Category Archives: Sexuality and gender

“Coming Out” as Wrestling with the Divine

At this time of Pride, marking the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, I wanted to post something on the important legacy of visibility and coming out.

After mulling over some thoughts on what to say, I picked up Richard Cleaver’s “Know My Name” for re-reading, and was delighted by the synchronicity of finding that his Chapter 2, “Knowing and Naming”, deals with exactly this subject.  So instead of rehashing or expanding the ideas I presented in my opening post 6 months ago (“Welcome:  Come in, and Come out”), I thought I would share with you some of Cleaver’s insights.

First, Cleaver points out that in addition to the modern association of “coming out” with escaping the closet, there are two other important contexts. It can also call to mind the Exodus story of coming out of the land of Egypt, of escaping slavery and oppression; and it was used before Stonewall to mimic the English debutante ritual of “coming out” into society, of achieving the first recognition as an adult in polite society .  For us then, coming out is both a liberation from oppression and an acceptance and a welcome into a new society.  He then continues by arguing that coming out in the modern sense is an essential first step in hearing the Gospel message of liberation .

To do so, he points to the well-known costs of not coming out:  psychological self-oppression,  increased suicide risk (especially in the young), and the arrests for sexual activity in restrooms / cottages of men who are usually married or otherwise closeted.  Against that, he contrasts the personal rewards of coming out.  After speaking the truth to ourselves, the next stage, of meeting with others like ourselves,

“is generally even more of a transforming moment than the private recognition and acceptance of our gayness….Coming out publicly (a continuous process, not a single  event) brings a sense of freedom that must be experienced to be believed.  Coming out is one of our many seasons of joy.”

This is a sentiment which, from my own experience, I heartily endorse, and to which I would add the observation that  “Joy is an infallible sign of the Holy Spirit.”

He then turns to some possible costs of coming out: active discrimination, including in employment; difficulties in securing adequate access to children; a misguided steering into inappropriate marriage, in the expectation of a ‘cure’;  and finally the hostility or even misguided interference of the churches.  This leads to a stinging repudiation of the Church’s involvement:

“It is no surprise that whether we leave or stay, we react to the church with suspicion.  Something about what the church is teaching, something about how the church conceives itself, is not right.  In the case of the church’s relation to gay men and lesbians, we can dissect out two particular explanations for this suspicion.

First, the church has allowed itself to subordinate the commandment of love to the demands of heterosexist culture, defying Paul’s injunction, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” (Rom 12:2) ……It is.. the result of the church’s long-standing obsession with sexual activity, which leads to a reduction of the lives of lesbians and gay men to the realm of sexual experience.”

“This brings me to my second suspicion about the church, which is why it is willing to accommodate itself to the mind of the age, to compromise with bourgeois culture:  it hopes to maintain its authority and thus its institutional power in society by preventing lesbians and gay men from speaking about their own experiences. The institution benefits.. from a theology that permits it to hand down decisions without any data even being collected, let alone examined“.  (Emphasis added).

To which I add once again that this is why I am convinced we need to be out and visible in the church.  As long as we remain closeted and out of sight, as long as we refrain from speaking of our own experiences, we are complicit in our own oppression.

Cleaver then goes on to discuss several well-known Gospel stories, drawing from them important lessons for us in the LGBT community.

Reflecting on the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, he avoids some of the better known observations, and makes two other  points.  He notes that while recognising her sexual noncomformity, Jesus notably does not admonish or condemn her, nor does she express repentance.

“Jesus is no welfare caseworker… his goal is to transform society, not to ‘fix’ those who suffer injustice so that the existing social order may run more smoothly.“

The second point is that after the initial exchange, the woman proceeds to put to Him some “theological” questions on worship.  The story, notes Cleaver, is not about promiscuity at all, but about “who is capable of doing theology” .

This point on doing theology is made again when he looks at the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10).  While Martha works, Mary sits and listens to Jesus speak.  Mary complains, but the reply is that Mary  “has chosen the better part”. In Jewish society, women were expected to do the domestic work, only the men participated in religious study or debates, and the sexes sat apart when guests were present for meals.  It would have been unheard of for women to participate in religious discussions, yet Christ not only condones this, he commends her for it.  Jewish women and other social outcasts were expected to be invisible:  but for the Lord, no-one is invisible, all are welcome to join in making theology.

In telling of the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19 -31), Cleaver compares Lazarus with the LGBT community “outside the door” of the church, while the rich man is compared with the institutional church, which even by its indifference  contributes to our oppression.

