Category Archives: Pastoral Ministry

Faith vs Religion: Ecclesiolatry, Scribes and Pharisees.

There is an important distinction between “faith”, which refers to belief and a relationship with the divine, and “religion”, which refers primarily to the human structures which support it, with their rules, rituals, and clerical castes. They are obviously linked, interdependent, and ideally, support each other. There are grave dangers though, when we lose sight of the importance of balance, for example by exaggerating the importance of religious structures, over authentic faith itself.

In recent weeks, I have found two important passages on this theme, by two very different authors, that I have wanted to write about – but have struggled to make the time to add my own response. Instead, I simply share with you the passages, and leave you to ponder the import yourselves.

The first is by the Catholic theologian James Alison, taken from a recent post at his website “The Portal and the Half-Way House: Spacious imagination and aristocratic belonging “, in which he refers to the way in which some Catholics use “the Church” as a weapon with which to coerce others into their own way of thinking. In a striking turn of phrase, he describes this as “Ecclesiolatry” – a form of idolatry, with “the Church” used as an idol to replace God:

You will probably have heard many different ways of talking about what “the Church” is, many of them quite frightening (in just the same way that many ways of talking about the Bible are frightening). You get the impression that you are hearing a discourse about power, or a discourse emerging from ownership of “position”, or a justification and defense of traditional and historical prerogatives. It is not necessarily the clerical caste in the Church who talk in these ways, though we are particularly susceptible to it. Often enough lay people, politicians and others, will also wield “The Church” as a weapon in cultural wars in much the same way as others wield “The Bible”. Indeed typically, while the default Protestant error is “Bibliolatry” – making an idol of the Bible, – the default Catholic error is “Ecclesiolatry” – making an idol of the Church. The idol worship to which each of our groups is prone is slightly culturally different, even if the underlying pattern is the same.

When we worship an idol, our love, which is in principle a good thing, is trapped into grasping onto something made in our own image. This “something”, which we of course do not perceive as an idol, then becomes the repository for all the security and certainty which we idolaters need in order to survive in the world. We are unaware that the tighter we grasp it, the more insecure and uncertain we in fact become, and the more we empty the object which we idolize of any potential for truth and meaning. And of course because love is in principle a good thing, for us to get untangled from its distorted form is very painful. Nevertheless, against any tendency we might have to blame the idol for being an idol, it is really the pattern of desire in us, the grasping, that is the problem, not the object. For just as the Bible is not an act of communication that we can lay hold of, but the written monuments to an act of communication that takes hold of us, so the Church is not an object that we can grasp, but a sign of our being grasped and held; not something that any of us owns, but the first hints, difficult to perceive, of Another’s ownership of us.

-from  James Alison Website.

The second is by Toby Johnson, a writer and former Catholic seminarian, in his book “Gay Spirituality“, writing about  “Scribes and the Pharisees”. Note the impact of replacing the familiar, but antiquated words we commonly meet in bibles and Catholic lectionaries, with modern terms we can more easily understand:

 

The only people Jesus specifically condemned in any way were the “Scribes and the Pharisees.” And it is telling that Bible translations generally keep these words as antiquated terms instead of translating them into modern idiom. For “Scribes and Pharisees” translates directly to “Church officials and conservative religious leaders.”

As the word suggests, the Scribes were the temple bureaucrats and the lawyers who could read and write and who, therefore, kept the records and managed the business of the Temple. The Pharisees were members of a lay reform movement in Judaism that called for a return to the old ways–to the “fundamentals”–insisting on literal interpretation of the Torah. They believed in angels and supernatural interventions and were always preaching that the end of the world was imminent. 

All Jewish men dressed for prayer by strapping phylacteries (little wooden boxes containing the written text of the prayer Shema Israel) to their forehead and left arm in literal obedience to the text which said to keep these words as a sign for the hand and a pendant on the forehead, and by covering their heads with a prayer shawl with fringes, knotted to signify the 613 rules of the Mishnah (the oral tradition extrapolated out of the Ten Commandments).

The Pharisees were ostentatiously religious: they wore elaborate phylacteries with broad straps and oversized shawls with extra long fringe to demonstrate how obedient they were to the letter of the law. The Pharisees were clearly the predecessors of our modern day conservative evangelists and TV preachers who bemoan the present state of the world, predict that according to Bible prophecies the end of the world is nigh, and proclaim how saved they are. 

