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The conservative religious right?

While in the US, Rev. Fr. JP Heath notes the common theme carried in the media – i.e. that churches view the US Supreme Court decision to allow LGBT people to marry as a “disaster”. But he says that while “this theme may well be present, it is certainly not the whole”.

It’s my first visit to Cleveland, Ohio in the US. Doing a great deal of work with LGBTI people in Africa and Asia, the message is seems very clear: “Faith is conservative, unwelcoming to people who are not straight”. And this is a theme which is carried in the media here in the US. Churches interviewed about the SCOTUS decision are all conservative, using words like, “tragic”, “disaster”, “unsafe for children”, et cetera. And while this theme may well be present, it is certainly not the whole.

Attending the United Church of Christ (UCC) General Synod here in Cleveland, I encounter a church in full swing celebration of the SCOTUS ruling. Preceding the ruling I attended the ONA (Open and Affirming) Coalition meeting of the UCC. They run a program in the denomination which helps local churches to become open and affirming spaces for LGBTI people. In this conference they celebrate the 1,300th congregation being certified as open and affirming. In many of their churches they are pastored by lesbian or gay clergy, even if the congregation has not been certified as ONA yet. They continue to work towards getting all of the UCC congregations ONA certified. In addition to the ONA program of the church, they have developed extremely engaging and age appropriate sexuality material for congregation members. It runs through six different age appropriate curricular from preschool to adults. The program known as Our Whole Lives (OWL) was developed with another church, the Unitarians, and is applied in most UCC and Unitarian congregations. Running under the banner: “God gave me Sexuality” it embraces fully the good gift of sexuality, and seeks to give participants the tools to make informed decisions about their own bodies.

This open and affirming environment is however not limited to the UCC or the Unitarians. On the way to Ohio I attended Mass in an Episcopalian Church in Washington. I was taken by a gay friend of mine who is a celebrated member of that congregation. I was introduced to a young gay couple who had had their little adopted baby daughter baptized in the church the previous Sunday, and there she was, happily resting on her one father’s shoulder while her other father lovingly wiped the dribble from her mouth after her feed. And it’s not limited to Washington. As I opened the Holy Trinity web page for the Episcopal Church here in Cleveland to find service times, the first message I get is not service times, but “we are an open and affirming church…”

Ok you say, perhaps not ALL churches in the USA are against LGBTI rights; but that’s the US. I live in the Philippines.

Well the good news is that we are currently looking at ways of bringing these programs to the Philippines. Already the National Council of Churches of the Philippines (NCCP) is doing amazing work through their member churches in giving members good information and messages around HIV. The missing link has been the weakness in providing sex and sexuality education at all age groups (though this is not limited to churches, but to the society as a whole). But the members of the NCCP are upbeat about this, and are requesting NCCP to help them teach positive messages about human sexuality beginning with the youth.

It won’t happen overnight, but many churches are committed to becoming the open and affirming spaces which will give the right and positive messages and teaching about this amazing gift of our sexuality with which God has gifted us. So hold on to your negative attitudes. A church near you will soon celebrate all of you, and provide you with the space to make informed and safe decisions about exercising your God given sexuality regardless of your sexual orientation or gender identity.

The author (left) with Outrage Magazine managing editor John Ryan Mendoza in an LGBT-accepting church in the US

The author (left) with Outrage Magazine managing editor John Ryan Mendoza in an LGBT-accepting church in the US

Written By

Rev. Fr. Johannes Petrus (JP) Heath was born in Windhoek, Namibia in 1964, the middle son of three children. He experienced his call to the priesthood while working in a bank. He moved to St George's Home for Boys as part of his formation. After two years of study at St. John the Baptist Seminary in Johannesburg, he was moved to St. Paul's Seminary in Grahamstown where he first finished his Diploma in Theology (with Merit), and then moved to complete a B.Th. (Honors) at Rhodes University. Fr. JP was ordained in the Diocese of Johannesburg in 1994 and served his curacy at St. Michael's, Bryanston. While serving at the Cathedral Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Johannesburg, he started a ministry for streetchildren – an outreach to people on the margins of society that continued when he was appointed as Rector of Christ Church, Mayfair, a parish placed in the middle of a predominantly Muslim and Hindu suburb of Johannesburg. In 2000, after testing HIV-positive, JP started exploring ways of initiating a ministry on HIV within the diocese of Johannesburg. Eventually, he confounded the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV (INERELA+) in 2001. He was the founding coordinator and then executive director of INERELA+ until December 2012. Fr. JP helped grow the network from an initial membership of eight, to a global network with more than 10,000 members from all faiths. In January 2013, he moved to Sweden, where he is now actively working as Policy Advisor on HIV, Human Sexuality and Theology for the International Department of the Church of Sweden. He continues to serve internationally on a number of Boards and advisory bodies, including the UNAIDS HIV and Human Rights Reference Group, the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance HIV strategy group, the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Action International Reference Group, and the Global Interfaith Network on All Sexes, Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression (GIN-SSOGIE) steering committee.


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