Tag Archives: Christian

European LGBT Christians Gather in Poland

I am now in Gdansk, in preparation for a five day annual conference of the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups.

Meeting here in Gdansk is a notable achievement for the Polish LGBT group, “Faith and Rainbow“. While the push for LGBT equality and inclusion has made great strides in many parts of Western Europe and North America, even including lesbian and gay bishops, and same-sex church weddings in some denominations, progress in Eastern Europe, African and the Caribbean has lagged far behind. For Catholics, Poland is widely seen as a bastion of the most conservative  elements of the faith, especially on matters of faith and sexuality.

And yet, founded just a few years ago, Faith and Rainbow has made impressive progress, and can boast of some significant achievements, of which hosting this conference is just one example. In a recent report at the National Catholic Reporter in the importance to the churches of standing up against homophobia and transphobia, Sr Jeannine Gramick described how in a visit to Poland she had seen signs of increasing acceptance and support for LGBT people:

A reconciliation effort initiated by the Campaign against Homophobia called “Let’s Exchange a Sign of Peace,” featured billboards with two clasped hands — one with a rainbow bracelet and the other with a Catholic rosary. This social awareness campaign moved the hearts and minds of many Polish people (but not, unfortunately, the Polish bishops, who denounced the campaign.)

Poster reading “Let’s exchange the sign of peace” from a social awareness campaign in Poland by Campaign Against Homophobia.

I was surprised by the degree of openness and acceptance I found among the Polish people for their lesbian and gay sisters and brothers. Polish Catholics are emerging not only from the political stranglehold of communism, but also from the grip of their authoritarian and traditionalist religious culture. From them I learned that I, too, need to emerge from the iron grip of my own prejudices, my blind spots, and the beams in my own eye. I want to be more open to those who “rub me the wrong way” and to be more welcoming to those with whom I disagree. My visit to the Polish people filled me with hope that homophobia is gradually decreasing in unexpected places.

In the same NCR article, Sr Gramick also wrote about IDAHOT, the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia – and how in Europe, there are often religious groups participating in IDAHOT events with religious services. (In Malta last year, a Catholic bishop led a Mass for IDAHOT).

She also described specifically an action undertaken by the European Forum of LGBT Christian groups – whose conference I am attending this week here in Gdansk, on behalf of Quest LGBT Catholics, . This is just one of many important and valuable projects of the Forum.

I’ll have more on these projects, and of the proceedings of the conference, as the week goes on.

Can One Be Both Gay and Christian / Catholic?

Christmas. It’s the time of love, good will and John Lewis adverts. But lest we forget, for millions of Christians, it’s also the birthday of Jesus Christ.

Which segues us quite nicely into lifting the lid off of one of the biggest debates in modern times. Can you be gay and live within the teachings and values of Christianity?

Framing this a debate, they have published the responses of Rev Jeremy Pemberton, an openly gay, married Anglican priest, and of Matthew Parris, gay columnist, former MP, and self-proclaimed committed atheist.
Unfortunately, both these good men have it right in part – and completely miss the point Of course you can be both gay and Christian – as countless numbers of openly gay and lesbian Christians demonstrate. And of course, if one does believe in God, it’s more important to pay attention to what God wants of me, than to what I want of God.
 
What neither of these have pointed out, is that for one who is naturally gay – that is precisely what God wants. On the one hand, ideas of radical inclusion, justice and equality are at the core of the Christian gospels. So too, are ideas of honesty and personal integrity. The Catholic Church formal teaching accepts, for instance, that a same-sex orientation is entirey natural, and discourages attempts to change it. The Catholic Catechism also states clearly, that each of us should “accept” our sexual identity, and integrate it into our personality. Hence, if our natural orientation is towards the same sex, if we are in fact gay or lesbian, even the Catholic Church teaches that we should accept this – and furthermore, that others should, too. Catholics are officially told to treat gay and lesbian people with “respect, sensitivity, and compassion”, and should avoid any malice in speech or in words, or any form of unjust discrimination.
 
That is not of course, the end of it. The Church also teaches that while to BE gay is OK, to act on this in sexual expression is not – thereby contravening its own insistence on non-discrimination and the rest. It raises the alternative question, not “can one be gay and Christian”, but “can one be gay and celibate?”, Clearly, within the framework of Catholicisma and other mainstream Christian denominations, once can certainly be gay – as long as one refrains from sexual activity. I suspect that Matthew Parris (and many others) who believe that one cannot be both gay and Christian, really meant that one who is sexually abstinent, cannot be considered truly “gay”.
 
I’m not goning to go into that question, how do we define “gay”. Instead, I will pursue the much more controversial topic, can one be Christian, gay and also sexually active? I have no doubt at all that the answer is absolutely, yes.
 
