Today, the Church celebrates the feast of the conversion of St Paul. Just in that title, there is encouragement for LGBT Christians: just as Saul of Tarsus, scourge of the early Christians found God and became instead a great champion of their cause, it is possible that the institutional churches, which are so widely seen by the queer community as their persecutors, could likewise meet God and undergo a similar change of heart, to become our champions – turning to what Jenni at Queering the Church described a few days ago as a “preferential option for the queer“. This is not as far-fetched as it may seem: there has already been a most extraordinary transformation of religious responses to homoerotic relationships over the last half century, and an increasing number of influential churchmen and women are becoming enthusiastic straight allies, champions of our cause.
I am working towards an extended post on this theme (which will be the basis of an address I will be giving to the Quest annual conference in September), so will not go over the evidence here. Meanwhile, in honour of Paul, I reproduce below a post I wrote in 2010.
There is much that is paradoxical in the figure of Paul. In his dual persona as Saul / Paul, he is renowned as both a one-time feared persecutor of Christians, and as the greatest of all the early missionaries, who spread the word far beyond it s original geographic compounds, and author of by far the most influential Christian texts outside the Gospels themselves. In the same way, as the author of the most infamous New Testament clobber texts, he is widely regarded as strongly condemning homoerotic relationships – and yet Paul Halsall lists him in his Calendar of LGBT Saints:
There is considerable debate over those anti-gay “proof -texts”, but whatever the conclusions, there is much, as Anglican Bishop of Newark John Spong has pointed out, which leads one to suspect Paul might have been “queer” in some way. The fact he was never married, unusual for a Jew of his time, his companionship with a series of younger men, especially St. Timothy, his mention of an unnamed “thorn in the flesh”. and, possibly, his disdain for some types of exploitative homosexual relationship in his period, all raise questions, questions which cannot be answered it must be admitted, about his sexuality.
What are we to make of this?
Conversion of St Paul (Andrea Meldolla, more often known in English as Andrea Schiavone or Lo Schiavone c. 1510/1515)
First, let us dismiss the idea that Paul’s writing is anti-gay: it isn’t, and further, much of his message is precisely the opposite, arguing for full inclusion of all. For a counter to the standard view of Paul as anti-gay, anti-sex, see Reidulf Molvaer, Sex & St. Paul the Realist
St. Paul was, in many ways, an ascetic and happy to be so, but he refused to make asceticism a general model or ideal for Christians – most people cannot live by such principles, especially in the area of sex. In the seventh chapter of his first letter to Corinth, he rejects any appeal for his support of sexual abstinence as ethically superior to active sexual relations. He sets limits, but does not limit legitimate sexual relations to marriage. In his day, it was commonly believed that homosexual practice, more easily than heterosexual relations, could bring people into harmony with the unchangeable nature of God. This Paul strongly rejects in the first chapter of his letter to Rome. Otherwise he does not write about “natural” homosexuality. In fact, it is a logical inference from the principles he sets forth in his letter to Corinth that loving, lasting homosexual relations are ethically as valid as heterosexual relations. Dr. Molvaer maintains that insight into contemporary ideologies can be a help to understanding what the New Testament says about these matters. Today, as in the early Church, extraneous influences in these areas can easily distort genuine Christian moral concerns as they are stated by Christ and St. Paul.
Then, consider his person. Astonishingly little is known for certain of Paul the man, but Bishop Spong is not the only one to have suggested that Paul may have had same close same -sex relationships of his own. Gay Catholic blogger Jeremiah Bartram, who recently spent time on a pilgrimage “in the footsteps of St Paul” has reflected deeply on the life and writign of Paul, and concluded that on balance, the suggestion is sound.
In the absence of hard evidence, personally I am happy to leave this discussion to others with greater scholarship and expertise behind them. My interest in the queer saints is in the lessons they hold for us today, and here I think there is one clear message, which lies in the best known story of al about Paul, his conversion on the road to Damascus. This has entered language as a “Damascene Conversion”, and therein lies hope. For if Saul, the renowned persecutor of Christians, could undergo such a complete change of heart and become instead active as the most famous proselytizer, so too is there hope for the religion -based persecutors of sexual minorities today. Not only is there hope, but there is already abundant evidence from the very many Christians in the modern world who have experienced just such Damascene conversions, going from direct, outright condemnation of same sex relationships, to actively advocating full inclusion in church. These changes of heart, usually coming after intensive study of Scripture and extensive discussions with gay and lesbian church members, have already been responsible for changes of policy in several denominations, and a more welcoming atmosphere in many local congregations. This process will continue.
