General Convention, Young Adults, and Mission

By Otis Gaddis III

Increasingly I am convinced that this General Convention could unleash the great potential the Episcopal Church has to effectively reach the unchurched and dechurched in the United States. I was drawn to come here because I wanted to be part of the story of that transformation of potential energy into kinetic energy. My passion is for evangelism, and particularly evangelism to young adults. It is a passion that inspired me to start a young adult group at my parish of Saint Mark’s Capital Hill, to do organizing work in my diocese in support of young adult ministry and recently to seek ordination as an Episcopal priest. And it is that passion that inspired me to come to General Convention with Integrity, the national fellowship for LGBT Episcopalians.

There is a very serious link between our capacity to do effective work with young adults and where we are on affirming lesbian and gay people as equal members of the Church. I think it is necessary to place the work of this General Convention in the context of how young adults view the relationship between an institution’s understanding and treatment of lesbian and gay people and its moral legitimacy.

In 1999 Eugene Rogers published a book entitled Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way into the Triune God which offered a Christian defense of gay marriage by claiming that the purpose of Christian marriage was the sanctification of Christian couples through the performance of a lifelong embodied spiritual covenant. From that premise, Rogers argued that marriages of Christian gay couples cannot be justifiably excluded, on Christian grounds, from Christian marriage. The assumption of the book is that the reader is comfortable with the moral legitimacy of Christianity but is questioning what if any place gay people’s marriages have in the Church.

But a decade later the situation is radically different, especially for young adults. People are becoming much more supportive of gay rights generally and marriage equality specifically. Among young adults (those who are 18-34), 58 percent believe in full marriage equality. The trend in favor of marriage equality for college age adults is even stronger. As of 2008, 66% of college frosh supported marriage equality. In other words, the younger you go the higher the chance that a person views gay people as equal to everyone else.

And this shift is starting to change attitudes and perceptions of what is morally legitimate. An entire generation of people is coming of age where they are much more confident in the equality of their lesbian and gay friends than they are about the moral legitimacy of institutions and people who are against gay people. In other words, many of these same young adults see one’s views concerning marriage equality as a litmus test of the morality of social institutions including churches.

To get a handle on the impact of this sea change, consider what happens in contemporary life when someone declares that they are a racist. Now, most people do not take seriously that racism could be a legitimate worldview; instead that person who reveals herself as a racist has actually simply declared herself to be an immoral person. She has said much more about herself than whatever negative view she may have about another race or ethnic group. The same thing is now happening on the issue of gay rights and marriage equality among an ever increasing majority of young adults. Saying one is anti-gay really is the same as declaring that one is an immoral person. To claim, as so many are doing, that one must continue to be an immoral person because Christianity mandates that one be anti-gay does not legitimate the immorality but simply implicates Christianity as an immoral worldview that should therefore be distrusted, criticized or outright rejected. What needs to be understood is that a substantial and increasing number of young adults judge Christianity through the lens of justice for gay and lesbian people rather than judging the value of gay and lesbian people in the light of a homophobic social code that dons the mantle of Christianity. This dynamic occurs even when anti-gay people claim to be the only “orthodox” representatives of Christianity.

The devastating effect of asking people to choose between being a good Christian and being a good person is revealing itself in recent polling of young adults.

According to a study reported, in September 2007, by the Barna Group, a well respected evangelical polling group, 40 percent of young adults (ages 16-29) did not identify as Christians, a substantial increase from previous generations. When they inquired as to young non-Christians’ perceptions of Christianity they found that “a decade ago the vast majority of Americans outside the Christian faith, including young people, felt favorably toward Christianity’s role in society. Currently, however, just 16% of non-Christians in their late teens and twenties said they have a ‘good impression’ of Christianity” (emphasis added).