“Woe unto you,” Jesus said, “Church officials and conservative religious leaders, hypocrites. Because you close the gates of heaven to those who are going in, you won’t go in yourselves.”

(Matthew 23:13)

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The Transformation of Christian Response to Homoerotic Love

You’d never guess it if your only knowledge of the churches and homosexuality came from Focus on the Family, NOM or California Catholic Daily in the US, or from Christian Voice or the rule-book Catholic blogs in the UK, or from breakaway groups in the Anglican communion worldwide, but we are in the midst of a dramatic, wholesale transformation of the Christian churches’ response to homoerotic relationships. This is clearly leading in the direction of full inclusion in church for queer Christians, and for evaluating couple relationships and their recognition in church on a basis of full equality. This is bound to lead in time to profound improvements in the  political battles for full equality, and in the mental health of the LGBT Christian community.
These are bold statements. Am I mistaken? Am I deluding myself? It is of course possible that this is a case of wishful thinking, that I am misreading or exaggerating the evidence.  It’s possible – but I don’t think so. The evidence is compelling, if not yet widely noted. To substantiate my argument, I want to present the facts, and their implications, in some detail. As there is too much for a single post, I begin today with just a summary, as heads of argument. I will expand on the main sections in later posts, which I have in preparation.
(For now, I have made no attempt to supply detailed substantiation or links – these will follow, as I expand later on each specific theme).

