Inspiring Relationships

A talk given by Martin Pendergast in a series at St Martin in the Fields on “Inspiring
Community”, 12 October 2009

The theme of this series, including this session, is open to so many various interpretations, that I don’t know if I’m going to hit any chords! I therefore offer a reflection, arising from a same-sex relationship of some thirty-three years since it is out of human reality that theological reflection best emerges. For me ‘inspiration’, ‘inspiring’, ‘inspirational’ means breathing a dynamic, a power, into a reality, bringing something to life, although it’s often seen, colloquially, as responding to something ‘heroic’, or someone or something about which or whom we can wax lyrical! Indeed this might be just an opportunity to go on about one’s partner!

For believers, inspiration is an action of the Spirit, the breath of life and the breath of God. It is that Spirit who comes upon us not as personal possession but as John Bell has written:

“she weans and inspires all whose hearts are open,
nor can she be captured, silenced, or restrained.”
(Enemy of Apathy, v.3, John Bell)

It is the same Spirit who grabs hold of the prophet, and who came upon Jesus of Nazareth: The Spirit of God is upon me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to those held captive, the recovery of sight to those lacking vision, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the time of grace and justice, the kairos of God.

Questions are posed in this session about how our closest relationships may reflect on one hand God’s love, and on the other ‘the harrowing of hell’. Reflecting on this dual challenge, I have in my mind two people sharing a common French nationality but who are in other ways, at least superficially, worlds apart. One is Therese of Lisieux, the Carmelite nun whose remains have just been welcomed into Westminster Cathedral, and whose prophetic yet unordained priestly message was, and is, to reflect ‘love at the heart of the Church’. The other is the atheist, Jean-Paul Sartre, for whom ‘hell is other people’. Therese, at times, voiced her atheism, while Sartre wrote powerfully of love and human solidarity. The spirituality which informs me is from the Carmelite tradition of quiet contemplation leading to prophetic action while that of my partner, schooled by the Jesuits, but never having lived in a vowed community, is one of Ignatian discernment.As people who for thirty-three years have tried to express a pattern of life as ‘honourably gay, and honourably Catholic’, in the words of the Irish theologian Enda McDonagh, the writings of both Therese and Sartre find resonances in our life together, our life of faith, our various forms of activism, the dark and resurrection moments. When we marked the anniversary of our relationship in 2001 with a celebration for ‘25 years of friendship and commitment in the pursuit of justice’, we were subjected to some of the most vicious vilification, truly demonic, and evidence, if any were needed, that ‘hell is other people’,even dare I say within the Church. Some of this sadly still goes on. At the same time, we were flooded with messages, direct and indirect, sometimes from complete strangers, which echoed ‘love at the heart of the Church’.

At times, even in the higher echelons of the Church’s hierarchy, we have found not a patronising support, but a recognition of the breadth of human love, rather than a narrow excluding view. In recent years, no one put this better that the late Cardinal Basil Hume, when he wrote:

“ … love between two persons, whether of the same sex or of a different sex, is to be treasured and respected … To love another is to have entered the area of the richest human experience, whether that love is between two persons of the same sex or of a different sex … When two persons love they experience in a limited manner in this world what will be their unending delight when one with God in the next. To love another is, in fact, to reach out to God who shares his lovableness with the one we love.To be loved is to receive a sign, or a share, of God’s unconditional love.” (April 1997)

I like to think that Basil Hume, with whom some of us had some “free and frank” dialogues at various times in the 1990’s, used his experience, as a good Benedictine Abbot would, of listening not only to the gay members of his religious community, but to those lay Catholics who sought him out as a sensitive pastor. He re-emphasised the great tradition of friendship, rather than possessive power, as the foundation for all human relationships. In the idealisation of heterosexual marriage, there is a risk that the Churches ignore their centuries-old traditions of diverse patterns of human belonging, whether in vowed community living, or different types of same-sex ‘sworn friendship’. It is the Church of “here comes everyone” (James Joyce) that can embrace the intense, loving but celibate friendship of John Henry Newman and Ambrose St. John. But it is the same Church which can still instrumentalise heterosexual marriage as being primarily for procreation, in spite of a rhetoric about the sacredness of human relationships, reflecting that of Christ and the Church. Too often this relationship of Christ and the Church is determined by a medieval, or even 19th century model of opposite-sex marriage, rather than the other way round: human relationships, with or without the presence of children, reflect the spousal bond of Christ with the Church, a bond of unity and grace.

That is why I believe it is perfectly possible for Church hierarchies to embrace forms of human relating which vary from heterosexual marriage, but make up a great tapestry of  personal belonging, one to another. They have the history and wit, but lack the will. This is what so many of us strive to do in being inspirational for and with each other, breathing life and vigour into each other, when life and work get tedious, when faith and ecclesial communion are challenged, or we feel undervalued, de-skilled, marginalised. Creativity, being open to creation, is more than but may include a biological and emotional capacity to nurture children.

Because the Word has become flesh, it is the sense of human communion which makes
the Communion of the Eucharist holy indeed. That is why when challenged by fearful ecclesiastical authorities, sometimes with more than a lurking whiff of homophobia, we have never allowed them, nor ourselves, to use the Eucharist as a weapon, challenging lovingly but truthfully whenever, wherever, and in whom the temptation arises. To ‘use’ the Eucharist in this way is to instrumentalise liturgy, word, and sacrament, for an ultimately narrowing, exclusive end, rather than they becoming a foretaste of the inclusive banquet of God’s realm. We claim our place at the Table not through political strategy, but by a free gift of grace.

I was asked at a civil partnership celebration of two Catholic lesbian women, why we weren’t angry at being denied a celebration of the Eucharist in our parish church at the time of our own civil partnership in 2006, and why our two friends, more recently, could not use a church building, including I hasten to say an Anglican church, for their Mass of Thanksgiving. The strength of communion, with a small ‘c’, we experience as Church, as domestic Church, home Church, underlines the belief that “we are Church”; “where the Spirit is, there is the Church”, as St. Irenaeus noted, and this propels us into the wider ecclesial community and its wobbly structures. It is this sense that we share with so many
sisters and brothers that has enabled the creation of a vibrant and nurturing community such as that which has grown in the Soho Masses Catholic LGBT community over the past ten years, still exploring its way ahead within a Catholic parish and diocesan context,to offer a new way of being a welcoming and inclusive Church.

It is relatively easy to be consumed and dehumanised by rage, but I think my partner and
I have both learned that while it may be harder, it is more prophetic, in the tradition of Isaiah 61 and Luke 4, life-giving and in-spiring to our relationship, to claim our place in the Church with all our baptismal rights, to speak truth, love and justice to power, sometimes paying the cost. We live this out in promoting models of human and faith community and hospitality, still pursuing justice, building places

“where all are named, their songs and visions heard, and loved and treasured, taught and claimed as words within the Word.

Built of tears and cries and laughter,

prayers of faith and songs of grace,
let this house proclaim from floor to rafter:
All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.”
(All are welcome, v. 5, Marty Haugen)

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