Tag Archives: lgbt inclusion in church

Transgender in Church

Last SupperWhile helping out at our Catholic stall after this year’s Pride parade through London, I was approached by a woman who put a question that left me totally at a loss on how to respond:  What is the Church’s position on transgendered issues? She told me that her own local parish priest was very understanding and supportive, but she wanted to know more. I was embarrassed and ashamed that I clearly knew less than she did – she at least had been discussing the issue with a priest, but I in effect knew virtually nothing, beyond the harsh words of Benedict XVI in his Curial address last Christmas.

Now, we at the Soho Masses are quite explicit  that we serve(or aim to) the full LGBTspectrum (as well as friends, family and supporters), and one of our key people on the pastoral council speaks openly of her own transition.   The matter was raised in our pastoral planning workshop earlier this year, and since then, we have begun exploring ways to be more explicitly supportive, in particular by making provision for at least fairly basic changing facilities for those who want to use such a facility.  But these are essentially merely symbolic gestures, only just scratching the surface. Beyond taking the easy way out, referring questions to Lorraine, what on earth are we to say to people who are attempting to find a balance between authentic gender expression and living with integrity in the Catholic Church?

Many of us have felt anxious, intimidated or jsut plain terrified at the prospect of coming out as lesbians or gay men- sometimes even to ourselves.  Yet we have an increasingly supportive legal and cultural environment, role models and resources to help us.  Even in our struggles with the churches, the publicity over gay bishops and gay clergy, as well as an explosion of books an web resources, makes it easy to see that we are not alone in the struggle.  How much more difficult must it be to face the much greater challenge of dealing with a readjustment of gender identity, without that same supportive environment?  There  are not the same resources, nor are there the same role models and support structures.

This is why I was  delighted to find this report, in the Regal Courier on a Methodist priest who had the courage to tell his congregation about his earlier transition – and the congregation, who responded to his story with strong applause.:

Congregation embraces transgender minister as his secret is revealed

Rev. David Weekley hopes his story will help change United Methodist Church doctrine

Rev David Weekely and wife (pic: L.E. Baskow, Portland Tribune)

Until now, there has been just one openly transgender Methodist clergyman in the U.S. to retain his ordination (That man, Drew Phoenix, 50, had his ordination challenged by members of the church after coming out publicly in 2007 to his congregation in St. John’s of Baltimore United Methodist Church in Maryland.)

Today, Sunday, Aug. 30, Weekley – who leads the congregation at the Epworth United Methodist Church in the Sunnyside neighborhood in inner Southeast Portland – became the second.

Just months after telling his own children that he was not their biological father, Weekley, who is in his late-50s, came out to his congregation of 221 members.

Standing behind his pulpit, Weekley began his usual worship service. About halfway through, he paused to share a personal message he called “My Book Report.”

He told them that in 1984, just nine years after undergoing extensive sex-reassignment surgeries, he was ordained by the Methodist Church without telling anyone of his original gender at birth.

Following his story, the congregation, who had remained silent throughout his talk, broke into thunderous applause. Church members then proclaimed their support for their pastor.

This is impressive.  The United Methodist Church is one of the least supportive mainline Protestant denominations on lesbian and gay people generally, and despite strong pressure to change, voted against modifying their opposition, the last time this came up for discussion.  The strong support from the congregation shows once again that local communities can be far more supportive of individual people in their midst, than official doctrine suggests.  It is far easier to be hostile to an anonymous group, than it is to those nice guys in the pew next to you, or to an admired pastor in the pulpit.  This is why it is so important that wherever possible, we should try to extend our coming out processes (and they are processes, not single events), into our parishes, as well as to our families, friends, and workplaces.  Every such coming out makes it easier for those who follow:  but let me emphasise those words , “wherever possible“.  Quite obviously, sometimes the conditions are simply prohibitive, especially for clergy.

Footnote:  I have responded to my earlier embarrassed ignorance by attempting to track down more information on transgendered issues in the churches, and have started to compile a transgendered booklist for Sergius & Bacchus Books.  This is far from complete, but it is a start, and will be constantly expanded.  I would be very interested in feedback from readers who know more than I do.

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Anglicans in South Africa Join the push for LGBT Inclusion

Anglicans in the Archdioces of Cape Town have joined the movement for ecclesiastical support for gay relationships.  Coming hot on the heels of important decisions by the US Episcopalians and Evangelical Lutherans, it adds to the momentum for  acceptance in church for sexual minorities. From Episcopal Life Online:

“The Anglican Diocese of Cape Town, meeting in synod August 22, supported a resolution asking the bishops of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa to provide pastoral guidelines for gay and lesbian members living in “covenanted partnerships,” whilst “taking due regard of the mind of the Anglican Communion.”

The synod also resolved to ask Archbishop Thabo Makgoba to appoint a working group, representing church members of varying perspectives, to engage in a “process of dialogue and listening” on issues of human sexuality.”

On the face of it, the actual resolution from St George’s Cathedral is cautious, possibly disappointing.: but one has to understand the context.  The Archdiocese here is much more than just the city of Cape Town, and takes in Anglican commuinities also from the broader Southern African region.  Although South Africa itself has  a proud record in recognising LGBT rights, the neighbouring countries are far less accepting, with many of them still treating any form of homosexual expression as a criminal act.

The Anglican Diocese of Cape Town, which includes Anglican bishops from South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Namibia, St Helena, Tristan da Cunha and Angola, passed a resolution at the weekend asking the church’s bishops to provide pastoral guidelines for gay parishioners living in “covenanted partnerships”.

(from Independent Online)

So the resolution adopted necessarily had to take account of widely differing sensibilities across the region.  Still, it is a move forward. who can doubt that it will end in full support for lesbian & gay unions? The full text:

“This Synod,

Affirming a pastoral response to same-sex partnerships of faithful commitment in our parish families;

Gives thanks to God for:

  • The leadership of our Archbishop Thabo Makgoba and his witness in seeking to handle these issues in a loving and caring manner; and
  • The Bishops of our Province for their commitment to the unity of our Communion and Province, working together seeking God’s way of truth and reconciliation;

Notes the positive statements of previous Provincial Synods that gay and lesbian members of our church share in full membership as baptized members of the Body of Christ, and are affirmed and welcomed as such;

Affirms our commitment to prayerful and respectful dialogue around these issues, mindful of the exhortations of previous Lambeth Conferences to engage with those most affected;

Asks the Archbishop to request the Synod of Bishops to provide pastoral guidelines for those of our members who are in covenanted partnerships, taking due regard of the mind of the Anglican Communion.”

