Queer Saints 6: Modern Saints, Modern Heroes – A Great Resurrection?

The active persecution of sodomites by the Inquisition gradually gave way to secular prosecutions under civil law, with declining ferocity as the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment and more modern times (although executions continued until the nineteenth century.) From this time on, theoretical condemnation of “sodomites” co-existed with increasing public recognition of some men who had sex with men, and records relating to queers in the church are less prominent than either earlier or later periods.  In the nineteenth century, Cardinal Newman’s request to be buried alongside Ambrose St John does not appear to have aroused any opposition.

In the twentieth century, the increasing visibility of homosexual men produced the horrifying backlash in Germany in the gay holocaust, with its echos of the medieval bonfires of heretics and sodomites – the modern gay martyrs.

Only after WWII did the Vatican begin to seriously address the question of homosexuality, with increasingly harsh judgements and attempts to silence theologians and pastors who questioned their doctrines and practice. (John McNeill, Sr Jeannine Grammick). Other denominations drove out existing gay or lesbian pastors, and refused ordination, or even church membership, to other openly gay or lesbian church members (Paul Abel Chris Glaser, Troy Perry). However, these victims of church exclusion, who can be seen metaphorically as modern martyrs, martyred by the church for being true to their sexual identity,  refused to be silenced. Like St Sebastian before Emperor Maximilian, they found new ways to minister to the truth of homosexuality and Christianity.

Today, these early pioneers for queer inclusion in church have been joined by countless others, who work constantly at tasks large and small, to witness to the truth of our sexuality and gender identity, and to its compatibility with authentic Christianity. In effect, that includes all of who identify as both Christian, and simultaneously as lesbian, gay trans, or other  – and the women who refuse to accept the narrow confines of the gender roles church authorities attempt to place on us.

In recent years, the sterling work of the early pioneers has borne powerful fruit in the decisions by an increasing number of Christian denominations to ordain openly gay, lesbian or trans pastors, and even to promote them to leadership positions as bishops or moderators. In parallel, there are also now many denominations, and local jurisdictions in others, which are now celebrating same-sex weddings in church. Others which are not willing to go that far, are offering as an alternative, church blessings for couples who have entered civil marriage or civil unions. While the Catholic Church has not yet moved on either of these issues, under Pope Francis there is an undoubtedly more gentle tone, at least in pastoral practice, and much of the previously hostile rhetoric and even doctrine has been quietly shelved.

Some years ago, Fr John McNeill wrote that the Catholic Church was entering a “Kairos moment” (ie, a moment ripe for change)  for LGBT people.  He was referring specifically to Catholics, but  with the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that his words were prescient, for the Christian community as a whole

November 1st is the day the Church has set aside to celebrate All Saints – the recognition that sainthood is not only a matter of formally recognised and canonised saints, but is a calling to which we must all aspire. For LGBT and queer Christians, it is an appropriate day  to remember not the LGBT saints in Christian history, also but our modern heroes, who in facing and overcoming their attempted silencing are martyrs of the modern church.

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