Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC)
1940: Troy Deroy Perry was born in Tallahassee, Florida.
1968: The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) was founded.
1969: The Stonewall Inn Raid and Protest occurred.
1970: The MCC denomination was established.
2003: Troy Perry married Phillip Ray De Blieck under Canadian law at Metropolitan Community
Church of Toronto.
2005: Reverend Elder Nancy Wilson succeeded Troy Perry as MCC Moderator.
The founder of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), Troy Perry, was born in 1940 in Tallahassee, Florida. He was the eldest of five siblings. Perry’s father died in a confrontation with the police when he was just eleven years old. His mother later remarried, but Perry reports being abused by his stepfather and leaving the family until his mother had divorced his stepfather.
Perry describes himself as sensing a call to preaching from an early age, even referring to himself as a “religious fanatic” (Tobbin and Wicker 1972, 14). He received encouragement toward a religious career from his uncle, who was a Baptist minister, and his devoutly religious aunts, who led religious street services that provided a forum for Perry to give sermons as well. By the time he was fifteen, Perry had dropped out of high school and become a Baptist preacher. Four years later he married Pearl Pinion, a pastor’s daughter, and the couple had to two sons. Perry and his wife moved to Indiana where he attended two conservative Christian educational institutions, the Moody Bible Institute and the Midwest Bible College.
Perry’s ministerial career began in two Penetcostal churches. He first became a pastor at a small Church of God, but he was forced out of that position when church administrators discovered that he was having sexual relationships with other men in the congregation (Bullough 2002, 394). The couple then moved to California where Perry became pastor of a Church of God of Prophecy. He faced personal crisis when his wife discovered his continuing homosexual activity and divorced him and his bishop directed him to resign his position. Having lost his pastoral position, Perry then worked for Sears until 1965 when he was drafted into the army and served in Germany until 1967.
Upon his return to the U.S., Perry describes himself as being in a period of emotional upheaval, and he even attempted to end
his life following a failed love relationship. After surviving that moment, he resumed his religious career. He recounts a moment when he says that God spoke to him and said, “ Troy, I love you. And I want to tell you something, you are my son. I don’t have stepsons and stepdaughters” (“Call Me Troy” 2007).
(See video of Troy Perry’s personal journey). He reports that three months passed before he realized that “Well, if God loves me as a gay person, he has to love other gay people too.” He then felt a calling to establish a place for gays to worship freely and safely. In 1968 put an advertisement in a Los Angeles gay magazine, The Advocate, announcing a religious service for gays. Twelve people responded and a religious gathering, at which communion was celebrated, took place in Perry’s home. Within just a few weeks his congregation had grown to the point that it began meeting in a woman’s club, and then an auditorium and in Hollywood’s Encore Theatre, with a seating capacity of 600. The church continued to grow rapidly, and the MCC denomination was established in 1970 at a meeting of church leaders from five cities ( Chicago, Honolulu, Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco). By 1971 the MCC celebrated the establishment of its “Mother Church,” and more than 1,000 members attended. At the end of 1972 the MCC included thirty-five congregations in nineteen states, and at the close of the church’s first decade it counted over one hundred congregations, including churches Canada, Great Britain, Nigeria, and Australia (Wilcox 2001: 86)
The MCC accepts the foundational Christian creeds, the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. Beyond these basic creedal commitments, MCC churches have independent choice in doctrine and practice. While MCC is conventionally Christian in doctrinal terms, its unique character as a church leads to special doctrinal emphases. The loving and accepting qualities of God and individual self-worth both are emphasized. In MCC understandings of Christian doctrine, “all people are accepted, affirmed, and celebrated because of who they are (children of God in infinite variety) and not in spite of an aspect of who they are (such as their sexual orientation)” (Luckenbill 1998a:386). Jesus is depicted in a revolutionary role, as an opponent of destructive beliefs and practices. The MCC sees itself as defending that aspect of Jesus’ mission (Warner 1995). Therefore, individual and social responsibility are accentuated over the traditional Christian concepts of sin and salvation. The most important result of the MCC interpretation of Christian theology is that it resolves the longstanding conflict between sexual identity and religious identity for LGBT members (Rodriguez and Ouelette 2000). Although MCC has conservative Pentecostal roots that derive from Perry’s early ministry, there is also an activist orientation within the church that is reflected in its affirmation of liberation theology and ecumenism. Indeed, Troy Perry has described himself as a “liberal evangelical” (Wilcox 2001:89).