His final biblical reflection is an extended discussion of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel at Peniel (Gen 32:  22-32). For Cleaver, there are two important themes in this story:  the wrestling itself, and the act of naming. From this he reflects on the importance to us of naming honestly our oppression.  Noting that

“We learn to name our oppression by struggling with it”,

he insists that we should present ourselves in full frankness and honesty, implying that we should resist the temptation to mimic conventional patterns of morality out of a mere desire to avoid offence:

“The strategy of putting forward only “acceptable” images of ourselves is doomed to failure… We should be forthright about who we are.”

For me, the 3 key lessons from Cleaver, all of which I endorse whole-heartedly, are:

In spite of the obvious dangers and costs, coming out publicly is invigorating, liberating and life-giving;

We need to extend the  “coming out” process into our lives in the Church, where we should expect to be fully visible, and to speak out frankly and honestly of our views and experiences;

and that by doing so, we will be exercising our right to share in making theology, in spite of the efforts of the institutional church to exercise a monopoly.

“We must speak with our own voices, in all their imperfections, when responding to God’s overtures.  Moses stuttered;  Israel limped.  What matters is not image but integrity.  If God calls, we must know who answers. We answer to our true names, because these are the names God calls us by.  The cost of learning them is wrestling with the divine.”

Amen to that.

Heterosexual Acts, Loving Homoerotic Relationships

One of the nastier tricks of Vatican rhetoric, especially as displayed in “Homosexualitatis Problema”, is the uneven manner in which (approved) heterosexual relationships are described in terms of “conjugal love”, while (condemned) homosexual relationships are simply not mentioned, and the word “homosexual” is used only in terms of homosexual persons, “acts” (assumed to be genital), and “condition”.

The unfairness and lack of validity of this could be  quickly and easily demonstrated simply by reversing the procedure. How easy it it would be to lament the condition of the heterosexual male, intent only on self-indulgent sensual gratification, as demonstrated in the ubiquity of prostitution and pornography. Or, we could consider the one-sided nature of the institution of traditional marriage, marked by patriarchal domination, an expectation that male sexual needs should always be met, a disregard for the need (or sometimes even the possibility) of female sexual pleasure, and sometimes even domestic violence and marital rape.

Domestic Violence: Heterosexual Acts?

It would be easy, but I’m not going to go there. I am quite willing to accept that there must be many sound heterosexual relationships really are founded on genuine loving partnerships, based on equality of the partners. Logically, I am sure it is quite as possible for heterosexual marriages to be as emotionally healthy for both partners as homoerotic relationships.

Instead, I want to look at the other side of the comparison, at the quality of the love found in so many male couples, love which the Vatican resolutely fails to acknowledge.

Dugan McGinley (“Acts of Faith, Acts of Love“) discusses many of these relationships, as recounted in the autobiographical writings of a selection of gay male Catholics – and ex-Catholics. Reading these accounts, I was struck by how much these relationships are fully characterised by the intensity and quality of love and mutual giving to the other, and even to their partners’ families. These “acts of love” are quite as much “homosexual acts” as the merely genital acts with which the Vatican is obsessed.

Fenton Johnson, for instance, in “Geography of the Heart” describes how he made a fully conscious and deliberate decision to commit his life in love to his partner Larry, even in the full knowledge that Larry had AIDS, and would soon be dying a slow and difficult death, with all the implications that would bring in difficulties and burdens imposed  on himself. In accepting the responsibility, Johnson finds that the quality of his love draws him closer to God:

My deciding to take care of Larry as he goes through this is in part a religious decision – a decision to thank the power,  or powers,  that have granted me life. And it’s a humanistic decision, – a storing up, I can hope, of grace; if I stand at someone’s side during this hard portion of his journey, perhaps, I can hope, I will have someone to stand by me when my time arrives, be that one or five or fifty years away.

In caring for my lover I came to understand the tautological relationship between God and love.  My lover’s love for me and mine for him made me into something better, braver, more noble than I had imagined myself capable of being. I was touched by the literal hand of god, for this is what love is, in a way as real as I expected to encounter in this life.

Earlier in their relationship, with the first visit to Larry’s family, they took a decision out of respect for the sensitivities of the family, that Larry would sleep in the family home, and Fenton would go alone to an hotel.  After Larry’s eventual death, he continues to see and offer support to Larry’s parents, and especially to his mother after she finds herself alone and widowed.

John McNeill has often written of the importance of his own partner, Charles, and how important each has been to the other in the differing kinds of support they offer, and the sacrifices they have made for each other.

Despite, this, McNeill performs his act of love without question; he is committed to Charlie for better or for worse.

John also makes an important, often overlooked consequence of the church distinction between homosexual “acts” (of the genital kind) and homosexual persons. For by focussing on single acts as isolated sins, and denying the possibility of relationships, the Church is paradoxically encouraging the precisely the kind of promiscuous lifestyle that they decry, and assume to characterise the “gay lifestyle”.