(From Episcopal Life Online)

This warms the cockles of my heart.  I have very fond personal memories of  St George’s Cathedral, where this decision was taken.  For many years under apartheid, St George’s was known in Cae Town as a bastion of support for the anti-apartheid forces, serving often as a locus for protest, or as a haven and refuge for those seeking sanctuary from the forces of oppression.  I remember many ocassions in my youth when I stood with other students on the steps of the cathedral, ssoter in hand, in silent protest – while security police took photographs.

In later years, after I had started working, I remember a famous ocassion when police fired  tear gas canisters int a group of protesters on the steps.  With wonderful presence of mind, on of those students calmly picked up the canister before it released its fumes, and tossed it right back at the police – who were promptly overcome by their own tear gas.

Much later, St George’s became a focal point for the celebrations of the tiumph of democracy in the years following the unbanning of  the ANC, and the release of Nelson Mandela.

I have often noted that I see a strong parallel between the  struggle for justice and equality in apartheid South Africa.    This decision from St George’s Cathedral Cape Town, for so long a sacred space in the struggle against  apartheid, simply reinforces those parallels.

“The resolution was proposed by St George’s Cathedral clergy, as they said the parish had come to be seen as a “safe space” for gay Christians in Cape Town.”

(from Independent online)

One by one, denomination by denomination, jurisdiction by jurisdiction, the traditional barriers are being eroded.  The fundie arguments are losing credibility.  Gay marraige: coming soon, to a church near you.

St George's Cathedral, Cape Town

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UK Church Takes Action FOR Gay Marriage!

Here in the UK, there has not been a big  push for same sex marriage, as the civil partnership regulations provide virtually the same benefits as full marriage  This includes national benefits (unlike Washington’s proposal),and really is “marriage in all but name” (an important qualification).  Now, according to the BBC, the British Quakers are to take up the issue.

gay_marriage

The proposal to begin performing marriage ceremonies for same -sex couples is expected to pass  by consensus, without opposition, at their annual gathering in York “on Friday”, even though this could bring them into conflict with the law.  They are also expected to ask for the law to be changed.  (Is “Friday” today…..or next week? I don’t yet know, but will investigate).

(UPDATE:  This has now been approved.  See the TIMES ONLINE)

This is the first time that I know of that a church group is taking a lead on the issue – anywhere.

From the BBC, 30th July 2009:

“Quakers ‘to allow gay marriages’

One of the UK‘s oldest Christian denominations – the Quakers – looks set to extend marriage services to same-sex couples at their yearly meeting later.

The society has already held religious blessings for same-sex couples who have had a civil partnership ceremony.

But agreeing to perform gay marriages, which are currently not allowed under civil law, could bring the Quakers into conflict with the government.

…BBC’s religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott said the Quakers had been more prepared than other groups to reinterpret the Bible in the light of contemporary life.

Religious commitment

The Quakers – also known as The Religious Society of Friends – are likely to reach consensus on the issue of gay marriage without a vote at their annual gathering in York on Friday.

They will also formally ask the government to change the law to allow gay people to marry.”

The full report from the BBC is here.

***

From TIMES ONLINE, July 31st:

“The Quakers sanctioned gay marriage today and decided to call on the Government to give same-sex couples the same standing as married couples.

Other Christian churches and religious denominations have approved blessings for civil same-sex partnerships but the Quakers have now become Britain’s first mainstream religious group to approve gay marriage.”

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Michael B Kelly: “Seduced by Grace”

Last night’s Mass in Soho was eventful for three different reasons – over and above the Mass itself.  Before Mass, I was interviewed for the first time by a reader, a visiting journalism student from Phoenix, Arizona.  After Mass, we arranged a screening of the powerful documentary movie, “For the Bible Tells Me So”.  I have written of this before (and hope to do so again), but a second viewing was welcome.  This was an entirely new venture, undertaken with some uncertainty whether people would stay for a further 90 minutes after Mass and refreshments, but we need not have worried.  Close on 30 gay men stayed behind – and our token straight woman.  (Where were our lesbian sisters, I wonder?). The response was overwhelmingly positive, and we will undoubtedly repeat the exercise on other occasions.

But we were still not done.  After the screening, were introduced to another visitor, Michael B. Kelly from Australia, founder ofRainbow Sash Australia, a noted retreat director and a writer on spirituality from an explicitly gay male perspective. He is in London to present a paper at an academic conference on spiritualityin which he is to argue (if I understand him correctly) that gay men, by reflecting and sharing on their erotic experiences and using them in their own practice of spirituality, can make a valuable contribution to spirituality in the wider church.  This is a paper that I dearly long to read when I have the chance – and hope to persuade Michael to allow me to post it here.  After a brief meeting at the church, I was determined to continue the discussion, so accompanied Michael and others to supper in Soho, where we enjoyed further lengthy conversation on matters religious and sexual.  I will meet up with him again, and will certainly write more about his work and insights on other ocassions.




What I want to share with you now is some reviews I have come up against of his book, Seduced by Grace.

Seduced by Grace_ Michael Bernard Kelly

I have not as yet had the good fortune to read it for myself, but on the strength of my meeting with him, and the reviews I have read, I would heartily urge you to hunt down a copy and read it for yourself.

From a perspective which is gay, but not Catholic:

“While the dyspeptic (iconoclastic?) Christopher Hitchens is content to go on bashing his straw-man ‘God’ (see God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, 2007), a more interesting set of insights into that tired, overworked tradition has come from what might seem to be an unlikely source — a self-professed Gay man and, moreover, one who knows from first-hand experience the shortcomings of his Church (specifically, its Roman Catholic incarnation). For Michael Bernard Kelly, as David Marr puts it, has ‘has come out but stayed in’—rather than quitting a homophobic Church in disgust, he is pushing for it to renovate itself from within. A potent collection of thoughtful writings by Kelly, the noted Australian Catholic dissident, Seduced by Grace gathers essays, articles, letters and talks he has produced over almost a decade, from late 1998 to May 2004, that are at once an acutely accurate critique of the shortcomings of the Church and a poignant testimonial to the heroic spirit that has, at times, invigorated it.

