CLGS celebrates tenth anniversary
“It is critical to understand that the move to exclude people from full and equal inclusion in the promises of the gospel because of sexual orientation is a profoundly serious decision, which potentially threatens not only denominational unity but also the integrity of the Christian message as a whole."-- Mary Tolbert, “The Center at the Center of the Storm,” PSR Bulletin, Fall 2000.
Founded ten years ago, the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry broke new ground as the first center for the study of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) issues and religion based at a Christian seminary. The last decade has seen CLGS positioned at the forefront of one of the major social issues of our time. The following are comments from the current CLGS staff reflecting on the past and future of the organization.
Executive director Bernard Schlager talks about CLGS’s successful initiatives and the challenge of continuing its work in difficult financial times. Senior director of research and resources Jay Johnson sees CLGS’s work as a reimagining of the Gospel call of the Great Commission. Roland Stringfellow, director of ministerial outreach, speaks as a religious leader whose training as a minister and organizer was profoundly shaped by his involvement with CLGS as a student at PSR. Mary Tolbert, CLGS’s founding executive director, ends with an exhortation for further work and support for the Center’s vital ministry.
Since its founding, CLGS has lived out its mission to take a leading role in shaping a new public discourse on religion and sexuality through pioneering academic and organizing initiatives. These have included the Pilgrim Press book series; the John E. Boswell and new Georgia Harkness lectureships; the PSR Certificate of Sexuality and Religion; and the CLGS Archives Project. CLGS’s organizing work has included fostering leadership with LGBTQ communities of faith through our Racial/Ethnic Roundtables, Bay Area Coalition of Welcoming Congregations (CWC), Transgender Summits, and OutFront workshops.
As funding non-profits has become more challenging during the Great Recession, we continue to work carefully to align our mission and programming. Our “sweet spot” as an organization is in creating resources and programming that bring together our three constituencies – faith communities, LGBTQ persons of faith, and academic communities – in new and exciting ways.
While our staff has been downsized recently because of a reduction in grants, we remain more committed than ever to living into our founding mission. With the generous support and ongoing involvement of students, faculty, administration, friends, and especially alumni, we will accomplish with a renewed vigor this critical work.
Bernard Schlager is executive director of CLGS and visiting associate professor of historical and cultural studies at PSR. The co-author of Ministry Among God’s Queer Folk, he is currently writing a history of the Radical Faeries, a spiritual movement of gay men in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.
In the last decade, CLGS has taken the good news of LGBTQ people and religion from our “Jerusalem” on Holy Hill, to “Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). I think of this when I sit in PSR’s Chapel of the Great Commission. That huge stained glass window of Jesus sending out his disciples no longer strikes me as a troublesome legacy of colonial Christianity—our work has helped me reinterpret that image. CLGS is a vital means for PSR to bear witness to the good news of Christian faith.
Much of CLGS’s first decade was devoted to the “apologetic task” in LGBTQ issues, as we reacted to the spurious religious and societal incursions of the religious right. That apologetic work is still important, but we recognize the need to be more proactive as we work with faith communities that celebrate rather than just tolerate LGBTQ people.
We are in a profoundly liminal stage in the history of Western religion. The landscape is shifting beneath our feet. It’s an unsettling but hopeful time to be engaged in theological study and religious activism, and the many gifts and insights of LGBTQ people, as explored, discovered, and fostered at CLGS will help to lead the way into this uncharted future.
Jay Johnson, senior director of research and resources, has worked with CLGS since 2003 and also serves on the core doctoral faculty at GTU. Since same-gender marriage was legalized in California in 2008, he has been quoted in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and San Francisco Chronicle.
I was one of the first students to graduate with CLGS’ certificate in sexuality and religion in 2006. As a former Baptist minister who valued strict study of scripture, the academic rigor of my studies of scripture, sexuality, and spirituality helped me develop solid exegesis of scripture texts that I am able to apply to this day. I have benefited from the leading scholars in queer theology who have come to CLGS over the years, including John McNeill, Debra Hafner, Chris Glaser, and Kelly Brown Douglass. My studies fed my passion for social justice and prepared me for my work as a pastor, organizer, and activist.
With the changing climate of acceptance of LGBTQ people, the work of CLGS has greater importance. As laws banning same-sex marriage are overturned, as a greater number of mainline denominations accept LGBTQ clergy, and as groups organize to oppose oppression, our society needs help facilitating inclusion. Religious and theological arguments continue to be at the core of opposition to LGBTQ inclusion. When marriage becomes legal for all residents of the U.S., CLGS will help congregations and clergy become the welcoming spiritual oasis for people adjusting to this shift. The work of the African-American, Asian-Pacific Islander, and Latino/a Roundtables and the CWC will gain importance as people recognize the need for multiple, culturally sensitive spaces to work through the residue of religious bigotry.
Roland Stringfellow, director of ministerial outreach, is a 2006 MDiv graduate of PSR. Since he joined the CLGS staff in 2008, he has been a high-profile leader in progressive religious communities. The CWC just received a grant from the Horizons Foundation to develop curriculum for marriage equality for African-American clergy.
“I am convinced that this work has not only benefited LGBTQ people of faith but has actually saved lives. The need for the work that CLGS does has not gone away in ten years’ time. My continued wish is for people of faith and goodwill to see how vital this mission is in these financially troubled times. Now is the moment to support CLGS and keep it growing through its next decade. I still believe that the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.”
Mary Tolbert serves as vice president of academic affairs and dean and George H. Atkinson professor of biblical studies at PSR.