According to the pastoral practice of the church, a man could have gay sex one night and then be absolved for his “sin” in confession the next day. If, on the other hand, he fell in love and moved in with a man, he would be denied absolution until he broke off the relationship. This is how he experienced his own coming to terms with his homosexuality as a Catholic: “Ironically the church fostered promiscuity and felt that the enemy was not gay sex but gay love”.

The point, which Vatican documents simply ignore, is that “homosexual acts” are not purely genital,  but include, are even primarily, acts of love.  As McGinley repeatedly notes in his book, it is impossible to separate the homosexual “person” from his “acts”, or from the “condition” that makes him who he is.

What of those who have attempted to live fully within church teaching? Some few, especially some of the priests, have successfully accepted the charism of celibacy. However, as we know from St Paul, not everyone is granted this charism.  For those who do not possess it, compulsory celibacy is simply oppressive:

The intention is to promote  lives of virtue for gay people, but the effect of trying to live according to  church teaching on homosexuality is usually the opposite. For example, the church insists on life-long celibacy for gay people, even though they may not possess  the charism necessary for such a commitment. Without the charism, the requirement is no longer life-enhancing, but rather death-dealing. It relies on an artificial separation of doing and being gay, and transforms into a bare bones order of abstinence – a suffering to be offered up, a cross to bear. As (Andrew) Sullivan says, “Abstinence forever; abstinence always; abstinence not just from sex, but from love and love’s hope and the touch of a lover’s embrace. Abstinence even from recognition, acknowledgement, family.”

(Bear in mind here, that notwithstanding the official insistence that the Church condemns only the “acts”, and that the “persons” must be treated with “dignity, compassion and respect”, the actual practice of the church frequently confuses the two the moment that a “person” openly identifies as gay. This was the case with the Canadian altar server, who remains unable to serve because he is living openly with a man, even though he insists that the relationship is celibate.)

This denial of love which Sullivan describes has lead many men into destructive marriages, or to suicide, or to both. These too are described in McGinley’s book, but I will not go into them here.   Instead, I simply want to remind you of the significance of McGinley’s subtitle: that gay Catholic autobiographies are sacred texts. Indeed they are, and telling and sharing our stories are sacramental acts.

Vatican doctrine on sexuality is dry, abstract, entirely theoretical – and not based on sound premises. Telling our stories, speaking the truth in love, as the Vatican itself urges us to do, is the one simple thing that every gay Catholic can do to contribute (over time) to the building of a new, sounder and reality- based sexual theology.

See also

Books:

Johnson, Fenton: Geography Of The Heart

McGinley, Dugan: “Acts of Faith, Acts of Love: Gay Catholic Autobiographies As Sacred Texts

McNeill, John: Both Feet Firmly Planted in Midair

Sullivan, Andrew: Virtually Normal

Previous posts:

Excluded from God’s People?

Finding God in Gay Lovemaking

What IS a Gay Catholic to do? A Question Comes Out of the Closet.

At America blog last week, the Jesuit priest, Fr James Martin opened up a conversation that is well overdue, but which has up to now been conducted only among those most directly affected, or in obscure specialist theological circles: “What”, he asked, “Is a gay Catholic to do?”