Kelly the activist is (in)famous in Australia. He was one of the founders of the Rainbow Sash movement that has been a thorn in Cardinal George Pell’s side, with its public challenge to the Catholic Church’s treatment of Gay and Lesbian people (the movement has been taken up in the United States, also) and in this role, he has become a prominent media spokesperson for Gay Catholics. But as is clear from the opening piece in this collection, “On the Peninsula, alone with God,” Kelly’s activism is grounded in contemplative practice. He has produced a stimulating video lecture series, “The Erotic Contemplative: the spiritual journey of the Gay Christian” (through Joseph Kramer’s Erospirit Institute) and leads Gay spirit retreats at Easton Mountain, in New York State, as well as in Australia and the U.K. His voice reaches loudly and clearly across the once impassable divide between eros and spiritus. Kelly is now working on a doctorate in the field of Christian mysticism and Gay experience at an Australian university.

Raised in an Irish Catholic family in Melbourne and educated in Church schools, Kelly was smitten early with the religious life and served as an altar boy, assisting priests in the celebration of Mass, as all good Catholic sons would do. As a teenager, he was inspired by the life and example of Francis of Assisi —“Who could resist a dancing saint?” he asks in his short piece on the inspiring 12th Century figure. He actually joined the Franciscans at 17, but eventually left the Order, and while remaining celibate, continued to work as a religious education specialist and campus minister in Catholic schools and universities for a further seventeen years, before taking the fateful decision to come out, and to come to terms with his sexuality — a decision which, of course, cost him his job. But he continued his studies in theology (including a master’s in spirituality in San Francisco) and today inspires many men with his revisioning of a spiritual life not predicated on a denial of the body. Kelly says his dick keeps him honest.

More power to him. This is the kind of “real world” starting point that earths his spirituality and renders his positions convincing to those of us who have found more breathing room outside the stifling environs of Christian idealism.”

Read the full review at the White Crane.

Or, for  a perspective which is Catholic, but not gay, go to Catholica Australia:

“By the time I’d finished reading I was convinced that every family with a gay* member should read this book — but I soon corrected that to everyone — full stop! Michael has something very important to say and we do ourselves and society a disservice if we don’t give him a hearing. As Catholics, we pay lip-service to any ideas of ‘compassion, sensitivity and respect’ if we don’t at the very least enter into a dialogue with gay people — which includes truly listening to them — and Michael B Kelly is certainly a worthy spokesperson.

“As a woman I don’t pretend to understand what it must be fully like to inhabit the body and psyche of a man, yet I love men, and particularly my husband and my own son. As a heterosexual I likewise find it extremely difficult to personally understand what it must be like to inhabit the psyche of someone who is sexually attracted to others of their own sex. It’s almost like me trying to imagine what it must be like to have been born black. In the music industry I have worked with many people who are gay, and some of them have become close friends.

Michael’s voice is a prophetic one. It enables us to better understand what it must be like to feel imprisoned as one of the sectors of society who are discriminated against and maligned because of the life circumstances they were borne into and have very little control over. Michael Bernard Kelly is a man who carries himself with great dignity and, in a very real sense, provides leadership not only to gays but to other sectors in society who are discriminated against and maligned unjustly.”

I was intrigued by the reference to Kelly as ‘out’ (as gay), but still ‘in’ (the Catholic Church).  Some of my readers may recall that that was virtually the title of my opening statement when I set up this blog – “Welcome: Come In, and Come Out“.  We clearly share a lot in common.

I repeat:  find this book, and read it.

Marriage Equality & the Church – Sweden

Wedding cake of a same-sex marriage, photo tak...
In the wake of the disappointing, but expected, Californian ruling on Prop 8, it is worth stepping back and reflecting on the gains elsewhere, and especially on the impact on the churches.
It is well known how rapidly legal recognition of same sex marriage has progressed: first in Iowa, by court order, then in rapid succession Vermont and Maine by legislative action. New Hampshire is not quite there yet, but it is likely just a matter of time – as it is in New York and New Jersey.  DC has voted to recognise marriages legally conducted elsewhere, Washington has approved expansion of their civil union regime to ‘everything but marriage’, and in many other states and city jurisdictions, there have been less dramatic, incremental gains.  These have been widely reported and celebrated.