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

I have been thinking about this transformation for some time, but what really convinced me that this is a major, irreversible development was a result of an invitation I received to lead a session of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement’s 35th Anniversary Conference. The theme for conference is “Looking back, looking forward”. I will be giving a Catholic perspective on the last 35 years – and the next.
It’s looking at those next 35 years that is challenging. I don’t want to base my thoughts on guesswork, or on simple extrapolation, “if present trends continue“. The one thing we know about present trends, in almost any context, is that they never do continue. Feedback effects can either offset or exaggerate them. In reflecting on what could lie ahead, I considered only the changes that have already happened, the effects of these – and the very limited changes that we know for certain will happen over the next 35 years or so.  I did this initially for the Catholic Church specifically, and then realised that the method applies equally to the broader Christian churches as a whole. I begin by considering this broader church first.
The Past 35/ 40 years
“Out and Proud” Gay Visibility, Queer Families
The years since Stonewall have seen the rapid emergence of openly gay or lesbian, visible public role models far removed from the stereotypes of earlier years. This has included the emergence of well known same sex couples and queer families, in the news, on our screens, and in our neighbourhoods.  This has become increasingly visible over the years, and is now being given legal recognition in the movements for approval of marriage and family equality. The important consequence is that young people today have been raised, and are being raised, in environments where homoerotic relationships are seen to be entirely natural, and every bit as stable (or otherwise) than any other. Many youngsters are seeing this at first hand, in their friends and relations with two moms or two dads (just as others have single parents) – and are unfazed by it. Research evidence shows that young people are far more accepting of LGBT equality than their elders – and this applies within the churches, including even the evangelical churches, as well as in the general population.
Reevaluation of Scripture
Until recently, it was widely accepted that the Bible clearly opposed homosexuality, an assumption that underpinned the automatic denunciation of same sex relationships by most Christian denominations. Over the last thirty years, that has changed dramatically, with a substantial proportion – perhaps the majority – of modern Scripture scholars now agreeing that the evidence from Scripture is at best unclear, and that the traditional interpretations may be flawed by mistranslations or misinterpretations. Conversely, there has been fresh attention paid by some scholars to the specifically gay-friendly and affirming passages that have previously been neglected.
This re-evaluation began as the preserve of academics and specialists (like the growing number of openly gay or lesbian theologians), but is now starting to reach a popular audience as well.
Ordination of Queer Clergy
The re-evaluation of Scripture has underpinned the most dramatic manifestation of the transformation – the accelerating moves to accept for ordination as pastors or even as bishops men and women in public, committed and loving same sex relationships.
Traditionally, the churches could not countenance openly gay clergy, but in the days before Stonewall, when people in any case hid their sexuality, all that this meant was that gay priests and pastors where deeply closeted (just like their lay counterparts). That changed after Stonewall, as some men recognized that in honesty, they could not serve and remain closeted. Initially, the response of the churches was to refuse ordination to candidates who were known to be gay, and in some high profile cases, to remove from ministry priests and pastors who had already been ordained.
This has changed remarkably quickly. Today, almost all Mainline Protestant churches in the US, and the leading European Protestant churches, either ordain openly gay and lesbian pastors, or are seriously considering the possibility. The most recent example is that of 33 retired bishops of the United Methodist Church, who have signed a public statement calling for the full acceptance of ordination for openly gay or lesbian pastors in loving, committed relationships. 33 retired bishops urge end to gay clergy ban. Take careful note – these are retired bishops, not young hotheads, but the elder statesmen (and women) of the UMC. In parallel with this, the Presbyterian Church of the USA is at present well on its way to ratification of last year’s General Assembly resolution to formulate rules for ordination that did not discriminate against gay or lesbian candidates. (In Europe, it’s a dead issue: pastors of all sexual orientations are generally accepted).
Inclusion also applies at the highest levels of the clergy. There are now three openly gay and partnered bishops in the Episcopal and Lutheran churches, while others have been nominated, but not ultimately successful.
Gay weddings, in church.
Resolutions to approve ordination of queer clergy have often gone hand in hand with attempts to secure approval for church weddings, or blessing of same sex couples. These have been less successful so far, but I would think this is only temporary. The recognition of partnered gay or lesbian clergy is always qualified by the expectation that theses relationships be committed, faithful and publicly accountable, just as heterosexual pastors are by virtue of their church marriages. The simplest way to make gay partnerships accountable in the same way, is to provide the same structure – a wedding in church.
This is already being done in some churches and localities, but we should certainly expect the practice to spread, especially with more openly gay pastors ordained, and as civil marriage becomes more widely available for queer clergy.
Looking Ahead
These are the key developments affecting the LGBT community and the church over the past 35 -40 years. Looking ahead, I submit that there are only two things we can say with certainty: the past will have consequences that will affect the future; and there will be generational change. Let’s take these in reverse order.
Generational Change
Whatever else may happen over the next 35 or 40 years, the one thing we know with absolute certainty, is that everyone will get older. Benedict XVI will no longer be the Catholic pope, the Roman Curia will have a new set of faces. In the Protestant denominations, the present leaders will also have moved on, either to retirement, or to whatever awaits them in the afterlife. They too will have been replaced,
Who will these new faces be? Generally speaking, they will be the young men (and women) who are presently in training for ministry, who have been recently ordained, or who may even be still in high school. This the generation which is well known to reject the notion that homosexuality is a moral issue, and who are most enthusiastically supportive of gay clergy, gay marriage, and full LGBT inclusion in church.
Contrast them with the present generation of church leaders, who received their own formation for ministry at a time when it was regarded as axiomatic that homosexual acts were necessarily sinful, when the Biblical texts of terror were quoted without question, and when the notion of same sex marriage in church was simply unthinkable.
Can there really be any serious doubt that a future church led by today’s young adults will view homoerotic relationships very differently to that of the present?
The Speed of Change Thus Far
So, let us accept (provisionally) that profound change is on its way. How long will it tale? The generational analysis above suggests that it might not take too long at all – no more than the 35 years framework I adopted, somewhat arbitrarily. This becomes even more plausible when we consider the speed of change up to now, in respect of the spread of civil gay marriage, and of approval for LBGT pastors.
Personal homophobia and prejudice will linger – but institutional discrimination in all forms, whether by church or state, will disappear quite rapidly, exactly as institutional racism disappeared quite quickly in the civil rights era in the US, or following the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa.
Some Thoughts on the Catholic Church
Broadly speaking, much of the above also applies to the Catholic Church, especially the implications of generational change, and the fresh examinations of scripture, but there are also some unique considerations as well. Some of these will mitigate against the underlying trend to change, some will complement it.
  • Hierarchical control, and the expectation of obedience would superficially point to the resistance of change – but this expectation is itself becoming rejected.
  • Humanae Vitae and its fierce rejection of artificial contraception has never been widely accepted by the Church as a whole. The resulting recognition that it is permissible to disagree in good conscience with official doctrine on this single issue, has leant support to others who disagree in conscience on others – like choice/ abortion, and on homosexuality.
  • The impact of Vatican II. Although it might appear that the Curia has successfully rolled back the conciliar reforms, sometimes there are effects that take time to become apparent. One of these is what Sr Joan Chittister called the “Ticking Time Bomb” of lay involvement. Another is the dramatic decline in priest numbers since VII,
  • Another ticking time bomb is the remarkable rise of lay theologians. Not that long ago, the formal study of moral theology was something done by priests, for other priests, based on the writings of theologians from many centuries ago, with little input from social sciences, or from people with real life sexual experience. That is no longer the case. Even religious sisters were routinely excluded from theology studies, beyond what they might need to teach school level catechism. The rest of us were simply expected to accept the moral rules as handed down to us from on high.
  • That has changed dramatically. Theology is now widely studied, to the extent that the majority of theologians today are not priests. Some are religious sisters, others are married men and women – or even openly gay or lesbian. Add to the generational process described earlier, that Catholic priests now in training are in some cases being taught their theology by lay people, and we see that the generational shift for Catholic clergy could conceivably be even greater for Catholic clergy than for others.
  • Finally, the sexual abuse crisis has clearly shaken the church to its foundations. The ultimate effects can not yet be clearly seen, but already it is obvious that one result is a greatly increased resistance by lay people to automatic assumptions about authority and obedience, and a corresponding willingness in some quarters to engage in open defiance – as in the womenpriests movement. Inside the institutional church, there are at least some promising signs of an increased willingness to take seriously the concept of the listening church.
Conclusion
Change is clearly on the way – quite possibly, rapid change, across all or most major denominations. It will not be long before openly LGBT clergy, including bishops and other leaders, will be commonplace, in most denominations if not yet in all. There will be church weddings for same sex couples, including the weddings of clergy and their spouses.
With the increasing visibility of partnered gay clergy and bishops, it will become difficult. Even impossible for the arguments that our relationships are necessarily sinful to be taken seriously.
I now believe that under the impact of generational change, this transformation will be rapid – probably with in a generation or two. To those who find this unduly optimistic, I would point to the corresponding death of overt racism, which equally moved from something commonly expressed, and even justified in pseudo religious arguments, to a private weakness, which it is now unacceptable to express in public.
(Note: I am fully conscious that the above analysis applies primarily to the countries of Europe and the Americas, especially North America. I have omitted Africa and Asia where special circumstances apply. But do not believe that including them would seriously affect the main conclusions – except in the matter of timing).

