On Dec. 4, an article appeared in City Paper about my friend Andy Stahler and how he was thrown out of a local Christian group called Circle of Hope for, to quote Philadelphia Magazine’s headline, “speaking too publicly about homosexuality.”
Stories about gay folks having problems with churches are hardly news, if the word “news” requires some element of the unusual. I think the primary reason City Paper printed the article was that, two months earlier, they ran a piece that gave Circle positive publicity for being progressive. Reading this article inspired Andy to contact the reporter, who was sensitive to Andy’s concerns. I was also quoted in the article because I corroborated the story for the reporter; I left Circle of my own volition before Andy did, but I watched his story unfold in real time.
My purpose here is to add just a little detail and then make comments that are addressed to Circle, but have broader applicability. You can Google the details if you want; we have become familiar with the pattern of these stories, and this one follows the familiar arc. The head of Circle of Hope, Rod White, initially offered the reporter a sanctimonious “as Christians, they need to come to me directly with accusations,” then became entirely uncommunicative when told that Andy and I would have been happy to meet with him. Jonny Rashid, the man who told Andy he had to leave, and who has since been promoted to pastor, told the reporter, “I don’t really remember [the meeting] that well, so I’m not able to speak to Andy’s experiences ... [Andy] never really connected, I don’t have a clear memory of him,” just days after he texted Andy things like, “I’d love to talk more about it! I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, reading and praying about it!” “You want to talk about it in person next week?” and “There’s more to talk about, so hopefully we can talk.” It is my understanding that telling a reporter that you don’t remember a person and his issues while simultaneously texting that person about his issues is called “lying,” but I am not a pastor so perhaps I am mistaken. After the article was printed, I privately emailed Rod, Jonny and Joshua Grace, another Circle of Hope pastor who was involved, about this. I never received a response.
Circle of Hope clearly wants to be thought of as progressive and dialogue-oriented. In the words of their own website, they are “a new generation of the church” that believes “dialogue is essential,” and they cite Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day as “people who have inspired us.” Their target demographic is millenials. Yet today, in 2014, it is demonstrably their position that they will not even talk about the place (if any) of gay people in their church. When the issue arose, it was immediately met with silence and dishonesty.
From inside a religious tradition, it is always very hard to admit your leaders and your tradition are doing something that is very wrong, even when it is plainly and clearly obvious to those outside of the tradition who do not have an emotional stake in the issue (see: Republican Party).
With that in mind, to those within Circle of Hope, I say the following:
You are not progressive if you cannot even talk about what is universally regarded as one of the great progressive issues of your day, and you are not dialogue-oriented if your response to questions is silence and dishonesty.
Neither Rod White, nor Jonny Rashid, nor Joshua Grace, nor anyone else, are the perfect representatives of Christ on Earth, and the Circle tradition is neither the best example of the emerging church tradition nor the perfect rediscovery of primitive Christianity. It is simply a way you have chosen to do things, with people you choose to acknowledge as leaders.
Nonetheless, the good things that you learned at Circle are, in fact, good things. The good things that Circle does are, in fact, good things. But in this world, nothing is entirely holy, and any person, institution, policy — anything — that is implicitly treated as such and placed behind velvet ropes beyond comment is a religious problem just waiting to happen.
If someone is directly disingenuous, in a public way, in an I’m-doing-this-as-a-religious-leader context, they should probably be called on it, for their own good and everyone else’s. Remember all of your frustrations with institutional religion, evangelical culture or fill-in-the-blank that led you to Circle of Hope? All of those things followed you there, and now they are pissing other people off, just like they used to piss you off.
Allowing the leaders of a congregation that actively promotes itself as progressive and dialogue-oriented to censor any conversation about gay Christians for years is not some kind of spiritual practice; it’s institutional self-preservation. The distance between the views of the leadership and the views of the target audience causes tension of which the leadership is afraid. This is an old story (see: Roman Catholic Church) and not a secret you’re cleverly hiding. You have the same problems as everyone else. You’re just less honest about this one.
But I’d like to end on a positive note. The really ironic and wonderful thing, from the perspective of this Christian, is this: The primary argument that has advanced gay rights, that has moved the population of this country with unprecedented speed, is a question. It is straight people asking themselves, How would I want to be treated if I was gay? How would I want my family member, or my friend, to be treated, if he or she were gay? Does that question sound familiar? It is the personalized, interrogative form of “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Asking it as a question doesn’t count as quoting the Bible, of course; it’s just accepting Jesus’ words and putting them into practice. And doing that has changed the country in a very few short years.
Isn’t that something worth talking about?
John Bright works for the Christ Church Historic Trust and the international, interfaith Dialogue Institute at Temple University. His views are his own.