One big advance, and the one that I suspect may be more important for its long term impact on the churches of the world, has drawn remarkably little attention.  The day before the Iowa announcement, and drowned out of the news by the drama of developments in Iowa and New England, The Swedish parliament, with the minimum of fuss or fanfare, and the support of all the major parties, voted to make Sweden the fith country in Europe to recognise same sex marriage.   For those of us in Europe, especially if we are committed to the ideal of ever closer union, this is obviously more significant than the stop-start progress in some minor American states and cities. But I believe that the significance for all of us is substantial, particularly if we are professed Christians.  Why?
In the US, and also here in the UK, the legal provisions for same sex marriage or civil unions/partnerships, where they exist, are quite specifically for ‘civil’ marriage or partnerships.  Indeed, the British legislation specifically prohibits the use of religious language or premises for the ceremony; increasinlgy, US legislators are cradting thier gains by spelling  out the the legislation proposed places no obligations on religious minsters, or even staff.
The Swedish situation is quite different. The legislation quite specifically provides for legal recognition of either civil or church marriage. This has huge implications for the Swedish Lutheran Church, which until recently was the official state church of the country, with special status, even funding, in the legal system.  This has changed, but the informal ties and status remain strong.  So what was the response of the church?   Did they start weeping and wailing and gnashing there teeth? Did they lament the moral decadence of the country?  Did they offer grudging toleration, with ifs and buts to demand a right of opt-out?  None of the above.  a final decision awaits a full synod later in the summer, but the provisional, formal response was that the church would understand and ‘excuse’ any pastor who, as a matter of conscience,  felt s/he could NOT preside over same sex weddings.  That’s right – the specail consideration and understanding goes to those who are opposed:  the default position, buy Sweden’s major church, is to take in their stride same sex marriage conducted in church. Unless I have wildly misread the situation, this is likely to be the standard position after the synod later this year.
This will have important ripple effects, notably elsewhere in the EU.  Pressure for marriage equality will undoubtedly continue to spread across the EU, particularly in Western Europe.  When (not if), equality reaches Germany and Austria, the German Lutheran church, and also the German and Austrian Catholic churches,  will have to consider carefully their position.  All of them have special state recognition and funding.  Even in advance of legislation, just the propect of pressure for marriage, is forcing the churches into hard tactical consideration – faced with an emergin gay marriage lobby, the Portuguese Bishops proposed civil partnerships as a compromise solution – thus embracing the very proposal that there English counterparts strongly opposed a few years back.
In the English speaking world, the troubles caused to the Anglican Communion (which includes the Episcopalians) by disputes over homosexuality are well known. But while skirmishing continues, it is clear that over the longer term view, the tide is clearly turning in the direction of greater acceptance. The continuning expansion of legal recognition of civil marriage across the USA is already forcing more and more individual pastors, and local jursdictions, into fresh consideration of their own stance – and an increasing minority are  coming down on the side of at least blessing, and possibly solemnising, these unions in church.  Every synod season sees new debates on these. Where there is not yet victory, the margins of defeat are generally narrowing.
For me, the most heartening aspect of this, is the increasing number of reports I am seeing of sincere religious clergy of goodwill, who have found themselves prayerfully re-examining scriptures, theology and church history in search of guidance – and concluding that established church strictures against homosexuallity are without scriptural foundation, and misguided. (The recently released survey of ‘mainline protestant clergy’ attitudes to SSM has some fascinating figures on this).
There is no longer any doubt:  marriage equality is spreading steadily across the world, and across the US.  As it does so, the churches will increasingly be forced to grapple with, and re-examine, their own beliefs.  In doing so, many will reverse long-standing opposition to same sex relationships, and see the value of recognising commitment, whatever the orientation or gender of the partners.
The Catholic church will be behind the trend – but will not resist indefinitely.  Here, too, truth will triumph in the end.
Same Sex Marriage:  coming (soon) to a church near you – but not yet to a Catholic parish.
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Soho Masses

I spent last Saturday with a group of 20 LGBT Catholics on a pastoral planning workshop for the ‘Soho Masses’.  These Masses are now marking a double anniversary:  this week is the 2nd anniversary of their formal recognition by the diocese, and a move into a Catholic church, while April will mark the 10th anniversary of their inception, on a much smaller scale.  I thought this would be a good opportunity to tell you a little more about who we are, and why this journey has been important.

For American readers, bear in mind that here in the UK, we are way behind you – the British are well known for their national reserve in all things, which extends also to LGBT activism, and to the church.  (An American participant on Saturday noted how marked is the contrast she has seen, with British laity far more subservient, and less assertive in dealings with the hierarchy, than their American counterparts.)  So we have a long way to go – but it is still worth noting how far we have come.




10 years ago, a small group of lesbian and gay Catholics met in private domestic premises in North London for what was in effect a house Mass.  This became a regular monthly event, with a steady rise in numbers.  After a while,  the premises became no longer available, forcing a move.  This turned out to be beneficial, as we were able to make use of premises in the heart of Soho – London’ s gay mecca- in a modern Anglican church.  The nature of the physical space and the location  were ideal, and numbers continued to expand.  Frequency was also increased, to twice monthly. (Many of the congregation travel in from outlying areas, where they are actively engaged in local parishes of their own.)

Surveys of the congregation showed how highly the participants valued these services, for the simple affirmation that they represent, for the sensitive and intelligent homilies appropriate to our lives, for the impressive liturgies (thank you, Martin),  and for the warm welcome and community experienced over tea and biscuits.

Increasing success, however, also brought unwelcome attention from some more conservative opponents, who began agitating  for the Cardinal to close down the ‘heretical’ Masses which were being celebrated for ‘sinners’ in an Anglican church.  From our side, relationships with the diocese were confused and cautious, with decidedly mixed signals being received, so that we were were never quite sure whether we would in fact be shut down, or if we might achieve some degree of diocesan accommodation or recognition.

When the change came, it was the latter. Late in 2006, we received information that the Cardinal, through his representative, wished to open discussions with a view to offering us a permanent home in an inner London parish. – and made clear that he hoped to see the move concluded rapidly, within weeks.  We welcomed these discussions, but refused to be steamrollered.  After some months’ careful and frank discussions, we did indeed move into our present home in Soho. This parish has a long and notable history of its own, but as an inner city parish no longer has a significant resident population.  There were still regular Sunday and weekday Masses, but these were poorly attended.  The agreement reached was that we would be specifically welcomed, ‘within a parish context’, at the regular 5:00 pm Mass on the 1st & 3rd Sundays of each month – identical to our existing timing.

Although we welcomed the formal recognition and acceptance that this implied, we had some important reservations and suspicions, which involved intensive consultation and discussion with the community before we agreed, and celebrated (in grand style) our first Mass in the new home in March 2007.

The effects of the move were clearly mixed.  We welcomed the signs of acceptance and diocesan integration that it implied, but were equally cautious of the parallel implications that the diocese was attempting to exert control.  Opposition also increased (it is ironic that the group who tried to shut down the Masses because they were held in Anglican premises,  simply saw them transferred to a historic Catholic church, where the diocesan vicar-general is now the parish priest.)      Our opponents responded in a very traditional Catholic way – by a public prayer vigil outside the church, during our Masses.  Have you ever been prayed at?  Finding myself on the receiving end of prayer as an offensive weapon was distinctly disconcerting, even to me.  Several of the less brazen congregation were sufficiently put off to stop attending.  How on earth  do these people imagine they are doing God’s work by keeping people AWAY from Sunday Mass?