Come Out to Save Lives – Megachurch Pastor Jim Swilley

There are many sound religious reason for coming out (which I summarise below). The Georgia megachurch pastor Jim Swilley, of “Church in the Now”, by his own example has presented another. He has come out to save lives.

Swilley has hidden his sexuality from his congregation for years, through two marriages (although he was at least honest with his second wife, who in turn encouraged him to be open more publicly). Unlike so many other closeted preachers (Bishop Long, George Rekers and Ted Swaggart, for instance) however, he has never fallen into the trap of preaching against homosexuality to hide his own orientation.

The tipping point for him came with the rash of recent publicity about the bullying which leads to so many teen suicides. Many of the institutional churches have a double culpability here: their frequent and misguided condemnations of same-sex relationships often lead to feelings of guilt and shame  by gay young people themselves, while too many others use it as an easy justification for bullying. Young bullies may grow into older gay bashers, and later even into adult killers of gay men, lesbians and the transgendered – all supposedly in the name of “religion”.

There have been many reports surfacing on the queer blogosphere about this story – reports that I missed through my personal circumstances last weeks. The best I have seen are those at Bilerico, and at Queerty. Read them yourselves (and watch the on-line videos that have been posted)  – I’m not going to simply quote them here, because from a faith perspective I am more interested in these deeply moving, theologically sound words Swilley posted on Blog in the Now some weeks ago. These do not refer directly to his coming out (they appear to have been written immediately before doing so publicly), but read now they have an obvious and direct bearing on it:

Today I will live in the now! I will live in the now because I have a command to GO into all the world – into every part of the worlds of every man, woman, boy and girl – into every culture and counterculture – into every mindset and philosophy – into every system and network — and preach the good news, without the preferential treatment of anyone!

Today I will embrace the call of Christ. Even though I may be rebuked for my unbelief or hardness of heart as the first disciples were, I have still been mandated to go — to go anyway — in spite of my weaknesses and vulnerabilities. The gifts and callings of God are irrevocable and, regardless of what I have or haven’t done, Jesus is still depending on me to give the inhabitants of His world some good news!

Today I will go to where the people are – not just where they are geographically, but to where they are mentally, spiritually, emotionally and philosophically. I will speak with the tongue of the learned (Isaiah 50:4), becoming all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9:22).

Today I will make some movement, knowing that my steps are ordered of the Lord and that God blesses whatever I put my hand to.