For those Catholics who like to pray to the saints, you can freely include St Paul in you prayers. This is not because he was queer (although he may have been), but because his own conversion experience provides a useful model for all those modern day conversions that we need among the bigots who use religion as a cloak for prejudice and discrimination.
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.
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.
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.
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).
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
– Galatians 3:28
In the context of religion, Christians should be familiar with the quotation from Galatians (even if some, such as in the Catholic Church, are unwilling to take the words literally, and apply them to ordination). From the world of science though, it is becoming clear that there is a truth in the words that goes way beyond a theological concept, and is instead, a substantial measure of quite literal truth. It may well be that there really is “neither male nor female”, at least not in the absolute binary sense that modern Western culture assumes. This has major implications for Christian sexual and gender theology.”
Judith Butler’s “Gender Trouble” was a seminal work in the early development of feminism and queer theory, and later of queer theology. Butler’s central achievement was to demonstrate the fluidity of gender, which she described as “performance”. The fluidity of gender however, also extends to biology. Far from a simple binary world composed of biological males and females, with perhaps a smattering of people with indeterminate gender (once described as hermaphrodites), modern science has shown that there are a far greater range of conditions that may be loosely described as “intersex” than previously realized – and that there are a surprising number of these people, some of whom will not even know of their true sex until they meet a need for some kind of medical testing (as with the case of the South African athlete Caster Semenya, who had no idea she was not fully female until she won a medal at the Beijing Olympics, competing as a woman). The same problems beset Sally Gross, who was raised as a male and ordained a Catholic priest, until the discovery that biologically she was in fact primarily female.
What is a Male?
To illustrate some of the complexities around biological sex, I want to share with you some extracts from two books that I have found helpful in extending my own understanding, Brian McNaught’s “Sex Camp”“, and Virginia Mollenkott’s Omnigender.
“Sex Camp” is a fictionalized presentation in novel form, of a real-life program that used to be run in New York state, in which groups of people from diverse backgrounds were brought together in a secluded rural setting each summer, for serious training and discussion of matters around sexuality, gender, and faith.
In one chapter, ”Bill” delivers a presentation to the group on “Gender Identity & Expression”. This is from his introduction to the topic:
“When we talk about “Biological Sex,” and ask the question, we’re asking about it chromosomally, hormonally, gonadally, as well as with reference to the internal and external genitalia, and to brain dimorphism,” he said, writing the words on the whiteboard. Chromosomally, we are talking in terms of xx equalling a girl, and xy equalling a boy. Hormonally, we’re talking about ovaries for girls, and testicles for boys. With regard to internal genitalia, we’re talking about the Mullerian Structures for girls (fallopian tubes and uterus), and the Wolfian structures for boys (prostate, seminal vesicles, and vas deferens). Externally, we’re talking about the clitoris for girls, and the penis for boys. Brain dimorphism refers to the differences in the male and female brains.”
Let’s pause, to digest this. I count six different methods of determining a person’s sex.
The results of applying all of these to a single person will not always coincide. If they do not, how are we to decide, is this person “male” or “female”?
Furthermore, these measures do not yield simple binary opposites.
The problem with all of this is that not all girls are XX or boys XY, we all have the same hormones but in different level, we’re all born with clear gonadal or genital differences, and brain dimorphism isn’t a reliable indicator. So the question remains, “What is a male?”
Some of this is familiar. External genitalia can be ambiguous (as they were at birth for Sally/Selwyn Gross, whose story I presented earlier). In these cases, parents and doctors typically make a decision to impose one or other gender on the child, and raise her/him accordingly. But the assigned gender may differ sharply from the other, less easily visible determinants. But let’s consider for now, just those hormones.
The male hormone testosterone and the female hormone oestrogen are familiar, and popularly taken as markers for masculinity or femininity. (Just consider the verbal expression, “testosterone-fuelled….”) to describe actions taken to be unequivocally masculine). Some men take testosterone hormone supplements to adjust their physical appearance to a more conventionally “masculine” model, or to excel at masculine sports. For transsexuals, hormone therapy is commonly a major part of the transitioning process. But we all know that “men” differ in their degree of testosterone – and have a modicum of oestrogen too, and “women” differ in their oestrogen levels – but have some testosterone, too. Using hormonal measurement alone as a criterion, does int make any sense at all to even think of someone as wholly male, or wholly female?
