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Lutherans, Gay Clergy: Shifting Theology.

The decisions of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) this week have rightly received a lot of attention, and are clearly significant to Lutherans, and to the rest of us: but not only for the obvious reasons.Women meeting last week at the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America in Chicago wore rainbow scarves to support gay clergy members. (NY Times)

First, it is hugely important to the openly gay & lesbian partnered pastors already serving the church, and to their congregations. In spite of the previous prohibition, there are many of these across the country, but because of the ban, they may not be officially recognised. The result is that there are listed “vacancies” where good people, who could not be recognised as legitimate simply because they were openly gay and partnered.

“To be able to be a full member of the church is really a lifelong dream,” said the Rev. Megan Rohrer of San Francisco, who is in a committed same-sex relationship and serves in three Lutheran congregations but is not officially on the church’s roster of clergy members. “I don’t have to have an asterisk next to my name anymore.” (NY Times)

Secondly, it is important for other recognised gay clergy who could not be open, or could not enter partnerships, for fear of losing their recognition. These people can now choose celibacy or marriage, as they prefer, without fear – provided they are serving, or can find, a supportive congregation (local approval remains important.) Note however, that the emphasis is on “committed”, as in legally recognised, permanent partnerships comparable to conventional marriage.

In essence, the vote puts gays under the same set of rules that have govern heterosexual clergy. They are required to be monogamous if married and to abstain from sexual relations if they are single. Individual congregations would not be compelled to take on pastors who are in same-sex relationships. (Washington Post)

The assembly also signed off on finding ways for willing congregations to “recognize, support and hold publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous, same gender relationships.” The church fell short of calling that gay marriage, but conservatives see that as the next step.(AP)

It will also pressure the Lutherans themselves to take further decisions on consecrating gay marriages in church. Else, how can they explain a requirement that gay clergy be married, but not allow them to be married in church?

Thirdly, it is important symbolically, encouraging gay and lesbian Christians, and lending momentum to similar pressures in other denominations and elsewhere. Over the past two years, American Presbyterians and United Methodists have declined to pass similar resolutions – but those votes will return in future years, and will be passed (sooner, rather than later, I would think).

“Those who have been actively campaigning for a change of this sort in the other mainline denominations will see this as a sign that they should intensify their efforts,” Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, said in an e-mail. (LA Times)

But the most important aspect of all, in my view, with the furthest reaching implications for all of us, has largely slipped under the radar. The biggest headlines have been on the clergy decision, and on the procedural vote before it, as these are the most clearly dramatic – but in effect, simply regularise an existing de facto situation. In this, the decision resembles the abolition in South Africa of the abhorrent Group Areas Act, which enforced residential separation, and other laws of so-called “petty apartheid”. By the time of the final repeal, these laws had fallen into such disrepute, that they were being widely ignored. Many of the people who could afford to move into the “White” areas had already done so. The law was not so much ground-braking change, as a simple attempt to come to terms with the plain reality. To some extent, so it is here.

No, the really important part for all of us as lesbigaytrans Christians came buried in just a few paragraphs in an earlier decision, approving a revised statement on sexual morality. This statement, after eight years of study and preparation, sets new parameters for the interpretation of Scripture in defining sexual morality.

“Barbara Wheeler, a former president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York who is now director of the school’s Center for the Study of Theological Education, praised the ELCA for laying a theological foundation for Friday’s vote by first approving a broad social statement on sexuality.

“It’s a completely theological argument toward openness to the possibility of faithful, committed same-sex relationships,” said Wheeler, who has played a central role in gay clergy deliberations inside the Presbyterian Church (USA). “What you’re seeing is two things: The society is in the process of changing its collective mind about the moral status of same-sex relationships, and there’s a parallel theological movement.” (AP)

For far too long, the struggle for gay rights has been seen as one that pits civil rights against Scripture. By taking these decisions after long deliberation, including careful consideration of Scripture in the light of modern scholarship, the ECLA has shown that he two are not inherently in conflict. This will lead other open-minded church people of good will to take a further look at Scripture for themselves, and some of hem too will find that the typical resort to Scripture as a basis for opposition is misguided. on the other hand, the bigots who continue to fall back on knee jerk calls to Scripture as a cover for their prejudice or hatred, will find that they no longer receive he automatic support they once did.