Introducing his question, Fr Martin began by observing five actions that most people would regard as standard life experiences or choices, but which are prohibited to gay Catholics if they wish to conform to standard Church teaching.  Briefly, these actions are:
  • To experience  romantic, sexual love
  • To get married
  • To adopt children
  • To seek ordination
  • To take employment with the church or its agencies.
What, then, is a gay Catholic to do? Fr Martin raised the question, which I suspect will also be relevant in many other faiths, but did not attempt to answer it. Having had the question put before them, his readers responded with vigour – but they too had few answers, beyond the obvious one of simply “accept church teaching without questioning”, and so to accept this misfortune as one would any other disability or ill-fate bestowed by God.
This is not a response that I would consider constructive – and nor would most of the other gay men and lesbians who joined the discussion. (Christ himself said nothing at all against homoerotic relationships). Only marginally more helpful is the variation on the above, to pray to the Lord for help, accept His guidance – and then follow church teaching, quite overlooking even the possibility that the response to sincere, deep prayer might be to ignore church teaching (which, incidentally, was my own experience – but of that more later).
There can be very few heterosexual people who would voluntarily give up all five of these actions. The supposed grounds for setting the expectation, in Scripture and in the Magisterium of the church, are disputed by some significant modern scholars. Is  it surprising that some gay Catholics are refusing to just roll over and play dead?  This is a conversation that has been conducted quietly for decades by gay Catholics themselves, and more formally by an expanding band of reputable academics in “gay & lesbian theology”, in “queer theology”, or even in “indecent theology”.  If Fr Martin did not suggest an answer to his question, he did at least bring into public view the simple fact there such a conversation exists, and needs to be conducted more openly.
In the absence of any clear agreement on what a gay Catholic is to do, I would like to summarise what, based on my own observations, gay Catholics who have seriously considered the question, have in fact done.
Conform
This is obviously the approved response, actively promoted by the church as the “Courage” ministry, which aims to guide its members to live in complete chastity. I have no information on the numbers following this path, but suspect that they are low.  Many gay Catholics view this with scepticism, or even downright hostility, for its links to the discredited ideas of reparative therapy. (See “All You Wanted to Know About  Courage “, at the Wild Reed.)
Conscientious (silent) dissent
In setting its rules, the church claims that the basis lies in the clear voice of Scripture and the unchanging tradition of the church. However, as important decisions over the past summer of the ECLA, the Episcopalians and the Swedish Lutherans have shown, there is no longer a universal consensus among scholars that Scripture is as hostile as was once assumed.  It is now obvious that there is at least room for sincere disagreement on the relevance of the so-called “clobber texts”.
Similarly, the church’s own Magisterium is not, as claimed, unchanging. As gay Catholic historians like John Boswell and Mark Jordan have shown, the Magisterium on homoerotic relationships is anything but unchanging, and indeed may have followed rather than led popular intolerance which grew steadily in the centuries of urban decline in Western Europe after the fall of Rome.
Church teaching itself recognises the possibility of disagreeing, in conscience, with official teaching, provided that conscience has been properly formed.  For years, this was in effect my own position.  The challenge of course, is just what does “properly formed” mean? In my case, it included many different elements, including personal prayer, formal spiritual direction with highly qualified priests, several 6 or 8 day silent, directed retreats, and extensive reading, of Scripture, bible commentary, church history and sexual theology, and informal discussion with friends, gay and others. For me, the outcome was clear:  the official teaching, for whatever reason, is misguided, and I must live with integrity, in accordance with the way the Lord made me.
I would have thought that I had done about as much to form my conscience as most people could reasonably expect, but it seems not.  To judge by the comments following Fr Martin’s question, many orthodox Catholics simply argue that conscience cannot be properly formed unless it ends up agreeing with church teaching.  And even where there is agreement that I may after all have the right to dissent in private, this may not be in public, nor does it give me access to the five things named by Fr Martin – at least not with the co-operation of the church.
Conscientious (visible) dissent
The problem with silent dissent is that is silent –and therefore lonely. One yearns for the opportunity to talk openly, with other dissenting gay Christians, or with other Catholics (when we do, we usually find that they have their own profound disagreements with church teaching, but somehow their disagreements in conscience, over contraception for example, are deemed acceptable, while ours are not).  As it can be difficult to find safe spaces in most parishes to give expression to these issues, some Catholics seek to worship, where possible, in dedicated LGBT congregations.  As a “solution” to the problem, this is not satisfactory.  (The church should not be forming a series of ghettos.) Still, as a strategy and interim measure pending more welcoming responses by mainstream congregations, they are valuable.  But these too attract strong opposition in some quarters.  (Here in London, the regular Soho “gay masses” attract a steady band of protestors, praying outside the church for an end to the “heresy” that we too should be able to attend Mass.  How they argue that their Catholic duty is to prevent or discourage people from attending Mass, I fail to understand.)
External dissent: Prophetic Witness, or Sniping From the Margins?
One of the most penetrating discussions of the problem I have come across is by Michael B Kelly, an Australian writer and spiritual director, now working towards a PhD in Spirituality.  In a powerful reflection on the story of the road to Emmaus, he observes that this came immediately after the resurrection – which the religious authorities, holed up in Jerusalem, had not as yet accepted or recognised, in spite of the personal witness of the women who had met the risen Christ.  Two of the disciples, despondent, left Jerusalem, and made their way to the town of Emmaus.  The next part of the story is well known – on the road they met a stranger, walked with him, and offered the hospitality of their home, whereupon they recognised the risen Lord. This is where Kelly’s version becomes profound, because he makes the next part, usually omitted, the key to the story.  Having met and conversed with the Lord at a personal level, they then leave Emmaus, and return to Jerusalem, to deliver the news of the Risen Lord to the religious authorities who had so dismally failed earlier to recognise him.
This, says Kelly, is what a gay Catholic has to do.  First, to turn away (possibly literally, possibly figuratively) from the religious authority of the institutional church, and to meet Christ on a personal level.  Having done that, having formed a personal relationship, the task is to take the road away from Emmaus, back to Jerusalem, and then to speak up to the establishment in prophetic witness:  that Christ is not met among the religious “pure”, in ritual and religious law, but among the marginalised and rejected, in love and compassion.
There are an increasing number of gay Catholic dissenters who have followed this path in one from or another, who have distanced themselves from the institution and who speak up in prophetic witness (as they see it) against the sins of the church, and in support of the truth as they see it.  They still see themselves (and describe themselves) as “catholic” (just not necessarily “Roman”), but do not necessarily participate in regular liturgical services.  Whether they are indeed perceptive prophets who will in time be seen to have been right, or whether they are simply misguided fools sniping from the margins, time will tell.
Walk right away.
Right at the opposite end of the spectrum are those who have simply walked right away from the Catholic church, disgusted and repelled by the harsh words and treatment it has for them.  Some of these make their way to more supportive Christian denominations, some abandon religion entirely.  The ones that disturb me the most are those I often come across in the blogosphere, who describe themselves as “recovering” Catholics.
Still no answer.
I have still not given a clear answer: “What is a gay Catholic to do?”.  I have outlined a range of strategies that some gay Catholics have followed.  I now ask you:  if you are indeed a lesbian or gay Christian, in any of the hostile denominations, what strategy do you adopt (or have adopted) yourself? If you are not gay, but willing sincerely to consider the question from their point of view, putting yourself in their shoes, and without simply parroting out slogans, what would you do?