Chromosome patterns also do not fit the simple “xx” or “xy” binary split we are familiar with. In addition to x and y chromosomes, there are “blanks”, indicated as “o” – and some people have more than the usual two.
“With chromosomes”, Bill continued, “the male sperm determines the outcome. What happens, however, if instead of adding an “x” or a “y” chromosome to the female’s “x”, the male shoots a blank sex-determining chromosome and the child is born “xo?”
The answer is – Turner’s syndrome. There are many other variations from the simple xx/xy of popular understanding.
One out of every 1600 live births are “xo”. You can also get “xxx,” which will be a female, but there are a significant number who may have mental retardation. You can also get an “xxy”, which will often be a tall, infertile male. We call this Klinefelter’s Sybdrome. You can get an “xyy”, and you can get an “xxyy”, which is a pure, bilateral hermaphrodite.”
And you can get an “xyxo”, which will be a short male whose gender and orientation are up for grabs”.
“The point is”, Bill said with a satisfied look, “that nature is not neat. Biological sex is not an easy issue. Further, when we talk about “male” and “female”, we’re talking about “sex”, “sexual identity”, and “sex role”. When we ask the question, “What is a male?” we’re not just asking about chromosomes, hormones, gonads, genitals and differences of the brain. We’re asking about sexual identity and sex role. We’re asking about both the assignment and rearing, as well as gender identity differentiation. ”
“Sex Camp”” is about much more than the ambiguities of biological sex and gender identity – this topic is just one of many in a a book which is packed with helpful, reliable information about sex and sexuality, and is also (as you would expect from the title) great fun to read.
I turn now to another book, in a more conventionally serious manner, by a respected theologian – and focussed exclusively on this topic.
So: just how does a woman become a Catholic priest in a major religious order? Sally Gross did just that: her story, with the explanation of just how it was possible, reveals some gaping holes in Catholic theology on women’s ordination and on sexuality, and problems in how governments deal with gender. It is also a moving personal story, of personal journeys, geographic, spiritual and biological, which are about as far-reaching as it is possible to go in one life-time.
The complex story is told at some length at the Natal Witness, which I have attempted to summarize below, quoting verbatim some extracts to illuminate key points. (Even in summary, it is lengthy – but stick with it. It graphically illustrates some critical deficiencies in Vatican thinking on sexuality and on ministry, which I touch on in conclusion).
The journey from Selwyn to Sally has taken Gross to the outer limits of human identity, both physically and psychologically and incorporated every dimension of her life: political, social and religious. Her experience has implications for all of us, and our institutions, both secular and religious, because our society insists on the existence of only two sexes, male and female.
Intersexed at birth, raised as a boy.
Gross is one of a small but significant, greatly misunderstood, minority of people who are loosely grouped together as “intersex”.
Biologically, hormone tests show she is clearly female, but at birth her external genitals appeared to be ambiguous, but essentially male. S/he was raised as a boy, complete with the ritual circumcision demanded by the Jewish faith of the family. However, s/he always knew that there was something “wrong”.
“Since the time I became conscious of myself as a very young child I had sense of something being awry in the area of gender, about my own bodiliness,” says Sally Gross. “I didn’t know exactly what it was, but there was a sense of things being awry, being different.”
He grew up as a Jewish boy in South Africa, but as a young man, became drawn to the Catholic Church, in part because he believed it to be more actively speaking up and acting against the evils of apartheid than his own Jewish religious leaders. He was baptised a Catholic in 1976. The following year he left the country, when his political activism against apartheid was becoming personally dangerous, going first to Botswana, then to Israel (where his parents then were).
Chaz Bono’s appearance on Dancing with the Stars has led to substantial commentary, for and against. Some of this is leading to discussion of really important, but neglected issues. For example, one common but myopic response in opposition, and to other lesbian or gay visibility on our television screens and in our streets, is that children could be “confused” by seeing these non-conformist images, and so might grow up confused about their own identity.
