The Early Days of Metropolitan Community Churches
From infancy on, I was a child of the church. My spiritual roots were in the Pentecostal tradition of Christianity. Kneeling next to my Sunday school teacher at the age of nine, I gave my heart to Jesus. As a teen-ager I taught Sunday school and led our youth group. Upon graduation from Bible College in 1966 I became the pastor of an Assemblies of God congregation.
My coming out in August 1974 as a gay man at the age of 33 was as much a coming in; to MCC. I never left the church of Jesus Christ. Within a year I became the pastor of our local MCC congregation. Now, 45 years later, I have also served 11 years as the Senior Pastor of two MCC congregations. I was elected to six consecutive four-year terms on MCC’s Board of Elders, and served 19 years full-time in leadership roles as the Second Vice Moderator, Treasurer, and Vice Moderator of our MCC movement.
In the early days of Metropolitan Community Churches (1968 to the mid-1980s) we were widely known as “the gay church.” Vital to the preaching, teaching, and identity of each congregation was a very powerful founding narrative. It was expressed in Rev. Troy D. Perry’s first sermon, “Be True to You.” Troy’s message brought the good news of affirmation and inclusion for those who had been excluded, oppressed, and sometimes persecuted simply because of their sexual orientation.
We often heard Troy present the “three pronged Gospel,” as noted in his 1990 book Don’t Be Afraid Anymore. To the twelve diverse people gathered in his home on October 6, 1968 he explained that the message of this new church would be about:
- Salvation: God so loved the world the God sent Jesus to tell us that whoever believes shall not perish but have everlasting life. “Whoever” included me as a gay male, unconditionally, because salvation is free. No church can take it away.
- Community: For those who have no families who care about them, or find themselves alone or friendless, the church will be a family.
- Christian Social Action: We will stand up for all our rights, secular and religious. And we will start fighting the many forms of tyranny that oppressed us.
MCC began not only as an inclusive church but also as a social justice movement. Rev. Perry and many others in MCC were vocal and visible leaders in what was then called the gay liberation movement. The late 1960s were socially turbulent. Resistance and revolution were in the air. The growing African American civil-rights movement, the anti-war movement, the feminist movement, and the emerging sexual revolution shaped the context in which MCC was born.
Religiously, Rev. Perry’s roots in Pentecostal spirituality were influential as were other trends. In 1962, Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, praying to God to, “Renew your wonders in this our day by a new Pentecost….that it may advance the reign of truth and justice, the reign of love and peace.” At the same time, classic Pentecostalism was crossing over into mainstream Christianity in the emerging Charismatic Movement. In 1968, a Peruvian Roman Catholic priest, Gustavo Gutierrez coined the term “theology of liberation” which would characterize a major global movement in the wake of Vatican II. These two forces, Pentecostalism and the various streams of liberation theology combined to strongly influence the message and mission of MCC in its early days.
This new MCC movement was profoundly countercultural in its engagement of the issues and realties of human sexuality and gender identity. Much of our focus in the 1970’s and early 1980’s was on biblical, theological, and ethical topics related to sexuality. Early during my MCC Dallas pastorate I developed three sermon series which were so well attended that they were offered each year.
- Not a Sin, Not a Sickness: Homosexuality and the Bible
- Just As I Am: Homosexuality and the Church
- Liberty and Love: Gay Lifestyles and Christian Responsibility
Another reality that characterized our MCC movement from its earliest days was theological diversity. In contrast to many Christian religious denominations that are relatively (or sometimes highly) monolithic in their theology, MCC was highly diverse. In my early years in MCC we sometimes described ourselves as “Evangelical, Eucharistic, and Ecumenical.” This, of course, reflected the three primary streams of Christianity from whence many of us came: Conservative Protestant, Catholic/Orthodox, or Mainline Protestant. We developed tacit norms of affirming the diversity while holding, and at times struggling with its tensions.
Liberation theology was immensely influential in our formation as a movement over those early years. Parallel to the birth of MCC was the emergence of Liberation Theology in Latin America (Gutierrez 1968); Black Liberation Theology (Cone 1970); and Feminist Liberation Theology (Schussler Fiorenza 1975; also Russell 1974). Among the most powerful influences of liberation theology was the importance of experience over tradition in the interpretation of the scriptures and the primacy of orthopraxis over orthodoxy.
From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s we became known as the church with AIDS. Early cases of HIV/AIDS began to occur in our congregations in 1982 but the full force of the epidemic hit us hard in 1985 and the years following. Our response to HIV/AIDs was massive. We didn’t have an AIDS ministry; we were an AIDS ministry! By the time medications for the treatment of HIV became effective (1996) more than one-third of our congregants had died in the epidemic. Yet, during this horrific time we experienced our most dramatic numerical growth.
As we continued to share the good news of salvation, community, and social action, we grew in numbers and diversity. This reality shaped our liturgical life and body politic. The diversity has been dynamic. For fifty years we have been eclectic, evolving, and emerging. Rev. Troy Perry at times would refer to MCC as an “exodus movement.” He likened us to the Children of Israel; we were enroute to the Promised Land. We often used the language of journey to speak of our ever-changing community.
Listening to our individual stories of the journey is perhaps a good way to inform the ways in which the theology, missiology, and ecclesiology of MCC has evolved over the years. As an example, I offer this summary of my own journey of faith in this movement that has blessed me profoundly for more than 40 years.
When I came into Metropolitan Community Church, I was a devout Pentecostal, Conservative Evangelical Christian who passionately held and followed the beliefs, values, and practices of my former church. But after a personal struggle in silence and solitude over several years, I came to terms with the reality that my gay feelings were not changing. I began to consider and question the teachings of my church on the issues of homosexuality. That struggle led me into MCC in August 1974.The new truth came to me that I could be gay and Christian. I found a new community of LGBT Christians.
Within a year, I became the Pastor of that congregation in Des Moines, Iowa. At that point I was theologically and liturgically still very conservative and very Pentecostal. Yet, I had to embrace the diversity of others coming into this small, growing congregation. I quickly learned that accepting the right to question one of the teachings of my former church conferred a responsibility to question other teachings of my church. To do so has been essential for my spiritual growth to this day.
In the years that followed I began to question other tenets of my fundamentalist theology. Many biblical scholars, theologians, sociologists of religion, and other authors whom I’ve never met became teachers and mentors through their books and articles. For example, early during my Dallas pastorate a book, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible, by Jack Rogers and Donald McKim (1979) helped me begin to reframe my understanding of the inspiration of the Bible. It became clear to me that the fundamentalist doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture was itself in error.
Connections with scholars, journalists, authors, and leaders of other faith communities have also supported my personal growth. But most important to me are those with whom I have interacted with personally from day to day both in and beyond our MCC family of faith. I cannot even begin to adequately thank so many sisters and brothers in the faith for their love and support. They have provided friendship, insight, challenge, and encouragement for the spiritual journey of a lifetime. I will be grateful forever.