What, finally, would Jesus do?

Read More:

What is a Gay Catholic to do? Fr James Martin at America blog. (read the comments, too)

All You Wanted to Know About  Courage “, at the Wild Reed

Countering the Clobber Texts , here at QTC

The Church’s Changing Tradition , here at QTC

The Road from Emmaus:  A Reflection by Michael B Keely on the gay & lesbian Prophetic Role in the Church.

Recommended Books:

Alison, James: Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay (Darton Longman Todd, 2001) 239 pages*

Alison, James: On Being Liked (Darton Longman Todd, 2003) 168 pages*

Alison, James:  Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-in (Darton Longman Todd, 2005)*

Alison, James: Broken Hearts New Creations: Intimations of a Great Reversal (Darton Longman Todd)*

Comstock, Gary: Queer(y)ing Religion

Glaser, Chris: Coming Out as Sacrament

Goss, Robert:  Jesus Acted Up

Helminiak, Daniel:  Sex and the Sacred

Kelly, Michael B:  Seduced by Grace

McNeill, John: Sex as God Intended

Schinnick:  This Remarkable Gift being gay and catholic

Stuart,  Elisabeth: Religion is a Queer Thing

Stuart,  Elisabeth:  Gay & Lesbian Theologies


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The Spiritual Gifts of Gay Sexuality

Spiritual direction is one of the best-kept secrets of the Catholic Church. This is unfortunate- the process needs to better known and used. This is how Jesuit theologian James L’Empereur describes it:

the process in which a Christian accompanies others for an extended period of time for the process of clarifying the psychological and religious issues in the directee so that they may move toward deeper union with God and contribute to ministry within the Christian community.

I have unexpectedly been able to borrow L’Empereur’s “Spiritual Direction and the Gay Person”, which I would now like to prescribe to all my readers as required reading, with a 3 hour examination at the end of the course. I began reading last evening, and have been devouring it with enthusiasm. I am now about half way through, and not yet ready to offer a full and balanced assessment. (That will come later). Still, every page has important insights that I want to share or explore further. As an appetizer before the main course to follow, I offer some snippets today:

Here are the opening sentences:

Homosexuality is one of God’s most significant gifts to humanity. To be gay or lesbian is to have received a special blessing from God. All humans receive their own special graces from their creator, but god has chosen some to be gay and lesbian as a way of revealing something about Godself that heterosexuals do not.




This is a startling, unexpected beginning, but of course he goes on to explain and fully substantiate it, in a chapter that had me engrossed, and anxious to explore also all his references and sources (a task, I fear, which may be well beyond me.) Elsewhere, he makes another startling claim: he calls the gay state a “charism”, exactly comparable to the charism of celibacy embraced by Catholic clergy. Both are charisms granted to just a few, from which the wider church can learn. Here I was reminded of an observation in one of our Soho Mass homilies, that if “homosexuality” is an environmental threat because it cannot lead to procreation, so is celibacy.) The key manner in which we who are gay or lesbian can teach the wider Church is in the manner of our sexuality, which is not exclusively about genital contact (in complete contradiction to the popular stereotypes), nor is it based in patriarchal patterns of domination and submission.

I should stress here that L’Empereur very carefully does not either endorse or condemn any specific form of sexual expression, whether in committed, faithful relationships, in recreational sex, or in voluntary celibacy: those decisions are to be reached by the person being directed, through the process, and not decided a priori. However, he does argue strongly that for all people, gay or otherwise, the historic dichotomy between sex and spirituality has been destructive. Instead of thinking of spirituality OR sexuality, we should be looking for spirituality THROUGH sexuality , possibly (but not necessarily) including genital sexuality. Gay people, he says, may find this easier than heterosexuals, who are often startled during counselling before , when he asks whether they expect to use their sexual union as a form of prayer.