The obvious problem with this assessment, is that it is only relevant to those children who happen to be born with an innate orientation, biological sex and gender identity which conform squarely with the extreme positions of the relevant sexual, biological or gender continuum. Biological and social sciences have shown conclusively that life is not so simple. If Kinsey is to be believed, most of us are not all exclusively heterosexual or homosexual. We also know that a small but surprisingly significant minority of people are born who are neither wholly male nor wholly female, but one variety or another of intersexed – and for many others, their gender identity (the way their mental state sees themselves) differs from their biological sex.
In the modern Western church, we have developed an unfortunate tendency to think of the person of Jesus Christ as definitely male, but also decidedly sexless, neutered. This is patently ridiculous. As one who was fully human, he will most certainly have possessed sexual attributes, physical and emotional. Fortunately, modern theologians are rediscovering this – as earlier Christians understood, and the Eastern churches still do.
Kittredge Cherry is an ordained MCC pastor, and a published writer whose novel “Jesus in Love” considers the erotic attachments that may have existed in Christ’s life. At her blog, Jesus in Love, she posted an interview early last month with Hunter Flournoy, a psychotherapist and shamanic healer who teaches “Erotic Body of Christ” workshops for gay and bisexual men:
Based in North Carolina and New Mexico, Flournoy has been leading workshops and ceremonies in awareness, creativity, healing, passionate living and personal freedom for 19 years. His next Erotic Body of Christ workshop will be March 17-20 at the Kirkridge Retreat Center in Delaware Water Gap, PA. He has just launched a new website, eroticbodyofchrist.org, full of valuable resources for uniting sexuality and spirituality.
Others have also written of the value of incorporating the erotic into spirituality, either as professional theologians and spiritual directors, or from personal experience. In doing so, they are returning to the earlier tradition of the church, in which the great mystics did not shirk from the erotic, but incorporated erotic imagination into their spiritual lives and writing.
Here are some extracts from Kittredge Cherry’s interview with Hunter Flournoy:
Kittredge Cherry: Who is “the erotic Christ”? How does the “erotic Christ” relate to the “historical Jesus” of scholarly research, the gay Jesus or black Jesus of liberation theology, and the traditional Jesus of churches?
We are Christ, the anointed one, and His Body is our own, as individuals, as a community, and as a world. At one point, the New Testament says, Christ had only one body – the body of Jesus – but he poured out his Spirit on the World, anointing us all, making us His body. That body, in the eastern traditions of Christianity, is a passionately erotic one; our erotic experience is the place we encounter God most directly, and the energy of Eros — our sensuous experience of pleasure, desire, ecstasy and union . . . is the fuel for our journey of Theosis, or union with God. Eros transfigured through our act of giving ourselves and receiving each other completely, becomes agape. The erotic body of Christ is not a scholastic conceptualization of Jesus – it is a visceral experience of God through our bodies, individually and collectively, modeled by Jesus, lived by the erotic Christian mystics throughout the ages, and felt directly in our own experience.
KC: When and how did you first get involved with the idea of the erotic Christ?
HF: My first intimation of Christ as a living reality in my body goes back to my earliest communion at about age ten. My whole body thrilled when I knelt at the altar rail and the priest’s hand brushed against my own as he pressed the wafer into my palm and lifted the chalice of warm, sweet wine to my lips. I felt that it was Jesus there before me and in me, in everything, penetrating everything and taking it all into him. As I matured, that experience only deepened; every sensation seemed to be infused with a passionately loving presence, and sometimes I would see an astounding light shining out of other peoples’ eyes, kindling bliss in my whole body.
I tried to suppress this unsettling experience for years, since the Christianity of my youth had no room for it. I didn’t realize what a deeply Christian experience it really was until I discovered a small eastern orthodox monastery in New Mexico. There I learned that Christianity had once been something very different: experiential, sensuous, mystical, and profoundly grounded in the sacredness of our bodies and our world. Though many of the eastern churches have more recently become mired in a frightening cultural conservatism, they kept a breathtakingly erotic, incarnational Christianity alive for two thousand years.
KC: Many LGBT people have been wounded by the false teaching that homosexuality is a sin. What message does the erotic Christ have for them?