Today I will not preach religious tradition, or anything that could possibly make people feel alienated from God. My declaration of the Kingdom (“The Kingdom is at hand!”) will make Jesus accessible to those who have been disconnected in their minds. I will go to where the breaches are — and I will repair them!

 

Today I will be a witness, telling my story, finding my voice.

 

Today I will be followed by supernatural signs confirming my words. God will bless my efforts because I believe. My faith will be irresistible to Him today, and today I will live in the now!

Father, help me to get up and get going today. In Jesus’ name, amen.

The “It Gets Better” campaign encourages us all to be open, as our visibility can be a demonstration to young people that we can indeed grow into healthy, mature adults in sound relationships – but does nothing to combat the religious roots of the violence. This is why coming out by people of faith, and especially within the evangelical tradition, is so important. Done on a sufficiently wide scale, it will go a long way to undermine both the religion – induced guilt of young queers, and the excuses produced by the bullies.

Other Religious arguments for coming out.

The political and psychological reasons for coming out are well known – it increases visibility and so improves public acceptance for others, it provides sound role models for young people, contributes to personal mental health and can be seen as a psychological growth experience. The religious reasons are less familiar, but are important for queer people of faith.

Theologian and psychotherapist Daniel Helminiak (Sex and the Sacred) says that alongside the psychological growth, coming out is a spiritual experience. Fellow Catholic therapists and spiritual directors John McMillan and James L’Empereur say much the same thing. Richard Cleaver (“Know My Name”) describes the process as wrestling with the divine. Chris Glaser has devoted a complete book to “Coming Out as Sacrament”.

Many commentators have seen coming out as implicit in Jesus’ command to Lazarus, “Come out!”, and read it as a lesson from the story of Exodus, using the Israelites flight from Egypt as a model for escaping the bondage of the closet. The Jewish theologian Rebeccah Alpert also sees coming out as a biblical command, reading into Micah’s exhortation on justice a requirement alongside living in good relationship with God and with other people, an obligation to live in good relationship with oneself – which is not possible when denying one’s own sexual identity.

In the same way I read coming out as a requirement of the Catholic Catechism, and implicit in the conclusion of the otherwise loathsome CDF document “Homosexualitatis Problema“, which reminds us of the Biblical injunction to “Speak the truth in love”, and “The truth will set you free”.

It is not enough for Christians to speak the truth – we must also live it.

Recommended Books:

Glaser, Chris : Coming out As Sacrament

Glaser, Chris : Coming Out to God: Prayers for Lesbians and Gay Men, Their Families and Friends

Goss, Robert (ed): Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible

Helminiak,  Daniel: Sex and the Sacred

Kelley, Michael B: Seduced by Grace

L’Emperereur, James : Spiritual Direction and the Gay Person

McNeill, John: Freedom, Glorious Freedom: The Spiritual Journey to the Fullness of Life for Gays, Lesbians, and Everybody Else

McNeill, John: Sex as God Intended

Sweasey, P: From Queer to Eternity

Coming Out: A Gospel Command

(Originally published October 12th, 2010)

When I wrote yesterday about Fr Donal Godfrey’s homily to Most Holy Redeemer parish on “Finding God in the Erotic”, I referred in passing to another of his sermons, in which he compared coming out to Jesus’ command to Lazarus, to come out of the tomb. In doing so, I completely and stupidly overlooked a golden opportunity – yesterday in the US was “national coming out day”.

As rather poor excuse, I remind you that I am not American. In compensation, now that I do not need to synchronise with the calendar, I have the opportunity to bring you instead a series of the best I have seen elsewhere on the religious importance of coming out.

The coalition of gay Catholic organizations “Equally Blessed” follows Fr Godfrey in reflecting on the Lord’s command to Lazarus, but as a more recent offering, with specific reference to coming out day, this is my first choice.

The Spiritual Side of Coming Out

By Francis DeBernardo, Marianne Duddy-Burke,
Casey Lopata and Nicole Sotelo

 

Today is National Coming Out Day, a day set aside as a special time of reflection and celebration by gay /lesbian /bisexual /transgender (GLBT) advocacy groups to highlight the unique perspective of GLBT people in “coming out of the closet” to acknowledge, embrace, and communicate their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Despite the wide diversity of GLBT people in our midst, one common experience is that all have gone through a process of recognizing that their orientation or gender identity differed from what their society was telling them it should be. Engaging in this process of “coming out” has helped many GLBT people to develop personal characteristics such as courage, truth-telling, personal strength, and community-building – all inherently spiritual traits.