With few exceptions, each of MCC’s local congregations determines its own worship practices and theological interpretation. Churches are required to affirm the basic Christian creeds, local congregations must use gender inclusive language, every church is required to celebrate the Eucharist at least once a week, and communion is offered freely to members of all churches. Given the diversity of traditions from which MCC draws membership, the styles of worship vary from traditional to modern, from liturgical to charismatic. Individual churches also vary as to whether the pastor or a lay person presides, and communion may be given by either (McQueeney 2009; White 2008:110).
The MCC has performed same-sex marriage ceremonies since the later 1960s. In 1969 Troy Perry officiated at the first public same-sex marriage in the United States in California. It is estimated that approximately 6,000 same-sex marriage/union ceremonies are performed annually in the United States. The legal standing of these ceremonies is governed by state law.
When Troy Perry founded the MCC he thought that it would be an inclusive church with simply a special mission to gays and lesbians. He anticipated that the major Christian churches would one day change their doctrines on same-sex relationships and marriage and then members might return to their original denominations. He later came to call that vision naïve (Wilcox 2001). Since the founding of the denomination, the number of churches in the fellowship, the membership size of the denomination, and the number of countries in which the fellowship is represented have continued to grow. Currently there are over 300 local congregations with a total membership of over 40,000, and MCC is represented in nearly thirty nations around the world.
MCC is organized as a corporate entity with its official headquarters in West Hollywood. Each affiliated MCC church of MCC is self-governing and legally autonomous. Local churches select their pastors, who serve as both spiritual and administrative leaders and are referred to as “moderators,” from the denomination’s list of credentialed clergy. Local churches send a “tithe” of revenues to support the denomination. The MCC has divided the world into seven regions, each of which is headed by a Bishop who has the authority to accept or disaffiliate individual churches from the denomination. A General Conference of member churches throughout the world is held tri-annually.
Troy Perry served as Moderator of the MCC from its founding in 1968 until his retirement in 2005. He was then succeeded by the Reverend Elder Nancy Wilson. MCC is distinctive among established churches in having a significant proportion of women in its senior leader ranks. Perry began ordaining women as pastors as early as 1972.
MCC denominational governance is vested in the Board of Elders (the Moderator and regional leaders who are responsible for spirituality, mission and witness) and a Board of Administration (members appointed by the Board of Elders who are responsible for legal and financial matters).
Troy Perry has become a nationally recognized religious leader. He received the Humanitarian Award from the American Civil
Liberties Union Lesbian and Gay Rights Chapter in 1978. He has been awarded honorary doctorates from Episcopal Divinity School, Samaritan College, and La Sierra University. Perry was invited to the White House by President Jimmy Carter to discuss gay and lesbian civil rights in 1977; he participated in the 1995 White House Conference on HIV/AIDS convened by President Bill Clinton; and he was invited to the first White House Conference on Hate Crimes in 1997. That year he also was invited to a White House breakfast at which 90 members of the clergy were honored for their work.
ISSUES AND CHALLENGES
The challenges facing gays and lesbians seeking to form and sustain their own churches is evidenced in the opposition they faced despite their conventional Christian theology. During early MCC history police vice squads visited churches, a property rental agreement was rescinded, and at least seventeen churches, including the mother church, were the targets of vandalism and arson (Warner 1995, 89). In 1973 the Mother Church in Los Angeles was burned to the ground. The MCC congregation in New Orleans, which met in a gay bar, the Upstairs Lounge, suffered a deadly fire in which thirty-two members and the pastor were killed. In the aftermath of that tragedy most of the city’s churches refused a request to use their buildings for memorial services. The church has also met opposition from within the gay community. Given the rejection of the community as “sexual deviants” and the repression it has experienced, many LGBT community members reject Christian religion in any form (Wilcox 2001, 101).
The MCC has long sought acceptance by mainline denominations, but progress has been slow. The MCC’s request for membership in the National Council of Churches was tabled in large measure because conservative denominations, particularly Orthodox groups, threatened to withdraw from membership (Warner 1995, 93). The MCC Fellowship has been granted official observer status with the World Council of Churches, and the MCC holds membership in seven statewide councils of churches in the U.S. In 2002, the MCC was authorized to provide chaplains for United States Veterans Administration hospitals and other facilities.
Opposition from Evangelical Christians has sometimes been harsh and intense. Evangelical scholar Ronald Enroth referred to material in MCC publications as amounting to “stigma redemption” that was designed to appeal for God’s approval for deviant behavior (Luckenbill 1998b, 440). Writing with Gerald Jamison, Enroth referred to the establishment of gay churches as “an unprecedented religious phenomena.” The two concluded that “the only real difference between the gay world of the homosexual church and the secular gay world is that the former includes a religious or spiritual dimension that appears … to be tacked on in an attempt at securing moral legitimacy for homosexual behavior” (White 2008, 113).