Still, they persevered (in all weathers), and so did we.  From a small group 10 years ago meeting privately once a month for Mass, to a larger group of 40-60 ‘squatters’ in an Anglican parish, we are now up to 70 – 100 at any one Mass, and an estimated total of regular participants probably exceeding 200, some of whom travel great distances to attend.  (My own journey of 4 hours travelling for the round trip is not exceptional:  others come from still further afield.)  We are now strong enough to have seen 20 people give up their Saturday for a lengthy meeting, which showed me convincingly that we are have overcome the difficulties of transition, and are not ready for planned further growth.

From our existing, narrowly focused programme of Mass twice a month, we have identified the need to find ways to offer LGBT retreats, and also some form of regular meetings for discussion of LGBT related faith issues.  With regained confidence, our liturgies are likely to become (still more) assertive in affirming our LGBT identity.  We have recently formed a young persons special interest group: an older persons group may soon follow. We are also slowly developing an internet based virtual community, to support those who are unable to attend, and for all of us between Masses. We continue to enjoy liturgies which are rich spiritually and musically (we have THREE excellent organists sharing honours.)  Our celebrants, taken from a roster of remarkably gifted priests, continue to provide excellent homilies.

There remain challenges.  We have still to work out quite how to develop the relationship with the parish for the other Sunday and Weekday Masses.  The diocese, after almost pleading with us to move into the Soho church, has been remarkably unforthcoming in publicly demonstrating support in print or on their website. We will soon have a new man heading the diocese, and we have no idea how he will respond to the situation he finds himself with. Will he encourage us, try to control us, or to shut us down? And what of all those people who cannot easily get in to Soho?  Is there potential to consolidate, then replicate, the Soho model?

We do not know.  What we do know, is that there has been remarkable growth and increasing acceptance over 10 years.  In the days before our very 1st Mass, London was rocked by a vicious bomb attack on a London pub, in what was very much a hate crime.  Since then, public acceptance and legal protection for the LGBT community have grown beyond recognition. Our position  within the church, while still fraught with difficulties, is also clearly stronger than it then was.  The quality of the discussions, the enthusiasm and the positive tone on Saturday leave me convinced that  the next 10 years will bring still further growth and opportunities.

Deo Gratias!

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“Sex As God Intended” (Book Review)

SAGISCAN

John McNeill, Lethe Press 2008.

I have just two small niggles about this book, so let me get them out of the way now. First, I was initally disappointed to find that this is not all new wrting by McNeill.  Only half the book is by McNeill, and the rest is a collection of celebratory articles, a “Festchrift”, by others. This Festschrift is welcome, but even his own writing is not all new.  I have not read all the previous works, but even so I recognised large chunks of the material as not just a restatement, but verbatim reprints, of  sections of  “Taking a Chance of God.” So big chunks of this are not new material.

Also irritating was the poor editing.  McNeill appears to have gone to a new publisher, who have clearly made good use of a spell-checker – but paid insufficient attention to grammar.  There were many instances  where the flow of the text was interrupted by obvious missing words, with important parts of speech simply not present, leading to incomplete sentences or clauses that just did not hang together.




Celebrating John McNeill

But these were irritations only.  It does not matter that this is not all new writing by McNeill, and should not be treated as such.  The Festchrift is the clue: this is not a continuation, but a celebration, of the earlier work.  Just running down the contributors, all of whom have made major contributions of their own to the continuing struggle of LGBT Catholics, is testimony to the importances of McNeill’s work as theologian, as writer, and as therapist. (One of the contributions is titled  “You saved My Life”  this is intended to be taken quite literally). Amongst the contributors, I was already familiar with the work of  Toby Johnson, Mark Jordan, Robert Goss, Sister Jeannine Gramick and Daniel Helminiak.  The contributions of others has left me wanting to explore their work too.

So what is this life work of McNeill, and why should we celebrate it?

“The Church and The Homosexual”, published back in 1976, was groundbreaking.  Many writers since have testified to the liberating impact it has had on their own lives, and it has become a staple in the exploding bibliographies on the subject ever since.  It was originally published with the blessing and ‘imprimi potest’ of his Jesuit order, but soon attracted the displeasure of the Vatican.  Ordered to refrain from publication and teaching on the subject, McNeill initially complied, and fell silent for some years.  In conscience though, he felt compelled to continue to write and to speak out. Like so many others, he left the priesthood and embarked on a precarious career as writer and psychotherapist. Subsequent books included “Freedom, Glorious Freedom”, “Taking a Chance on God”, and “Both Feet Planted Firmly in Midair.”

“Sex as God Intended”

In the current book, McNeill examines systematically the treatment of sexuality, particularly in same sex relationships, and finds conclusions rather different to those usually used against us.  As he and others have done before, he dismisses the old interpretation of the story of Sodom as a gross misinterpretation  The sin of Sodom was not that of sexual relationships between men, but the failure to offer hospitality to guests – an important traditional obligation in a desert society.  Where McNeill differs from so many other writers who have made the same point, is that he is not content to simply argue against the old ‘clobber texts’.  Rather, he goes further, arguing for the positive place of sexuality in the Old Testament.  Highlighting Genesis 2 (the older version) rather than the more usual creation story in Genesis 1, he shows how Eve was created because Adam needed a companion, not just a mother for his children. This balances the procreative nature of marriage, so beloved by our opponents, with that of love and companionship.

An important piece of new writing in the book is a celebration of the Song of Songs, as a scriptural basis for sex as play. He also presents evidence that this may have been written to celebrate love been men.  The gender of the protagonists, though is ultimately not important.  The passion and ardour expressed is sufficiently powerful that the Song can be read with any interpretation you choose – but impossible to come away with the idea that sex is only about procreation.

Similarly, in examining the New Testament, McNeill’s focus is on the positive messages for LGBT Christians, rather than a repetition of arguments against the clobber texts.  He shows for instance, that in his family of choice, Jesus is associating with same sex groups rather than with ‘traditional’ family groups. His analysis of the healing of the (male) ‘servant’ of the Roman centurion shows how this servant was almost certainly a sexual partner, even  lover, of the centruiion.  He also draws attention to the special attentions paid to John  the Evangelist as “the apostle whom Jesus loved.”  It has often been noted how Jesus in the Gospels has absolutely nothing to say about homosexuality.  John McNeill has shown clearly that in His actions, the Lord goes much further than words in acknowledging and accepting such relationships.

