Two young, gay musical theatre stars known as the "Broadway boyfriends" have defended their years of service with the Hillsong church community in New York.
Josh Canfield and Reed Kelly became a gay celebrity couple after they featured on the US reality TV show Survivor. The couple, both of them committed Christians, are at the top of their game professionally. Canfield is Liberius in Dr Zhivago on Broadway and Kelly played Spiderman on Broadway.
But they have been forced to issue a statement defending themselves after their relationship became the basis of an attack on their church on a conservative Christian blog.
Canfield and Kelly came out to Hillsong about their relationship several months ago. In an interview last January in Playbill about their time on Survivor, Canfield said: "I did my best before I went on the show to just kind of come to grips with myself and be like, 'I want to be an honest individual,' and that's how I'm trying to live my life. I had only recently told my family about Reed, so that was still really fresh, but it was a time where I was just letting everything down – letting all my walls down."
He decided: "I need to be truthful with everyone."
He continued: "I became truthful with my church. I'm a part of Hillsong NYC. I'm one of their choir directors. I also sing on their worship team. They've been amazing as well. Nothing has changed there now that I'm completely out and with Reed. He sings in the choir as well. I found that being an honest person has actually come with a lot of benefits. People are more sincere with you, and you find out a lot more about other people when you become honest."
After the story was picked up months later by the blogging community, Hillsong senior pastor Brian Houston issued a statement asserting a conservative stance on the gay issue.
He said: "I wish to correct reports that Hillsong church has 'an openly gay couple directing a choir' at our New York City campus. Hillsong's position on homosexuality and gay marriage has not changed and is consistent with Scripture.
"As I have stated previously, I believe the writings of Paul are clear on this subject. Several months ago when one of our choir directors made an unexpected public statement regarding his engagement to a man who sometimes sang in the choir, it was a complete surprise to us as well. It is my understanding that they have not been involved in an active leadership or ministry role since. That said, we still love them and acknowledge that they – like all of us – are on a journey, and our role as a church is to assist them on this journey with grace and compassion."
Canfield and Kelly have now responded with their own statement, pledging to stay with Hillsong.
Addressing their statement to their friends, Canfield and Kelly said: "We're writing this post in response to so many of you who have kindly reached out. You've been wondering why we have been getting so many hateful comments on all of our social media in the past week, in which some of you have been tagged or engaged."
They said they had been "heavily involved" with Hillsong NYC, and added that Canfield has served for eight years including as choir director, vocal director and on the worship team. Kelly has been there since the beginning of their relationship, over three years ago. He also began singing in the choir and used his apartment as the gathering place for a "connect group" for Hillsong members working on Broadway and in the theatre.
"We have been open and forthright about our relationship from the get-go," said Kelly.
"Hillsong has many campuses around the world, many in places where gay marriage is now legal, so this has been an ongoing dialogue trying to figure out how and where we, as part of the LGBT community, fit in. As a church family, we have been wading through these uncharted waters of shifting culture and social change."
Kelly went on to attack the original blogger who criticised Hillsong and the couple.
"Several days ago some faceless, end-of-days blogger decided to attack us and our church for allowing us to serve when we are 'unrepentantly embracing sin' as homosexuals. Sadly, yet unsurprisingly, most super-conservative news sources picked it up and ran with it -- giving this man's voice worldwide amplification it never should have had.
"Not to mention it worked up Christian communities around the world, as many look to our church as a model of modern Christianity to be emulated. (We've never been harassed in so many foreign languages before ... and we live in NYC!)"
He regretted that this had now forced Hillsong to reaffirm globally its stance as a non-LGBT-affirming institution and ban gays from leadership.
Kelly described it as "frustrating" and "crushing" but said he was not surprised. "Thankfully we are led by pastors who are grace-filled and committed to continuing to try to discern God's will on this matter."
He also defended their decision to remain with Hillsong. "If we, as gays, pack up and leave every church we feel less than welcomed in or where we feel spiritual resistance, how will there ever be growth? The flip side of this is: why would we, as part of the gay community who have been primarily outcast for all our lives, willingly subject ourselves to more marginalisation? It's been a lot to personally work though."
He said the couple feels called to persevere.
"After we inadvertently and unintentionally became public representatives for gay Christianity, we feel like we have been called and have a responsibility to continue to stand authentically in our truth - especially within the church family that we call home, Hillsong NYC - we are seeking the Lord, we are Christian, we are gay, and this is our journey."
Earlier, Kelly, who on his Twitter profile describes himself as "A fiercely loyal, happy-spirited perfectionist seeking the Lord", tweeted: "Confirmation you're making progress for the Lord: you're being attacked & facing spiritual resistance from faceless crazies online. Eph 6:11"