HF: Our sexual energy is the most powerful tool we have to shatter the illusion of separation, which is what the original Christians meant by “sin.” The essential question we must ask ourselves is, am I using sex to bring myself alive, to overcome separation and incarnate the divine, or am I using it to medicate or avoid my own experience of being alive? This was the original understanding of chastity: it calls us to the highest possible relationship with our own sexual energy. All sexual experience can break down the boundaries and defenses we use to separate ourselves from each other and from God – we become one body, one being. Sex can also teach us how to give ourselves totally (kenosis) to each other, how to receive each other completely (plerosis), and how to surrender to the transfiguring power of our own erotic experience. As LGBT people, we also have an innate understanding that our erotic experience, our pleasure, desire, ecstasy, and union, can serve a purpose other than reproduction. Our erotic joy is a source of profound creativity, deep empathy, and a wild ecstasy that can take us out of who we are into a far greater sense of being.
The evidence of a gulf in thinking on homosexuality (and sexuality more generally) between the formal position of Vatican orthodoxy and the real beliefs of ordinary Catholics is clear. To make sense of this. we need to consider two key questions: the compelling, established evidence that such a gulf exists, and the more tentative evidence that the oligarchy is starting to catch up.
In this post, I simply present a summary of the main findings on the belief of real Catholics, with some commentary and supporting links. Later, I will report on commentary elsewhere, and expand on the signs of the change that must come from the bishops’ oligarchy – and is just starting to do so.
The extent and growth of the Catholic / Oligarchy disconnect on homosexuality
Several major opinion polls have demonstrated the existence of this disconnect, with last week’s Washington Post/ABC poll on gay marriage just the latest of several. (see for example, here and here). Most of the time, the views of the Catholic subsample get just a line or a paragraph, but now we have a much more detailed analysis from the Public Religion Institute, digging into the detailed data from earlier research, and released as a report called Catholic Attitudes on Gay and Lesbian Issues.
These were the key findings:
Catholics are more supportive of legal recognitions of same-sex relationships than members of any other Christian tradition and Americans overall.
Nearly three quarters of Catholics favour either allowing gay and lesbian people to marry (43%) or to form civil unions (31%). Only 22% say there should be no legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship.
This really should not surprise. Catholic tradition is strongly supportive of families. There is no reason at all why Pope Benedict’s recent address on this theme cannot be applied to all families, in keeping with the firm commitment of Catholic orthodoxy to inclusion and justice for all marginalized groups. Going back into older Catholic history, there was also an established tradition of liturgical rites for blessing same sex unions, and recognition of the spiritual value of what St Aelred of Rievaulx called “spiritual friendship” between male couples.
Defining same-sex marriage as a civil marriage dramatically increases support among Catholics.
If marriage for gay couples is defined as a civil marriage “like you get at city hall”, Catholic support for allowing gay couples to marry increases by 28%, from 43% to 71%. A similar pattern exists in the general population, but the Catholic shift is more pronounced.
Catholics have a strong commitment to marriage as a sacrament, based on its connection with raising children, and do not see civil marriage as having any validity in the eyes of the Church. On that basis, the only significant difference between same sex and opposite sex civil marriages is the gender of the participants – a clear case of discrimination. There can be no valid religious argument for opposing what the Church itself sees as a purely legal arrangement between two people.
Beyond same-sex marriage, Catholic support for rights for gays and lesbian people is strong and slightly higher than the general public.
Nearly three quarters of Catholics favour laws that would protect gay and lesbian people in the workplace; 63% of Catholics favour allowing gay and lesbian people to serve openly in the military; and 6 in 10 (60%) of Catholics favour allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt.
There are really two distinct issues here – discrimination, and adoption. Even formal Catholic teaching is opposed to what it describes as “unjust” discrimination against LGBT people. The problem is only that the CDF gets itself into an eggdance over attempting to present some discrimination as “just”, and opposing legal protection against discrimination, on the spurious grounds that we can all avoid discrimination by simply hiding our orientation – by remaining in the closet. In this, they are contradicting their own reminder that we should “speak the truth in love”, and that “the truth will set you free”.
Adoption is not a matter of discrimination against gay or lesbian people, but one of the rights of children. The only issue of importance should be, what is best for the child in need of adoptive parents. Frequently, the best available parents for some kids will be gay. To exclude such potential parents on arbitrary grounds limits the possibilities for the full flourishing of that child.
Compared to the general church-going public, Catholics are significantly less likely to hear about the issue of homosexuality from their clergy, but those who do are much more likely to hear negative messages.
Only about 1 in 4 Catholics who attend church services regularly say their clergy speak about the issue of homosexuality, but nearly two-thirds of this group say that the messages are negative.