There is nothing in either the Christian or Jewish scriptures that says anything at all against “homosexuality”, not even a single word – for the simple reason that neither the word nor the concept existed in Biblical times. At best, there are no more than half a dozen isolated verses which, taken out of context, appear to oppose sexual acts between men. Closer inspection shows that even these few texts may have been badly mistranslated, misinterpreted or incorrectly applied, and have no relevance at all to loving, committed sexual relationships.
 
Furthermore, although it is certainly true that formal Catholic teaching today, and that of most other denominations, is that any sexual acts between men are inherently sinful, this was not always so, and is probably the result of what Pope Benedict once described as the “distorted tradition” in Christian history, against which we must be always on our guard. It is more likely that the original proscription was not against relationships based on equality between the partners, but against exploitative sexual acts, in which a powerful man took advantage of his superior position to assuage his lusts on his social inferiors.
 
Finally and above all, even if we accept the dubious proposition that Church opposition to same-sex relationships may be justified by scripture and tradition, we must always bear in mind that the sexual rules are only one small part of Catholic teaching – and in the hierarchy of “levels” of Church teaching, occupy the bottom rung, which does not require assent. Catholic teaching has always insisted on the primacy of conscience, and accepts that a Catholic may in good conscience, simply disagree with the teaching on sexual rules, and ignore it. Other denominations demonstrate this respect for conscience even more explicitly, in the increasing acceptance of openly gay or lesbian, partnered pastors, bishops and moderators.
 
Parris is absolutely right in saying that Christians should be asking what does God want of us? It is in fact a commonplace in Christian theology, that what God wants of us, is precisely what is best for us. For gay and lesbian Christians, that must include accepting our sexual identity, exercising it responsibly, and living lives of integrity and honesty.
 
The really important question for Christians, gay or otherwise and for gay people, Christian or otherwise, is not can one have a sexual life with integrity – but what does that mean? Does responsible sexual ethics require that we restrict sexual activity to expression within loving and committed, mutually faithful monogamous partnerships? Is there a place for sex during courtship, before making a permanet commitment, or for simple recreational sex? If so, how do we guard against harmless but regular recreational sex crossing over to irresponsible sexual addiction?
 
These are the really important questions that should be occupying us – not the simplistic non-question of “can one be gay and Christian?”

The Story of the Queer Saints and Martyrs

Prequel: Before Christianity

Studies of the animal kingdom, and of non-Western and pre-industrial societies show clearly that there is no single “natural” form for either human or animal sexuality. Homosexual activity  has been described by science for all divisions of the animal kingdom, in all periods of history, and in all regions of the world. Most religions recognise this. The monotheistic Christian religion teaches that God made us in His own image and likeness – but other religions, when they attempted to picture their many gods and goddesses, created their gods in human image and likeness, and so incorporated into their pantheon many gods who had sex with males – either divine or human.

The Hebrews’ concept of a single all-powerful God did not incorporate any concept of divine sexuality, but they did include into their Scriptures numerous passages that describe same sex loving relationships  as well as the books of the prophets who were eunuchs.

The Christian Gospels offer tantalizing hints at Jesus’ own sexuality which may have included some male love interest. However, more directly relevant to us are His teaching and example , which clearly show that His message is an inclusive one, that quite explicitly does include sexual minorities of all kinds.

After the Gospels, the most important Christian writings are the letters of Paul, who has a reputation as strongly condemning same sex behaviour – but a more careful consideration of his life as well as his letters, in their own context, can offer a different perspective.

The Early Christians.

The cultural context of the early was one where  they were political and even social outcasts, in a society of a bewildering range of attitudes to sexuality, ranging from substantial sexual licence for Roman citizens, to negligible freedom of sexual choice for slaves, to sexual abstemiousness for those influenced by Greek stoicism. The stories of queer saints that come down to us include those of martyred Roman soldiers, martyred Roman women, bishops who wrote skilled erotic poems, and (especially in the Eastern regions), cross-dressing monks.

In addition to the examples of individuals who were honoured as saints, there are also important examples from Church practice. Evidence from archaeology and written records shows clearly that from the late Roman period onwards, the Church made liturgical provision for the recognition of same sex couples. From Macedonia, there is extensive evidence of Christian same sex couples who were buried in shared graves. More telling evidence for church recognition of same sex couples comes from the existence of formal liturgical rites for blessing their unions. In the Eastern Church, these rites (known as “adelphopoeisis”)  date from the late Roman period. In the Western Church, where the evidence begins a little later, they were known as making of “sworn brothers”.

