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Homosexuality and the pews: Seven signs influencing congregational acceptance of gays and lesbians

The Pentecostal minister did not talk much about the Bible and homosexuality.

What he did was sell his house and move into an apartment above a garage next to a residence for homeless people with AIDS. The home was started by his church at a time when fear of a disease associated with homosexuality was rampant.

“We feel this is where Christ would be involved,” he told me as he took a break from finishing up a back room at the Houston residence. Rapping one hand on the wood he had been sawing, he continued, “It’s hard not to have pride (on a Sunday) to look out and see two pews of HIV people.”

Move forward 20 years: Last weekend, I was at a Catholic Mass in West Hartford, Conn., where the priest over and over brought home the theme, “All are welcome in this place.”

The two incidents illustrate perhaps Lesson No. 1 in my experiences in a quarter century of reporting on issues of religion and homosexuality: It is difficult to stereotype. Individual congregations, not denominations, ultimately decide how they will respond to gay and lesbian worshippers.

But until recently, there had been relatively little research on the responses of religious communities. New studies by researchers such as Andrew Whitehead, reported in the latest issue of the Review of Religious Research, and Gary Adler, who shared his findings in the journal Social Problems, are providing insights into which congregations are more likely to be welcoming to gays and lesbians, and what this means for the future. The studies analyze data from the 2006-2007 National Congregations Study, which asked a series of questions about how welcoming communities are to gays and lesbians in committed relationships.
Some key indicators of congregational attitudes emerged:

Welcoming Catholics: Catholic teaching opposed to homosexual acts is well-known, but the congregations study showed no differences among mainline Protestant and Catholic congregations in opening membership to gays and lesbians. There were other significant differences by religious tradition: Evangelical and black Protestants were much less likely to incorporate gays and lesbians into congregational life; mainline Protestant congregations were most likely to be open to gays and lesbians as leaders, Whitehead noted. But the research also showed many congregations within the same religious tradition take different stances, indicating acceptance cannot be measured by denominational affiliation alone.

Politics matter: Political ideology was one of the key predictors of openness. Nearly four in five politically liberal congregations allow people in same-sex relationships to be members and 60 percent allow them to be leaders. In contrast, slightly more than a quarter of politically conservative congregations extend membership privileges to gays and lesbians in committed relationships, and less than 10 percent allow them to be congregational leaders.

Theological divides: Another critical indicator is theology. A theologically liberal congregation is more than eight times as likely to allow membership privileges compared to a theologically conservative congregation, Adler noted.

Gender bias: Congregations with a higher percentage of women are more likely to allow same-sex, committed couples to become members, Whitehead found.

Education: Congregations that have more individuals with bachelor’s degrees were more likely to be welcoming to gays and lesbians. Churches where head clergy have advanced degrees were more likely to allow lesbians and gays in committed relationships to become leaders.

The age factor: Surveys of young Americans in the general population indicate they are highly accepting of homosexuality, but the congregations study showed no significant differences in attitudes among congregations with relatively more members under age 35. Researchers said this likely reflects the much greater ability of conservative churches to retain young adults.

In another finding that may be somewhat surprising, congregations led by older clergy were more likely to open membership to gays and lesbians. “Older clergy may face fewer career consequences of supporting membership openness or they may simply have experience successfully negotiating such controversial issues,” Adler noted.

Outside the lines: Congregations that have worshipped with other congregations from different racial or ethnic backgrounds in the past year are more than one-and-a-half times as likely to be open to membership privileges for gays and lesbians, Adler found.

So what does the future look like regarding the acceptance of gays and lesbians in the pews?

Do not expect rapid changes, analysts state.

“On the whole, congregations in the United States are decidedly against the full inclusion of gay and lesbian couples into congregational life,” Whitehead noted.

But Adler and Whitehead also foresee cultural changes continuing to make their way down into the pews.

“Openness to gays and lesbians among congregations will probably continue to increase amid increasing social tolerance of homosexuality,” according to Adler
Whitehead noted some similarities with the experience of divorced individuals, who were long excluded from full participation in religious groups until major changes in social norms promoted greater acceptance. So, too, may increasing societal acceptance of homosexuality influence congregations.

“It would not be surprising if in 10, 20, or 30 years, the acceptance of lesbians and gays into congregational life undergoes the same change,” he wrote. “In colloquial terms, the rising tide may lift all boats.”

In the meantime, what research affirms, and what experience has taught me, is not to judge a congregation by the sign outside. The people inside will let you know whether this is a congregation where all are welcome.

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