They were just across from our hotel, on adjacent corners of neighbouring blocks with nothing but a street between them. Geographically.
And from the very first moment I saw them, I couldn't not feel uneasy. "In 1903 a second church was set up next door in order to accommodate the growing numbers of local residents desiring to share Christian fellowship together," said no local history pamphlet ever.
Indeed, as Sunday rolled around and I went online to explore my options (Mr. W having already opted for a lie-in) I was greeted with contrasting euphemisms. "We are an affirming church," reassured one. "We are a diverse community of families and singles," maintained the other. Hmm.
Where to, then, for my own Sunday morning fix? Since I'm neither a family nor a single person perhaps you'd think this decision should've been easy. But, exploring the two websites in more depth, I was thrown by the fact that the "affirming" church had more to say about its music than about Jesus (not consequentially, but perhaps not quite coincidentally either ), so I plumped for the church on the right (in both senses), reasoning that if they were as excited about following Jesus as they sounded then His unconditional love and welcome would find a way in regardless of their web copy.
Besides, the service started half an hour earlier, which meant more time to make the most of our last day in the city. Either that, or I could sneak out and across the street in the event of buyer's remorse. (And me so vocally indignant about consumerist Christianity...)
I arrived with some minutes to spare, and carefully positioned myself at the end of a row. As the regulars took their seats and the service got going, it was all very familiar. Remarkable, really, that you can fly halfway round the world and find yourself among people just like the ones you left behind, expounding the same 'sound doctrine' in the same song-sermon-sandwich format with the same promise afterwards of weak tea in the back hall. I should've felt right at home.
I did not feel right at home. I felt like home had stopped feeling like home a long time ago and this was the latest in a series of stark confrontations with that fact. From the moment that the entire congregation stood as three remarkably identikit white-bearded white men appeared at the front , I was on edge. Unfortunately, that was also the moment that a family of late-comers sought entrance to my row, and I made the critical error of moving down for them rather than letting them pass. So much for plan B.
The stage filled with younger men, wielding guitars, microphones and a drum kit for the 'modern' songs. I'm sure it was just a horrible coincidence that the female organist was almost entirely obscured from view by the stationing of her instrument, but it was hard not to notice.
They did talk about Charlottesville (phew). The pastor did call out white supremacy for the evil that it is (phew). But again, it was hard not to notice the phrase "and all other evils" and worry what exactly he might have in mind. These were by no means Trump fans – indeed, Vancouver generally seemed a city where Trump would struggle to make friends – but my natural instinct (fairly or unfairly is beside the point for now) was to mistrust evangelicalism's appreciation of the structural and hierarchical nature of racism.
It was hard not to notice how promptly the (seeming) formality of condemning social injustice was observed, nor how swiftly we progressed to the 'main business' of worship and study. It was hard not to find the remainder of the service all a bit abstract, detached from the concrete and brutal realities we'd just briefly touched upon.
It was hard not to count the number of skirts and hats. It was hard not to cringe at the warmly-put but clumsily-worded interview of a lately-widowed female missionary, now serving (controversially?) alone. It was even hard (which I concede reflects worse on me than anything else) not to find grounds for misgiving as they talked of their excellent-sounding ministry to refugees and asylum seekers.
And all the while it was hard not to think about the congregation just across the street – siblings in Christ who had found it necessary to adopt an almost coded vocabulary in order to signal safety and acceptance to those not guaranteed to find it in every pew. How would an openly gay visitor, for example, or someone who was gender-queer or transgender, have been greeted and made to feel here? Nobody has ever gone out of their way to show me just how much they "love me whilst hating my sin," but it doesn't sound like an experience to relish.
I wished myself over there, listening to polished music in an attitude of humbled contemplation. More than anything I wanted to fellowship with them, if they'd have me; to confess and repent of my own part in turning my 'home' into a place they felt excluded from.
What had their service looked like that morning, I wondered? Perhaps they'd allowed the hurt and friction heightened by Charlottesville to interrupt their scheduled program – made a space for corporate lamentation, rather than a mere clinical denouncement. I don't want to descend into generalisations, even positive ones, but LGBT+ Christians and affirming churches/collectives have been highly visible among those actively seeking healing, justice and hope for the marginalised in the face of the escalating bigotry, folly and inequality symbolised by (but not exclusive to) the current US President. (As have Christians of colour across all denominations). Meanwhile, white conservative evangelicals have been highly visible among those literally empowering and fuelling that escalation, or at best have been keeping a low profile.
Every Christian (along with adherents of intriguingly-many other faiths) knows the Golden Rule: "Love your neighbour as yourself" (Lk 10:27). Ahh, but "Who is my neighbour?" asks the canny expert in biblical law, "desiring to justify himself" (Lk 10:29). To which evangelicals have been known to put forward some, err, interesting answers. Not refugees, because terrorism; not advocates for racial justice, because #AllLivesMatter; not poor sick people, because socialism; not flood victims, because oh look there's too much water in front of our church, what a shame; not LGBT+ people, because won't somebody please think of the children!
Jesus' own answer is not, I think, the one the lawyer was hoping for. I'm not sure it's even the type of answer he expected. "You know that person you feel morally, intellectually, socially, culturally, theologically obligated to ostracise and condemn for the sake of the purity and correctness of your faith community? Well, they aren't even stopping to ask the question; they're just getting right on with the business of being a neighbour. Even to people like you who have rejected them! What are you gonna do about that?" (Luke 10:25-37; extremely loose and interpretative paraphrase my own, so don't take my word for it).
