40 Years In the Desert: Is the Promised Land in Sight? (Deuteronomy 8)

From the opening of the first reading for the feast of Corpus Christi, Year A (Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14B-16A)

Moses said to the people:
“Remember how for forty years now the LORD, your God,
has directed all your journeying in the desert,
so as to test you by affliction
and find out whether or not it was your intention
to keep his commandments. 

-V 2

desert-tracks

Queer readings of the Bible sometimes emphasise the story of Exodus, how the Israelites were led out of Egypt, the land of bondage, and into the promised land – just as the american civil rights movement did, years ago. However, it is perhaps more relevant, to recall that the Israelites’ deliverance was not an event, but a journey: the crossing of the Red Sea was followed by 40 years’ wandering in the desert, before the entry into the promised.

By a wonderful piece of timing, the US Presbyterians’ votes this week to permit same – sex weddings in at least some of their churches, and to support the global struggles against LGBT persecution, came on the same day that the Washington “March4Marriage” which was so strenuoulsy promoted by the religious right drew an response that was positively underwhelming. According to a facebook post at More Light Presbyterians on the day of the vote, General Assembly 221, which took these historic decisions, also marked a notable 40th anniversary of their own. It’s now 40 years since the first Presbyterian minister came out, very publicly, at a General Assembly

From the facebook post:

Today’s votes come 40 years after Rev. David Bailey Sindt showed up at G.A. with a sign, “Is anyone else out there Gay?” From that came PLGC / MLP. Today the hall was awash with rainbows, and the Spirit was at work. Thank you, David Sindt!

Actually, it’s 41 years. This was in fact in 1973, not 1974, but then biblical numbers are seldom meant to be taken precisely literally. GA 221 came also in the midst of Pride month, June – From a looser reading of “40 years”, we can also think back to Stonewall (1969, 45 years ago), or  to Rev James Stoll, the first ordained pastor to come out publicly as gay a few,moths after Stonewall, or to Rev Troy Perry, who founded the Metropolitan Community Church the year before that, or to Canon Derrick Sherwin Bailey, ,who in 1955 published “Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition”, the first notable book to challenge the traditional assumptions that the bible and homosexuality are in obvious conflict.

Whether we count it as 40 years, or half a century, it’s remarkable how far we’ve come, during these years of wandering in the desert of exclusion, in our journey of escape from the slavery of heteronormativity, and its attempts to force us to deny the truth of our sexual or gender natures, and our loves. Consider the fruits of these single pioneers:

  • Instead of a single pioneer at at General Assembly 1963, GA 2014 was “awash with rainbows”.
  • The year after James Stoll came out, the Unitarian Universalists passed the world’s first ever gay rights resolution, and later became the first church, anywhere, to conduct same – sex weddings – years before these could be recognized in law.
  • MCC, the church that Troy Perry founded with a small group in his living room, now has well – established congregations across the world.
  • Canon Bailey’s cautious book questioning the traditional Biblical interpretation on homosexuality, has been followed by what has become a flood of new titles, from every faith tradition, and moving from challenging the clobber texts, to celebrating LGBT figures in the Bible, to finding queer readings of a wide range of biblical texts (“The Queer Bible Commentary” devotes a chapter to every single book of the bible, except only the minor prophets, who share a chapter). 
  • From near invisibility in church, gay, lesbian and trans people are now serving openly as ministers in a wide range of denominations, in some cases even as bishops, moderators, and other leadership positions.

From widespread assumptions that the only unions that deserved celebration in church were marriages of different – sex couples, there are now many denominations that conduct either gay weddings, or confer blessings on same – sex couples. Many of those that do not, are visibly moving in that direction, with formal study groups of church commissions investigating.

For just about every major church grouping, there are signs of movement, either actively towards full LGBT inclusion, or at least away from previously harsh rhetoric and clear exclusion. Just as the start of our Exodus journey cannot be dated precisely to a single event, PCUSA’s three decisions this week do no mark the end of 40 years’ wandering in the desert of exclusion. There are many, many staging posts still to reach. But if we have not yet entered the promised land of full inclusion in church, we can at least begin to see it, or imagine it, in the distance.

Let us now read, and reflect on, today’s full reading from Deuteronomy:

Moses said to the people:
“Remember how for forty years now the LORD, your God,
has directed all your journeying in the desert,
so as to test you by affliction
and find out whether or not it was your intention
to keep his commandments. 
He therefore let you be afflicted with hunger,
and then fed you with manna,
a food unknown to you and your fathers,
in order to show you that not by bread alone does one live,
but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the LORD.

“Do not forget the LORD, your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
that place of slavery;
who guided you through the vast and terrible desert
with its saraph serpents and scorpions,
its parched and waterless ground;
who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock
and fed you in the desert with manna,
a food unknown to your fathers.”

