Gay churchgoers abandon mainstream religions

Auckland, New Zealand - New Zealand lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians have quit mainstream religion at two-and-half times the rate of the general population, according to a Massey University study.

“Christian religions by and large have done an excellent job in communicating that a Christian identity and a homosexual identity are incompatible, or at least difficult to reconcile,” says report author Dr Mark Henrickson. “A large number of raised Christians appear to have resolved the dissonance between their identities and their religion by leaving their religion.”

The senior lecturer in social work at Massey’s Auckland campus has been working on Lavender Islands: Portrait of the Whole Family since 2004. It is the first national, strengths-based study of New Zealand’s lesbians, gays and bisexuals.

The just-released study on gay spirituality and religion is a part of this broad survey which also investigated well-being, politics, income and spending, careers, leisure and families.

Of the 2269 participants in the survey, 73 per cent said they were raised as Christians, with 22.5 per cent not raised in any religion. But only 15 per cent of raised Christians were currently practicing their religion, while 73 per cent of the gay, lesbian and bisexual participants were currently non-religious. Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and “other” religions accounted for only a small percentage of responses. The difference between the 73 per cent raised Christian and the 15 per cent who are currently Christian “is a remarkable 80 per cent decline”, Dr Henrickson says.

He compared the figures to those of the 2001 census, which revealed that people identifying themselves as Christian dropped from 90.1 per cent to 59.8 per cent – a decline of 33.6 per cent in 35 years when compared with figures from the 1966 census.

The results of the study showed that “for most people, if they are forced to make a choice between their religious faith and their personal identity, they’ll choose their personal identity”.

“What we can say is that whatever negative messages that organised religions want to communicate – they’re working.”

“They’re not working to change gay people, they’re working to drive them away,” says Dr Henrickson, who is himself an Anglican priest, but stresses he is not speaking in his role as a clergyman.

While mainstream Christian denominations such as Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist churches refrain from overtly preaching an anti-gay message, some individual congregations – particularly in Auckland – actively welcome the gay community. But there remains, however, a perceived unease felt by many gays towards them from the church, the survey shows.

“In an era of declining mainstream church participation, churches may want to examine the way they’re coming across, the way they’re being heard,” Dr Henrickson added.