Contrary to popular belief, the most important characteristics of Catholicism are not matters of sexual puritanism, but a commitment to justice and service on the one hand, and to developing a personal relationship with the Lord, through prayer and sacramental practice, on the other.
Compared to other religious groups, Catholics are significantly more likely to give their church poor marks on how it is handling the issue of homosexuality.
Less than 4 in 10 Catholics give their church top marks (a grade of either A or B) on its handling of the issue of homosexuality.
How can it be otherwise, on this or any other matter of sexuality, when the teaching is developed and disseminated by those who are not supposed to have any practical experience of loving sexual relationships, to those who do?
Seven in ten Catholics say that messages from places of worship contribute to higher rates of suicide among gay and lesbian youth.
In Catholic tradition, suicide is one of the gravest of sins. How grave a sin is it to lead another to suicide, either by promoting ideas of self-contempt, or by indirectly promoting or condoning youthful bullying?
Catholics overwhelmingly reject the idea that sexual orientation can be changed.
Nearly 7 in 10 (69%) of Catholics disagree that homosexual orientation can be changed. Less than 1 in 4 (23%) believe that it can.
The majority Catholic view here is in fact close to generally accepted Catholic orthodoxy, which teaches that we must pay full attention to the findings of science. These findings, as reflected in the determinations of professional bodies in the fields of medicine and psychology, and in numerous field studies in animal behaviour, are that for some individuals and for some animal species, homoerotic sexual attraction and expression is entirely natural. Formal Catholic teaching has not yet grasped this nettle, but sooner or later it surely must.
A majority of Catholics believe that sexual relations between two adults of the same gender is not a sin.
Among the general population, less than half believe it is not a sin.
Of course such relations, in themselves, are not necessarily a sin – any more than sexual relations between any two adults are necessarily sinful. That rather depends on the context. Many theologians, and what appears to be an increasing number of bishops, now recognize that what matters is the quality of the relationship. If this is committed, permanent and faithful, then the sexual relationhip is no more sinful than that within marriage.
Even the orthodox position, which insists unambiguously that even within such a loving same sex relationship sexual expression is a grave sin, nevertheless agrees that this is not so in every case. There is always recognition of the primacy of conscience. Where gay or lesbian couples in sexual relationships do so after a full process of conscience formation on the matter, and have reached a decision in conscience that their relationship is not sinful – then there is no sin.
In the three weeks since I first noted that Presbyterian ratification for the ordination of partnered gay and lesbian clergy looked promising, the prospects have continued to improve. There are now 13 regional presbyteries that have switched from No to Yes – compared with just a single one which has switched the other way, from Yes to No. This makes a net gain of 12 – against just the 9 which are needed. It is likely that there will be others too, making the switch in the weeks ahead. Already, the number approving ratification (67) is more than two thirds of the way to the 87 required – just 20 more to go, with 58 votes to still to be held. The opposition, conversely, would need to win 39 of those remaining votes to prevail.
This process is clearly of fundamental importance to LGBT Presbyterians in the USA, but I believe it has far greater importance for the entire Christian church, worldwide: it is just one, local manifestation of a much bigger process. The ECLA took a similar decision in 2009, and recently 33 retired Methodist bishops called for that denomination to do the same. Three openly gay and partnered bishops have been ordained in the Episcopal and Swedish Lutheran churches, and the German Lutherans have no problem with pastors living with same sex partners. The process extends beyond the ordination of gay clergy. There is increasing willingness in many local churches and (some national denominations) to bless same sex partnerships or even celebrate gay weddings in Church. These are not, as the conservatives claim, simply opportunistic accomodation to secular trends in defiance of Scripture, but are prompted in large part precisely by careful attention to scholarly Biblical study, prayer and attentive listening process. Even Catholic professional theologians are now recognizing what lay Catholics already know – that homoerotic relationships in themselves are not immoral. What is presently unfolding in the PCUSA, why I find it so riveting, is nothing less than a wholesale transformation of Christian responses to homosexuality.
I have reproduced below my original post on this, showing how the numbers have changed in the past thee weeks, showing the current status as at 17th March:
Last year, the Presbyterian Church of the USA voted to approve changes in the criteria for ordination of clergy, in terms which do not discriminate against partnered gay or lesbian candidates. The resolution removes a paragraph which includes the requirement
to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness.
and inserts instead:
Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.”