Joy and the Holy Spirit.

The joy of McNeill’s writing is always his emphasis on the positive.  His recurring refrains are a quotation from St Irenaus “The glory of God is humans fully alive”,  an insistence that healthy psychology and healthy theology go hand in hand (and healthy psychology requires in turn healthy sexuality), and  a strong underpinning of Ignatian Spirituality, in which we find God in all things – even in persecution and exclusion by the church.   You can take McNeill out of the Jesuits, but you cannot take the Jesuits out of McNeill, and I thank the Lord for that.

Central to this thinking is that the Holy Spirit is constantly at work in our lives and in the world.  In a context where official teaching on sexuality out of Rome is so obviously misplaced and psychologically unhealthy, it is too easy too lose one’s spiritual bearings.  McNeill reminds us that where Rome fails, the Holy Spirit is permanently at hand for guidance  – we need  only ask.

He goes further. In an important address to Dignity, reprinted in this book, he speculates on the active participation of the Holy Spirit in the church of today,  directly intervening in a ‘Kairos Moment ‘ to restore a proper balance between what has been the unbridled power of the papacy and the rest of the Church.  (I am delighted that I have secured permission from McNeill to post this address in full  on this blog, here.) At the time of writing, it was prescient.  Given the turmoil in the church in recent weeks, and the resistance of so many to the series of Vatican fiascoes, I suspect we may now be seeing signs of just this intervention.  As evidence, just see how Benedict has been forced to react to outrage over the most recent disaster concerning the SSPX by completing a nearly complete turnaround. What at one time appeared to be a slap in the face for the spirit of Vatican II has now become a firm endorsement of it!

This book may not contain significant new writing by John McNeill, but no matter.  If you have not yet had the benefit of enjoying his exuberance, this will be an excellent introduction.  If you have read the earlier books, then you should still buy it, read it, and circulate it, to join the celebration.

John McNeill, thank you.

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More Book News: Bullet Proof Faith

I have noted before that I have no personal knowledge of this book other than the author’s own determined self-publicity, but I like the title and what it implies.  Now I have a review, which I found in  “Gay Religion”

“As someone who has both witnessed and participated in my share of verbal battles about the six passages in scripture that seem to condemn homosexuality, I found it refreshing that the Rev. Chellew-Hodge moved to a different focus for reflection and discussion. According to Chellew-Hodge, the purpose of “a bulletproof faith is not to defeat others in battle but to become so bulletproof that we no longer feel the need to fight.” Now I like it even more.




John McNeill: Dignity Address

How Should Lesbian and Gay Catholics Respond to the Hierarchy’s Decision to Bar Gays from the Seminaries and the Priesthood?

On Sept 21st, I read in the New York Times that the Vatican, under Pope Benedict, the former Joseph Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is considering the decision to bar all gays, even celibates, from the priesthood. My immediate reaction was great sadness for the Church I love, then rage at the injustice of it all, and then painful awareness of all those good and holy gay men in the priesthood who will feel betrayed and abandoned by their Church.  I then entered into prayer and asked the Holy Spirit to help me discern what this is all about.

First, the Spirit assured me that this decision has nothing to do with God or the teaching of Jesus Christ. Notice the total absence of any sense of love and compassion for all the suffering this will cause gay Catholics in general and, especially, gay priests. The hierarchy is aware that the child abuse crisis has seriously undermined their authority and power. This purge is a political move by the sinful human church to try to repair the damage done to their power and prestige by scapegoating the gay members of the clergy. They ignored all the expert advice from psychologists that gayness was not the cause of the child abuse crisis. By this move they are trying to avoid their responsibility for the crisis and any need on their part to reform the Church.




The Holy Spirit is still ultimately in charge of the Church and will call the shots on how the Church will evolve and be transformed and our task as gay Catholics is to prayerfully discern what the Holy Spirit is about in this moment of crisis and support that transformation.

I shall never forget the excitement we felt at the first meeting of New York Dignity some 35 years ago. We had put a small notice in the Village Voice. We had hoped for a few people. But over a hundred people crowded into the room we reserved at GoodShepherd Church in Gramercy Park. Obviously, we were meeting a strongly felt need in the Catholic lesbian and gay community. I remember saying at that first meeting: “Dignity is not something that we can give ourselves, but with God’s grace, it is something that we can give each other!”

We had a simple plan: To bring the message of God’s love to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and transsexual people. Secondly, by giving witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we hoped to enter into dialogue with the institutional Church to bring about a change in its teaching on homosexuality; a change fully justified by our new understanding of scripture, tradition and of human psychosexual development. Our cry here was that “what is bad psychology has to be bad theology and vice versa.” The evidence is in that those who try to live out Church teaching on homosexuality frequently destroy their mental health and submit themselves to worshipping a God of fear. In Paul’s words: “You were not called to a spirit of slavery to let fear back into your lives again, you are called to a spirit of adoption. You have the right to call your God, Abba (Daddy).”

We were full of the hope and enthusiasm of Vatican II, which had redefined the Church as “The People of God”! Our naïve hope that the Church would change seemed confirmed a few years later in 1976, when my book, The Church and the Homosexual, which seriously challenged Church teaching, was given an imprimi potest by the General of the Jesuits, Pedro Arrupe (an action for which he paid heavily later by being deposed as General by the Pope) and I was granted permission to publish.

Now almost thirty years later, although the Holy Spirit has abundantly blessed our ministry to bring the message of God’s love to our sisters and brothers, I am sorry to have to report that in terms of dialogue with the hierarchy, it has been mostly downhill ever since.

The Church has adamantly refused our offer of dialogue and refuses to hear what the Holy Spirit wants to say to the hierarchy through the experience of faithful Catholic gays and lesbians. A series of homophobic documents have been issued from Rome. The final most egregious document read: “The homosexual inclination, though not in itself a sin, must be considered objectively disordered.” We gay and lesbian Catholics, who know that we were created homosexual by God, see this statement as a blasphemy against God by claiming that God created something that is intrinsically ordered to evil.

