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When the rainbow isn't enuf: a disagreement over its gay focus splits the world's largest GLBT denomination from its biggest church.

Timed as it was, the decision by the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas to break from the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches appeared to have everything to do with scandal. UFMCC, the world's largest gay and lesbian denomination, was investigating the cathedral, the nation's largest gay church, over charges of financial misdealings leveled against its former pastor, the Reverend Michael Piazza.

A vote was held July 27 in which 88% of over 1,100 congregation members attending voted to split with UFMCC. The vote was announced July 13, just two days before the investigation was scheduled to end.

But now that the ripples in the holy water have subsided, it's clear that the differences between the two ran much deeper than the financial allegations. When it came down to it, it seems the largest gay and lesbian denomination was just a little too gay for the largest gay and lesbian church.

"For several years we have known that we have been going in another direction," explains Charlotte Duke, a member of the Cathedral of Hope since 1984. "We knew that there had to be more than just being the largest gay church in America."

According to a UFMCC official, the denomination's core mission continues to be bringing gays and lesbians an "affirming Christian spirituality." The cathedral's members, however, want to shed that gay connection in an effort to become a mainstream Christian church that welcomes everyone, gay and straight, they say.

The split means that the West Hollywood, Calif.-based UFMCC will lose close to 9% of its 46,000 members and at least $113,000, or 7%, of its annual operating budget. But religion experts say the disaffiliation will do more than lighten UFMCC's pocketbook.

"There have been people in the Cathedral of Hope who have been in the vanguard of the gay Christian movement as it is expressed in the MCC," explains J. Terry Todd, assistant professor of American religious studies at Drew University in Madison, N.J. "And there ale deep historical connections [between the cathedral and UFMCC], so this is painful."

But given that the Cathedral of Hope is in a city dominated by religious conservatives, Todd says he can understand why its members might want to drop their church's gay identity in order to appeal to straight liberal Christians. "There are lots of people who have left conservative denominations, who aren't going to church, and who are looking for some liberal version of Christianity that the cathedral can provide," he says.

Although the allegations of financial misconduct were not the central reason for the secession, the cathedral's copastor, the Reverend Mona West, acknowledges that frustration around the investigation did spark the July vote.

The complaint against Piazza was filed in April by Terri Frey, a former church board member. Frey claimed that Piazza had put unpaid volunteers on the church's insurance policy and that money donated to help build a $20 million cathedral designed by renowned out architect Philip Johnson was instead being used to pay for "lavish local and national 'fund-raising' parties."

West says her congregants' dissatisfaction with the denomination "came to a head" during the investigation, in part because it seemed like it would never end.

Duke agrees. "I don't think everybody in the church feels like the disaffiliation was a good thing," she says. "But we had to do that to make everything stop."

And stop it they did. The announcement to have the congregants vote put a sudden end to the UFMCC's investigation into Piazza's financial dealings.

Frey, however, has turned over her documents to auditors from the insurance companies involved and to the Internal Revenue Service. "It seems that they are going to great lengths to keep the truth from coming forward and especially that they are trying to defocus people from looking at the issues and the complaint," she says. "This is very sad, because we care about that church and care about the Cathedral of Hope, and now in some ways we do not have a church."

Piazza, who resigned as UFMCC-affiliated clergy July 13 and is on a three- to six-month sabbatical from the Cathedral of Hope, did not respond to a request from The Advocate for comment. West says the allegations about him are untrue.

Now that the investigation is behind them and their ties with the gay-focused UFMCC are severed, many members of the Cathedral of Hope are looking forward to their new mission.

"Our" focus isn't so much on growth as it is about reaching people who need to hear the inclusive word of God," says church member Michael Magnia. "The tie with MCC was more about gays and lesbians. You're going to have a difficult time getting even progressive heterosexuals to come to a church that is anchored to a gay and lesbian church."

Meanwhile, back at UFMCC headquarters, denomination officials say they were saddened but not surprised by the Cathedral of Hope's decision. Still, they say they won't lose their focus on service to gays and lesbians. "We have a 35-year track record of doing that," says UFMCC spokesman Jim Birkitt. "While mainline churches have been dropping 2% to 3% in membership a year, MCC has been growing about 6%."

The need for a gay-focused denomination is still there, Birkitt says: "Even with all the advancements in society, mainstream churches still do not have a full sense of what is important to GLBT people."

Drew University's Todd agrees. "I think there will always be [gay churches] just like there will always be gay ghettos," he says. "As long as there is homophobia, there will be that need. But as some churches become more open, the need might narrow."

Additional reporting by Jeremy Quittner
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Title Annotation:Religion
Author:Caldwell, John
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Sep 30, 2003
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