Coming out entails an inherently spiritual process that makes National Coming Out Day not only a day for secular GLBT advocates to celebrate, but one for people of faith to honor as well. For many GLBT people, coming out is part of a faith journey. They speak of coming out as enhancing their prayer lives and their relationship with God. Many gain strength from seeing their sexuality and gender not simply as biological factors, but essentially as spiritual ones. In the Catholic community, we have heard many stories from GLBT people who found strength in their coming out processes from stories of the saints who had strong, intimate, and life-sustaining same-sex relationships or whose gender identity transgressed societal norms. (Dressing and acting as a man, St. Joan of Arc served in the French army in the 15th century. Transgender people find strength from her example.)

The spiritual dimension of coming out challenges faith communities to recognize and affirm this experience as an avenue of grace. For the Catholic church, which has such a rich tradition in ceremony and ritual, establishing a “rite of coming out” would be a beautiful way to affirm people who have come to this awareness. Indeed, a number of smaller denominations and religious advocacy groups have already developed such rituals.

As with all good and powerful church rituals, a rite of coming out would focus not only on the individual but on the community as well. On the one hand, coming out is a gift that the individual brings to the community. The courage, wisdom, and dependence on God that a GLBT person experiences can be beneficial to others in the community. On the other hand, coming out is a process that requires the support of the community for the individual.

The story of Lazarus in John 11 resonates with GLBT Christians’ coming out experiences. In this story, Jesus visits the home of his friend Lazarus, who has died and been buried in a tomb. When Jesus arrives on the scene, he calls forth Lazarus from the tomb, with the words, “Come out!” Modern GLBT Christians see in this call of Jesus a call to new life that strongly parallels the call that they have experienced in coming to accept their sexual orientation or gender identity. The closet symbolized a kind of death for them. In coming out of the closet, they are answering a God-given call to live a new life.

After Lazarus has emerged from the tomb, Jesus directs the people assembled to “Unbind him and let him go free.” It is the responsibility of the assembled community to assist a GLBT person in their experience of new life, just as they would help any other member who has had a life-altering situation, particularly one that might have involved some element of struggle.

In celebrating coming out, a community celebrates the journey of overcoming fear and doubt, of telling the truth in the face of strong opposition, of affirming the goodness of an individual’s experience, of learning to rely on the voice of God. Too often religious communities suffer from “groupthink” and a “we’ve always done it this way” mentality. By celebrating the coming out experience, communities are essentially celebrating the gift of prophecy in their midst.

On this particular coming out day, we are happy to come out announcing the formation of Equally Blessed, a new Catholic coalition that will work for justice and equality for GLBT people on a broad range of issues both in society and within our church. Our four groups – Call to ActionDignity USAFortunate Families and New Ways Ministry – have a combined history of working for 112 years on these issues, and we have decided to work together to help unbind people and let them go free. We recognize that many Catholics in the pews – GLBT people and heterosexual allies – are now stepping forth bravely to fight injustice in polling booths and in church organizations. We want to help amplify the voices of those who are speaking for justice, as well as assist those who need a little help to “come out” with a prophetic stance.

National Coming Out Day can be a day when we not only celebrate GLBT people in our midst, but a day when we celebrate the need for all of us as individuals and as religious communities to come out of our closets of fear, secrecy, and shame. It is a time to speak forth boldly what God has taught us from our lives and in our consciences. It is only when we come out of the closet–whatever types of closets that we find ourselves in–that we can live in the light and grow.

Francis DeBernardo is the Executive Director of New Ways Ministry. Marianne Duddy-Burke is the Executive Director of DignityUSA. Casey Lopata is a co-founder of Fortunate Families. Nicole Sotelo is JustChurch coordinator for Call To Action. All are founding members of Equally Blessed, a Catholic coalition for justice and equality for LGBT persons in church and society.

Related articles

Good News from the Vatican?

Benedict’s Christmas address to the Curia provoked a firestorm of comment – but the important stuff, buried inside, was ignored.

