The Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The organization was born out the gay rights movement, not any particular church, and was first created six months before the Stonewall Riots. As such, it was created specifically to serve LGBTQ people who had been ejected from their religious communities. It was created in Los Angeles, Calif. as a local organization, but within two years it had congregations in all major U.S. cities. Within five years it had spread to the entire English speaking world.
As someone who has been part of that growth for the last 40 years, Rev. Paul Whiting has witnessed many of the important events in LGBTQ history since the 1980s. He was raised in a prominent British Pentecostal family, went to seminary training to gain his credentials, but then promptly resigned from his post and soon after gave up those credentials. What happened?
In 1981, after the police had raided the LGBTQ bars in London, UK multiple times, the local Pride organization moved its offices 200 miles north to Huddersfield, UK. This gave Rev. Whiting an opportunity to experience his first march, and it was in a town that had never seen an event like it. “I had never been among so many LGBTQ people. It was a spiritual experience for me.”
After this, it wasn’t possible to remain closeted. Although he never intended to go back to working for a church again, an activist friend suggested he try MCC. “I already had the credentials, but I hadn’t intended to get involved until the AIDS crisis. That’s when I recognized I needed to help.” Rev. Whiting moved to Manchester in 1988 and began working with a gay men’s safe-sex organization: Healthy Gay Manchester. He also started an LGBTQ spiritual group in the city. “We would go around clubs and cruising areas to educate men about AIDS prevention, and it was sponsored by the city.” After looking at how he was interacting with people, he recognized he was becoming a pastor in a secular way. “Someone said the church clearly wasn’t doing anything to help people living with HIV/AIDS, and told me I needed to go back.” That was the motivation to seriously engage with MCC. The spirituality group became MCC Manchester. In 1994 Rev. Whiting made the jump to the U.S., where MCC offered full-time ministry.
Jack Kirven: What are the main themes of your ministry?
Paul Whiting: Giving people good news about love and affirmation. I help people to read the Bible from different perspectives. Also, standing up for justice is very important to me. In recent years we have needed to visibly and vocally support and show solidarity with transgender people, people of color and immigrants. We always need to look at how comfort and complacency lead to silence, and how silence leads to oppression. I remember this slogan: Silence = Death.
JK: Why did you choose to minister in Charlotte?
PW: I was in Topeka, Kan., and it was difficult. The queer community has been my home for a long time, and there are no visible organizations there.
JK: Did the Westboro people picket your church?
PW: Yes, but they sent the less important people from their group. It was sad to see their children holding those signs.
JK: So you wanted to escape Topeka? That makes sense to me.
PW: Well, also the relative proximity to my husband in West Palm Beach, Fla. We have spent a significant portion of our relationship apart, because of complications with having our marriage in Canada. Doing it there didn’t offer any help in getting work visas in the U.S. But also, I find Charlotte to be a friendly city, especially compared to Topeka. I thought Topeka would be my last church, but I was offered the position in Charlotte, and it has become a spiritual home. It has been a dooryard back into my spiritual life.
Rev. Whiting is eager to revitalize MCC Charlotte. The church changed locations in 2015 due to maintenance issues, and when that happened attendance declined. Many people assumed MCC Charlotte had closed, while others found new spiritual homes during the transition. Rev. Whiting is seeking to increase MCC’s visibility by way of collaborating with Time Out Youth Center, Charlotte Pride, House of Mercy, RAIN, food banks and social media. Services are now recorded and posted to Facebook. “Church was once a no phone zone, but times have changed. We want to be welcoming to younger congregants, too. Millennials are encouraged to come and live tweet the service!”
Rev. Whiting wants to foster other types of change as well, from the top down. “When I started, people needed community and to be seen in community doing good works. The last 10 years are different. America has changed, and that need isn’t so great. All concepts are now challenged. People over 35 still say community is the most important thing for them. Younger ones need community in a different way. Trying to reach the young is an obstacle, because of the negative or oppressive nature of religion. The irreligious and the abused have trouble discerning what is good in religion, and religion is not as relevant now as spirituality. Church hasn’t transitioned from religion to spirituality.”
To help guide these changes, he will be interacting more with the Global Governing Board, the eight-member panel that directs MCC at the global level. This is where decisions about the timbre and priorities for the entire church are made. Rev. Whiting was elected to the MCC Governing Board for a three-year term at the church body’s recent General Conference XXVII. His tenure will take effect on July 25 at the conclusion of the outgoing board’s final meeting.
“We have not gone away,” Rev. Whiting said. “Locations are important to LGBT people, because they are safe spaces that become connected to cherished memories. When MCC relocated there was a sense of loss. But although the other building is gone, the organization has not closed!” His hope is that those who once called MCC their spiritual home will be interested in revisiting their friends.
MCC Charlotte is located at 7121 Orr Rd. in Charlotte, N.C.