Has Gay Broadway Couple Taken Too Much on Faith?

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Josh Canfield and Reed Kelly when they appeared last year on CBS’ “Survivor.”  | MONTY BRINTON/ CBS
Josh Canfield and Reed Kelly when they appeared last year on CBS’ “Survivor.” | MONTY BRINTON/ CBS

It took religious conservatives six months to discover a Playbill interview with actor Josh Canfield in which he discussed Reed Kelly, his fiancé and also an actor, and noted that he was a volunteer choir director at Hillsong NYC, a Pentecostal church. The conservatives objected to Hillsong having a gay man, and one who was engaged to another man, in a leadership position.

Brian Houston, who founded Hillsong in Australia in 1983, quickly said that Canfield was no longer a choir director and marriage was between man and a woman. Hillsong, which now has churches in at least 13 cities around the globe, including New York City, was only willing to welcome LGBT people without explicitly affirming them. The couple remains at Hillsong, which is run by Carl Lentz, a media-savvy and popular pastor.

“We’re grateful for Pastor Carl, and we feel God has called us to be at Hillsong,” Kelly told Religion News Service in an August 11 interview. “He wants us to be a part of the church, knowing what we believe. This is our home church, and we are not leaving. It’s important for us to be there dialoguing about this.”

Embrace of Hillsong church, with ugly anti-gay record in Uganda, raises tough questions about changing evangelical hearts

As the children of evangelical pastors and LGBT evangelicals come out and same sex-marriage gains approval around the world, these controversies will be increasingly common. They may place new responsibilities –– or not –– on conservative churches that have been hostile to LGBT people, including the LGBT people who attend them.

“I think these problems are new,” said Sharon Groves, vice president for public engagement at Manhattan’s Auburn Theological Seminary who previously headed the Faith and Religion Program at the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT lobby. “What we’re seeing is there is more and more of a kind of openness in this country… It’s kind of toleration. As we’re seeing more of that, more of these kinds of complications are going to arise.”

A small number of evangelical churches, so called Third Way churches, and a few leaders have shifted their positions on homosexuality to varying degrees. One such church, the New Heart Community Church in California, was expelled from the Southern Baptist Convention for doing so.

“The whole transition of evangelical churches welcoming is a relatively new phenomenon,” said Todd Ferrell, president of the Evangelical Network, an LGBT group. “As these things come to the forefront and evangelical churches are outed as participating, I would think that you would get more pushback.”

The complications of welcoming LGBT people while at the same time defending current or former anti-LGBT positions –– complications seemingly not apparent to Canfield and Kelly, who did not respond to requests for comment –– are especially pronounced at Hillsong.

In 2007, Hillsong in Australia raised $700,000 for Watoto Church in Uganda. It has continued to raise money for and send volunteers to Watoto, which is a member of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God in Canada. Houston and his wife Bobbie attended Watoto’s 30th anniversary last year.

In 2009, Watoto hosted two meetings of an anti-LGBT conference. Three anti-LGBT Americans, including Scott Lively, spoke at those meetings. The conference produced Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which included the death penalty for some offenses and a life sentence for others. It was introduced in the Ugandan Parliament later that year.

Gary Skinner, Watoto’s founder and lead pastor, took no public position on the bill. But Frank Mugisha, a noted LGBT activist in Uganda, called Skinner “one of the most homophobic people in the world” in a 2011 interview with MetroWeekly, a Washington, DC LGBT publication.

While Hillsong may wish to reconcile in some form with its LGBT members, its history cannot be ignored. Members may have to ask about Hillsong’s continuing support for Watoto.

“I believe there is a responsibility for any member of the church, LGBT or heterosexual, to question relationships with exclusive, violent, or right-wing groups,” said Stephen V. Sprinkle, a theology professor at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University in Ft. Worth. “Anyone who is participating in the life of the church must question it and question it openly.”

The bill languished in the Ugandan Parliament until 2013 when Rebecca Kadaga, the speaker, and David Bahati, a member and proponent of the bill, faked a vote. Despite the absence of a required quorum, they said the bill passed, though with the death penalty replaced by a long prison sentence. Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s president, signed it. A Ugandan court struck it down in 2014 because there was no quorum.

