By Deborah Bruce
The Crystal Cathedral recently asked choir members to sign a covenant that includes the statement: “I understand that Crystal Cathedral Ministries teaches that sexual intimacy is intended by God to only be within the bonds of marriage, between one man and one woman.” Soliciting signatures resulted in backlash from choir members.
Where do churches stand on that issue? The U.S. Congregational Life Survey asked whether congregations have any “special rules or prohibitions” in seven areas—smoking, drinking alcohol, what people eat, gambling, how much people give to the congregation, unmarried adults living together, and homosexual behavior. (See Note 1.) Of the seven issues, the largest numbers of congregations have rules about homosexual behavior (38% do) and unmarried adults living together (32%). Overall, about one in three congregations have rules on those two issues. Fewer have rules on the other issues (drinking alcohol, gambling, smoking, etc.).
Faith group makes a big difference. But the overall findings mask significant differences. As the first table shows, more than six in ten Catholic parishes and conservative Protestant churches have specific rules about both homosexual behavior and cohabitation outside of marriage. And sizeable minorities of conservative Protestant congregations have rules about alcohol, gambling, and smoking.
Change since 2001. The same questions were asked in the 2001 U.S. Congregational Survey, as well. Since 2001, the proportions of Protestant congregations that have prohibitions about homosexual behavior and about unmarried adults living together have decreased. The declines among mainline Protestants were much larger than among conservative Protestant churches. There was no change among Catholic parishes.
So what? Gallup has tracked public opinion on gay and lesbian rights for many years. Their findings reveal gradual shifts toward more acceptance, with widespread support for equal rights in terms of job opportunities.
Yet Gallup does not focus on how congregations approach this issue. Our results show a trend toward fewer restrictions in this area—and others. It is particularly interesting that conservative Protestant congregations have become less restrictive in many areas since 2001. Considerable change has occurred in only 8 years!
During this period many mainline denominations have struggled with their national policies regarding homosexuality—particularly regarding positions on ordination and marriage/civil unions of gays and lesbians. At the same time, it appears that a substantial shift has occurred in local congregations around related issues.
Nonetheless, of the seven areas we asked about, homosexual behavior remains the one that the largest numbers of congregations report having rules. Discussions about the topic will continue among congregations—and denominations—in the days to come.
Note 1. Asked on the Congregational Profile completed by one person in each congregation—typically the pastor or an administrator.