The Scriptural argument against same sex relationships is being defanged.

(See also The Wild Reed on the same topic;

and for exensive coverage of events from the inside, see Goodsoil)

Further Reading:
Countryman: Dirt, Greed and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today
Helminiak: What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality

Catholic Church Consecrates Gay Bishop ( Gay Marriage & Gay Bishops in History)

Countering the Clobber Texts

Exodus International, ex-gays: Way Out, or In? Cure, or Disease?

Ex-gays, “cures” for homosexuality and the possibility of change in orientation are back in the news, with the APA conference now under way in Toronto.  One study, due for presentation this morning, is said to present evidence that contrary to the conventional view over the past few decades, “change” is indeed possible. This paper, by an openly evangelical Christian, was a longitudinal study of men who had undergone change therapy with Exodus .  The study was funded by Exodus, but results, he says, were not influenced by them. These showed that although the program was not successful in all cases, it was so with some of the subjects.Are you surprised?

Exodus Billboard
Exodus Billboard

Now, I am not particularly bothered by claims that change is “possible”.  Some LGBT commentators get worked up at the very suggestion, but I do not.  After all, it is fairly clear that we are not all uniformly “homo” or “hetero” -sexual:  most people sit somewhere on a spectrum.  Just a quick look at the very many out gay & lesbian people who have been married, and become parents, shows that it is at least possible to function in the hetero role. Change is possible in many areas of human behaviour.  Meat eaters routinely become vegetarians – and sometimes back again.  Lifelong couch potatoes can acquire an enthusiasm for the gym. And many people routinely change religious faith.  Christians become Muslims, Jews become Catholics, Catholics become Evangelicals, Evangelicals give up religion all the time.

And yes, even heterosexuality can be cured!

So I am not at all surprised by claims that there can be change in sexual practice.  Where I take strong exception, though, is with the idea that this can be called “therapy”, or is even desirable.   In fact, it is quite the reverse. The evidence from neutral psychotherapists, those with neither a religious nor sexual axe to grind, is that the best route to mental health is to live within your natural, primary orientation.  The evidence from personal stories of millions of gay men and lesbians around the world who have come out, confirms this. Nor is sexual “conversion” good for one’s spiritual health. Even within the Catholic tradition, theologians who are also professional psychotherapists confirms this. (See, for instance, Daniel Helminiak and John McNeill).   Exodus International is mistaking  the disease for the cure.  What is particularly scandalous in my mind, is the name they have chosen.

Moses Crossing Red Sea - Sistine Chapel
Moses Crossing Red Sea  (Cosimo Roselli, Sistine Chapel)

The Biblical story of the Exodus is one of liberation from slavery and oppression.  ”Let my people go” was a slogan taken from Exodus, freely adopted by the American civil rights movement, and by early black nationalists in South Africa.  Many LGBT commentators have proposed that gay Christians should use the book of Exodus as a theme for regular prayer and reflection in our own struggle against oppression by church and state and in our continual, endless process of coming out. (“Ex-odos”  is from the Greek for “way out”). More, in standard theology one of the primary tasks of the church is to take the “prophetic role” – that is , to speak up against evil and injustice. During my involvement with the Catholic Justice & Peace Commission back in South Africa, two texts that were endlessly repeated were  from Luke, and from Micah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Yet here we have a so-called Christian organisation appropriating the name to lead us not away from the oppression of the closet, but back into it.   If coming out is a spiritual experience, what words are appropriate for being led back in?

Am I going too far in suggesting “diabolical”?

Recommended Books

Daniel Helminiak: Sex and the Sacred

John McNeill: Taking a Chance on God

John McNeill: Sex and the Sacred

Richard Cleaver:Know My Name

Related Posts:

The Intimate Dance of Sexuality and Spirituality

Homoerotic Spirituality

Truth Wins Out Leviticus International Peter Toscano (Quaker, queer, and ex ex-gay)

God’s Tricksters, Prophetic Vision, and Justice in the Church.

