Recently, I had the privilege of speaking at Crave church’s annual conference (http://www.cravemcc.com/). The theme, “love letter from God,” allowed me to reflect on the meaning of the theological virtues, faith, hope, and love (1 Cor. 13:13). My focus was on how to redeem these virtues in the context of the church’s sexual abuse crisis and high profile public attacks on LGBTQI people.
Crave is a member of Metropolitan Community Churches, a worldwide fellowship of inclusive congregations that has ministered to gay and transgender people rejected by mainstream Christianity. It is a Pentecostal community, and what stands out when you meet its pastors and leaders is their passionate spirituality. The Friday night service was devoted to worship, and people familiar with Pentecostal liturgy would have felt completely at home, knowing the songs, and encouraged by the devotion of the music team and congregation. But this wasn’t any old worship service. It is deeply moving to hear a transgender song leader singing Hillsong’s Who You Say I Am to a lesbian and gay congregation:
I am chosen
I am who You say I am
You are for me
Not against me
I am who You say I am
Saturday morning was the usual conference talkfest, which differed only in that the three speakers sharing about the love and grace of God were gay, lesbian, and straight.
The highlight of the weekend for me was the invitation to march with the Crave community in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. The last time I had attended the Mardi Gras was almost three decades before. I was a conservative Christian attending out of curiosity, in part to see the parade, and in part to watch the protest organised by Fred Nile. I do not remember much about that visit, except that I shared the common Christian conviction that the parade was an evil symbol of our society’s decline, and that I was embarrassed enough about Nile’s words and actions that I left early.
It was a very different person who attended this year’s parade. I was dressed in Crave’s black T-shirt emboldened with a gold sparkly heart, wore a sparkling gold rimmed hat, and had a rainbow coloured flag tied to the back of my wheelchair. I worried that we would look silly, Christians overdressed for Mardi Gras. But as I rolled from my motel to Oxford Street I was overwhelmed by the encouragement of everyone passing by. “Happy Mardi Gras” was the refrain, accompanied by smiles and cheers, and people taking photos (even of me, God knows why). And the march was still hours away from starting.
I was given a bracelet that granted entry to the marshalling area. I had never seen its like; a riot of colour, spectacle, noise, and joy. My fears about our T-shirts were unfounded. Certainly, there was plenty of skin, but far less than I see at my local beach on weekends. Mardi Gras is a celebration of diverse human sexuality, set against the backdrop of repression and stigma, so participants do push the boundaries of social norms. But the typical costume was flamboyant and fabulous. Some were political, some comedic, some outrageous, some plain but symbolically important uniforms and T-shirts, but most were spectacular, designed to entertain the crowds and light up the city.
Never have I been among people as accepting and joyous. Lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, rainbow families, straight, young, old, thin, overweight, uniformed, half naked, christian, atheist, sex worker, police officer, biker, aboriginal, migrant, coloured, white, disabled and any number of other types of wondrous difference, each person comfortable in their own skin and welcoming of each other. It dawned on me that this was everything the church hoped to be as ministers of grace, love, and joy ‘to all the world.’
The parade kicked off at 7:30 PM, and I marvelled at the show until 10 PM when it was our time to proceed. The crave team was led by Nat, whose flamboyantly camp dance moves were mirrored clumsily but passionately by our small low-budget crew. We might not have looked as spectacular as some of the larger floats (although Nat was worth watching), but we held signs telling of God’s love and acceptance. To my surprise, our clumsy dance up Oxford Street was accompanied by the claps, cheers, and encouragement of the crowd, who held out their hands for high-fives, and told us they loved us. I knew that that love was not for me but was meant for my LGBT Christian friends at Crave, who had known plenty of rejection in their time.
Too soon we were done, and, too old to party, I went off to bed. The next morning at breakfast, reading the report by the Sydney Morning Herald on the Mardi Gras, I was surprised to see we had been mentioned as highlighting the reality that LGBTQI people still face prejudice in certain contexts:
Inclusion for people of faith is also a priority amid the ongoing debate over religious freedom. Under a tree in Hyde Park, the queer-friendly Crave Church rehearsed a dance routine next to a sign that read: “Dear Mardi Gras – I am so sorry about the way my followers have treated you, From God.” (https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/glitter-and-colour-line-the-street-for-mardi-gras-parade-20190302-p511e0.html).
For my Christian friends struggling to make sense of this message, I can only encourage you to set aside your theological convictions for a moment and think about what it would be like to have the Australian Christian Lobby (funded by mainstream churches) mobilise against your right to marry the person you love, or to be told your loving rainbow family is harming your daughter or son. Imagine how you would feel if you were bullied as a child for your sexual orientation or gender difference, and then had churches attack a program aimed to keep LGBTQI youth safe in schools. Put yourself in the shoes of a Christian who comes out and is rejected by the church community they had loved and served. Christians are filled with Spirit of Christ as agents of faith, hope, and love, but this much needed message is too often lost in the certainty of our dogma, and our refusal to listen to the stories of those we have hurt.
After breakfast, I headed off to Home church with Elly (https://achurchcalledhome.org/), a small gathering of straight and queer friends. Unfortunately for those present, I was listed to speak, and delivered my sermon half asleep. We are a (post) Pentecostal community, who aim to follow Jesus in welcoming people regardless of their race, gender, disability, religion, or sexual orientation, with no agenda, and no demand that they give up who they are and become like us. Like Crave, we know that this is no formula for church growth, but are content to let grace have its way, come what may.
DanMarch 25, 2019 at 4:11 pm
What a champion! thanks for doing this Shane,I was your student at AC and I have always admired your boldness to speak for the oppressed and marginalised. Thanks again for showing compassion for all the ones who are rejected and left aside and being an example of love and grace!
JApril 8, 2019 at 7:54 am
What a great read. Thanks Shane
TaniaApril 27, 2019 at 5:06 pm
Shane are you able at some stage to write about your theological journey re homosexuality?
Shane CliftonApril 27, 2019 at 5:27 pm
I do plan to.
Shane CliftonApril 27, 2019 at 5:29 pm
Btw do I know you Tania?