taking the words of Jesus seriously

There was to be no clapping in church. No clapping during music. No clapping when a child was baptized. No clapping when an award was presented or when a couple was celebrating an anniversary. There was to be no clapping in church. Such was the decree handed down by the pastor of the Roman Catholic congregation in which I was raised. Lest one think our pastor was the stereotypical grumpy, curmudgeon of a priest, he was often jovial with a quick wit and strong sense of humor, but clapping was for the social hall or the school building.

While St. Benedict Roman Catholic Parish in Cambridge, OH, was not the highest of liturgical experiences, it maintained a decidedly somber nature during my childhood. Mass was meant to be reverent and well ordered, but not stuffy. Similar to the majority of American Roman Catholic congregations, congregants dressed well, but not in suits or dresses. Children were encouraged to be involved and they could even explore the sanctuary after mass. It was in the best sense of churches a community and it was the genesis of all my later liturgical involvement.

Throughout the course of my church activities in Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, UCC, Methodist, and nondenominational congregations, I’ve been drawn to liturgical cultures. The quintessential “smells and bells” and pageantry of finely executed Anglo-Catholic (Episcopalian) services gave me my first true sense of church and liturgy as an experience of the divine. The power and movement of Gospel music and powerful social gospel preaching gave me my second and different perspective of that divine. Even as I write this essay, liturgy is close to me physically and intellectually in the form of Cole Arthur Riley’s new book Black Liturgies, which is sitting on my desk. 

Liturgy has not always been a source of strength, comfort, and divinity for me. During college I began to realize that I often put far too much importance on the mechanics of liturgy and missed what the liturgy was there to communicate. Even worse I stopped finding God in the liturgy as I became so engrossed in why the deacon was wearing a tunicle—the proper vestment of a sub-deacon—instead of a dalmatic or the order in which the crucifer should process relative to the torchbearers or other liturgical thoughts similar to debating how many angels can stand on a pin head. When the liturgy no longer conveys the presence and reality of God then the liturgy becomes a stale script of words and movements. Liturgies can fail the people and people can fail the liturgy. I was in the latter group. 

At about this same time in my life, I wandered into Middle Collegiate Church in New York City having heard that it was a particularly progressive and uplifting congregation. I had been living and working just outside the city for a few months and had been exploring some of Manhattan’s well known Anglo-Catholic churches. Despite the beautiful buildings and the grand services, I left each church feeling increasingly displaced from the experience of church, community, and belonging. Granted, liturgy was only one aspect of that feeling of disconnection from church and church communities. In addition to showing me how Christianity could be different, how I could be loved by God in the fullness of my identities rather than in spite of them, Middle Church presented me with a liturgy that while lacking “smells and bells” was absolutely joyous and was responsive to the world outside the doors of the church building. It was there that I first felt the Spirit move.

I have had enough of an education and experience of various forms of Christianity to know that many people and many congregations talk about the Spirit far more than we ever did in Roman Catholic or Episcopal churches. I also have learned theological definitions for the Holy Spirit and where the Spirit fits in with the Trinity and salvation history. Yet, like many Christians, the Holy Spirit was something ethereal and far off. I couldn’t say I had ever felt the Spirit moving. 

For many people who have experienced Middle Church, it is first a spiritual hospital, not to heal sinners from our sin, but to teach us that what has been called sin is not sin in the eyes of God. Particularly for those of us who are Queer, Middle taught us that we are not sin embodied in ourselves. The walls I had built up to true expressions of Christian liturgy and Christian community came tumbling down. I recognized that it wasn’t liturgy which had gotten in my way, but the manner in which I saw and understood that liturgy. Radically, I recognized that the Spirit had always been moving in my life. 

When I left New York and moved on with my career and life, I continued carrying all that I learned at Middle Church with me. When I began working with LOVEboldly at the intersection of LGBTQIA+ identities and Christianity, I felt the Spirit moving in so much of my work. While I may not be as “Spirit-filled” as some of my friends and colleagues, the active presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit has carried be through particularly difficult moments in this work when it seems like our community is fighting battles on all fronts. 

Several weeks ago, I preached a sermon at a church in Columbus, OH. While I might not always stay with exactly what I write, when I preach, I like to have my sermon fully written out and in front of me. This congregation, though, is made up of people whose backgrounds are in the charismatic and Pentecostal traditions and who were raised in environments where each Sunday the bulletin confessed that the length of the service would vary on the movement of the Spirit (for my fellow former Roman Catholics, that means how long the sermon and maybe the associated music would last). Instead of writing a full sermon, I wrote good notes and flagged certain sections in case I needed somewhere to go. When I stood up to preach, I prayed silently for the Spirit to guide me, and I felt the Spirit move. It was likely not my finest sermon and I definitely ended up a few degrees away from where I intended to end, but this sometimes-high churchman finally felt the Spirit move. 

About The Author


Dr. Ben Huelskamp (he/they) is the Executive Director of LOVEboldly (www.loveboldly.net), a faith-based nonprofit working to create spaces where LGBTQIA+ people can flourish in Christianity. Recently, he also became the Pastor of Blue Ocean Faith in Columbus, OH (www.blueoceancolumbus.org). His writing has been published in Red Letter Christians, The Columbus Dispatch, and The Buckeye Flame (among others). You can find out more about his projects on his website (www.benhuelskamp.com). 

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