In effect, this is a vote for full inclusion of LGBT Presbyterians in the life of the Church. The vote at General Assembly must be ratified by a majority of local presbyteries before it takes effect. 2010 was not the first time that General Assembly voted in favour of inclusion: similar resolutions were passed in 2009, and and – but failed to secure ratification. This year could be different.
An analysis of the votes held so far shows that presbyteries voting in favour of ratification presently lead those opposed by 46 67 (as at 17/03) to 34 48, with just 93 58 presbyteries still left to vote. While we cannot predict with certainty what those votes will be until they have been concluded, there are useful clues in how they voted previously. My own investigation of the spreadsheet shows that with 46 67 presbyteries having voted in support, only 41 20 more are needed to secure ratification. Conversely, the 40 48 voting against still need to add 53 39 presbyteries to defeat the proposal – a much tougher prospect. While we cannot predict with certainty how the remaining presbyteries will vote, there are clues. For each one, the published spreadsheet shows how it voted on the previous similar measure from General Assembly 2009. If each of them were to vote in precisely the same way as it did last time around, the result would be :
Votes in favour – 86 90; Tie – 2; Votes against – 78 81. Presbyteries with tied votes count as “no”, so the effective result would be Yes – 86 90, No – 78 83 – and a win for inclusion.
However, there is no reason to suppose that they will vote the same way as before. Where votes have already been held, there has been a clear increase in support. Just the tiniest movement in favour would tilt at least the two tied votes to yes votes, which would be enough to tilt the balance. The record from the raw votes cast shows than in fact, across all presbyteries the percentage level of support increased by an average of 5%. If that applies uniformly across those presbyteries that have not yet voted, there will be a further 7 switching from “No” to “Yes”, adding to the 9 13 that have already done so. (So far, only one has switched the other way, from support to opposition). That will lead to:
Votes in favour – 97; Votes against – 76, and ratification for inclusion by a clear margin.
The prospects look good.
But, as the folk at More Light Presbyterians constantly remind us, progress doesn’t just happen – it takes hard work and organisation. More Light Presbyterians have a permanent feature in their newsletters advising of local workshops, where participants can learn how to help in influencing their own congregations.
For Ash Wednesday, I reminded readers here that the season of Lent is also a “joyful” season, an aspect that should not be ignored. We should never forget though, that it is also a solemn time, above all a time for repentance and renewal, individually and collectively.
So it was entirely appropriate and welcome ten years ago, that at the start of the season Pope John Paul spoke of the horrors that had been perpetrated by the church in the past, apologised for the evils it had done to . and asked for forgiveness. This was important and welcome: I do not wish to belittle it in any way. However, there is an important category of offence which was omitted from the list, for which he did not apologise, and for which there has never been any apology: the persecution of “sodomites”.
For the first thousand years of its history, the Church was disapproving of homoerotic relationships, as it was of all sexual expression, but showed varying degrees of tolerance, culminating in what John Boswell described as a flowering of a gay sub-culture in the high medieval period. During the 11th century, Burchard, the Bishop of Worms in Germany,
“classified homosexuality as a variety of fornication less serious than heterosexual adultery. He assigned penance for homosexual acts only to married men. In civil legislation regulating family life in the diocese of Worms there is no mention of homosexual behaviour”
In 1059, the Lateran synod accepted all of the reforms for the church proposed by St Peter Damian – except for his proposal for harsher penalties against monks engaged in homosexual affairs.
All that changed within a few decades. In 1120, the Church Council of Nablus specified burning at the stake for homosexual acts. Although this penalty may not immediately have been applied, other harsh condemnations followed rapidly. In 1212, the death penalty for sodomy was specified in in France. Before long the execution of supposed “sodomites”, often by burning at the stake, but also by other harsh means, had become regular practice in many areas.
Historical research to date has been patchy, and in many places the records have not survived. Even so, the evidence from the modest research we do have is horrifying. In the largest scale, and best known, single incident, over 400 hundred Knights Templar were burned in the early 14th century. This is usually discussed in terms of trials for “heresy”, but in fact the charges were of both heresy and sodomy. (These terms were often associated and confused at the time, but much of the evidence in the templar trials made it clear that specifically sexual offences were meant).
To modern researchers, it is clear that the trials were deeply flawed, with the procedures seriously stacked against the accused. In marking the 700th anniversary of the trials in 2007, the Vatican explicitly cleared those killed of the charges of heresy – but said never a word about the charges of sodomy.
