you’d be pleased to hear I went to church last Sunday night. It wasn’t Catholic, though. It was a place called the Metropolitan Community Church. A gorgeous octagonal building on Crystal Street. Well, I don’t know if everyone would say it’s gorgeous. Certainly, from the outside, it’s a bit brown and blocky. It sort of hides its light under a bushel, to use a possibly biblical cliché. Inside is a lovely airy intimate octagonal hall, with wooden parquetry and very high ceilings and a strange fake plaster pipe organ.
Why would I go to church?
Well, it was Vanessa who suggested it, although I was vaguely curious myself. Or, maybe its truer to say that I didn’t realise I was curious until she suggested it – at which point my latent curiosity rose immediately to the surface. That’s pretty normal for me. I think I don’t really allow myself to admit I want to do something until it pops up right in front of my face. Generally it’s a problem with sloppy planning, never making lists, etc. On the other hand, I’m pretty good at jumping at a chance once it presents itself. So here was that chance.
The Metropolitan Community Church is kinda famous for being the one which openly lets gay and lesbian worshippers come along. They’ve got rainbow flags outside and everything. It’s really “out” for a church. So, since it’s right here in Petersham, we figured it was something pretty special. Not something you get in every suburb, anyway.
So it was no surprise that the first thing we noticed when we went in (besides the amazing octagonal interior) was a lot of gay men. More men than women, for sure. And quite a few had come along as couples. They weren’t especially old. Not exactly young, but certainly not your grey hair brigade.
As we found seats towards the back, the thought occurred to me – as it sometimes does when I think of you, Mum, and your path through theology – that people who go to church are often faced with a choice. Well, maybe all churchgoers make this choice, even if they don’t know it.
The way I see it, there are three options, if you’re not happy with the way the church is run (and here I’m thinking of the Catholic Church, since it’s the one know best). You can get jack of it, just give up and walk away (as I did, and I think as a lot of people do). Or you can get used to it, and continue going to church out of habit, just because “that’s what our family does”. Or you can stick around and try to change it, which, I think, is what you’ve been doing for a fair while, Mum, don’t you think?
I imagined these nice gay men attending Catholic mass, standing side-by-side in the pews, holding hands, or with their arms around each others’ waists, or with one hand posted into the back pocket of the partner’s jeans. And I wondered how that would all go down in the Catholic Church. I don’t know, maybe things have loosened up since I left, but I can’t imagine those nice straight Catholics would feel too comfortable about such open displays of homo-affection. (Or am I wrong?)
So I thought, if I were gay, and also seriously committed to God – (of course I am neither, so this is a hypothetical “leap of faith”!) – if that were the case, what would I do? Quit in disgust? But then, what to do with my belief, my need to belong to a Christian community?
So that’s pretty much why the MCC started up. In some ways, the mass we attended on Sunday was remarkably “normal.” All the bits that I remember from the Catholics were there – the Eucharist, the (fairly daggy) songs, the handshaking “peace be with you” bit, the gospel, the sermon. Actually, it was all a bit too familiar, to tell the truth. At times I felt a bit twitchy, because it was so similar to what I remember from my own Christian past… I admit, I wanted it to be radically different: an complete overhaul of the concept of church, to go along with the MCC’s radical acceptance of homosexuality.
But in retrospect, I don’t think the MCC’s policy of open acceptance really is all that radical. Or perhaps, only radical by comparison. As we sat there, during the mass, it all seemed just… kinda normal. Which of course exposes the other churches’ resistance to change as rather absurd.
The MCC’s alterations to the mass were not in content so much, as in the way each little process was carried out. For a start, there was an interpreter for the deaf, “translating” the whole proceedings into AUSLAN from the front. Then there were the “prayers of the faithful,” which were delivered, freeform, by an earthy enthusiastic woman who drew prayer from her own very personal stories.
The most amazing part of the evening, though, was “communion”. The MCC has a policy of allowing anyone to take communion, even if they’re not a member of any church at all. You’d think this might, I dunno, cheapen the whole thing. I mean, what about the whole process we had to go through at age seven, preparing for weeks on end to progress through the sacrament? But, Mum, if you saw how they do it, you’d realise why they can be so open about letting anyone come.