Related posts:

Blessed Are the Queer in Faith – for They Shall Inherit the Earth

St Paulinus of Nola: Bishop, Poet, Saint – and Gay: (June 22nd )

Although some would dispute the description of Paulinus as ‘gay’, the description seems to me entirely appropriate to his sensibility. Although history records no evidence of physical expression of his same sex attraction, nor is there any evidence against it.  Given the historical context he was living in (4th/5th century Roman empire) , when sex with either gender was commonplace for men at at all levels of society, inside and outside the Christian church, the absence of written records of private activities after 15 centuries is completely unremarkable.  Nor is the fact that he was married particularly significant – for Romans, marriage and sex with men were entirely compatible.
What is known is that he was married, but also passionately in love with a man, Ausonius, to whom he addressed exquisitely tender love poetry.   This is of sufficient quality and gay sensibility to be included in the Penguin book of homosexual verse:

“To Ausonius”

I, through all chances that are given to mortals, And through all fates that be, So long as this close prison shall contain me, Yea, though a world shall sunder me and thee,
Thee shall I hold, in every fibre woven, Not with dumb lips, nor with averted face Shall I behold thee, in my mind embrace thee,Instant and present, thou, in every place.
Yea, when the prison of this flesh is broken, And from the earth I shall have gone my way, Wheresoe’er in the wide universe I stay me, There shall I bear thee, as I do today.
Think not the end, that from my body frees me, Breaks and unshackles from my love to thee; Triumphs the soul above its house in ruin, Deathless, begot of immortality.
Still must she keep her senses and affections, Hold them as dear as life itself to be, Could she choose death, then might she choose forgetting:
Living, remembering, to eternity.

[trans. Helen Waddell, in Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse]

It is surely entirely clear from the above that whatever his physical erotic activities, his sensibility was entirely what we would today call “Gay”.  Paulinus’ feast day was on Monday of this week (June 22nd).  It is fitting that we remember him, and the multitude of other LGBT saints in the long history of the church.

Further reading:

For more  online, see Paul Hansall’s invaluable LGBT Catholic handbook, or the Catholic Encyclopedia(Note though that the latter’s entry on Paulinus is an excellent case study on how official Church history scrupulously edits out our LGBT history.  In a reasonably lengthy entry, Ausonius and the verses addressed to him are noted – but the essential facts that the relationship was passionate, or that the verses were clearly love poetry, are carefully filtered out.)

In print, see  John Boswell’s “Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality”, pp133 – 134.

Uganda Martyrs: Charles Lwangwa and companions

For queer Christians, the phrase “Ugandan Martyrs” carries a tragic double meaning. In Catholic hagiography, it refers to the execution / martyrdom in 1886 of a band of young men, pages in the Royal court of the Bugandan King Mwanga II, who had converted to Christianity and thereafter resisted his sexual advances. June 6th, is the anniversary of their joint beatification by Pope Benedict XV in 1920. Their feast day, known as the Feast of Charles Lwanga and companions, is celebrated annually on June 3rd.

Uganda_Martyrs

From a modern LGBT point of view, there is  a quite different significance, almost it’s polar opposite. This perspective recalls that in the cultural context of the time, King Mwanga’s expectation of sexual service from his pages did not make him a perverted monster, as seen by the missionaries. Before the arrival of European colonials, different forms of homosexual practice and non-conformist gender expression were commonplace across Africa.  Seen in this light, the execution of the pages was a legal penalty for resisting customary law – and the introduction by foreign missionaries of what has since become deeply entrenched cultural homophobia.

In recent years, the flames of  homophobia have been further  fanned by missionaries, this time especially by American evangelicals, who have promoted draconian legislation to criminalize homosexuality, carrying harsh penalties for those convicted of transgressions.  Along with the legal penalties, the popular mood in Uganda has become so hostile, that life for ordinary gay and lesbian people in the country has become exceedingly difficult. Even to be suspected of being gay, frequently frequently leads not only to simple social ostracism, but also to outright exclusion from homes and families, to discrimination in employment and social services,  to police harassment, to violence, and even to murder, such as that of David Kato. For many LGBT people,  the only viable response is to leave the country entirely as refugees seeking asylum abroad.

So, the double meaning of the phrase “Ugandan Martyrs”: from the traditional Catholic perspective, the martyrs are those who were executed in 1886 for sticking by their Christian faith, in the face of Royal commands to renounce it. For modern gays and lesbians, the words refer to all those who are persecuted or even murdered, often in the name of the Christian religion, for their sexuality.

For a more extended analysis and reflection on the martyrs, and what this commemoration means for queer people of faith, see Kittredge Cherry at Jesus in Love Blog, who introduced her post on the feast day, by observing (accurately) that

Tough questions about homosexuality, religion and LGBT rights are raised by the Uganda Martyrs whose feast day is today (June 3).