In this book L’Empereur presents with great clarity and authority a number of the themes I have been grasping at on these pages. Another is the view that authentic Catholic teaching fully supports, not condemns, the homosexual and his/her struggle. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. We know from painful experience of course, that approached from the perspective of sexual ethics, standard Catholic teaching is deeply hostile. L’Empereur reminds us that Catholic teaching is far broader than just sexual ethics. Approached from social justice, which is at least as important to the totality of teaching, a completely different picture emerges, one which demands compassion and support for the marginalised and oppressed, and requires that we work towards justice. This latter perspective has been profoundly influential in my own faith as it was formed under South African apartheid, and why I found Cardinal O’Connors instruction to the Soho Masses to present Catholic teaching on sexuality “in full, and without ambiguity”. This is impossible: “in full” implies from a range of approaches, which are self-contradictory. When we think of the structure of Catholic teaching on homosexuality, far too often we see only the dominating monolith of the official Vatican teaching on sexual ethics, and especially the scaled down, reduced travesty that we find in the catechism. Reading this book, I am reminded that the teaching “in full” more closely resembles a crowded, diverse city, with many strands coming from the Vatican centre – and also important subsidiary nodes, such as those presented by theologians like L’Empereur. Historically, cities grew around single, strong centres. During the twentieth century, the development of private transport led to dramatic changes in city morphology, with the major growth occurring on the suburban or exurban fringes and in suburban business nodes. In some cities, it has been suggested, the traditional centre has virtually disappeared.

We may be seeing the same thing in theology. Comparable to private transport, the emergence of lay theologians and secular schools of theology have privatised the construction of new ideas. Instead of the ancient central monolith dominating the skyline, steadfastly preserving and protecting its traditional inheritance, suburban nodes are bubbling away, creating new forms and structures: liberation theology, feminist theology, gay and lesbian theology, queer theology; theology by discerned experience, theology of spirituality through sexuality – and so many more I have not yet encountered. With so much vitality at the suburban fringes, the “margins” lose conceptual significance. Will Vatican City in time become irrelevant, as some physical central cities have done?

Jayden Cameron thinks so, at the Gay Mystic. Read “Life Finds a Way“.

Related Posts at QTC

 

Finding God in Gay Lovemaking

An Erotic Encounter With the Divine” is the title of a post by Eric L. Hays-Strom atJesus in Love. (Eric has a Masters Degree in Catholic Life and Worship from St. Meinrad School of Theology). In his post, he has a moving account of how deliberate prayer immediately before making love with his husband has led to intensely spiritual experiences – especially on one notable occasion in particular.

kiss

It would be unfair to copy too much of this personal story here, but some things are worth noting.  Eric’s journey in combining the sexual and the spiritual came after listening to some tapes prepared by Michael B Kelly, who is a noted spiritual director and writer, specialising in the contribution that gay men’s erotic experiences can give to the the church’s fuller understanding of spirituality:

…..we discovered a tape series about spirituality and sexuality, “The Erotic Contemplative” by Michael Bernard Kelly. I was immediately intrigued. On our two way drive home from Los Angeles to Omaha, we started listening to the tapes and discussing the questions that came in a guide with the tapes.  It was probably amongst the most intimate conversations of sex, sexuality and spirituality I have ever had.

…..

Through the years our lovemaking has risen to an entirely new level when we intentionally invite God to be present to and with us. That is, when we prayerfully invite God’s Divine Presence to bless our lovemaking and to join with us in our lovemaking.
In my blog (
http://scottneric.com/ontheroad) I have written about several experiences in my life in which I have known God’s presence, either as God or in the person of Jesus or of the Holy Spirit. So, in my own heart, and in my own soul, I know what the ecstatic experience of the Divine is like.

…..

(Here Eric recounts a particularly intense experience. To read it in the original, go to An Erotic Encounter With the Devine at Jesus in Love).

This is an important experience, and not uncommon. It gives the lie to official teaching, as do all other such experiences. If we are able to find God in our lovemaking, how can it possibly be wrong?

With their pathological aversion to any form of sexual expression, the Catholic hierarchs insist that any from of lovemaking outside of marriage, and not open to the possibility of procreation is sinful, and gay lovemaking in particular is “fundamentally disordered.”  Anybody who has experienced the sheer joy of giving oneself to another, of whatever the gender, in an intimate loving relationship will know how disordered is the teaching – and not the action.