Now we are told that a document will be issued by Rome, using the teaching on “objective disorder’ that forbids any seminary from accepting a gay candidate no matter how qualified, and forbids bishops to ordain an openly acknowledged gay candidate.

This should come as no surprise. Twenty five years ago, friends in the Vatican sent me a copy of a letter sent by the Congregation of Bishops that deals with seminaries on the issue of accepting gay candidates for priesthood. At that time, the Congregation asked all seminary directors to carefully scrutinize gay candidates and determine whether their homosexuality was egosyntonic or egodystonic. This psychological jargon distinguishes those who accept and are comfortable with their homosexuality over against those who see their homosexual orientation as something to be hated and rejected. Only those candidates whose homosexuality was egodystonic should be accepted as candidates for the priesthood. In other words, only the mentally sick should be accepted and the healthy should be turned away. Fortunately, most seminary directors ignored this directive. Now the Vatican intends to enforce it.

Because of the incredible success Dignity and other gay liberation groups have had over the last 39 years, very few gay candidates for the priesthood today have an egodystonic attitude of self-hatred. So the Vatican felt forced to take a more radical stance. The hierarchy has decided to scapegoat the Catholic gay community, rather than to acknowledge any failure and sinfulness on their own part.

I admire the shrewdness of the Holy Spirit. The cultic priesthood, limited to professed celibate males, whether heterosexual or repressed homosexual, is rapidly disappearing.  I can think of no action the Vatican could take that would guarantee the total collapse of that priesthood – a collapse that will necessarily lead to a new form of shepherding in the Church.

In my own experience over the years, if I met a priest who was an exceptionally good pastor, loving and compassionate, I could be close to certain that I was dealing with a gay priest. Let me give two examples of that.  The first is my friend and colleague, Father Mychal Judge, a gay Franciscan, who was Chaplin to the New York City Fire Department, and died while anointing one of his beloved fire-fighters in the 911 collapse of the WorldTrade Towers. Mychal and I worked together in ministry to Dignity/New York and in a special ministry to homeless people with AIDS in Harlem. Mychal had a deep awareness of God’s love for him and felt a strong desire to reach out and bring the message of God’s love to all those the Church and society had abandoned. Another example of the Holy Spirit’s shrewdness: as Mychal was dying at the foot of the World Trade towers, bureaucrats in Rome where busy preparing a document to expel gays from the priesthood. Mychal recited this morning prayer every day:

Lord, take me where you want me to go,

Let me meet who you want me to meet,

Tell me what you want me to say and

Keep me out of your way.

Mychal was a perfect model for a renewed priesthood. His priesthood was not primarily in the sanctuary but with the homeless in the streets or with the sick, the suffering and the dying.

A second model of gay priesthood is Matthew Kelty, the gay Cistercian monk, until recently guest master at Gethsemane Abbey and spiritual director for Thomas Merton. In his book, Flute Solo: Reflections of a Trappist Hermit, Matthew wrote that he attributed the special spiritual gifts that God had given him to his homosexual orientation:

People of my kind seem often so placed, the reason, as I have worked it out, that they are more closely related to the anima (the feminine) than is usual…. Perhaps a healthy culture would enable those so gifted by God or nature (i.e. homosexuals) to realize their call and respond to it in fruitful ways.

Jesus gave us a marvelous example of how to deal with scapegoating in the story of the Gerasene Demoniac in Mark 5. The Gerasene community had picked one troubled individual and made him their scapegoat, throwing him out of town. The demoniac had accepted their judgment on him, interiorizing self-hatred, tearing off his clothes, breaking the chains that bound him, howling and gashing himself with stones. As soon as Jesus entered his presence, he became aware of God’s love and that he himself was not evil but worthy of God’s love and compassion. Jesus, by his love, drove out the legion of demons of self-hatred and self-destruction. They entered into a herd of pigs and their destructive evil was immediately manifested by the fact that the pigs rushed down the hillside and threw themselves off a cliff into the sea.  The people of the village came out and found the former demoniac “sitting peacefully, fully clothed and in his right mind.”

The people of the village became frightened because they had lost their scapegoat and begged Jesus to leave. The former demoniac asked Jesus to take him with him, but Jesus refused and instead told him: “Go home to your people and tell them all the good things the Lord has done to you. Give witness to God’s love for you!” So the man went off and proceeded to spread throughout the Decapolis all that Jesus had done for them. And the people were amazed.

There is striking parallel here with us lesbian and gay Catholics. We too are being scapegoated by our Church. Many of us in the past interiorized the Church’s homophobia, resulting in self-hatred and self-destructiveness. But Jesus’ Spirit at one point touched our hearts and freed us from all self-rejection by giving us a clear, undeniable experience that God loves us in our gayness. Our ministry, then, like the former demoniac, is to witness to our people all the great things that God in her mercy has done for us. Our first task, then, is to call in the Holy Spirit to grant us such an overwhelming experience of God’s love that we are healed of all self-hatred and self-rejection and rendered immune to the persecution of the institutional church.

We gay and lesbian Catholics must not let our enemies outside ourselves define who we are. We must let the Spirit of God, the Spirit of love dwelling in our hearts, define who we are. And then give witness to all the great things the Lord has done for us.

What, then, should be our attitude toward the institutional church? James Allison, a gay Catholic theologian, suggests that we should have the same attitude toward the institutional church as Jesus had toward the temple, total detachment and indifference. In his ministry, the Temple was always there in the background but appears to have little relevance to Jesus’ mission. As Mark noted, after the Palm Sunday procession, Jesus came into Jerusalem, entered the Temple and looked around but immediately left forBethany with the twelve. Bethany was where the action was. Bethany was where the household of Martha and Mary, who I can imagine to be a lesbian couple and their gay brother Lazarus who was Jesus’ best friend. Here was Jesus’ church – a true community of love.

At the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples that “it is necessary that I go away in order for the Spirit to come. I tell you this: unless I go away the Spirit cannot come to you. But when I go away, I will send the Spirit to you and He will dwell in your hearts and lead you into all truth.” Jesus was referring to a maturing process in our spiritual life, a process for which we gay and lesbian Catholics have a special need. We must detach ourselves from all external authority and learn to discern what the Spirit has to say to us directly and immediately in our own experience.