What happens is this: there are three or four “stations” where the bread and wine (actually grapejuice) are available. Punters are invited to come forward, singly, in couples, or in groups. They move towards the person with the bread, and the person with the wine, and this results in a huddle, a bit like a scrum, with everyone holding onto each other, heads pointing down. They remain in this position, quietly talking together, for a few minutes. Mum, it was pretty confronting to watch. It’s called “communion” – and there they were: communing! Such a far cry from the formalised ritual of [“Body of Christ” / “Amen” / (NEXT!)] which we’re so used to in the Catholic mass. To take communion at the MCC is really to be committed. It’s to DO something rather than to merely eat something. There’s no “just going through the motions” here.
And generally, that’s what I liked most about the MCC. People were there because they wanted to be. There was no meaningless habitual routine, or satisfaction of one’s guilty sense of obligation. If you didn’t want to go, you just wouldn’t go.
It’s taken me this long to write about last Sunday, because I didn’t want to say all this stuff until I’d been to visit someone from the church. I didn’t want to slip in like a spy and observe the service, unobserved myself. So I rang Geoff at the the office, and arranged to go and have a chat with him. And yesterday, that’s what I did. Vanessa came along too.
I had a bunch of questions for Geoff. Like: what do other churches think of the MCC? He said, well, most of them tolerate us. George Pell, the Catholic archbishop, of course he doesn’t approve. The Uniting Church folks are going through their own soul-searching at the moment. Apparently, someone high up in the Unitings, a woman minister, has recently declared her homosexuality publically…
And what about the “anyone can take communion” thing – surely other churches would think this wasn’t really a “true experience” of the sacrament? But Geoff said no, the MCC follows the example of Jesus, who would never turn anyone away, whether they’d been through some sort of formalised initiation ceremony or not. Of course, this makes perfect sense, I thought.
Oh, and I forgot to mention, the MCC can perform the sacrament of the Eucharist without even having an ordained minister present. In fact, on Sunday, the service seemed to be run by “committee” with four or so people presiding over different parts. This is acceptable within the MCC, but not really ideal. They’re waiting for a new Pastor to arrive soon…
I asked how it could be possible for the trans-, ah, transmogri-, umm, (“transsubstantiation?” Geoff suggested) – the turning of the bread into the “body of Christ” – to occur without a “proper priest” – surely this is something the Catholics would have a problem with? For them, the priest is a go-between – the link between the people and God, God acting through this representative.
And perhaps this is the most radical idea the MCC has developed – a less mediated channel to God.
I really enjoyed talking with Geoff. He was strong and articulate and warm. He made us feel at ease with our curiosity. We didn’t have to hide the fact that we were “non-believers,” and he was plenty curious in return. He said he was originally from another church (I can’t remember which now) – he’s an ordained pastor, but stopped presiding over mass when he came out. His old church didn’t give him the boot, but they do have a policy of not taking on any new pastors who are known to be gay, so he decided to move on. But he still has an amicable relationship with them.
Geoff showed us around. The church has a fully decked out PA and theatrical light system, controlled by a proper “bio box” with sliding switches at the back of the room. This was all donated from a nightclub in Darlinghurst which was renovating. During the ceremony, if the scripture describes the “coming of the light”, the lights can rise up slowly, illuminating the room in a dramatic embodiment. A bit cheesy, sure, but you can’t help but be affected. There’s also a set of banners, hand sewn, like quilts, with a square each for someone who has died of AIDS. And sadly, there’s no shortage of filled-in squares…
Geoff told us that the church, before the MCC moved in, was a factory for pianola rolls. That all finished up around 2000. The MCC had a lot of work to do to remediate the damage that had been done by years of manufacturing work. In fact (as I discovered in “The Story of Petersham” book, the building had begun its life as a church – “Christ the Scientist” – it was built in the early ’40s, I think.
Anyway Mum, that’s the story of going to church on Sunday. There are plenty of other churches in Petersham, probably more than our fair share, in fact. Including the Assembly of God, which, if I’m not mistaken, is associated with Fred Nile. Well, I’m not 100% sure of that, but I seem to remember seeing Nile election posters in the windows of the AOG at the corner of Audley and Trafalgar…so I imagine they’d be frowning on the MCC’s gay-friendliness…
I thought you’d be interested in the MCC, since it contains lots of the ingredients I know you have agitated for within the Catholic system – women priests, more grassroots participation, a breaking down of the hierarchy, etc etc.
I hope you are well and enjoying your new job. Josh said you can’t believe you actuallly get paid for your time to prepare for meetings, not to mention full lunch and morning tea breaks. I won’t tell the IR inspectors if you won’t! He he.
Lots of love from your son,