“The joy of God is humans fully alive”, said St Ireneaus. Many people would confirm that the experience of this kind of intimacy is about as fully alive as two people can become.  It is not surprising that many priests and ex-priests, writing about their experience of celibacy, have described it as dehumanising.  Thus, the celibate theologian’s teaching on sexuality, by trying to impose their own restrictive standards on the rest of us, is leading us not towards God but away.   Fortunately, many Catholic theologians outside of Vatican control our now joining their Protestant counterparts in correcting these misunderstandings – for example John McNeill,  Daniel Helminiak and Michael B Kelly among the Catholics, joining Chris Glaser and many others among the Protestants.

It is basic to theology that consciously inviting the Lord into any activity will make it into a prayerful and hence spiritual one.  It is natural that this should also apply to lovemaking, which is one of the most basic of all human activities. Writing about our experiences of finding the divine in love, sharing the truth, sharing the truth about them, helps to dispel the destructive poison of official teaching.

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Homoerotic Spirituality

Jesus Christ, in His recorded words, said nothing at all about sex.  Indeed, He spoke against adultery – which in Jewish eyes was a sin against a man’s ‘property’ (as women were viewed), not against sex.  He spoke against lust – at least, against lusting after another man’s wife; and He spoke against divorce.  But as far as we know, He never spoke a word against sex itself:  not inside marriage, not before marriage, not between unmarried partners, not between men, not between women. Nothing.  Zilch.
How is it then, that the Christian Church, and  Catholicism, in particular, have become so firmly linked in the public mind with the idea of sex as sin? For Catholics, all sex outside marriage is officially taboo.  Even inside marriage, sex is viewed with suspicion unless it is open to the possibility of procreation.  It is only recently that grudging recognition was given to the unitive value of sex – even inside marriage.  Yet it is clear to all that few Catholics pay any more than lip service to the official catechism on sin.  Whether as jerking – off schoolboys (or girls, or adults), as horny teenagers, engaged couples, cheating spouses, as faithful loving couples choosing to limit their families, as lonely divorcees, as gay men and lesbians, or as priests and other religious ignoring their vows of celibacy, the overwhelming majority of us are, in one form or another sexual transgressors in the eyes of the Church.
Is it any wonder that in the public mind, the equation “sex=sin” goes hand in hand with another:   “Catholicism = Guilt”?
The Confessional
But I do not want to dig deeper into the unpleasantness today.  (There is time for that later.  I will return to it soon, as part of my continuing series on clerical abuse.)




Other faiths do not make the same connection between sex and sin.  Judaism, for all that it has extensive purity laws and complex moral and legal codes, unequivocally supports and praises the unitive value of  sex, at least within marriage.  Part of the obligation of the spouses is said to include offering each other sexual satisfaction.   Muslims take a similar view:  part of the supposed motivation for suicide bombers in our day is the prospect of a martyr’s reward in heaven:  1000 virgins to satisfy their male needs.   Hindus celebrate sex as part of spiritual practice, with the promotion of tantric sex, the Kama Sutra, and famed erotic images on temple walls.  Many pagan religions employed temple prostitutes (of either gender) to heighten the spiritual experience of worshippers.Hindu Temple art
It is useful, then to recognise the increasing signs that more and more people are recognising that sexual expression is not only not necessarily sinful, but can be a positive expression of the sacred, and has a close association with spirituality. With great synchronicity, this message was brought home to me from four different sources over the past week.
At the Wild Reed, Michael Bayley has a great piece on this theme.

Shocked? Well, get over it.

Anyway, it’s really not such an outlandish idea – even for Catholics (actually, especially for Catholics!). I mean, if you’re going to dismiss what I’m suggesting, then you’d better be willing to also dismiss any number of saints and their highly erotic experiences of the sacred.

Erotic experiences of God?! (Okay, if you’re still shocked maybe this blog isn’t for you.) But seriously, I appreciate the perspective of Jean Houston, who points out that: “Eros has a mission with the soul. Without Eros, the soul cannot grow; the psyche remains infantile. Eros gives psyche its yearning, its impetus, its desire for the fullness of life.”

Much of the great tradition of mystical writing in the Catholic Church is expressed in clearly sensuous, even erotic language (see, for instance, St Theresa of Avila). Michael  quotes in particular St John of the Cross, whose wonderful mystical poetry is also frankly and explicitly homoerotic:
Nude couple profile

 

“Of course as a gay man, (Michael writes) the thing that appeals to me most about John’s poem is that it depicts his lover as another man:

(from ) On a Dark Night

……..

……..

“Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined
Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping,
and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand
He caressed my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.”

Go ahead, cross to The Wild Reed and read the full poem, with Michael’s commentary.