Elsewhere, the trials and punishments were of individuals, or of small groups – but with equally flawed judicial procedures. (Typically, the prosecutor was also judge; torture was widely used to extract confessions; and church and state benefited by sharing the property of those convicted). These were sometimes under the auspices of the Inquisition, sometimes of the state – but always inspired by church preaching against the “sodomites”.
The severity of the pursuit and punishments varied from place to place. Venice was one of the harshest, with several hundred executions from 1422, until the persecution finally ended. In Spain, it was calculated that in total there were more burnings for homosexuality than for heresy. Executions also applied in the New World – in both North America (where some of the colonists were accused and convicted) and South (where it was the indigenous locals who suffered for the Spanish prejudices) . Altogether, it is likely that executions in Southern Europe, either by or with the collaboration of the Church, amounted to several thousand men.
After the Reformation, the practice of burning homosexuals spread to Northern Europe and some of the new Protestant territories, where the practice was sometimes use as a pretext to attack Catholic clergy: in Belgium, several Franciscans were burnt for sodomy, as was a Jesuit in Antwerp (in 1601).
The persecution finally began to ease from the late 17th century, when some “softening” became evident by the Inquisition in Spain. Nevertheless, some executions continued throughout the eighteenth century, to as late as 1816 in England. The statutory provision for the death penalty was not removed in England until 1861.
Obviously, the Catholic Church cannot be held directly responsible for the judicial sentences handed down by secular authorities in Protestant countries. It can, however, be held responsible for it part in fanning the flames of bigotry and hatred in the early part of the persecution, using the cloak of religion to provide cover for what was in reality based not on Scripture or the teaching of the early Church, but on simple intolerance and greed.
It is important as gay men lesbians and transgendered that we remember the examples of the many who have in earlier times been honoured by the Church as saints or martyrs for the faith. It is also important that we remember the example of the many thousands who have been martyred by the churches – Catholic and other.
The Filipino website GMA News has an intriguing report that two Archbishops, Paciano Aniceto of San Fernando and Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz have urged gay Catholics to “come out in the open”, because they have nothing to be ashamed of.
Their full message does not depart from the formal position of Vatican doctrine, as it repeats the standard distinction between “homosexual persons” and “homosexual acts”, and repeats the warning that these “acts” because they are “contrary to natural law”, and do not flow from “natural complementarity”. In this respect, they are as offensive as many other utterances from our bishops and the Vatican. (The occasion for this remarks was the Philippines launch of the book ” Homosexuality and the Catholic Church ” by Fr John Harvey, the founder of Courage). Nevertheless, I see some good news in this report, supporting my belief that there is a gradual and welcome shift of emphasis underway. There are two elements of this shift evident in the bishops’ message.
First, is the suggestion I have put into the headline, that they are encouraging us to come out and be open – including, presumably, open and out in church. This is significant: the implicit message up to now has been to remain firmly closeted. The CDF argues that there is no need for legal provision to protect us from homophobic discrimination, because the safest way to avoid discrimination is simply to hide our sexuality. There is also an often repeated claim that by coming out we are “identifying” with the gay lifestyle, and so should be discouraged. The simple fact that these two archbishops are now recommending that we should be open is a major new development, which I would like to see more widely endorsed, and followed. If many more gay men and lesbians were to come out in church, it could have significant impact in contributing to understanding and more general acceptance. (There is no need, in being more open, to go so far as to start disclosing details of sexual practice – but that applies equally to all, of any orientation).
The second important feature is less remarkable, having been made with increasing frequency in recent years by others. This is the reminder of the neglected part of the Catechism on homosexuality – that we “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity”. This is as much a part of official doctrine as the better known insistence that homosexual acts are sinful- but has not hitherto been heard often enough, and in practice has been widely ignored by many people who really should know better. To my mind, the insistence on “sensitivity” is particularly important. It is impossible to be truly sensitive to marginalized people unless we make a determined effort to understand them. That in turn requires something that has been almost totally absent in the response of the institutional church response to LGBT people up to now – genuine listening to us, as we talk about our lives, experiences, perceptions and expectations. If other Catholics really did attempt to live according to this part of the Catechism as assiduously as they insist we live according to the teachings on the dreaded “acts” themselves, the listening process that would ensue would inevitably also contribute to a softening of the traditional hostility – just as it has already done in the other denominations that have applied formal listening and study processes.