Yes, the implied criticism of ‘homosexuals’, and more direct criticism of gender theory was disappointing. But the media frenzy overlooked a whole lot of stuff to encourage gay catholics. (Read the whole speech at ‘Whispers in the Loggia”). There was a long riff in the theme of the importance of joy as a sign of the Holy Spirit. Now I don’t know about you, but I have certainly experienced a great deal of ‘Joy’ (which Benedict reminds us is a sign of the Spirit) in physical, erotic love. So, by following the papal argument, I can claim to have found God in sex, gay sex. (No, I didn’t need Benedict to tell me what I already know – but it is good to have the Rottweiler agreeing with me for once.)

Benedict XVI

There is also more stuff on how Revelation is a continuing process in the modern world. – so there he acknowledged the possibility (I believe the probability) that theology can change to reflect a change in public understanding of sexuality.

In an open letter to the US bishops, John McNeill (writer, psychotherapist and former priest- letter reprinted at The Wild Reed) has railed against the iniquities done by the established church to gay and lesbian Catholics. But he also wrote of an emerging ‘Kairos moment’ – a moment ripe for change. He could be right – as gay Catholics, we need to encourage each other, and engage with the positive elements in the faith to force this change.

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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A Healing Church

(This comes as a guest post from Irene, a dear friend who is a committed regular at the Soho Masses – travelling long distance to get there.  This is her account of a recent experience attending Mass, on the night when Mass was followed by a musical concert presentd by our own “Schola Assumptionis”):

The REAL PRESENCE.

A few weeks ago a tendon in my left leg became taut and painful to match the one in the right leg that has been damaged. After walking for hours around London I arrived at church early so I could take the weight off my feet before going up to mass. Lying on the chairs was such a relief. I didn’t manage to stand through all the appropriate parts of the service but the pain was less when I was chatting downstairs over tea before the concert. After the concert I helped distribute the wine and walking to Bistro 1 afterwards, I noticed I had no more pain in my leg – and I have had none since. I must have had a spontaneous healing during mass. I am delighted.

Some of you may know that I work as a healer. Once healing was part of the Christian and Jewish ministry but the Enlightenment put a stop to that! Witchcraft!! Healers, however,  have kept going, secretly though, as it is a gift and one which works. In Sarajevo, where there is no NHS  to limit people’s minds, people are open to it and have amazing reactions.Openness to holistic medicine has made it more acceptable but when I talk about it to Christians they are more than a bit suspicious. Now, something has happened to me during Mass, a total spontaneous healing, something totally unexpected and which has never happened during my healing and meditation sessions. Why? A stronger presence of God? I don’t know. I do know that I am no longer in pain and I am absolutely delighted.

(And we are delighted with you, Irene.  Thank you for sharing this.  And may I remind the rest of you, that I am always open to posting guest contributions from any other readers who have something to say.)

Indian Protestant, Orthodox Churches Support Gay Rights.

Still another grouping of churches has now come out clearly on the side of gay rights, declaring that homosexuality is “a natural or genetical reality”.

Last month, the US Episcopalians gave the go ahead to the appointment of gay & lesbian Bishops, and to the church blessing of same-sex unions. (Since then, two dioceses have named four lesbian or gay candidates to the episcopate in Los Angeles and Wisconsin_. Last week, the British Quakers agreed to begin performing religious marriage services, as opposed to mere blessings, for same sex couples, and to formally request the UK government to change the relevant legislation – the first major religious grouping to take a lead on the issue.

Now, in India, there is another church taking a stand in favour of equality. A gathering of protestant and orthodox church leaders has declared that as a homosexual orientation is natural, it is “unscientific” and contrary to human rights to condemn people for something over which they have no control. They have also urged other churches to rethink their position, called for a reinterpretation of Scripture, and said there is a need for a rethink in christian theology on homosexuality .

This follows a court decision to legalise homosexual relationships, which had been criminalised under colonial legislation. My impression is that the court decision has not been widely welcomed, and has been strongly criticised in some conservative circles, so it is encouraging to see that here too, churches are willing to take a lead. Indeed, the declaration makes clear that they believe they have an obligation to teach their countrymen on the issue, proposing a series of workshops in every Indian state to inform and educate ordinary people on the rights of people with a same sex orientation:

“A forum of Protestant and Orthodox churches in India has said homosexuality is “a natural or genetical reality”, adopting a radically different stand from other influential Christian denominations across the world.”

“The National Council of Churches in India (NCCI), which represents around 1.3 crore Christians in the country, also said the rest of the Christian world needed to “rethink’’ its stated position that homosexuality is a sin against God.”

