A young man came to the Rev. George Mason, wanting to talk about his parents’ wedding.
The youth, of course, hadn’t been at the wedding. But Mason had, and he remembered it well. Some 800 or 900 people. Pillars of the community. One of the largest weddings in the history of Wilshire Baptist Church.
“You performed the wedding of my parents in this church,” the young man said to Mason. “If I fall in love and want to get married, my question is, will my church community support me?”
The youth would want to marry a man. And in that moment, as in other moments in recent years, Mason realized something that would have shocked him when he started out as a pastor 37 years ago: He would want to officiate at that gay wedding.
Now, after putting the issue to a contentious popular vote that has torn his congregation, Mason, 60, can do just that. Wilshire Baptist Church voted 577 to 367 to welcome LGBT people as full participants in every aspect of the church — as members, as lay leaders, as potential clergy, and yes, as brides and grooms.
As soon as the Dallas church completed its vote, the Baptist General Convention of Texas started proceedings to kick the church out of the denominational body. “All Texas Baptists are loving, respectful and welcoming to all people. But while we are welcoming, we are not affirming,” said a spokesman for the denominational association, which often goes by the name Texas Baptists. The spokesman talked with The Post on the condition that his name not be published.
That’s not enough for Wilshire Baptist Church. It voted that it wants to affirm.
“It became increasingly difficult for me to justify, as I kept looking in the eyes of people that I loved and seeing the presence of Christ in them, and as I honestly looked at the Scripture and realized that it was not as clear as I thought it was,” Mason said. Those passages that say homosexuality is sinful? As Mason read them again, over the course of months of study with his congregants, he came to see them as narrower condemnation of abusive sexual practices of biblical times, not condemnation of loving homosexual relationships.
“My judgment is that God is doing something beautiful here,” he said. “I’m going to err on the side of love and grace.”
Mason said that his church has no married gay couples in its membership of about 1,000 people, but it does have gay members, including some couples. One LGBT person has been nominated as a deacon year after year, but Mason has told the nominating committee that he’s not sure the church would accept an LGBT person in that position of lay leadership. Now it will.
The vote was highly contentious in the church. Mason said that a group of 250 members sent a letter to every person in the congregation urging them to vote against inclusion. Now that the question passed, Mason expects about 100 members will leave, a major blow to the church.
In addition, the Texas Baptists sent a letter during the voting process, which spanned two Sundays, warning Wilshire Baptist that it would be forced out if it approved LGBT inclusion.
The Texas Baptists spokesman said the organization, which happened to be having its annual meeting this week, approved motions on Tuesday about how to handle churches that don’t believe marriage and sex are only for heterosexual couples. He said the Texas Baptists’ executive board can formally tell Wilshire Baptist and one other church that they are not in “harmonious cooperation” with the convention.
The other church, First Austin Baptist, had quietly decided it approved of same-sex marriage earlier, but it had slipped under the convention’s radar until now.
Baptists are known for their strong autonomous churches. Churches choose to affiliate with state organizations, such as the Texas Baptists, and national ones, of which the largest is the Southern Baptist Convention. But the organizations’ policies are not binding on the individual churches.
The Texas Baptists are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, but Wilshire Baptist left the national organization — one of the best-known conservative evangelical denominations — about 25 years ago, Mason said. Instead, Wilshire Baptist joined the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a smaller denomination that is theologically and politically more moderate.
When Wilshire Baptist announced its decision on LGBT inclusion, Mason said, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship didn’t object; it sent flowers for the pulpit.
Wilshire Baptist does not share the theology of evangelical churches, which believe that only those who accept Jesus as their savior will be saved from hell. “We don’t get into the question of who’s in or who’s out. That’s up to God. We just announce the good news,” Mason said. “God’s in the sorting business, not us.”
He’s not sure that his church’s popular-vote model offers a path that any evangelical churches might use to move toward LGBT inclusion. But if any churches of any persuasion want to consider it, he said, he would be happy to talk with them about it.
In the meantime, he’s talking to the members of his church — especially the young members. In the past three years, five young adults, whose families had all belonged to the church for generations, came to him to tell him they were gay.
They weren’t struggling with their sexuality. They had embraced it.
“Am I supposed to tell them that they should be struggling with it? Or am I supposed to tell them that they are loved by God, and ask them to live out their faiths as their full selves?” Mason said. “I’ve come to the conclusion it should be the latter.”