It's hard to see evidence of God at work in and through members of the LGBT+ community and not feel it necessary to completely re-examine the 'truths' about gender and human sexuality that I grew up 'knowing'. At the same time, the more I prayerfully study the Bible and seek to immerse myself in the Jesus-centered story it communicates (granted I will always have a huge way still to go), the less persuaded I am by the particular scriptural arguments which once made those truths seem so 'obvious'. Start taking context into account, and genre, and the influence of translational and interpretative pre-commitments, and it's simply not as simple as "but this verse here says..." anymore. I'm not claiming any new certainties about those "verses that say things", but I am retiring some old ones. And importantly (because yes, the temptation to personally customise truth is a very real danger), I'm far from being the only conservatively-raised Christian engaged in such a re-think. I'm not just talking about my social media bubble – a number of high profile individuals have spoken out in support of equal marriage and LGBT+ inclusion, while some LGBT+ Christians have themselves come out for the first time and/or begun to affirm same-sex relationships, using their positions for advocacy with astonishing courage and selflessness. The cost to both groups of having done so is likely to be keeping a number of grappling others quiet out of concern for their emotional well-being and personal safety, let alone their careers and ministries.
But perhaps the strongest testimony to the extent of the shift towards LGBT+ inclusivity is the anxious counteraction of conservative 'faithfuls'. "Evangelicals who have been drifting away from biblical fidelity on these issues have often been running under the cover of confusion—confusion about what is essential and what is not essential to the Christian faith," say Denny Burk et al. over at CBMW. Clearly, clarification is called for! And they (with the support of a sizeable coalition of evangelical leaders) are clearly the ones to clearly deliver it. Enter, The Nashville Statement – so-titled simply because of the long Christian tradition of naming doctrinal statements after the places where they were drawn up. Y'know, like the Nicene Creed. (Yes. They really do compare themselves to the Council of Nicea).
The Statement is nothing if not clear, and contains few surprises. "We affirm cishetero norms. We deny any other expression of human gender or sexuality. We remain deadly silent on transgender teen suicide rates. We say all of this in love. Oh, and isn't the freedom the gospel brings great." (Embittered paraphrase my own).
But there's one Article which especially caught my attention. I doubt it's any accident:
WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.
WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.If Burk et al.'s sole concern were to stop me from trying to think about this stuff for myself (I trust that it isn't) this would be a canny move. "They know me so well," I would marvel, with horror. Because there's nothing quite like fear to derail a calm, attentive and unselfish quest for right understanding. And this is absolutely an appeal to fear – fear for one's personal salvation no less.
Readers who perceive Article 10 as a line in the sand have rightly perceived what this declaration is about. Anyone who persistently rejects God’s revelation about sexual holiness and virtue is rejecting Christianity altogether, even if they claim otherwise. [...] The stakes are higher than the revisionists want you to believe... (Why the Nashville Statement Now and What About Article 10, CBMW, August 2017)As someone who suffers recurring anxiety – anxiety which tends to feed on whatever it finds and therefore frequently manifests with 'religious' characteristics – I expect there will be nights when this Article visits me.
But the thing about these guys (and I mean that in the implied masculine sense, for the main part) is that, as I've been hinting towards here and have written about elsewhere, the authority they so confidently assume is not massively well-attested by the accumulated evidence. "[T]he wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere" (James 3:17). The wisdom from conservative evangelicals is not, I want to suggest, always all of those things. So maybe ... just maybe ... I don't need to let their Statements, however clearly Stated, give me waking nightmares. And maybe it's OK, maybe sometimes more than OK, if my own attempts to follow where God leads me lead me into disagreement with them.
"You know that street you're thinking of crossing? Well, I wouldn't if I were you." Article 10 says. "It's a five lane highway with a steady stream of high speed traffic. Certain death." Only, I don't see a five lane highway and certain death. I see a pedestrian crossing with friends on the other side – friends who've been there for me more than I have for them. And right now I'm at the traffic island in the middle, looking up directions on my mobile phone and sending feeble text messages...
 In recent years I've been profoundly humbled to learn that, in spite of what I was taught growing up, it is very much possible to be gay (in the 'practising' sense, to use horrible christianese), transgender, or otherwise not typified by cishetero norms, and also a Christian, without any implication of conflict, compromise or laxity regarding the gospel. (I am sorry and saddened that I ever thought otherwise). There are plenty of churches that are both affirming and passionate about knowing and following Jesus. (Nadia Bolz-Weber's Cranky, Beautiful Faith was a good assumption-debunking read for me, as was A Theology of Marriage Including Same-Sex Couples, Anglican Theological Review, 2011, along with various blog posts like this excellent one). However, there do exist churches that are primarily focused on being moral and culturally enriching communities (no negative thing in itself, of course! but not enough to get me personally out of bed on a Sunday morning), and it is hardly unsurprising that these tend to be fully LGBT+ inclusive too, because, well, morally and culturally it doesn't even arise as a question.
 Not, I hasten to clarify, a specific feature of my specific current church family ... but not out of kilter with my broader experiences and expectations to date.
[Thumbnail image cc from Farther Along on Flickr.]