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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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“Owning Heterosexual Privilege”

At Queers United, there is a powerful video posted asking the question “Whar if Gay Were Considered the Norm?”, a quesion that many LGBT people are likely to have at least thought about.What caught my interest, though, was the posting of the same video at womanist musings

“I cannot imagine a society in which I would have to hide my love for fear of rejection, or in some cases violence because this has never been a part of my life. I have always known that my relationship would be validated because we privilege heterosexuality. I have never feared owning my relationship publicly.

No one deserves to be “othered,” because of their sexual orientation and I do believe this video gives heterosexual people a small taste of what life would be like if suddenly their/our love was considered unnatural, or unworthy.  It is privilege that normally causes us to avoid placing ourselves in untenable positions that we are often all ready to create for those that we consider to be other.”

Have a look at the video, then read the comments.  It is encouraging to be reminded that we have allies, and that some at least are willing to make the effort of imagination required to approach real understanding.

The Intimate Dance of Sexuality and Spirituality

I would expect that most of my lesbian & gay readers have known the liberating growth experience of coming out:  at least to themselves and to close friends, or (where realistically appropriate), to family and colleagues.  But how many, I wonder, have found the even greater joy of coming out to God? I mean here not just superficially, but fully and frankly, taking your sexuality deep into your prayer life, giving thanks for the joys and satisfactions, even the exhilaration of orgasm; sharing the pain of the frustrations and disappointments; even building the Lord into your sexual fantasies, or turning your fantasies into prayer?

This appears to be heretical, sacrilegious, but is not.  It is an old idea, going back at least to the Song of Songs, and to the great mystics: St John of the Cross, St Theresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich.  Modern writers who have discussed this idea from a gay perspective include Daniel HelminiakMichael B Kelly and John McNeill.  (Jim Cotterand Jack Dominian are just two I know of who have done so from a more traditional heterosexual perspective).




Now I have come across another who has done so directly – Chris Glaser, who has put together a prayer collection under the title “Coming Out to God.”

Coming out to God

I first heard of this book when it was recommended to the congregation by the celebrant during Sunday Mass – so it has the warm approval of at least one Catholic priest in good standing.  Looking into it, I was particularly impressed by the powerful and moving writing of the introduction.

Glaser shares with us his own early struggle, torn between his innate sexuality and spirituality, which he believed, like most Christians, to be in some kind of conflict.  Using a striking metaphor, picturing each of these two as strangers wary of each other at a dance, he tells how they first put out tentative feelers, then began cautiously to dance, each struggling for dominance and attempting to lead – before finding true partnership, and allowing the dance to lead them:

Leather Dancers

“When my sexuality began to emerge,  my spirituality froze in fear, then nearly ran out of the room.  But then it noticed other souls dancing gracefully, and realised it was missing their grace. My spirituality wondered if the lack of grace had something to do with rejection of the stranger on the other side of the room, my sexuality.

Timidly, one invited the other to dance.  At first, they scarcely looked at each other… they were lousy dancers. Then they cast furtive glances at each other, sometimes angry or resentful, sometimes flirtatious and seductive….Finally they found times when the dance led them, and for brief moments they became perfect dancers, full of grace, true to each other.  They danced together as my soul.”

He also draws an important parallel between sexuality and spirituality, stating that they are both routes to intimacy in relationships:  sexuality builds intimacy in human relationships, spirituality does in our relationship with the Lord.  This equivalence thus makes them natural partners.

“Sexuality and spirituality are not opposing  forces, as is frequently supposed today.  Instead, both draw people into relationship. Sexuality draws us into physical relationships: touching, hugging…… kissing and intercourse.  Spirituality draws us into relationships that both incl ude and transcend bodies because it includes and transcends that which is visible……Both our sexual and spiritual powers are holy, and therefore both my be profaned. At their holiest, these powers lead to love in all its many expressions.  At their most profane, they may lead to apathy or hate. The integrity of both sexual and spiritual powers is called the soul.”

The final observation that struck an enormous personal chord with me, was his statement that when we come out to God,  we allow God to come out to us:  to enter more fully into our own lives, which is the best defence we can develop against the homophobic bigotry that masquerades freely under the name of religion:

“In prayer, coming out to God as sexual-spiritual beings opens us up, I believe, to God coming out to us in the dance of Substance and Sensuality, spirituality and sexuality.   Prayer becomes a place wherein the choreography of the dance of spirituality and sexuality gets worked out.  When we allow the Lord of the Dance to lead, sexuality becomes responsible and spirituality becomes responsive.”

For more details, and extracts from the introduction, see “Coming out to God”.

Recommended Books (Queer Spirituality):

See also:

Homoerotic Spirituality

Coming Out as Spiritual Experience

At The Wild Reed:

Making Love, Giving Life

Song of Songs – The Bible’s Gay  Love Poem