“The NCCI said it wanted the Church to take a more “open’’ view. “Homosexuality traits in a person could be genetical, hence natural. It is unscientific to throw stones at some people because of their natural instincts over which they have no control,’’ said Rev. Christopher Rajkumar, the secretary of the Justice, Peace and Creation Commission of the NCCI.”

The NCCI has also issued a document urging its member churches to “accompany the People with Different Sexual Orientation (PDSO) in their journey” and to protect the human rights and dignity of such people. The forum proposed “re-reading and re-interpreting scriptures from the PDSO perspective”.

According to Rev. Rajkumar, it is the duty of the church to inform the common people that homosexuality is a natural process. “Blind opposition to homosexuality amounts to human rights violation,” he said, adding that a rethink is needed in Christian theology to embrace the homosexuals into its fold.

From the Telegraph, Calcutta( emphasis added)

I have noted before that every step forward by one major church grouping puts pressure on the others, as we have already seen in the letter of complaint from some English Bishops to their Swedish Lutheran counterparts. Meanwhile, we are still waiting on the US Evangelical Lutherans (meeting in Minneapolis 17th -23rd August) , who are due to take important decisions on gay ordinations and gay marriage.

The Methodists, it is true, have disappointed by failing to change existing regulations against admitting “homosexuals ” to their congregations – but at least they discussed the issue.

Others will be forced to do the same in the next few years, again and again, until change has come across a wide front.

(See also: Gay clergy making small strides)

 

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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Marriage Equality & the Church: Take 2

Back in May, I wrote that the growing international acceptance of civil marriage for same sex couples would inevitably nudge the churches to rethink their own positions, nudging them to greater acceptance.  (See “Marriage Equality and the Church“ ). Some recent news stories illustrate the point.

gay_marriage

In the UK,  the change in Swedish law is already having a direct imact on the Anglican church, which has close ties to the Lutherans.  The resonse described here is about two English bishops who have written to the Lutherans to express their “concern” that the change in Swedish law will ut pressure on the English church to accept same sex marriage:

From the Daily Mail online:

“The Church of England warned last night that it is under pressure to accept gay marriage.

…….The concerns were raised in a letter from Bishop of Guildford Dr Christopher Hill and Bishop of Chichester Dr John Hinds to leaders of the Swedish state church which has close and formal links with the Anglicans.…….

Their letter was a response to moves in the Church of Sweden to offer gender neutral marriage services which could be used for either brides and grooms or for same sex couples.”

I would agree that their concern is well founded, but speaking for myself, I would change the  description from “concern” to “delight”.

Also in the UK, the strongest opponents of marriage, led by the Bisho of Rochester, are now formally leaving the Anglican Church, thinking that they are leading a groundswell movement of resistance.  Independent observers think otherwise, and the departure of the bigots will simply make it easier for the rest of the chuirch to make real progress. See:

The Independent LeadingArticle:   The bishop is embracing a lost cause.

The Daily Telegraph There’s no pride in bashing gays, bishop

The Times Online The spiritual battle for the soul of Anglicanism

Ekklesia Backlash grows against Nazir-Ali’s call for gay “repentance”

In the US, the Southern Baptist Convention is probably the most hostile of the bigger churches.  But even here, there are signs that a rethink is coming.  In a leading article in the Baptist Standard, the editor write that it is Time for A Rethink on Homosexuality. He continues to believe that revelation, but at least concedes that there is no reason to be harsher on this “sin” than on others:

Small consolation, I know, but movement none the less.  In New Hampshire, meanwhile, a columnist for another Baptist publication, the Manchester Examiner, makes explicit the connection between the NH marriage law, and its inevitable result of pressure on the church for a rethink:

“In New Hampshire, the Southern Baptists have planted a number of new churches in the recent decade. … How will the Southern Baptists react to a changing landscape where homosexuality is becoming more tolerated and accepted in mainstream New Hampshiresociety? People outside the church are less likely to view it as wrong or different, just as they view other things considered sexual sin. Churches have acclimated and adjusted to cohabiting heterosexual couples,divorce and remarriage (once considered adultery by many Baptists), and many other things once considered anathema.

Where once homosexuality was considered a disease or psychological disorder, it is now becoming better understood. And even if a church believes that the Bible teaches homosexuality is sin, should it be distinguished from other sexual sins? If churches are going to be opposed to homosexuality, they must be opposed to all sexual sin equally. Is there a bias against homosexuals that needs to be overcome to reach them effectively? And if so, can churches overcome it?”

How, indeed?