering took place in a church hall rather than the actual church building on the same site, which the pastor noted had art that was “too challenging,” especially for newcomers. (To this observer’s eye, the art on the Uniting Church sanctuary reflected a combination of contemporary and Aboriginal pieces, mostly paintings, some of which had realistic portrayals of human bodies, such as a “pieta” in which the penis of the dead Jesus was fully depicted.) In contrast, the very spare space for Crave’s worship had about 30 chairs arranged in three rows. At the right, and at a distance from the rest and seeming somewhat “disconnected,” was the communion table with its contents—a signal perhaps of a less-central focus on ritual and symbolic action associated with other Christian traditions, though also valued in a particular way by this congregation. The projection screen was flanked by duplicate vertical banners with the name “Crave” at the top, with “dynamic,” “inclusive,” and “progressive” as subheads, each with a paragraph in smaller type.
A New Pentecost of Possibilities?
The overall “feel” of the gathering was quite welcoming and relaxed, even informal. A bit surprising for an MCC congregation is that fact that one might not know the group was made up primarily of LGBTQI+ folks, unless you knew “the code”—the booth at the Mardi Gras fair, for example, or, as in this observer’s case, being a self-identified gay man accustomed to discerning those with a similar sexual orientation. Indeed, the presence of an apparently heterosexual couple with a young child troubled the concept of a “gay” church, at least one founded in the generation before same-gender couples with children was more common and socially accepted, and lent credence to the pastor’s assertion that Crave was planted as a “post-gay-ghetto” church, a step beyond the traditional MCC, and in some ways less governed by MCC’s more activist roots. In some ways, Crave reminded this observer of some smaller evangelical Anglican congregations in which the feel is shaped by emotive singing (in both leadership and participation), which was fairly strong, and a lengthy highly didactic sermon, which made efforts to return several times to the Bible. Both the preaching and the words preceding communion had an expository feel reflecting this observer’s general experience of preaching in evangelical traditions.
And yet the consistent practice of celebrating communion led by a member of the congregation (rather than the ordained pastor) suggests a connection to the MCC tradition and its activist efforts to include those who had been excluded—a practice clearly extended to an opposite-gender couple and their child, as well as the recovery community, whose adapted 12 Steps were a central part of the preaching. This inclusive heritage appeared also in the broad open-endedness of the sermon and words at the table, which seemed to propose rather than impose meanings and practices, and in no way suggested settled certainty. This perhaps arises from a lived experience of exclusion, of being imposed upon, which the communion leader referenced in her words at the table, noting especially the value of freedom from fixed texts, and given that she was a lay person, from the control of ordained leaders. Though the experience of marginalisation that often accompanies being a gender or sexual minority was not explicitly named, it nevertheless shaped the prayer, song, and preaching, suggesting an allied divine contour more open to possibility than defined as settled doctrine.
Crave MCC appears to this observer, then, to be a community embodying transitions going on in the wider world, especially as they relate to gender and sexual minorities. What was once a completely excluded collection of marginalised communities in both church and society are on their way to experiencing greater acceptance—though that development is in process. Thus Crave’s worship seems to propose possibilities for both present and future, as the fruitful combination of religious heritage, the experience of exclusion, and the possibility of something new begin to take shape on the borders between the center and the margins.
Bryan Cones is a presbyter in the Episcopal Church's Diocese of Chicago, a former editor (at Liturgy Training Publications and U.S. Catholic), and adjunct lecturer in liturgy at Episcopal Divinity School. His recent publications include "Field Notes from a Pilgrimage: Lessons Under the Southern Cross for a Pilgrim from the Lands of the North Star" in the current edition of the Australian Journal of Liturgy.