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Gay and Lesbian Churches and Synagogues  
 
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Gay and lesbian persons have always been full participants in the practices of Christianity, Judaism, and other religions, but usually their participation has been conditional on hiding their sexuality. During the gay liberation movement of the late 1960s, however, a number of separate groups were formed to address the needs of gay and lesbian believers.

Within the mainstream Christian denominations, organizations formed such as Dignity, for Roman Catholics (1969); Integrity, for Episcopalians (1974); Lutherans Concerned (1974); Affirmation, for United Methodists (1975); the Brethren/Mennonite Council for Lesbian/Gay Concerns (1976); and many others. With few exceptions these were (and remain) counseling, support, or social groups that work for recognition and full membership rights of glbtq people within the denominations.

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However, many Christian denominations and the Orthodox and Conservative branches of Judaism look askance at same-sex sexual relationships and frequently refuse membership to openly gay and lesbian persons. Other denominations may have official policies of accepting or welcoming gay and lesbian members, but are nevertheless extremely in their daily worship practices, promoting heterosexual relationships as normal, natural, and universal. In these denominations, gay and lesbian persons often feel marginalized and rejected in spite of their official "welcome."

In reaction to this condemnation and marginalization, glbtq people have created a number of gay- and lesbian-specific churches and synagogues, just as racial minorities have organized their own denominations to evade the overt or subtle racism of mainstream congregations.

Pre-Stonewall Gay and Lesbian Churches

Perhaps the first church established for homosexuals was the Liberal Catholic Church, founded in Sydney, Australia by Charles Webster Leadbeater in 1916. An ex-Anglican clergyman who had been an associate of Annie Besant in the Theosophical Society, Leadbeater immigrated to Australia after he had been accused of indecencies with young boys.

In 1946, Archbishop George Hyde of the Eucharistic Catholic Communion (a small denomination not in union with the Roman Catholic Church) celebrated mass for gay men in Atlanta. In 1956, the Church of ONE Brotherhood was founded in Los Angeles by activist Chuck Rowland. In 1959, ministers at the Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco were instrumental in forming the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, which worked to end police harassment of gay men and lesbians. In 1962, a Congregationalist pastor began an overt pastoral ministry to gay people in New York City.

These initiatives, however, were either small congregations that attracted little attention or the outreach efforts of large denominations or activist churches. The first gay-specific denomination, as opposed to individual congregation, was the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, founded in 1968 by the Reverend Troy Perry.

Metropolitan Community Churches

From its modest beginnings in the living room of its founder, the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches has grown greatly. The MCC has 40,000 members in hundreds of churches worldwide. But its impact has been far greater than its numbers: hundreds of thousands of gay and lesbian persons have passed through the doors of a local MCC to hear the message that God loves glbtq people and to overcome feelings of guilt instilled by their childhood churches. Politically active in support of glbtq rights and in promoting same-sex marriage, the MCC is an important institution in the glbtq community.

MCC's liturgy tends to be ecumenical, but its doctrine is evangelical and, on some issues, fundamentalist, in keeping with the Reverend Perry's Pentecostal roots and the evangelical heritage of most members.

Defining a Gay-Oriented Church

Often it is difficult to determine if a congregation is merely non-discriminatory or specifically oriented toward gay and lesbian persons. Some local congregations, especially those designated as "Welcoming churches" in the Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Methodist, Episcopal, and Brethren/Mennonite denominations, may consist of a majority of gay and lesbian members. For example, almost all of the members of the West Hollywood Presbyterian Church are gay, though it is officially merely a "More Light" congregation that extends a "welcome" to gay and lesbian members among others. Conversely, a gay-oriented congregation always welcomes heterosexual families, friends, and other interested parties. In some cities, 25-30% of MCC congregants are heterosexual.

Although particular congregations of mainstream denominations may be welcoming of glbtq people, most of these denominations limit the participation of openly gay or lesbian people, often refusing to ordain non-celibate gays or lesbians as members of the clergy, and sometimes even as deacons.

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With 3,862 members in 2008, the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, Texas, a member congregation of the United Church of Christ, describes itself as the largest liberal church with a primary outreach to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons. Photograph by Wayne Wolfe.
  
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