Trans Memorial in an Evangelical Chapel?

In the middle of an otherwise peaceful Thursday afternoon, my phone and Facebook newsfeed lit up simultaneously with something that I thought was impossible at this point: yet more surprising PCA-related news out of St. Louis, Missouri. Memorial Presbyterian Church (PCA), the host church of the first Revoice Conference, has recently opened its doors to activities even further beyond the pale of PCA faith and practice than Revoice. Though Todd Pruitt and Denny Burk have done fine work in summarizing the essence of the controversy in their respective blog posts, the relevant details are worth rehearsing as we consider here Memorial PCA’s immediate response to the online uproar.

The event in question is called Transluminate, which according to the website of sponsoring organization The Q Collective, “is a short-play festival and celebration of transgender, agender, non-binary, genderqueer, and genderfluid artists.” This year’s iteration of the annual festival featured five productions that do nothing less than what the Q Collective promises on its website. For example, “Testosterone People” is about main character Andy assisting “his husband Jack administer his first testosterone shot.” Last year, Transluminate featured five other productions with similar subject matter.

The location for these productions is a non-profit theatre venue called “The Chapel,” located immediately adjacent to Memorial PCA. According to The Chapel’s website, the venue is “a sanctuary for the arts where the creative community thrives.” The Chapel’s mission is “to provide a beautiful setting free of charge for local artists to share their creative genius with the city of Saint Louis, and for members of Memorial Presbyterian Church to invest in the current generation of artists in our city.” At heart, “The Chapel is more than a venue. We are also volunteers from Memorial Presbyterian Church who believe that our Creator has given everyone a story, and that our stories need to be told, shared, and spread. Artists are gifted storytellers. Our support of their music, artwork, theatrical expression, or an eclectic combination thereof, brings joy to our Creator and beauty to our city.” The Chapel takes no percentage of musicians’ cover charges, theatre groups’ ticket sales, or artists’ artwork commissions.

The controversy surrounding Transluminate revolves around the relationship between The Chapel and Memorial PCA. The Chapel is listed alongside Reformed University Fellowship, the Presbyterian Church in America, Mission to the World, and other organizations on Memorial PCA’s Ministry Partners page. On a page dedicated exclusively to The Chapel, Memorial PCA makes known, “We host The Chapel, a volunteer-led not-for-profit arts venue. The Chapel provides all services including drinks free of charge to artists, theatre companies and their guests. This is a practical, real-life way that we can support local artists and manifest the Welcome of Jesus through our hospitality and through our service.” 

According to a ByFaith Magazine article dating from December 2008, Pastor Greg Johnson “contributed much of the wording for The Chapel’s theological vision statement, which went to the Session for approval.”

Setting aside the issue of whether God mandates His church to facilitate art installations and live musical/theatrical performances, what do we make of the relationship between Memorial PCA and Transluminate insofar as the festival is hosted and sponsored by The Chapel, which is in turn partnered with (i.e. subsidized and served by) Memorial PCA and its church members?

In a press release made available yesterday, Memorial PCA gives some helpful historical context. “Memorial church owns three buildings. The church uses two of those buildings. The third was decommissioned and sealed off from the church in 2007. It became a secular arts venue named The Chapel. Modeled after the Harrison Center for the Arts in Indianapolis, The Chapel has a separate, subsidiary board, a separate public identity, a separate building and a separate street address. The Chapel is booked 130 nights a year, including artists from all backgrounds, religions and perspectives. The chapel hosts some of the top theatre companies in St. Louis and regularly gets write ups in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.”

Taking Memorial PCA at its word, The Chapel is unaffiliated with the congregation at an institutional level, despite what the property ownership arrangement might suggest. However, toward the beginning of the press release, the release notes, “Our ministry to our local arts community has flown under the radar for a long time and allowed us to love people different from ourselves – and do so without worrying our friends at a distance. We realize we at Memorial are now under a scrutiny we were not under 13 years ago when we began this ministry.”

Taken at face value, the language of “our ministry” clarifies that The Chapel is at least a part – and unavoidably an integral part – of Memorial PCA’s outreach to artists, musicians, and thespians in St. Louis. Such outreach “is an effort to build relationship with communities that often mistrust Christians.”

Toward the end of the press release, the unspecified author recounts a personal interaction with an actress after a performance at some unspecified time in the past. Surrounding that account is a carefully worded theological and pastoral rationale for hosting The Chapel in this quasi-ecclesiastical arrangement. “We want this to remain about Christians serving artists with the welcome of Jesus. Realize these are people we want to love. Jesus was a friend to tax collectors and prostitutes, a friend of sinners…. We understand it is strange for a church to own a secular arts venue. We know of only two in the PCA. But for us, it has opened the door for conversations with people who often are hostile to Christianity. That is why we gave up use of one of our buildings and handed it over to use by artists. That’s why we have served them these past thirteen years.”

We might have legitimate disagreements over how best to be Christlike friends to sinners, but this explanation seems to offer a mixed message. At the end of the day, is The Chapel a separate entity, able to exist on its own apart from Memorial PCA? Or is The Chapel Memorial PCA’s outreach ministry to the local arts community? For the leaders of Memorial PCA to claim both – as their recent press release suggests – is an exercise in “having their cake and eating it too.”

Beyond both the ambivalence in Memorial PCA’s public statements (press release and webpages) and the dissonance between The Chapel’s website and Memorial PCA’s website is the question of accountability. What kind of oversight is the ordained leadership of Memorial PCA exercising over the congregation’s stewardship of kingdom resources? Even if The Chapel is not under the oversight of Memorial PCA, is it prudent or desirable for an evangelical congregation to host productions that blatantly celebrate and advance sexual deviancy and anti-biblical notions of the human condition?

In an exchange yesterday on Facebook, Pastor Greg Johnson informed me that Memorial PCA retains “veto power” over the use of The Chapel’s facilities. With that in mind, why was that veto power not invoked to prevent the hosting of Transluminate on premises owned, operated, and maintained (i.e. stewarded) by a congregation of the PCA?

Zack Groff is Director of Advancement & Admissions and Lecturer in Old Testament Hebrew at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Related Links

Mortification of Spin: "Homosexuality and Pastoral Care"

"A PCA Church is Not Neutral Ground" by Todd Pruitt

"Revoice, Evangelical Culture, and the Return of an Old Friend" by Carl Trueman

"Revoice, or God's Voice?" by Harry Reeder

Gender, Sexuality, and What It Means to Be Human [ Audio Disc | MP3 Disc | Download ]

Biblical Personhood & Gender Confusion [ Audio Disc | MP3 Disc | Download ]