It took religious conservatives six months to discover a Playbill interview with actor Josh Canfield in which he discussed Reed Kelly, his fiancé and also an actor, and noted that he was a volunteer choir director at Hillsong NYC, a Pentecostal church. The conservatives objected to Hillsong having a gay man, and one who was engaged to another man, in a leadership position.
Brian Houston, who founded Hillsong in Australia in 1983, quickly said that Canfield was no longer a choir director and marriage was between man and a woman. Hillsong, which now has churches in at least 13 cities around the globe, including New York City, was only willing to welcome LGBT people without explicitly affirming them. The couple remains at Hillsong, which is run by Carl Lentz, a media-savvy and popular pastor.
“We’re grateful for Pastor Carl, and we feel God has called us to be at Hillsong,” Kelly told Religion News Service in an August 11 interview. “He wants us to be a part of the church, knowing what we believe. This is our home church, and we are not leaving. It’s important for us to be there dialoguing about this.”
Embrace of Hillsong church, with ugly anti-gay record in Uganda, raises tough questions about changing evangelical hearts
As the children of evangelical pastors and LGBT evangelicals come out and same sex-marriage gains approval around the world, these controversies will be increasingly common. They may place new responsibilities –– or not –– on conservative churches that have been hostile to LGBT people, including the LGBT people who attend them.
“I think these problems are new,” said Sharon Groves, vice president for public engagement at Manhattan’s Auburn Theological Seminary who previously headed the Faith and Religion Program at the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT lobby. “What we’re seeing is there is more and more of a kind of openness in this country… It’s kind of toleration. As we’re seeing more of that, more of these kinds of complications are going to arise.”
A small number of evangelical churches, so called Third Way churches, and a few leaders have shifted their positions on homosexuality to varying degrees. One such church, the New Heart Community Church in California, was expelled from the Southern Baptist Convention for doing so.
“The whole transition of evangelical churches welcoming is a relatively new phenomenon,” said Todd Ferrell, president of the Evangelical Network, an LGBT group. “As these things come to the forefront and evangelical churches are outed as participating, I would think that you would get more pushback.”
The complications of welcoming LGBT people while at the same time defending current or former anti-LGBT positions –– complications seemingly not apparent to Canfield and Kelly, who did not respond to requests for comment –– are especially pronounced at Hillsong.
In 2007, Hillsong in Australia raised $700,000 for Watoto Church in Uganda. It has continued to raise money for and send volunteers to Watoto, which is a member of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God in Canada. Houston and his wife Bobbie attended Watoto’s 30th anniversary last year.
In 2009, Watoto hosted two meetings of an anti-LGBT conference. Three anti-LGBT Americans, including Scott Lively, spoke at those meetings. The conference produced Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which included the death penalty for some offenses and a life sentence for others. It was introduced in the Ugandan Parliament later that year.
Gary Skinner, Watoto’s founder and lead pastor, took no public position on the bill. But Frank Mugisha, a noted LGBT activist in Uganda, called Skinner “one of the most homophobic people in the world” in a 2011 interview with MetroWeekly, a Washington, DC LGBT publication.
While Hillsong may wish to reconcile in some form with its LGBT members, its history cannot be ignored. Members may have to ask about Hillsong’s continuing support for Watoto.
“I believe there is a responsibility for any member of the church, LGBT or heterosexual, to question relationships with exclusive, violent, or right-wing groups,” said Stephen V. Sprinkle, a theology professor at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University in Ft. Worth. “Anyone who is participating in the life of the church must question it and question it openly.”
The bill languished in the Ugandan Parliament until 2013 when Rebecca Kadaga, the speaker, and David Bahati, a member and proponent of the bill, faked a vote. Despite the absence of a required quorum, they said the bill passed, though with the death penalty replaced by a long prison sentence. Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s president, signed it. A Ugandan court struck it down in 2014 because there was no quorum.
The parliamentary ruse was necessary because governments, including the US and Sweden, were privately warning the Ugandan government against enacting it and, by early 2010, the Museveni government quietly promised to kill it. A few American evangelicals, notably Rick Warren of the California-based Saddleback Church, publicly opposed the bill, which points to the value of engaging conservative churches beyond joining any one church.
“If they could make that stance internationally, that would make a huge difference that you’re not going to see with a progressive congregation,” said Groves, referring to a recent agreement the Mormon Church made with Equality Utah on nondiscrimination legislation in that state.
Ferrell said he was not aware of “any kind of movement that is making any kind of noise” among evangelicals, but added, “I think there’s a lot of stuff going on underground.”
Pastors are wrestling with how to be welcoming, perhaps even LGBT-affirming, without doing damage to their churches by appearing to contradict earlier teachings.
“They’re trying to figure out how do I best go about doing this without killing the sheep,” Ferrell said.