[Episcopal News Service] Episcopal churches are working to help their parishioners understand evolving language around gender and sexuality identities to become better LGBTQ+ allies as anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric rises across the United States.
The Rev. Andrew Rutledge, rector of All Saints Parish in Sunderland, Maryland, told Episcopal News Service that as an openly gay man, congregants are comfortable asking him questions about gender and sexuality, including adult and older-adult parishioners whose grandchildren identify as LGBTQ+.
“With the division that’s happening in our country surrounding issues of sexual identity and sexuality, I think any opportunity to engage in dialogue and learn is important,” Rutledge said. “While I think it’s becoming more and more common for people to know someone who identifies as transgender, there’s still a lot of misinformation. And I think learning more about that community or those individuals in these types of classes is so important.”
In the late spring, several Episcopal churches in southern Maryland hosted a three-week virtual course on gender, sexuality and theology to begin to clarify misinformation. The course was an ecumenical collaboration with Peace Lutheran Church and Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, both located in Waldorf, 30 miles south of Washington, D.C. Course-creator the Rev. Jerry Maynard, a Houston, Texas-based priest in the independent Catholic tradition and community organizer known as “the people’s priest,” led it. Nearly 70 people enrolled in the course, including nine All Saints’ parishioners.
The first session provided a general overview of the difference between gender and sexuality from social and theological lenses, as well as the role of appropriate discourse in faith formation.
Maynard, who is an Indigenous “two spirit,” or third-gender person, is a curriculum writer for The Episcopal Church. They explained to ENS that gender is the person as a whole — body, mind and spirit — whereas sex assigned at birth is a medical term based on genitalia, the external expression of reproductive organs.
“We are made in the image of God, and every single part of the human existence, including sexuality and gender expression, is a holy phenomenon, and we must therefore treat them with faith and dignity,” Maynard said.
The second session focused on specific biblical stories interpreted from queer theological and intersectional perspectives, including sections from Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Romans, which contain passages often interpreted as involving LGBTQ+ activity and relationships. The third session addressed practicing Christian discipleship in the context of gender and sexual justice.
“We have to respect Scripture, but we also have to be aware that these books and ideas and texts were written by human beings that, yes, were inspired by the Holy Spirit, but they still had prejudices and biases that came through in some of their texts,” Maynard, creator of the course’s curriculum, told ENS.
The virtual course was an opportunity for participants to ask questions and get them answered by filling out a survey beforehand. Questions included when it’s acceptable to ask someone about their sexual identity and gender, as well as how to respond to people who say gender and sexuality are choices, or people who claim the Bible says being LGBTQ+ is wrong.
Rutledge said he was happy to have learned how to address nonbinary people in formal written communication — use “Mx.” in the salutation.
The Rev. Maria Kane, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Waldorf, told ENS she came up with the idea of offering the course because parishioners at St. Paul’s have expressed not knowing the difference between gender and sexuality and why it’s important to use someone’s pronouns correctly.
“[The Episcopal Church] has long been inclusive in name … but we want to not just say we’re welcoming, but also ground ourselves in Scripture behind that [statement],” she said. “We’re seeking to be radically inclusive and speak up more for matters of justice and affirming members of the LGBT community.”
Rutledge said a parishioner who had already wanted to start an LGBTQ+ ministry at All Saints told him that participating in the virtual course gave her additional language and understanding to pursue it more confidently and respectfully.
“[Christian] denominations can say they’re progressive and tolerant, and we can tolerate people, but can we actively affirm who they are? That’s a big deal, and I think that’s a real delineation,” he said.
Members of Christ Church in La Plata, Christ Church Wayside in Newburg, Christ Church in Nanjemoy, All Faith Episcopal Church in Charlotte Hall, as well as St. Thomas’ Parish and Trinity Episcopal Church in Upper Marlboro also participated in the gender and sexuality course. All the participating Episcopal churches except St. Thomas’ and Trinity are in Charles County in southern Maryland, which hosted its inaugural Pride festival on May 20.
Kane said The Episcopal Church is looking into possibly developing a bigger gender and sexuality curriculum like Sacred Ground, a series exploring the impacts of racism as part of the Church’s racial reconciliation initiative. She’s been communicating with the Rev. Melanie Mullen, The Episcopal Church’s director of reconciliation, justice and creation care, about potentially using Maynard’s course as a blueprint should a churchwide initiative commence.
“[Supporting the LGBTQ+ community] takes initiative; it takes action and not waiting until you know someone who’s LGBTQ because you probably already know someone who is,” Kane said.
Kane and Rutledge both said supporting LGBTQ+ people is especially important now as anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment continues to grow nationwide. Bills targeting LGBTQ+ rights introduced by state legislatures have more than doubled so far since 2022. Additionally, hate crimes targeting marginalized groups, including LGBTQ+ people, are predicted to rise nationwide in 2024 consistent with an ongoing trend in reported hate crimes during U.S. election seasons. This prediction is based on a recently published report by The Leadership Conference Education Fund, an arm of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the oldest and largest civil rights coalition in the United States.
“And then you have the high rates of suicide and depression among trans youth and LGBTQ+ people. It’s tragic and heartbreaking,” Kane said. “We have to respond in a way that is compassionate but also life-giving.”
New data from The Trevor Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing counseling and suicide prevention services for LGBTQ+ youth, shows that 41% of LGBTQ+ people ages 13 to 24 have seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, and that number is higher for people who are transgender, nonbinary or of color. However, the same report shows that suicide attempt rates are lower for transgender and nonbinary people who live in households where everyone respects their pronouns.
“Using sexuality to harm other people is blasphemy to God; we must love each other and live good Christian holy lives,” Maynard said. “We need to stand up on this issue and take it seriously. Otherwise, what is the point of being Christian?”
-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.