SENIOR PASTOR The Reverend Dr. Jo Hudson
ADDRESS 5910 Cedar Springs Road
ON THE INTERNET cathedralofhope.com
MAIN SERVICE Sundays at 9:00 and 11:00 a.m.
IN THE MINDS OF MANY, to be gay and Christian is oxymoronic. The 3,500 members of the Cathedral of Hope, in Dallas, disagree. From its beginnings with only 12 disciples in 1970, it has come to be known as “the world’s largest gay church,” with a stated mission “to reclaim Christianity as a faith of extravagant grace, radical inclusion, and relentless compassion” and “to change how the world thinks about lesbian and gay people.” Formerly part of the young and predominantly gay Metropolitan Community Church, last year it became affiliated with the United Church of Christ, the mainline Protestant denomination that traces its origins in America to the Puritans.
The Cathedral’s facilities, in the Oak Lawn area of Dallas, include a 900-seat sanctuary and a large Congregational Life Center, both accessed through an opening in the seven-story granite-and-stucco John Thomas AIDS Memorial Bell Wall, which was designed by Philip Johnson as part of his grand vision for a campus expected to include a 2,200-seat sanctuary and an inter-faith chapel. The current sanctuary soars forward toward a four-story cross of beige blocks set into the rough limestone wall of the chancel and flanked by stained-glass windows proclaiming “Hope” and, in Spanish, “Esperanza,” with bold renderings of the symbols for heterosexuality and for male and female homosexuality.
The official attendance count at the eleven o’clock service was 655; an earlier service had drawn roughly 500. According to Cathedral spokesman David Plunkett, the sexual orientation of the church’s membership is approximately the inverse of the general population’s, with about 90 percent identifying themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. Although numerous women were present, men were clearly in the majority. Most attendees appeared to be under the age of fifty; nearly all were casually dressed. Some conformed in appearance and manner to common stereotypes; many did not. Substantial numbers of both sexes had come as couples and, like their heterosexual counterparts, occasionally patted each other on the shoulder or gave a knowing squeeze of a hand at a personally relevant point in the sermon. Several dozen teens were present, and a service geared to the 140 or so younger children in the church took place elsewhere in the building.
The morning opened with “Shall We Gather at the River,” a fitting introduction to what the order of service identified as Baptism Sunday. Other musical numbers included “When Jesus Came to Jordan” and the choral anthem “The Waters of Life,” all accompanied on large video screens by images of gently flowing waters, rushing rivers, and waterfalls. The congregation sang with full throat and, it appeared, full heart, providing a masculine heft often missing in congregational singing. In their turns, the 34-voice choir, 17-piece orchestra, and impressive organ provided equally spirited and high-quality renditions.
The Reverend Dr. Jo Hudson, the rector and senior pastor, noted that her colleague, the Reverend Michael Piazza, was in North Carolina preaching and lecturing on the topic of his new book, The Real Anti-christ (it’s fundamentalism, according to Piazza, which he contends has grievously distorted true Christianity). Piazza was the church’s senior pastor for seventeen years but surrendered that position to Hudson in 2005 and now serves as national pastor to an estimated 10,000 people, many of whom gather in their homes for webcasts of Sunday services. He also serves as the president of Hope for Peace and Justice, a nonprofit organization that focuses on issues of social equality, environmental sustainability, and, of course, discrimination against gays.
Hudson began her sermon by recalling the days when she and her sorority sisters at the University of North Texas faithfully watched the dysfunctional denizens of the soap opera One Life to Live. She then used that to underscore the importance of not squandering the one life we are given. In the course of a well-conceived and skillfully delivered sermon, she called attention to the preaching of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. John knew, she said, that people need to be washed clean of the “stuff” in their lives, and the baptism of Jesus symbolizes the transforming power and the unconditional nature of God’s love for us. She also stressed that the power to winnow the wheat from the chaff in our lives belongs to God alone, drawing applause when she spoke against “powerful people [who] have taken it upon themselves to decide who is good and who is bad, who gets in and who gets cast out into eternal flame.”
Since it was Baptism Sunday, I had expected actual baptisms to occur. Instead, Hudson announced that members of the pastoral staff would move through the congregation and sprinkle us with water, symbolically asking us to remember our baptism. At this point, the video screens displayed the widely distributed YouTube clip of the boy who surprised his pastor by entering the baptismal pool with a cannonball dive. As the laughter died down, Hudson said, “I just wish every one of us would go diving headlong into the waters of baptism and dance in the river of life, our one life that God has given us.”
As my wife and I left the church, the bronze bells rang, as they do at the end of each service, calling us to remember those who have died of AIDS—more than 1,500 from the Cathedral alone—and to pray for a cure. We were both on the edge of tears at the thought that so many of our fellow Christians would insist that the hundreds of men and women with whom we had just shared an extraordinary worship experience could never please God until they renounced a basic dimension of their humanity. That issue is far too complex to discuss in this space—the Cathedral’s Web site gives considerable attention to the subject—but some brief observations may be worth considering.
First, many scholars think that most of the small number of references to homosexual behavior in the Bible—none by Jesus—refer to rape and temple prostitution rather than to loving sexual relations between members of the same gender. Some concede that the apostle Paul, in Romans 1:26—28, was writing about garden-variety homosexuality but was understandably unaware of the modern view that, in most cases, sexual orientation is determined either before birth or in early childhood. That argument, of course, carries little weight with those who believe Paul was taking dictation from God. Even they, however, allow for cultural change. Most churches, including those committed to biblical literalism, no longer bar from membership those who have divorced and remarried, despite clear prohibitions by Jesus and Paul, and few take seriously the exhortation in I Timothy 2:9 that women should eschew “gold or pearls or expensive clothes.” The list of accommodations could be extended.
Second, attitudes toward homosexuals have shifted dramatically over the past half-century and will likely continue to shift as the greater willingness of gays and lesbians to “come out” confronts more and more people with the homosexuality of their children, parents, spouses, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, friends, colleagues, and others they love and respect. They will adapt, and so will the churches to which they belong.
Finally, given that the Bible contains literally thousands of passages condemning social injustice and mandating concern for the poor and only a small handful even possibly critical of homosexuality, it is puzzling that so much attention has been focused on the latter and so little on the former. To paraphrase the popular question, What would Jesus think?