Paul sees the coming of the Holy Spirit as the fulfilment of this prophesy of Jeremiah:

Look, the days are coming, Yahweh declares, when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel…..I shall plant my law, writing it in their hearts. Then I shall be their God and they will be my people. There will be no further need for neighbor to teach neighbor, saying “Learn to know Yahweh” No, they will all know me, the least to the greatest.

We must fight to free ourselves from any attachment to the institutional church, whether that be to have their approval or the equally destructive attachment that comes from the anger at the Church’s injustice. We should see ourselves as equals and siblings to Church authorities and pray for them as they try to discern the Spirit of God in their lives. Leave the Hierarchical church in God’s hands. Be grateful to them for the gifts they helped bring to us like the scriptures and the sacraments. But do not waste one ounce of energy in a negative attachment of anger with the Church. Commit every ounce of our energy to the positive ministry of love to which God has called us.

James Allison shares with us his experience of being called by God to ministry to the gay and lesbian community. He was on retreat in a Jesuit retreat house in Santiago in Chile. He had been dismissed from the Dominican order for acknowledging his gayness. The first grace he received from God was a profound awareness that all the homophobic violence and injustice in the Church has nothing to do with God. This was the human Church caught into its own blindness and sinfulness.

He was trying to discern in prayer with was God’s will for him. One day he went on a walk in a gay cruising area. He found himself looking at some young gay men cruising in the park and felt a strong liking for these young men and wishing them well.  When he returned to the retreat house, he went into the chapel feeling somewhat guilty for his mixed motives for going to the cruising area. He was suddenly given the grace to realize that the warm affection he felt toward the young gay man was not just his feelings but the feelings of the Holy Spirit dwelling in his heart. Then he heard a profound voice telling him “Feed my sheep!”

He realized that that voice was God directly calling him to a ministry to lesbians and gays. That call from that moment on was an essential part of his identity, a call to priestly ministry that he could not deny or run away from with out denying an essential dimension of himself. This call in no way depended on validation from the institutional church but was his direct and immediate commission from God.

Ezekiel, in Chapter 23, saw God in a vision detaching himself from the Temple in the shape of a chariot, becoming flexible and mobile. Ezekiel then had a vision of  God upbraiding the shepherds of Israel (the Temple priests) for having failed to feed his sheep and abandoning them to meet their own self-interests. God revealed a new understanding of shepherding, in which God Himself will undertake the shepherding. “Behold I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep”

Judaism and Christianity are both religions of the collapsing Temple. There is always a connection between the collapse of the Temple and God bringing into existence a new form of shepherding. In Judaism, it was the collapse of the Temple in the year 587 BC which led to the creation of text based Judaism. And again, the collapse of the Temple in 70 AD, which led to the creation of Rabbinic Judaism.  In every case, the collapse is part of God’s plan to get through to us and help us to get beyond something that is no longer worthy of us. It took a long time but only after Ezekiel achieved a certain form of indifference to the fate of the Temple was he able to receive the vision from God of God himself shepherding his people without any intermediary.

In the gospel of John, Jesus identifies the new Temple with his body and the body of all who have received the indwelling Spirit.  Allison feels sure that anyone who has experienced God’s love and has been freed from self-rejection, and then takes the final step of freeing themselves from external Church authority will also hear the same call to ministry in their heart.

A recent example of this, a young man came to me in Fort Lauderdale. He was leading a gay life and had a lover, but he could not let go of feelings of guilt, shame and self-rejection. He was praying constantly to God to make his will known to him. As he was driving home to Boston still praying, suddenly he had a profound experience of God hugging him. This experience lasted a long time and when it was over he was sure of God’s love for him as a gay man and felt a strong need to share that experience with as many as possible.

There is no doubt in my mind that we are in a new stage of the collapsing Temple and the emergence of a new form of shepherding. Joachim of Flores prophesied in the 13thcentury there would come a day when the hierarchical church, becoming superfluous, would in time dissolve and in its place would emerge the Church of the Holy Spirit. Ministry in the Church of the Holy Spirit will come from the direct call of the Holy Spirit. The task of authority will be to listen prayerfully to what the Holy Spirit is saying through the people of God. This Church must become a totally democratic Church with no caste system, no higher or lower, totally equal: women with men, gays with straights; everyone possessing the Holy Spirit within them, everyone an authority.

For example, who knows what God wants from lesbians and gays? – Obviously, only lesbians and gays. No one can tell us from outside what God wants of us. We are alone in knowing with an experiential knowledge that our love for each other contains the divine spirit and brings with it that kind of peace and joy that indicates the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Congratulations Dignity/Chicago on thirty years of faithful service to the Catholic lesbian and gay community! You have prayerfully discerned and carried out the commission the Spirit has given you. You are a foretaste of the future Church of the Holy Spirit. Continue to prayerfully discern what God is asking of you and follow that voice. Keep in mind the famous insight of Maurice Blondel: “Our God dwells within us and the only way to become one with that God is to become one with our authentic self!”

John McNeill

2 October 2005

A Kairos moment for LGBT Catholics?

Former Jesuit, theologian, psychotherapist and author John McNeill has written an angry open letter to the U.S. bishops. He begins by slamming the bishops for ignoring the call to dialogue made by Dignity 30 years ago, and continues by lamenting “the enormous destruction recent Vatican documents have caused in the psychic life of young Catholic gays, and of the violence they will provoke against all gay people.”Gay Catholics, he says, have had “Enough!” With repeated cries of “Enough! Enough of …….” opening each section, his declaration rises in power and anger to its climax.

Holy Spirit in action?.

To me, the most interesting feature is not the anger or the arguments: these are all too familiar. But at the end of the letter he claims to be sensing a “Kairos moment” – a time ripe for significant change. The last time heard such a claim from churchmen was back in South Africa, in what seemed to the rest of us the darkest days of apartheid. I think it was within just a year or two that aprtheid had been officially disowned, Mandela had been released, and the new democracy was firmly on its way.

Is McNeill right? The point of a Kairos moment is not just to sit back and wait for things to happen – it is a time of potential only. To achieve the realisation of this moment, we need to grasp the opportunity, and force the change that is coming.

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