Peter Benson used to serve in a leadership position at University Presbyterian Church. Elected to the role of deacon, he was head usher of the University District's large evangelical church and led a ministry for people dealing with alcohol and drugs in their families. Then, one day, a parishioner found out that he had a live-in partner who was a man. That was the end of Benson's leadership role. While the title of deacon is irrevocable, the pastors there at the time, the late '80s, asked him to step aside from associated duties. He did.
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Benson's mother was so angry that she left the church, never to return. Benson took a different tack. In a tense meeting that he had requested with the church's elders, he delivered a message. "I told them, 'I'm not leaving,'" recalls Benson, a 57-year-old retired antiques dealer. "'It's my church. You can leave.'" And there he has stayed ever since.
At a time when conservative churches are mobilizing against the state's new gay rights law and the prospect of gay marriage, one tends to think that gays and evangelicals move in completely separate and opposing spheres. In fact, homosexuality can be found within the evangelical community. But the intersection between those worlds is complicated, causing churches and gay parishioners to wrestle with the matter in different ways.
At one end of the spectrum is Pastor Ken Hutcherson's Antioch Bible Church in Redmond. Asked about gay evangelicals, Hutcherson, a vocal opponent of gay rights, quips: "I think that's an oxymoron." He says that in his church gays would "either repent or be disciplined for living a sinful lifestyle." The disciplinary process—used not only in cases of homosexuality but also for divorce and other types of behavior deemed sinful—entails a confrontation between the sinner and two or three witnesses. A person who still refuses to repent would be kicked out of the church.
Other evangelical churches reach out to gays—to help them overcome feelings ￼ that both churches and, often, gay parishioners see as a conflict with their Christianity. "In general, my approach is to explore areas of wounding," says Jeff Simunds, a parishioner at Northshore Baptist Church who leads two support groups there for people dealing with "sexual brokenness." Like other conservative Christians, Simunds teaches that homosexuality is a product not of biology but of environmental factors like early traumatic experiences. He says he himself struggled successfully with homosexual feelings in the past. "If we're struggling, that's OK," he says of the attitude he finds at Northshore Baptist. "The church has been very supportive."
Bruce Boesiger also struggled with homosexuality in the past. Raised a Lutheran, the 55-year-old Boeing manager sought out what's known in the Christian world as an "ex-gay ministry": a group that is not a church but which draws upon a religious worldview to help people attempting to conquer homosexuality. The ministry Boesiger became involved in recommended that people attend conservative evangelical churches—it actually had a list of churches at the ready—so that their efforts to leave homosexuality behind would be supported. And so Boesiger started attending Overlake Christian Church, a sprawling fundamentalist church in Redmond.
Unlike Simunds, Boesiger, then in his 40s, did not find resolution. "There was constant tension," he says. He wanted to be different, but he didn't feel any change. In the pew, he listened to sermons labeling homosexuality a sin. "You feel condemned. You feel like a failure," he says. "You're always asking yourself whether or not you're doing everything you can do." After three years of trying to change, he gave up. He and his male partner now attend Holy Spirit Lutheran Church in Kirkland, which chooses to be "open and affirming" to gay parishioners.
"I usually tell people who are not in open and affirming churches that they should find another church," says Benson, the University Presbyterian deacon asked to step down from a leadership role. It can be tough to remain in a church that does not accept who you are. University Presbyterian is one of the area's more conservative mainline churches; it is evangelical but not fundamentalist.
"It breaks my heart," Benson says. He thinks about the church's big ministry to college kids and wonders how many of them may end up thinking that they can't be gay and Christian at the same time. He says he chooses to stay in spite of that heartache because he looks at it as a ministry aimed at educating parishioners and pastors about people like him. "I hang in there with them," he says.
It's a subtle kind of education campaign. Benson, who has a gentle, easygoing air about him and turns up for coffee one afternoon in a well-cut tan jacket and loafers, is not a flame thrower. "I'm just there to have conversations," he says. He attends services with his partner of seven years, his previous partner having died of AIDS. He also meets his desire for an open and affirming environment by belonging to an organization called Evangelicals Concerned, a network of nationwide gay Christian groups.
In truth, though, Benson doesn't stay at University Presbyterian just to make a point. It offers a kind of spiritual home for him that he feels open and affirming churches would not. To his mind, gay-friendly churches often get around troubling biblical passages that seem to condemn homosexuality by watering the Bible down. "I take the Bible seriously," he says. "I'd rather struggle with the passages." He likes the preaching at University Presbyterian, which doesn't address homosexuality and other hot-button social issues from the pulpit but focuses on Christ and his message.
In many ways, he says he would probably consider himself a social conservative. He believes that sex is best had in a lifelong committed relationship. He frowns on drug use. Although he doesn't want to be judgmental, he has trouble with abortion. Part of the reason that he feels so sad about his church's unwelcoming attitude toward homosexuality is that he believes that gays miss out on the church's guidance in deciding on "what is good, what is true." In consequence, he says, "we seem to have this idea that anything goes." In mainstream gay culture, he feels "sex is glorified. It's the center of the universe. Instead of identifying as people, we come together under the banner of sex."
So while he is in some ways estranged from his church, in other ways he is estranged from gay culture. You might say that this is his Christian vision: "I hope that at a certain point, we can be just like regular people. And then we won't have to have a parade."