By JAMES OANA
The congregation sits in a dark room very lightly illuminated by weak light bulbs that are more for decoration than any practical use.
The only light of significance shines with a blinding potency on the pastor as he delivers the word. A fitting metaphor for church and Christianity, leading those from darkness into the light.
The sermon is on the “seven steps to Heaven”. The pastor asserts that the Bible has very specific requirements for entry into heaven.
Do those steps exclude certain people, homosexuals, for example? Homosexuality has traditionally been frowned upon by Christian faiths, but churches must contend with the fact that many homosexuals also value their religious beliefs.
Almost 40 per cent of same-sex couples identify as Christian, according to a 2012 study by the ABS. Many feel conflicted that their sexuality clashes with the position some Christian churches take on the issue.
Those within the LGTBIQ community say they are not made to feel welcome at places of worship, classifying many religions as “unfriendly”, A Pew Research Centre study found.
This issue has emerged as the biggest barrier to people’s involvement in religion. Almost one-third of Australians said the church’s stance and teachings on homosexuality completely blocked their interest in becoming Christian, in a widespread study released in May that looked at faith and religion in Australia.
But what happens when a church has a member who is openly gay and goes against something the church believes?
BRIAN BANUAG, who is an openly gay relationship, is waiting at the back of the church in a small room trying to get away from the buzz of the main hall as people catch up with friends and family after the service.
The room is tucked away at back of the church and there’s an awkward vibe to the room – awkward because the current political climate is volatile with topics such as sexuality and Christianity the subject of widespread heated debate.
“I know that typically when you think of a gay person in a Christian environment you think that it would be super difficult, but I don’t think that’s been the case for me,” Brian says.
“All the places that I’ve been to have been very welcoming, there doesn’t seem to have been a huge issue for people. It might just be the churches that I go to, but it hasn’t been very dramatic for me, which is kind of nice.
“A lot of people [in the church] that grow up in conservative families don’t talk about gay people, so they’re not entirely sure what to expect and tend to shy away from gay people.
“But once they are exposed to people who are gay, they’re like, ‘[gays] are not a mystical creature that we know nothing about and might kill us in our sleep’. They know that [gays] are just like everybody else, they just happen to like the same gender.”
Brian’s parents and maternal grandparents are Seventh-day Adventists – his parents missionaries and his granddad a pastor. They lived in Africa for several years and in Papua New Guinea for a while.
Coming out to his parents was difficult.
“I think, initially, mum was more okay with it and my dad was more disappointed, but I think he’s kind of come around,” he says.
“Grandparents? I’m not 100 per cent sure if they know or not, it’s kind of a don’t-ask-don’t-tell thing. My grandad is a pastor so I’m not really keen to rock the boat.”
Being gay can lead to questioning your faith. “I understand the church’s official position against gay marriage,” he says.
“There was a time that, even though I believed in God, I was not sure whether I’d make it to Heaven, but recently I’ve resolved a lot of my doubt. I decided to just live the best life that I can, do what the pastor talked about today and let God decide my future.”
The official position of the Seventh-day Adventist church is that “sexual intimacy belongs only within the marital relationship of a man and a woman” and any sexual acts outside a heterosexual marriage are forbidden.
But assistant youth director of the Seventh-day Adventist Church (Victorian conference) Simon Gigliotti says homosexual people are “more than welcome in the church”.
“In fact, as a church we should be looking for ways we can really support them,” Simon says.
“[Homosexuals] would have a number of doubts and questions such as: What do people at church think of me? What do mum and dad think of me? What does God think of me?
“It’s so important for Christians to know that God accepts them, and it can be very hard for a Christian going through the whole journey and not know if God accepts them.
“As a church, it’s essential that we are thinking about the ways we can support homosexual people and help them feel accepted and a part of the community,” he says.
The church has to find a balance between its official position on gay marriage and having people in the church who are gay.
“Our first allegiance goes to Christ; it’s very hard for us to say that we can change [our stance] because it suits some people,” Simon says.
“It’s nothing personal, we don’t hate or have something against those people, but, like a parent who wants to protect their child, people don’t understand that love can have some boundaries, because it’s a way of protecting the ones you love.”
What’s important is to “live for God” and spend some time each say trying to connect with him, he says.
“I can’t tell someone what to do, but only really encourage them to get closer to God and allow him to lead their lives.”
The Baptist Church also does not support gay marriage overall. Baptist pastor Cameron Healey said the Victorian church voted on the issue in 2015.
“The official stance is that we don’t support practicing homosexual marriage or couples in any way. In saying that, while there was a majority in support for that [stance], there was, I would guess, between 15 to 20 per cent who voted in favour of it being completely fine to be a practicing homosexual in our church,” Cameron says.
But that doesn’t mean they are banned from the church. “Yes, we don’t accept the behaviour, but we still love the person. We’re called to welcome, love and journey with everyone from all walks of life because that’s the God that we represent.”
His advice to gays would be to “point them to Jesus and to turn to him out of love, acceptance and forgiveness”.
“I have a really close friend who is same-sex attracted but not a practicing homosexual. We talked about the biblical perspective that God’s not against having homosexual feelings, but he is against acting it out.”
For all the stigma surrounding Christians and the gay and lesbian community, Christian churches profess to loving the person, not the action. But there was still one question left unanswered: if Christians profess love, why is there still a lot of hate coming from churches?
“[Those people] don’t realise how lost we all are when judging someone else who is seemingly more lost, which is a real shame because [they] are missing the truth of what Christianity is about. [Homosexuals] are just like us, it’s just a different symptom of the world we live in,” Cameron says.