Category Archives: Books and other resources

Michael B Kelly: “Seduced by Grace”

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

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




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

Seduced by Grace_ Michael Bernard Kelly

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

From a perspective which is gay, but not Catholic:

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

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

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

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

Read the full review at the White Crane.

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

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

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

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

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

I repeat:  find this book, and read it.

 Church, Power & Abuse

Depressing church news over the past two months has led me to pick up and start reading a book which has been on my shelves some time, but which I have previously only dipped into.  The removal of  excommunication of SPXX  members has received wide and ongoing publicity; clerical sexual abuse is again in the news with the FBI reopening old investigations in LA Diocese, and fresh revelations over   Fr Marcial Maarciel Delgado of the Legionnaires of Christ.  Meanwhile, on the progressive wing of the church, there has been less coverage in the MSM of the silencing or excommunication of the priests  Fr Roger Haight,  Geoffrey Farrow and Roy  Bourgeois, or of bizarre goings-on in the parishes of St Mary’s, Brisbane and St Stephen’s, Minneapolis, where attempts to muzzle complete parishes have led to resistance (St Mary’s) or exodus (St Stephen’s).
Confronting Power and Sex

What all these have in common is that they are concerned with power in the church – its extension, its abuse, or attempts to defy or resist it.  so I picked up again  “Confronting Power & Sex in the Catholic Church”, by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson.  I am pleased that I did.  Published in 2007, this book has much to say that is directly relevant to current events. Although I have not yet finished reading, and this is far from a formal review, I have already found much of value that I thought would be worth sharing.

Bishop Robinson was Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney from 1984, and in 1994 was appointed by the Australian Bishops to a position of leadership in the Australian church’s response to revelations of sexual abuse.  Following his retirement in 2004, he felt freer in speaking his mind, leading to the publication of this valuable book.





Continue reading  Church, Power & Abuse

“Sex As God Intended” (Book Review)

SAGISCAN

John McNeill, Lethe Press 2008.

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

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




Celebrating John McNeill

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

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

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

“Sex as God Intended”

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

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

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

Joy and the Holy Spirit.

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

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

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

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

John McNeill, thank you.

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More Book News: Bullet Proof Faith

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

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




My Anti-Vatican Self-Defence Routine.

Whenever, as now, I find myself getting worked up about the Vatican, I find it helps to recall the wisdom of some of the wise friends and writers who have helped to shape my thinking.

For me, my Vatican recovery began a very few words from a very human Jesuit in Johannesburg (now in Cape Town, lucky man), who simply asked why was I fussing about “Vatican bureaucrats”, when the church was so much bigger than they.




Mark Jordan’s book is always a tonic.  It cautions against trying to debate with the Vatican – showing how their rhetorical style is based not on rational argument, but on simple repetition of old statements, until the opposition is silence-of-sodom1bludgeoned into submission.  He also shows up at length the internal contradictions in an institution which is internally irremediably camp and infused with a gay sensibility, yet is nominally vigorously opposed to ‘homosexuality’.  After reading Jordan’s thesis, it is hard to take the bureaucrats quite as seriously again.

Richard Cleaver takes a different tack.  Starting from the perspective of Liberation Theology, he reminds us thatknow-my-namerevelation is not something that ended in Biblical times, but continues through to our own age.  We can all participate in discerning this revelation  by using prayer and reflection to discern the action of the Holy Spirit  in our lives and experience. The starting point in liberation theology sounds controversial to some, but the basic point is not – I was strongly moved by the same argument in Dick Weston’s Redemptive Intimacy. Benedict XVI himself said something similar in his Christmas address to the Curia – sadly overlooked by much more newsworthy, because controversial, remarks on gender and climate change.

sex-and-sacredDaniel Helminiak, in “Sex and the Sacred”, concentrates on the importance of developing a spiritual life, and shows how a unique take on spirituality is one of the gifts of being gay.  (Among other things, coming out is itself a spiritual experience).

mcneill3But above all, at present, I turn to the writings of John McNeill.  Infused with the Ignatian Spirituality of the Jesuits, McNeill constantly reminds us that “The glory of God is humans fully alive” (St Irenaus), and that bad theology is bad psychology – and vice versa.   He too argues  for the spiritual life, developed with the Holy Spirit, to confer the wisdom that we are not getting from the Vatican.  but he goes further than Helminiak, arguing strongly that the church needs collectively to arm itself with the grace of the Holy Spirit against a sterile, power-hungry Vatican bureaucracy.

Increasingly, I believe he is right.

“Christianity is a Queer Thing” – Elizabeth Stuart

I have been re-reading Elisabeth Stuart’s wonderful “Gay & Lesbian Theologies: Repetitions With Critical Difference“, which presents a ‘genealogy’ of the changing approaches by self-identified lesbian & gay theologians, culminating in the last two chapters with a discussion of “Queer theology”.  It was these latter two chapters that I was particularly interested in.

gay-and-lesbian-theologies




As I went through Stuart’s rundown of the leading figures in the development of Queer Theology, I found myself excited by the description of almost all, and planning on adding them to my ‘Wish List’, which I have now done.  I thought I would share with you why.  The notes below are super – brief descriptions of the key ideas that caught my interest, and the books, as reported by Stuart, that hold them.

