After 40 Years, Entry into the Promised Land?

LGBT writers on affirmative readings of Scripture have frequently used the story of Exodus and the escape from Egypt as an analogy for our journey from bondage to freedom, just as African Americans had previously done (for example, in the Negro spiritual “Let My People Go”). But when I began reading the excellent “Queer Bible Commentary”, it occurred to me that a more relevant story is what comes next: the forty years of wandering in the desert. (Allowing for some flexibility for poetic licence, it’s roughly forty years since Stonewall, one marker of the birth of the gay liberation movement). It was entirely appropriate therefore,  that the theme for our fortieth anniversary conference was “From Wasteland to Promised Land”, which was described by guest speaker Daniel O’Leary not as a journey, but as a “blossoming”.

Desert in bloom with everlasting daisies
Desert in bloom with everlasting daisies

What was completely unforeseen, was the extraordinary way in which events coincided with the timing of conference, to illustrate just how close we have come to entering that fabled Promised Land. At conference last year, I outlined sixty years of progress towards LGBT inclusion in church, expressing strong confidence that this would continue. But even I did not imagine that within less than a  year, equal marriage would have become law in England in Wales – and also in New Zealand, France, and Uruguay, as well as in seven states in the USA, eleven in Brazil, and one in Mexico. The speed of this change has been controversial in many quarters, including in some LGBT circles, but what is now widely accepted is the accompanying speed in approval for at least some form of legal recognition of same – sex relationships, in civil partnerships or civil unions. In this, our fortieth anniversary year , we can see how the arc of history is bending, towards legal recognition of our relationships.

It is bending, too, in the Christian churches. Possibly more remarkable for LGBT faith groups, has been the support received from some religious groups. When the US Supreme Court made two important rulings in June favouring equal marriage, the national cathedral in Washington DC, and many other churches across the US, celebrated by ringing church bells. Others arranged special church services of thanksgiving. In the British legislation approved this month, explicit approval in included for same – sex weddings in church (where denominational regulations permit it). This was originally excluded from the public consultation last year – but added in response to representations by some churches. The legislation was opposed by both Catholic and Anglican bishops, but openly supported by many Catholic peers and Members of Parliament, and after the final vote, the Arcbishop of Canterbury noted that although he remained opposed to the principle, the Anglican Church would now have to take note of the emphatic public mood in favour, and would have to reform its own attitude to gay people. Meanwhile, the Church of England has announced that “celibate” gay priests are eligible for selection as bishops, one diocese looking for a bishop  included in its j0b specifications that candidates must be LGBT friendly. The CoE has a formal commission studying a possible reformulation of its theology of same – sex relationships, the Church of Ireland has another, and the Church of Scotland recently approved openly gay or lesbian pastors. In the US, the Lutherans now have a gay bishop, and the Disciples of Christ has voted in favour  of full inclusion for their LGBT members. Even in the Catholic Church, there is movement. Since the last Quest conference,  four cardinals, two archishops, a bishop, the papal spokesman Fr Lombardi and the marriage and family commission of the French Bishops’ Conference have all been reported as speaking in favour of civil unions (albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm, ranging from “the lesser of two evils”, to recognition of their positive value)

At the Chichester conference itself, a highlight was hearing Ruby read a letter from the  Bishop of Arundel & Brighton, Kieron Conroy, in reply to our invitation to him to attend the conference. In his remarkably supportive reply, he noted “with regret” that he would be unable to attend as he would be away in Lourdes.

Also during the conference, in formal meetings and in informal conversations, I noted a bubbling up of ideas for new initiatives to expand our activities.

Then, the day after the conference, came the really exciting news: reports of Pope Francis’ press conference in the flight returning from Brazil, including his insistence that gay people should not be judged. (In effect, he was saying what +Kieron had implied in his letter to us – that he was not judging us). Francis also said that gay men are welcome in the priesthood, and that gay people should be fully included in society.  The obvious corollary is that we should similarly be fully integrated in the Church.

Taken together, these developments represent an astonishing opportunity for Quest, quite literally a “Kairos moment” for movement toward full inclusion and recognition in the English Catholic Church. For years, the Quest name has been what was described at conference 2012 as a “toxic brand” to the English bishops. This could now change. Supported by Pope Francis’ words on a refusal to judge, and his earlier statements in Brazil warning against clericalism, and the need to “shake up the dioceses”, we should now arrange to meet with +Kieron to discuss ways in which we can co-operate in expanding LGBT ministry in his diocese.  Thereafter, we should aim to do the same for other selected dioceses.

A similar opportunity exists for the Soho Masses / Farm Street community, in the discussions that they are due to have at some stage with Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, as we assess the success (or otherwise) of the move from Warwick Street to Farm Street. While the parish has been helpful and welcoming, offering value to those of the congregation able to integrate with it as their local parish, there remains the question of what is to be done to create a welcome for the very many LGBT Catholics who for reasons of distance, geographic or other, do not feel able to integrate with the Mayfair parish.

Opportunity is knocking. We need to reflect carefully on how best to respond.

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