I’ve been reading about Catholic Bishop, Patricia Fresen . That’s right: Catholic Bishop, Patricia Fresen.

Bishop Fresen is one of three consecrated Bishops in the Womenpriests movement. Now, I’ve been fascinated by Bishop Fresen since I first heard of her a couple of years ago, but all my natural instincts are in turmoil over this. On the one hand, part of me says this can’t be valid – the Catholic Church does not allow women priests, let alone bishops. On the other, another part of me says, right on! After all, she appears to have been legitimately and validly consecrated by a (male) Catholic bishop in good standing, witnessed by three other male bishops, and other women bishops – who had previously been consecrated themselves, in similar fashion.

women priests

The second feature that appeals to me, that warms the cockles of my heart, is that I share one part of Bishop Fresen’s path of resistance. She and I both spent the major part of our lives in the church in South Africa. As legally “white”, we were both beneficiaries of the apartheid structure. As Catholics, we both accepted the national church’s insistence that it was right and appropriate to stand up against injustice, and to resist, even to disobey, unjust laws. I myself attended several meeting of peace and justice commissions, where the regular slogan was “If you want peace, work for justice”, and quite deliberately ignored and contravened some significant pieces of legislation, opening myself to real risk of prosecution.

Bishop Fresen logically applied church teaching on justice to her own position:

“As she left childhood, she realized that this neat division into black and white was not the Will of God. It was unjust. Through her experience in her Dominican community, which had broken barriers of white and black among the sisters and in their schools, Patricia came to understand that there is a moral obligation to change unjust laws and that this is often done by refusal to obey those laws. Therefore, when she heard about the ordination of seven Catholic women on the Danube in 2002, she immediately recognized that their ordinations were moral resistance to the apartheid of sexism in the Catholic Church.”

I do not know enough about canon law on what constitutes a legitimate episcopal consecration, but I do know that this issue is not going away any time soon. In addition to the women already ordained, they are training more – as well as married and gay men.

[UPDATE: By sheer chance, I stumbled upon this story on Clerical Whispers from 2007, focusing on one of the American women ordained. Have a look here, at the original source, for a different perspective.

I am also struck by the action of the (male) bishop and his colleagues who had the courage to initiate the ordination of womenpriests, and then the consecration of three women bishops, to continue the work. I have been reading Virginia Mollenkott on “God’s Tricksters”, in “Take Back the Word” (ed Goss & Webb).

MollenkottMollenkott argues that for those compelled to read Scripture, and to follow authority from “low and outside” (which includes women, gay men, and especially lesbians), it is sometimes necessary to adopt a certain amount of deception and trickery. This sounds dishonest, but she quotes convincing Scriptural precedents for the strategy (Jeannine Grammik has proposed something similar, for subverting Vatican authority from the inside). I also like Mollenkott’s observations on assigned authority. She is not here speaking of the Catholic Church in particular, but if the cap fits…

“Those who find themselves disadvantaged, on the outside, in the margins as it were, make use of trickery and other forms of manipulative behaviour because they do not have assigned power….Assigned power is just that: assigned (usually by the elite in favour of the elite) but masquerading as divinely ordained, cosmically correct and unquestionably true.” (emphasis mine)

It seems to me that the unnamed male bishops have done just that – used their legitimate authority to ordain & consecrate women priests and bishops. But because the people chosen are women, and therefore not approved in the modern church (the evidence is that this was not also the case: women deacons, and possibly priests, were certainly ordained in the early church), the identity of the consecrating bishops must be kept secret for now.

At Bilgrimage, meanwhile, William Lindsay has been critically discussing the stance of Archbishop Rowan Williams on gay marriage, contrasting it with that of the British Quakers. He notes that what is required here is not endless debate, commissions, scholarship and clear majority support, but the adoption of a prophetic stance against injustice.

“To my mind, what British Friends have just decided to do, and the theological rationale they advance to justify their decision, strongly supports the argument I offered yesterday against the Archbishop of Canterbury’s understanding of how churches change their moral minds. When social attitudes begin to show churches that certain practices they have long taken for granted are no longer morally defensible, churches usually change their moral minds not because they have reached wide agreement about a new moral consensus, or as a result of ongoing study and discussion about the new consensus.

