NEW YORK (RNS) The only thing worse than a false story is a partial one.
That was the real lesson behind an article published on a conservative Christian website last week claiming that the Hillsong Church was allowing an “openly homosexual couple” to lead worship. The article, about the New York City campus of the Australia-based super-church, where tens of thousands worship weekly, drew from a 7-month-old article from Playbill.com about two Broadway actors and contestants on the “Survivor” reality TV show, Josh Canfield and Reed Kelly.
The article triggered statements from Hillsong’s senior pastor, the Rev. Brian Houston in Australia, reaffirming the church’s belief that “marriage is between a man and a woman” and stating that neither man is serving in a leadership role any longer. But Houston also said that Hillsong wants gay couples to feel welcome.
Like many conservative churches, Hillsong holds a traditional view of sexuality but wants to welcome and include all people. Canfield and Kelly, like many gay couples, disagree with the church’s views on homosexuality. But unlike some others, they say they want to stay with the church they love and work for change.
Their story — echoed by so many LGBT Christians — is one that needs to be told.
Sitting in a Manhattan diner, Canfield and Kelly use Christian language with ease and regularly inject Bible verses into conversation. Canfield was raised in a conservative pastor’s home, attended an evangelical college and served on staff as a music minister years ago. Kelly, who was raised Catholic, says that rather than date, the couple chose to “court,” which included a mutual commitment to refrain from having sex until their wedding day. (They haven’t set a date.) On paper, they have a perfect conservative Christian relationship — except for their genders, of course.
Canfield was a music director at Hillsong’s campus in London and moved to New York City, in part, to help launch the congregation there. Soon after, he met Kelly and they both served the church faithfully in various capacities. Kelly even hosted (but did not lead) a Bible study group in his home for the church. In December, the couple informed the Rev. Carl Lentz, the lead pastor in New York, that they were getting engaged, which triggered a series of personal and ongoing conversations.
“At Hillsong, we take the time to sit at the table and hear their pain and hear their journey and consider their thinking,” Lentz said. “And when it is time to speak back to these people, we can speak from a place of observation, not condemnation.”
Lentz said his priority was to “make sure that these amazing guys weren’t mishandled or mistreated.”
Prior to the publication of the Playbill article, Lentz spoke to Houston about the situation and, as a result, asked Canfield and Kelly to step down from their leadership roles. At the same time, he invited them to serve in other roles and reaffirmed his desire to help them feel welcome and included in his congregation, which draws more than 7,000 worshippers weekly.
But the conversation did not end there.
“Me and my wife, Laura, are deeply involved in Josh and Reed’s lives,” Lentz said. “We have had ongoing, face-to-face discussions about God, sin, life and Jesus, because this is what you do in a church.”
In turn, Canfield and Kelly profess gratitude for their pastor and the rest of Hillsong’s staff. The couple’s demeanors do not darken when they speak of the ordeal.
“We’re grateful for Pastor Carl, and we feel God has called us to be at Hillsong. He wants us to be a part of the church, knowing what we believe,” Kelly said. “This is our home church, and we are not leaving. It’s important for us to be there dialoguing about this.”
By all accounts, Hillsong does seem to want LGBT people to feel welcome — with limits. They are welcome to attend, worship, even participate as members. They are eligible to serve in some roles, but not others. Canfield and Kelly, for example, can sing in the choir, but would not be eligible to direct it. Houston even called Hillsong “a gay-welcoming church” in a statement. While this may sound regressive to many unfamiliar with Christianity, it is astounding given the history of evangelicalism’s treatment of LGBT people.
Lentz recognizes the obstacles he faces, but he said that won’t stop him from trying to find a way forward.
“(Hillsong’s) heart on this matter is to reach all people, even communities that present extreme complexities,” he said in an email. “We would rather be misunderstood and look ‘messy’ to some in the Christian community that do not agree with us and help some, than appease people that think differently and reach none.”
Lentz noted that young gay people are committing suicide in record numbers and yet they find no refuge in most churches. Furthermore, he said, many churches have accepted a system that forces people to “hide their tensions, questions, and strongholds for fear of exclusion.”
“People can’t get over the fact that we’re preaching the whole counsel of God and that people still want to listen to it, even in disagreement, because they know they are loved,” Lentz said. “But here are two people — and there are many more — who know what we believe and still want to be a part.”
So, two things of value have happened that may not satisfy conservative evangelicals or LGBT activists. One of the most influential evangelical churches in the world has both reaffirmed its commitment to traditional views on sexuality and has shown a level of openness and flexibility on the matter that would have been difficult to imagine even a decade ago.
Canfield and Kelly have decided to keep singing each Sunday at Hillsong, despite the restrictions. They recognize that the decision they’ve made is not one that every person in their position should make. But they believe it is the right one for them.
“If every gay person leaves their church because they have been treated poorly, nothing will change,” Canfield said. “They still want us, and we feel called to stay. And we’re telling all our gay friends at Hillsong to do the same.”
The tale of Canfield, Kelly and Hillsong Church is something of a love story. There’s a church with a conservative theology that loves the people that theology affects. And there are two men who love each other and a church with which they have a profound disagreement.
Like all love stories, the relationship grows messy as all seek to stay true to who they believe they are. It’s complicated, yes — but it’s worth it.
(Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and author of “Jesus is Better Than You Imagined” and “A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars.” He resides in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
LM/MG END MERRITT