Recommended Books:

 

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Rev. Phebe Ann Coffin Hannaford, Pioneering “Lesbian” Minister

b. May 6, 1829
d. June 2, 1921
Gay and lesbian clergy have been around for a long time – right from the start of ordained ministry (barring some quibbles over terminology: the words “gay” and “lesbian” do not apply directly to the earliest years). Even in modern times, there are numerous reports of openly gay or lesbian clergy going back a lot further than I had recognised. Among many who are described as the “first” in one or other specific field, the earliest clear example I have come across (so far) is Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford, who was raised a Quaker,where she was accustomed to full participation by women,  was briefly a Baptist, and finally ordained in the Universalist church in 1968, claiming to have been the first woman of any denomination ordained in New England.  She was also plainly and openly “lesbian”, many years before the term or concept was widely recognized.
Phebe Ann Coffin was born into a Quaker family in Siasconset, on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, the only child of the merchant and shipowner George W. Coffin and his wife Phebe Ann (Barnard) Coffin. Both were Quakers and direct descendants of the island’s first white settlers, Tristram Coffin and Peter Folger.
Phebe lived amidst women who bore the responsibilities of daily life as the whaling men were at sea. These two influences made Phebe an extraordinarily independent woman. She was educated in public and private schools on the island, tutored in mathematics and Latin and her talents were encouraged at home. She was a formidable scholar and active reformer: she wrote the first biography of Lincoln to be published after his death, and was active in both the abolitionist and women’s movements.
She spoke openly of her desire to be a Quaker preacher. She took the pledge at the early age of 8 and at age 18 was chaplain and treasurer of the Daughters of Temperance and Deputy Grand Worthy Chief Templar in the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts.
She taught school on Cape Cod and in Nantucket until her marriage in 1849 to Dr. Joseph H. Hanaford, a homeopathic physician and school teacher. She joined her husband’s Baptist church. Their son, Howard, was born in 1841 and their daughter, Florence, in 1854.
Living in Beverly during the Civil War, her commitment as an abolitionist led her to relinquish her Quaker pacifism. As her marriage was failing she supported and educated her children with her writing. Her contact with Universalist women opened up a world of activism for the rights of women. In 1868 she was ordained a minister in the Universalist church. From 1874, she was pastor to a congregation in New Jersey, but after her initial three year term, controversy arose over her reappointment which she did not get.
The controversy was nominally over her involvement in the “women’s issue” (ie, the suffragette movement), but in reality it was her relationship with coworker Ellen Miles, which had begun in 1870. Newspaper clippings preserved in Hanaford’s scrapbook reported that the disgruntlement among congregation members was, in fact, over Hanaford’s liaison with Miles, whom the papers called the ‘minister’s wife.’ Hanaford, it seems, was not simply asked to cease her women’s rights activities, but more specifically, to ‘dismiss’ Miss Miles… their letters testify to a deep and abiding affection. The two remained life-long companions, separated after forty-four years together only by Miles’s death in 1914.
After her failure to be reappointed in New Jersey, she attempted to set up a new congregation of her own. However, when her dissident New Jersey congregation applied for formal recognition and was rejected by the General Universalist Convention in 1878, Hanaford had no settled pulpit, and for years she conducted lecturing and preaching tours across New England and the Middle Atlantic and Western states. Deprived of formal ministry, she created a successful independent ministry of her own – ultimately achieving high honour in the early twentieth century , when she was asked to officiate at the at the funeral services for two leading women’s rights activists of the nineteenth century: the feminist philosopher Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the woman-suffrage organizer Susan B. Anthony. The two friends, who had shared a life of labor, died within four years of each other, and Hanaford had known them both well.
After Ellen’s death Phebe lived with her granddaughter in Basom, New York where she was isolated from the activities she enjoyed. Both her children predeceased her. She voted in the New York election but not in the federal election of 1920. The family moved to Rochester, New York where she died alone in her bedroom. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Orleans, New York next to her daughter Florence Hanaford Warner.
There is a great deal in the story of this remarkable woman for us to reflect on and learn from. The story of her extraordinary achievement as a woman in defying and transcending gender boundaries as an impressive scholar and pioneer female ordained minister is remarkable in itself. Thereafter, after commencing a new life committed to a woman, she was confronted by a demand from her congregation to give up her partner and conform, or to face the loss of her ministry.  Courageously, she chose commitment and truth over expedience, and paid the price. She persevered independently for decades, forging an independent ministry where she was unable to work within the formal structures – and ultimately achieved honour and recognition for it.
Rev Hanaford deserves to be better remembered and celebrated.Source:A Paper Trail: Piecing Together the Life of Phebe Hanaford
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