So what has been happening over the last decade that could possibly have cause this shift? Although I am sure that it is a combination of factors, it is clear form the report that American Christianity’s reputation as the primer source of anti-gay activism is one of the most important causes as indicated in the same Barna Group study which says, “Interestingly, the study discovered a new image that has steadily grown in prominence over the last decade. Today, the most common perception is that present-day Christianity is ‘anti-homosexual.’ Overall, 91% of young non-Christians and 80% of young churchgoers say this phrase describes Christianity” (emphasis added). Keep in mind that the majority of young adults believe in marriage equality.

In other words, non-Christians may not know much about what we believe about Jesus, the path to salvation, or what we believe God desires of us in our relationships with others. But what they do know is that we are anti-gay.

What this practically means for someone like me, a 29 year old, who regularly strikes up spiritual conversations with other young adults in the gym, my local café, at bars, and well basically anywhere, one of the first things I encounter is the other person’s belief that the Church is anti-gay. This is especially true if they have at least some college education. As a black gay man, I am usually able to remove that barrier by saying “I am gay and I am a Christian; in fact I am Episcopalian.” After explaining the positive experience I have had in my parish, the person is usually not only more favorable but now curious as to what this “Episcopal Church” is like. My ability to point to out gay bishops and to gay people being married in my church radically distinguishes the Episcopal Church in the minds of young adults in a positive way.

Of course, since most Episcopalians are not gay, they cannot vouch for the Church without proof. One has to be able to show that a reasonable gay person would actually feel comfortable and affirmed in the Episcopal Church in order to rebut the presumption that the Episcopal Church is just like other anti-gay churches. Their ability to point to out and married gay bishops and to gay people being married in the church would equip the vast majority of straight Christians to radically distinguish the Episcopal Church in the minds of non-Christian young adults in a positive way.

As people begin to really study young adult views of Christianity and how gay and lesbian people fit into that story, I think we will find that young adults are not rejecting Christianity simply because it is perceived as anti-gay but that they are viewing gay people as the canary in the mine. Culturally, the gay experience has become a metaphor for the journey of self-discovery and a willingness to be true to one’s self in spite of persecution. And this is what young adults are, in part, looking for spiritually, places where they can connect to their true selves. If we listen they might tell us, “If a place is not only safe for gay people but is affirming of them, then perhaps it will be safe for me. Perhaps, I will be affirmed by this spiritual community when I find myself. Maybe this community is capable of helping me get there.”

It is perhaps because of this logic that Bishop Gene Robinson’s speech yesterday in the Exhibit Hall was so powerful. During his speech he spoke about the anxiety of some people that the Episcopal Church will be identified as “the gay Church.” He responded to that anxiety by saying, “You bet! We are the church for gay people, women, people of color, people in wheelchairs, the mentally ill, for everyone.” As he explained that the Episcopal Church is the Church of God’s Inclusive Love, I could feel an energy in the crowd, and energy of realization. The woman next to me, who I believed to be straight, told me, “I feel a chill up my spine, when I hear this.” I replied, “I know, it is like we are finally going to be a Christian Church.” She nodded, “Yes, that is what this is about, that is what this is about.” My feeling is that we were not the only people who were feeling that our own capacity to witness to God’s love, as Episcopalians, was what was at stake in this conversation about the place of LBGT people in the Church.

Otis Gaddis III is a lawyer and young adult minister at Saint Mark’s Capital Hill in Washington D.C. A postulant from the Diocese of Washington, he will be attending Yale Divinity School this Fall.

For footnotes, click Read more.

Some might notice that I am using “lesbian and gay” instead of “LGBT.” The reason I am doing so is because the research and polling data I will cite in this posting refers only to gay and lesbian people or “homosexuals.” I am by no means intending to exclude bisexual or transgender people from the conversation.

CNN poll 5/4/2009 found at (accessed 6/25/09)

Justin Pope, “Survey: College freshmen focused on work, politics,” Indiana Gazette, January 22, 2009, (accessed 6/24/09)(relating the results of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute annual college frosh national survey).

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