Strangers and Friends (Michael Vasey)

Vasey argues from an historical presentation of the sexuality and the family.  He points out that far from being the ‘tradtional’ model, the family as idealised  by modern Christians, especially the evangelicals,  is a relatively modern invention.  The gradual development of this model as normative, has largely been responsible for the parallel development of a distinct gay identity, largely in reaction.  (The campaign against the ‘homosexual’ is attacking what it has itself created.) Conversely, the early church idealised male friendship and community life, rather than the family as now understood.

Sex and the Church: Gender, Homosexuality, and the Transformation of Christian Ethics (Kathy Rudy)

Rudy also looks at the historical development of the family, from a feminist perspective.  Her conclusion is that LGBT people are mistaken in looking to mimic heterosexual families, suggesting that urban gay male culture offers a model of human relationships modelled on community. She denies the argument that Christian sexuality needs to be procreative – Christianity reproduces itself not by procreation, but by conversion.  What matters is not whether two people can produce children, but whether they can embrace outsiders – the key characteristic of Christianity.

Omnigender: A Trans-religious Approach (Virginia Ramey Mollenkott)

Mollenkott shows that many features of God’s incarnation and manifestation to humans, and many practices of the church, fall outside socially approved, binary ideas of gender. She also discusses numerous examples of canonised saints who have defied gender roles.

Indecent Theology: (Marcella Althaus-Reid)

Althaus-Reid’s starting point is within the framework of liberation theology, but she points out that this has often proceeded from within a traditional approaches to gender and sexual identity. She “foregrounds a Christ outside the gates who is the eternal Bi/Christ who always gives us something to think about.”

Books: Where To Begin?

One of the best ways to prepare oneself for the onslaught of religion-based hostility is to read some of the very many books on the subject that have  emerged over the last thirty years or so. But with such a wealth of titles available, and the field constatnly expanding, the obvious question is where to begin? To which the obvious reply is, where are you starting from?

The question matters. You need to be clear on whether you want a simple introduction, a general but comprehensive overview for playpeople, or a scholarly tome filled with notes, sources and all the necessary qualifications, ifs and buts. Are you looking for approaches rooted in scripture, or Church teaching, or both? From a gay male, lesbian, or trans perspective? All these questions, and more, will influence your choice. In my detailed posts for each book, I have attempted to provide answers to these questions. The labels included in each post will help you to find books on a specific topic. With time, I will be building in thematic lists, a search engine, and other means to access exactly what you personally will find helpful – but all these refinements take time, while I am simultaneously trying to expand the number and range of books included. I crave your patience.

In the meantime, I offer some suggestions of what might be the most useful for specific purposes.

For a very simple, introductory overview of Scripture and Church teaching, I was impressed by “The Bible, The Church and Homosexuality”, by Nicholas Coulton. Written from an Anglican perspective, but is also more widely applicable.

Also tackling both Scripture and Church teaching, but going into more detail, former Jesuit John McNeill’s “The Church and the Homosexual”, was one of the very first and is still a classic. “A Question of Truth” by the Dominican priest Gareth Moore covers much the same ground, and is much more recent.

On Scripture specifically, I think the best for the general reader is “Dirt, Greed and Sex” by the Episcopalian L. William Countryman. For a later, more Evangelical approach to the same subject, read Eugene Rogers, …If you are ready to tackle a more academic treatment bristling with footnotes, then read the chapter on Scripture in the landmark “Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality” by John Boswell. (This is also of fundamental importance for gay church history, and the development of theology). If you are put off by the excessive footnotes and Greek & Latin quotations, you will find summaries of his arguments in many of the other books).

The Catholic priest, theologian and psychotherapist Daniel Helminiak has written that McNeill, Countryman and Boswell (noted above) were the three books that nmost influenced his own thinking and understanding. Helminiak’s “What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality“. Helminiak’s book is often listed alongside those three.

It is important though not to get bogged down in biblical studies of homoeroticism by dealing only with fending off the oppressive texts of terror.  There are many ways in which we, like all other Christians, can read scripture for its positive inspiration. “Take Back the Word” (edited by Robert Goss) does just that.

An important set of books “from a perspective Catholic and gay” are more difficult to classify. These are the series by the theologian and former Dominican James Alison. These are undoubtedly works of “theology”, but the word is misleading, with its associations of ancient, scholastic tomes. Alison’s books are tightly reasoned, but presented in an informal, chatty style, as a series of reflections on God, and on what it means to be both gay and Catholic. These are all popular and highly recommended. Start with the first in the series: “Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay.”

Faith is incomplete without prayer. The Presbyterian Chris Glaser has several books on prayer for gay men and lesbians. A good one to begin with is “Coming Out to God” – which is a good way to think of starting our queer faith journey.

Finally, two books by Catholic priests which offer a completely fresh, unfamiliar take on the awkward question of sexual ethics: “Sex and the Sacred” by Daniel Helminiak, and “Sex as God Intended”, by John McNeill.

(Note:

I realise that all the above titles are written by men, and have a clearly male focus, although all do also try to cover lesbian relationships as well as gay male. There are good books by women, but I am not aware of any (yet) that I can reommend at this general level. I will make a point of highlighting books written from lesbian, bi or trans perspectives when I discuss some more specialised topics.)

The full introductory list then, is:

Alison, James: Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay

Boswell: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality

Coulton, Nicholas: The Bible, The Church and Homosexuality

Countryman, William: Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today

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: What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality

Helminiak, Daniel: Sex and the Sacred: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth

McNeill, John: The Church and the Homosexual

McNeill, John: Sex as God Intended

Moore, Gareth: A Question of Truth: Christianity and Homosexuality

Rogers, Eugene:  Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality, Revised and Expanded Edition: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church