Located in the heart of the city, St. Paul’s United Methodist Church sits right next to Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The church is a large neo-gothic structure that echoes the grandeur and imposition of Europe’s most impressive Cathedrals. Whether driving by, or riding the Metrorail, people always seem to notice St. Paul’s. The congregation, with an average weekly attendance of over 1,100 members, is growing strong… attracting many young families.
During the advent season, one special tradition of St. Paul’s is to have a family start church service by lighting the advent candle, and reading part of the story of Christmas. One of the families the church chose this year was a same-sex couple… Greg Grant, his partner Ajay and their young son. As a mainstream Methodist church, St. Paul’s is not allowed to conduct same-sex weddings, or ordain openly LGBT ministers. And of course, being in the state of Texas, other LGBT discrimination abounds via the state-level Defense of Marriage Act, and a lack of other civil protections. Asking one family to read a few bible verses and light a candle isn’t going to correct any of these issues, at least not immediately. However it does show one example of the type of quiet leadership that is going on in churches like St. Paul’s. Today, many LGBT people are loving, giving, committed members of their religious communities, even if you wouldn’t know that from turning on the TV. While the media’s conversation about church seems to always be dominated by fringe forces like the anti-gay community (think Westboro Baptist church), churches like St. Paul’s have moved far away from that extreme characterization. To get more insight about this, I spoke with Reverend Tommy Williams, Senior Pastor of St. Paul’s UMC in Houston…
Texas Leftist: In reference to LGBT equality, St. Paul’s is not a Reconciling congregation, yet the church is supportive of equality and has many LGBT members. Do you feel that it is important to have this stance as a mainstream church?
Rev. Williams: Yes, absolutely. That is part of the beauty of St. Paul’s… it is a bit of an outlier in Methodism, but it is itself “big tent”. The congregation has a wide diversity of opinions on equality, but has very much committed itself in culture and values to a radical welcome of everybody. I think that a lot of congregations could embrace that sort of culture, even if they choose not to affiliate with an official movement. If congregations have differing opinions about the particulars of marriage, ordination, and other sub-issues within the broader scope of human sexuality, they should all be able to commit to a radical welcome of those persons and opinions. This allows us to be in conversation with one another, to be sharpened and matured in our faith and understanding of who God has created us to be. We can only have those conversations if everyone is at the table. I think that all mainstream congregations, whether they carry a particular affiliation or not, should be committed to that ethos and value.
Texas Leftist: As a Senior Pastor of a prominent church, how do you balance all of those opinions?
Rev. Williams: I think someone like me has to be committed to listening. And by that I mean really listening… not just lip service to it, but sitting down with people of various opinions, and bringing respect to that conversation. I try to grant everyone that same respect up front. As a person of faith, I understand that even if I don’t agree with another person’s views, they do deserve to be heard. They are genuinely wrestling and struggling to figure things out, just like we all are. Listening and granting each person with dignity is really important in my role. Sometimes I think it’s appropriate for Senior Pastors and churches to take very particular, public stances on certain issues. But other times it’s actually not helpful. It can compromise one’s ability to lead the whole congregation. In those instances, more can be accomplished through one-on-one relationships, and helping others to gain understanding over time. That applies to myself too… we all are learning and growing on these issues.
Texas Leftist: And you’ve just alluded to what I was going to ask about setting good examples. Each Sunday during advent at St. Paul’s, we’ve had a family start the service by lighting one of the advent candles. I noticed that these have been different types of families as well… a husband and wife with young children, adult children, and on the first Sunday of advent, a same-sex couple with their child was chosen. Instead of preaching some specific opinions on what the congregation should believe, it simply showed another example of what makes a family. Even beyond that, it was done without any fanfare or debate… but they were represented as a normal family, just like everyone else. Given how most churches are so sensationalized in the media (mostly portrayed as right-wing, anti-gay groups), was it ever a worry to you that others would be offended? Did you receive any negative comments after that Sunday?
Rev. Williams: I haven’t heard a single negative response from having Greg and Ajay do the candle lighting… not at all. I prepared myself for that a bit, but no one was upset. I really do think that the best way for us to be “the church” is to lead by example, have a continual conversation, and show mutual respect for one another.
What’s happening at churches like St. Paul’s is remarkable simply because it is so normal. It is a congregation that has moved past the extreme rhetoric of equality in the abstract, but is showing how different types of people get along in real life. In my opinion, churches like this one are the future of the Christian community. As the movement for equality continues, the most important progress isn’t going to happen in Congress or in a courtroom. It’s happening around us right now. And during this holiday season, it’s something that we can all be thankful for.
An important note on reconciling congregations…
I had to edit the original characterization of these churches, simply because I was misinformed on the nature of the movement. Most in fact do not disobey the Methodist book of discipline, but simply are working to change attitudes and rules within the church. My original impressions of the Reconciling movement were based mostly on knowledge of a few congregations, and not on official research.