Medieval Homoeroticism

The early Middle Ages were once known as the “Dark Ages”, a disparaging term, which nevertheless is descriptive of the murky information we have about the saints: some of what is commonly believed about these saints is clearly mythical. Nevertheless, knowledge of the queer associations of saints like Patrick and Brigid of Ireland, George the dragon slayer and “Good King Wenceslas” is simple fun – and literal, historical truth or not, can provide useful material for reflection.

This period is also notable for the widespread use of specific liturgies for blessing same sex unions in Church. Even if these unions are not directly comparable with modern marriage, understanding of this recognition by the church deserves careful consideration, for the guidance it can offer the modern church on dealing with recognition for same sex relationships.

By the time of the High Middle Ages, influenced by increasing urbanization and greater familiarity with more homoerotic Muslim civilization, the earlier moderate opposition and grudging toleration of same sex love softened to a more open tolerance, with some remarkable monastic love letters with homoerotic imagery, more erotic poetry, and acceptance of open sexual relationships even for prominent bishops  and abbots – especially if they had suitable royal collections.

It was also a time of powerful women in the church, as abbesses who sometimes even had authority over their local bishops.

However, the increase in open sexual relationships among some monastic groups also led to a reaction, with some theologians starting to agitate for much harsher penalties against “sodomites”, especially among the clergy. Initially, these pleas for a harsher, anti-homosexual regime met with limited support – but bore fruit a couple of centuries later, with disastrous effects which were felt right through to the present day – and especially the twentieth century.

The Great Persecution

Symbolically, the great change can be seen as the martyrdom of Joan of Arc – martyred not for the Church, but by the Church, for reasons that combined charges of heresy with her cross-dressing. A combination of charges of heresy and “sodomy” were also the pretext for the persecution and trials of the Knights Templar – masking the naked greed of the secular and clerical powers which profited thereby. The same confusion of “sodomy” and heresy led to an expansion of the persecution from the Templars to wider group, and  also the expansion of the methods and geographic extent, culminating in the executions of thousands of alleged “sodomites” across many regions of Europe. This persecution was initially encouraged or conducted by the Inquisition, later by secular authorities alone – but conducted according to what the church had taught them was a religious justification. Even today, the belief that religion justifies homophobic violence is often given as a motivation by the perpetrators – and the fires that burned the sodomites of the fifteenth century had a tragic echo in the gay holocaust of the second world war.

Yet even at the height of the persecution, there was the paradox of a succession of  popes, who either had well-documented relationships with boys or men,  or commissioned frankly homoerotic art from renowned Renaissance artists, which continues to decorate Vatican architecture. This period exemplifies the continuing hypocrisy of an outwardly homophobic, internally.

Modern Martyrs, Modern Revival

The active persecution of sodomites by the Inquisition gradually gave way to secular prosecutions under civil law, with declining ferocity as the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment and more modern times (although executions continued until the nineteenth century). From this time on, theoretical condemnation of “sodomites” co-existed with increasing public recognition of some men who had sex with men, and records relating to queers in the church are less prominent than either earlier or later periods.  In the nineteenth century, Cardinal Newman’s request to be buried alongside Ambrose St John does not appear to have aroused any opposition.

In the twentieth century, the increasing visibility of homosexual men produced the horrifying backlash in Germany in the gay holocaust, with its echos of the medieval bonfires of heretics and sodomites – the modern gay martyrs.

Only after WWII did the Vatican begin to seriously address the question of homosexuality, with increasingly harsh judgements and attempts to silence theologians and pastors who questioned their doctrines and practice. Other denominations drove out existing gay or lesbian pastors, and refused ordination, or even church membership, to other openly gay or lesbian church members. However, these victims of church exclusion, who can be seen metaphorically as modern martyrs, martyred by the church for being true to their sexual identity,  refused to be silenced. Like St Sebastian before Emperor Maximilian, they found new ways to minister to the truth of homosexuality and Christianity.

Today, these early pioneers for queer inclusion in church have been joined by countless others, who work constantly at tasks large and small, to witness to the truth of our sexuality and gender identity, and to its compatibility with authentic Christianity. In effect, that includes all of who identify as both Christian, and simultaneously as lesbian, gay trans, or other  – and the women who refuse to accept the narrow confines of the gender roles church authorities attempt to place on us.

November 1st is the day the Church has set aside to celebrate All Saints – the recognition that sainthood is not only a matter of formally recognized and canonized saints, but is a calling to which we must all aspire. For queers in Church, it is especially a day for us to remember our modern heroes, who in facing and overcoming their attempted silencing are martyrs of the modern church – and that we, too, are called to martyrdom, in its literal sense: to bear witness, in our lives, to our truth.