They change their moral minds because prophetic, cutting-edge groups within the churches and outside the churches needle the churches into rethinking their complicity in practices that can no longer be justified on theological, biblical, or moral grounds. “

This is precisely what I was taught by the Church in South Africa, what Bishop Fresen has followed in her calling to the priesthood, and what the Quakers have now done.

See also:

Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey “Reading the Bible from Low and Outside: Lesbitransgay People as God’s Tricksters ” in Take Back the Word, (ed Goss & Webb)

Wild Reed, Women Priests ordained in Minneapolis

Roman Catholic Womenpriests:

From the Womenpriests website:

“Roman Catholic Womenpriests Celebrate Eucharist at
CALL TO ACTION 30th Anniversary Conference
in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Link to a 9:46 minute video on Google Videos
“Highlights from Roman Catholic Womenpriests‘ liturgy at Call to Action”
this video downloads on either Windows or Mac

Link to a 3:55 minute video on Google Videos
“Roman Catholic Womenpriests Celebrate Eucharist at Call to Action”
this video downloads on either Windows or Mac

Link to a 3:44 minute video on Google Videos
“A New Inclusive Model of Priestly Ministry”
this video downloads on either Windows or Mac”

Same Sex Unions in Church History

The earliest church, in Rome and in the Slavic countries, recognised some forms of same sex union in liturgical rites of  ”adelphopoein” .  It is not entirely clear precisely what was the precise meaning of these rites.  They were clearly not directly comparable to modern marriage – but nor were the forms of heterosexual unions at the time.  Some claim that they were no more than a formalised friendship under the name of  ”brotherhood” – but many Roman lovers called themselves “brothers”.  Some of the couples united under this rite were certainly homosexual lovers, but it is possible not all were.  What is certain, is that the Church under the Roman Empire, for many years recognised and blessed liturgically some form of union for same sex couples.  As late as the sixteenth century, there is a clear written report of a Portuguese male couple having been married in a church in Rome.

This recognition also extended to death.  From  the earliest church until at least the nineteenth century, there are examples of same sex couples, both male and female, being buried in shared graves, in a manner exactly comparable to the common practice of married couples sharing a grave – and often with the parallel made clear in the inscriptions.

The modern Church likes to claim that in condemning same sex relationships, and resisting gay marriage and gay clergy, it is maintaining a long church tradition.  It is not.  To persist in this claim, in the light of increasing evidence from modern scholars, is simply to promote a highly selective  and hence dishonest reading of history.

Continue reading Same Sex Unions in Church History

The Myth of Priestly Celibacy

Until the 12th century, Christian priests led sexual lives resembling those of lay people: some priests and lay people alike embraced voluntary celibacy,  others did not.  Then, at the First Lateran Council of 1123 ,  celibacy was imposed as a rule on all priests. The circumstances and reaction at the time are interesting. John Boswell argues that among the groups strongly promoting the rule were priests who had no wives or concubines, but did have boyfriends.  After noting that Pope Leo IX, who was the first pontiff to take action against married clergy, had shown no interest in acting against homosexual practices by priests or bishops, Boswell continues with:

Contemporaries, at least, were quick to note that gay priests were more willing than heterosexual ones to enforce prohibitions against clerical marriage“;

and again

There is some evidence of a power struggle between gay and married clergy over whose predilection would be stigmatized.”

In the Eastern church, orthodox priests never adopted the rule, and were horrified by the practice in the West. An anonymous Byzantine tract of c 1274, quoted in Judith Herrin’s “Byzantium“, asks plaintively,

“Why do you priests not marry?… The Church does not forbid the priest to take a wife, but you do not marry.  Instead you have concubines and your priest sends his servant to bring him his concubine and puts out the candle and keeps her for the whole night.”

In the centuries that followed, this charge (that clergy at all levels  no longer married, but continued active sexual lives with concubines) was widely accepted. Indeed, sexual scandals even at the level of the papacy were one of the factors that led to the Reformation.  Somehow, in subsequent centuries, many Catholics seem to have adopted the belief that since celibacy is the rule, it is now also the practice.  This is hogwash.  It never has been, and never will be.

