Rainbow Steps and Affirming Congregations
The Uniting Church across our Synod is home to a rich diversity of congregations, including many which declare themselves to be affirming of LGBTQIA+ people. This affirming stance accepts and celebrates people of diverse genders and sexualities as whole deserving spaces to explore their faith.
Being publicly affirming has an impact on how these congregation do church, engage with young people, and embody God’s love in the world. Insights spoke to ministers and leaders from affirming congregations about the gift LGBTQIA+ people are to the life of the church.
Paddington Uniting Church
Rev. Danielle Hemsworth-Smith of Paddington Uniting Church said of her congregation’s theology, “We start from a place of love, with the understanding that all people are loved by God. Because sexuality and gender identity [have their] origin in love, we understand [them] as part of the beauty of each person and, in turn, the gifts of our community.”
Because Paddington are known in the wider community as an affirming church, they receive, “more enquiries about weddings and baptisms from the LGBTQIA+ community,” and about 50% of marriages performed there are of same-gender couples.
Rev. Danielle Hemsworth-Smith also described the role her congregation plays “through conversation and discussion with the broader community… The potential we have to change perceptions and transform lives through affirmation, acceptance and encouragement of God’s creation, including humanity, is pretty incredible.”
Pitt Street Uniting Church
Pitt Street Uniting Church’s welcome to LGBTQIA+ people is visible upon entering the building. The foyer provides publications about affirming theology, and banners and symbols can be found around the sanctuary. Minister Rev. Dr Josephine Inkpin is the Uniting Church’s first transgender Minister in Placement. She told Insights that Pitt Street is a church where “all kinds of…people… flourish, just as they are.”
“Our congregation has for decades been at the very forefront of celebrating and empowering, not just welcoming and affirming, LGBTIQA+ people, and this is a core element of our mission,” Rev. Dr Inkpin said.
Pitt Street’s members are “actively involved both in advocacy in the church, including the UCA Assembly process towards an Apology to LGBTQIA+ people, and in critical political issues of concern.”
St Andrew’s Uniting Church, Glenbrook
Rev. Ellie Elia of St Andrew’s Uniting Church in Glenbrook told Insights that her congregation has been “work[ing] together to develop a culture where LGBTQIA+ people are celebrated and welcomed into the leadership of the church” for many years.
“We don’t always get it right,” Rev. Ellie Elia acknowledged. “We are all still learning and so [we are] practicing grace and forgiveness, and hopefully finding healing in each other’s company.”
This openness to learning has led to growth in St Andrew’s attendance, and “Many people are also eager to discover a new theological language of welcome and inclusion that had previously been denied.”
Adamstown Uniting Church
While Adamstown Uniting Church has been a safe and affirming space for many years where “diverse people have made it their home and been welcomed into leadership roles,” minister Rev. Dr Rod Pattenden found that public perception had not caught up to the wonderful things happening in the church.
Adamstown decided to paint their front steps in rainbow colours as a visible symbol of their welcome for LGBTQIA+ people. This public visibility has led to growth for the Adamstown congregation – in number and through their involvement with the communities around them.
Composer Heather Price recently created a song about the rainbow steps to celebrate the joy of fully welcoming LGBTQIA+ people.
Tuggeranong Uniting Church
Tuggeranong Uniting Church established the Rainbow Christian Alliance six years ago, as “a place for LGBTQIA+ people to gather and explore their faith.” Rev. Elizabeth Raine described how “Many of our members have been burnt by conservative mainstream churches and this was a deliberate attempt to reach out to people and affirm and support them.”
“Our obvious banner on the street and our website (which affirms we are an inclusive congregation) has meant we have gained new members who have come to Rainbow Christian Alliance gatherings at the church or joined us on Zoom,” she told Insights. In recent years, these gatherings have “more than doubled in number.”
Leichhardt Uniting Church
Rev. Adrian Sukumar-White of Leichhardt Uniting Church told Insights, “We are very upfront about our welcoming and affirming stance towards LGBTQIA+ people – it can be easily seen on our website, social media, and in our building. We want to make it really easy for LGBTQIA+ people to discover that Leichhardt Uniting Church is a safe place for them. This is also supported through sermons, [and] the use of inclusive language in liturgy and songs.”
Leichhardt’s visibly affirming stance has been the catalyst for considerable congregational growth, however Rev. Adrian Sukumar-White told Insights, “That’s not all there is to it – once people turn up, we work hard to connect with them, by taking the time to hear and honour their stories…and [by] naming to them face-to-face that they are beloved children of God.”
What does this mean for young people?
Young people in the Pitt St community have responded “very positively” to their affirming stance. Rev. Dr Josephine Inkpin told Insights, “A majority of the younger people who have recently joined our congregation identify as sexually and/or gender diverse and this has been a key factor.”
Rev. Elia said that the same was true for St Andrew’s young people, who, “expect that being a church means being welcoming and affirming to all.”
“It’s just who we are. The challenge for them is how best to relate to friends or other Christian circles that don’t feel the same way.”
According to Rev. Dr Pattenden, “There is usually little embarrassment talking about this part of our human experience and there is a keen interest in working out how to live with being a sexual and spiritually alive human being… People have a great desire to live authentic and integrated lives.”
Gabrielle Cadenhead is a mission worker for Christian Students Uniting at the University of Sydney