The parliamentary ruse was necessary because governments, including the US and Sweden, were privately warning the Ugandan government against enacting it and, by early 2010, the Museveni government quietly promised to kill it. A few American evangelicals, notably Rick Warren of the California-based Saddleback Church, publicly opposed the bill, which points to the value of engaging conservative churches beyond joining any one church.

“If they could make that stance internationally, that would make a huge difference that you’re not going to see with a progressive congregati­on,” said Groves, referring to a recent agreement the Mormon Church made with Equality Utah on nondiscrimination legislation in that state.

Ferrell said he was not aware of “any kind of movement that is making any kind of noise” among evangelicals, but added, “I think there’s a lot of stuff going on underground.”

Pastors are wrestling with how to be welcoming, perhaps even LGBT-affirming, without doing damage to their churches by appearing to contradict earlier teachings.

“They’re trying to figure out how do I best go about doing this without killing the sheep,” Ferrell said.

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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Reader feedback

Jonathan o'connell says:
I believe it is time that people take a closer look at reality. First God never makes mistakes - Secondly, He allows many things to happen and to be. Thirdly, He will take the things that happen and use them for HIS Honor and Glory. God is a loving and caring God. He wants us to walk in fellowship with HIM and glorify HIS NAME. People who are born blind can not help that, but they can use it to glorify God. Others are born with other, what we call abnormalities. But, God will use those things to glorify HIM. Having stated that TRUTH, God uses each situation to bring gory and honor from it. Being born GAY is not a choice. Being attracted to someone of the same sex is how a GAY person is born. God in HIS economy can bring to Gay, Straight, Blind or whatever is considered abnormal together and bring them together to be used of for HIS honor and glory. AND HE DOES! I have seen many wonderful LGBT people that are married in same sex relationships and are honoring God, and sharing JESUS with the world. These wonderful God fearing people and coupes are enhancing the KINGDOM OF GOD FOR HIS GLORY. How are any of us capable of downgrading what GOD has allowed and is doing???? IT IS TIME WE START PRAYING AND ASKING GOD TO BLESS THOSE HE IS WORKING THROUGH, no matter what color they are - no matter what or how God has allowed them to be born. GOD IS DOING MANY NEW THINGS IN OUR WORLD and instead of complaining and hating - IT IS TIME WE GET ON BOARD HIS PROGRAM. GOD IS A LOVING GOD - HE TELLS US TO PRAY. LET'S start PRAYING and LET GOD BE GLORIFIED IN AND THROUGH US> Jonathan O'Connell
Sept. 11, 2015, 10:33 am
Mark Cee says:
As a fellow gay Christian, it saddens me greatly that Reed & Josh choose to give their heart and soul to a church that will never truly accept them--the most they can hope for is their presence being merely (or barely) tolerated. This, in church-speak, is called "welcoming," and many churches pat themselves on the back for the "love" they think they're showing by merely allowing gay people to sit quietly in the congregation. But there are other kinds of churches, called "affirming" churches, where LGBT people are not just tolerated, but loved and valued. I belong to a church like that, but there are others in addition to that one. I hope that Reed & Josh stop giving their time, energy, love and money to a church that sees them and all the rest of us as "less than."
Sept. 11, 2015, 2:11 pm
Todd Ferrell says:
If there is going to be change in "the church" on LGBT matters, it will require LGBT people to walk that journey with the church. Not everyone has the personality to walk that path. Everyone is needed in this process. People can find and experience God new and fresh in an LGBT affirming church and others understand that they are called into patient conversations with mainline churches as they chart the waters of change. None better than the other, but all needed!
Sept. 11, 2015, 2:55 pm
Jonathan o'connell says:
I believe it is time that people take a closer look at reality. First God never makes mistakes - Secondly, He allows many things to happen and to be. Thirdly, He will take the things that happen and use them for HIS Honor and Glory. That is true Todd. We need to go and be where God wants us. And being where HE wants us means that we are to show the love of Christ in us and through us. Where ever God plants us, we are to "Bloom"! ANDt when we bloom we will show and others will know that we are filled with the "love of Christ" and HIS fragrance will penetrate the environment!!
Sept. 11, 2015, 4:54 pm
avennbrown says:
Sept. 14, 2015, 12:36 am

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