It is well known that there has been a haemorrhaging of good men from the priesthood over the last half century, many of them leaving the priesthood explicitly to marry.   It is delusional to suppose that these men kept themselves sexually chaste until after leaving;  it is equally delusional to suppose that all those who maintained active sexual relationships, left the priesthood.  I myself have a personal friend who left the priesthood only when he ‘had to get married’ to the religious sister he had impregnated.  Note the sequence:  first he got her pregnant, then he left the priesthood.

In the concluding chapter of his book, “Global Catholicism”, Ian Linden writes of the state of the church in the 21st century. One of his sections is titled “The Universal Crisis of the Celibate Priesthood.” Among other damaging effects, he notes:

“The number of Catholic priests worldwide in clandestine , and often exploitative, multiple sexual relationships of different duration and kind has undermined the examplary witness of those freed by celibacy for a lifetime of service.  Promiscuous – and paedophile- clergy have been a disaster for the post-conciliar Church, not to speak of their victims’ suffering. Clerical sexual conduct has given rise in many parishes to a myriad of intractable problems. So the moral issue for many lay Catholics in some countries became not whether the priest was failing to keep his vow of celibacy – failure was increasingly taken for granted – but whether he was sleeping with a married woman, failing to care for the children brought into the world, or indeed had more than one sexual partner, in short the degree to which the relationship was socially damaging and individually abusive.”

It gets worse.  Referring to the consequences of the emergence of HIV/AIDS, he writes:

“But it soon emerged that one consequence of the pandemic was that promiscuous priests, for fear of infection, were shifting their attentions to the local nuns on the assumption that they would be free of the virus”, prompting their Superiors to challenge the bishops, without success, to protect their congregations from predatory clergy.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support these contentions.  In The Future of the Celibacy Debate lies in Africa, not Miami Collen Kochivar-Baker writes about the situation in the Central African Republic, where it seems that bishops and priests for years have been living openly with wives and families:

“Africa News had reported Monday that Archbishop Pomodimo and several priests in his archdiocese would be sanctioned ‘for adopting a moral attitude which is not always in conformity with their commitments to follow Christ in chastity, poverty and obedience’.”

In Zimbabwe, the otherwise impressive and respected Bishop Ncube has resigned after as sexual scandal.  From Rocco Palma’s “Whispers in the Loggia”:

“Ncube’s resignation was accepted after the 62 year-old prelate was accused of adultery in what, at the time, the archbishop maintained was a “well-orchestrated plan” by Mugabe and his allies to discredit Ncube for his globally-noticed protests of the country’s authoritarian rule.

Several months later, the prelate admitted to the affair in a documentary interview.” In the same post, Pollo  also refers to situation in Bangui.

There have been many instances publicised in the West (and many more unpublicised), of which  the case of Fr Mario Cutie in Miami is just the most recently prominent.    Nor have the sexual partners been restricted to women.   Censor Librorum at Nilhil Obstat has written on the voracious sexual appetite of the late Cardinal Spellman for young men, and former Milwaukee archbishop Rembert Weakland has recently come out publicly on his experience as a gay Bishop in the church.

A  sexual appetite is a fundamental human urge. Modern research shows clearly that healthy, active expression of this urge contributes to physical and mental health. While I fully accept that voluntary celibacy is entirely possible and acceptable for those who embrace it willingly in maturity, I have grave misgivings about imposing it by compulsion.

The pretence of priestly celibacy is not just a myth:  the consequences are intensely damaging, in many ways, to the whole Church and its people.  I will expand on these consequences later.

Related Posts




Heterosexuality Can Be Cured!

A new organisation, Leviticus International, has announced the establishment of a programme that will redress the unfairness of the existing “ex-gay” programmes, in which evangelical Christians claim, with Christ’s help, to take unhappy ‘homosexuals’ and turn them into happy, smiling ‘heterosexuals’.  This is of course, a discriminatory programme – there have been (until now) no comparable programmes for unhappy ‘heterosexuals’.  This is the deficiency that Leviticus International is about to put right.  They too, claim the help and support of the Lord Jesus Christ for their programme, which will take all those sad and unhappy heterosexuals, and turn them into happy homosexuals.