There have been a variety of conflicts and divisions within the MCC given its diversity. Wilcox (2001, 92) describes the denomination as a “hybrid organization.” She notes that “It embodies conservative elements in its affirmation of charismatic gifts, certain aspects of its theology, its emphasis on evangelism, and its Pentecostal roots. Yet, at the same time, the UFMCC’s existence as a Christian church that affirms and celebrates LGBT people is radical.” Some members were opposed to the church becoming involved in political activity of any kind. Particularly in the early days of the church some MCC members feared that calling attention to themselves would only worsen their political situation. Others, including Troy Perry, advocated for an activist stance on gay rights. Despite resistance within his own congregation Perry began participating in demonstrations seeking gay rights (White 2008, 109). Within a few months of the time the MCC was founded, members began participating in demonstrations in San Francisco. Local involvement was followed by an MCC sponsored demonstration at the 1972 Democratic Party convention (Wilcox 2001, 90). The MCC participated in the 1987 National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights. The MCC was the first church in the U.S. to establish an AIDS ministry. It also support a prison ministry
Another source of division in MCC during its early years occurred between liberals and conservatives of issues such as the organization of worship services and understandings of the Bible. Several small, but relatively ephemeral, splinter groups formed over these issues (Luckenbill 1998b, 450). A third division in MCC occurred during the 1970s in response to the women’s liberation movement as women sought equality doctrinally and organizationally within MCC. Female membership in MCC declined noticeably during this period, and in the early 1970s only about ten percent of MCC membership was female (Wilcox 2001, 102). In 1972, the first woman pastor, Freda Smith, was appointed within MCC, triggering a movement for gender equality within MCC. Warner (1995, 102) reports that these tensions have subsided as the denomination adopted gender inclusive language in its worship services and women have assumed a prominent role in denominational leadership.
In recent years some MCC congregations have begun assuming multi-denominational affiliations. The New Spirit Community Church in Berkeley, California began as an outreach of the San Francisco church. New Spirit subsequently affiliated with the United Church of Christ and is “In Care” with the Christian Church. The most significant change of this kind involved the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, MCC’s largest congregation. The congregation voted to leave MCC and affiliate with the United Church of Christ in 2006.
Bullough, Vern, ed. 2002. Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context. New York: Harrington Park Press.
“Call Me Troy.” Tragoidia Pictures, Los Angeles, 2007
Enroth, Ronald. 1974. “The Homosexual Church: An Eecclesiastical Eextension of a Subculture.” Social Compass 21:355-60.
Enroth, Ronald and Gerald E. Jamison. 1974. The Gay Church . Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Lukenbill, W. Bernard. 1998a. “Historical Resources in the Local Church: A Field Report on a Largely Gay and Lesbian Congregation.” The American Archivist. 61:384-99.
Lukenbill, W. Bernard. 1998b. “Observations on the Corporate Culture of a Gay and Lesbian Congregation.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 37:440-52.
McQueeney, Krista. 2009. “‘We Are All God’s Children, YAll:’ Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Lesbian-and Gay-Affirming Congregations.” Social Problems 56:151-73.
Rodriguez, Eric and Suzanne Ouelette. 2000. “Gay and Lesbian Christians: Homosexual and Religious Identity Integration in the Members and Participants of a Gay Positive Church.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 39: 333-47.
Tobin, Kay and Randy Wicker. 1972. The Gay Crusaders. New York: Paperback Library.
Warner, R. Stephen. 1995. “The Metropolitan Community Churches and the Gay Agenda: The Power of Pentecostalism and Essentialism.” In Sex, Lies, and Sanctity: Religion and Deviance in Contemporary North America, edited by Mary Jo Neitz and Marion Goldman, 81-108. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
White, Heather. 2008. “Proclaiming Liberation: The Historical Roots of LGBT Religious Organizing, 1946-1976.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, 11:102-19.
Wilcox, Melissa. 2001. “Of Markets and Missions: The Early History of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation. 11:83–108.
SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION SOURCES
Carter, David. 2010. Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution. New York: St. Martin’s Press,
Perry, Troy and Charles Lucas. 1972. The Lord is My Shepherd and He Knows I’m Gay: The Autobiography of the Rev. Troy D. Perry Los Angeles: Nash.
Perry, Troy and Thomas Swicegood. 1992. Don’t Be Afraid Anymore: The Story of Reverend Troy Perry & the Metropolitan Community Churches. New York: St. Martins.
David G. Bromley