60 years into a modern resurrection for queer Christians.
This year’s national conference of Quest, the British association for lesbian and gay Catholics, had as its theme “60 Glorious Years”, tying in with Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee year. For my presentation, I took as my title, “Blessed Are the Queer in Faith, for They Shall Inherit the Church”, later adding as a subtitle, “60 Years Into a Modern Resurrection for LGBT Christians”. With the word “resurrection” I was suggesting that by the middle of the last century, the collective body of LGBT Christians had in effect been metaphorically killed off in the name of religious belief. But the past 60 years have seen LGBT Christians move from total invisibility, to substantial progress on the road to full inclusion – the beginning (only a beginning) of a modern resurrection!
The Collective Martyrdom of LGBT Christians
By 1952, just 7 years after the Nazi Pink Holocaust and seven centuries after the Inquisition began to hunt down and burn “sodomites”, it was effectively impossible to be openly gay and Christian – to declare oneself as such, was to announce that one was both a criminal by law, and (supposedly) condemned to eternal hellfire by Scripture.
In the West, sodomy no longer earned the death penalty – but legal penalties could include life imprisonment, or castration (eg Alan Turing, currently widely celebrated for his contribution to computer science, in 1954). Justification was couched in religious language, social penalties included gay bashing, ostracism, career destruction – and often, suicide (including that of Alan Turing)
The persecution in the name of religion continued well into the twentieth century, promoted by the state in some countries, and by individuals and hate groups in others.
Penalties were no longer imposed by the Church – but were often motivated by an insistence that sodomy was the “Sin that cried out to heaven for vengeance”.
And yet – how far we’ve come!
By 2012, things have changed dramatically – at least in some denominations. In just the past few months, one major Christian church has honoured a modern lesbian by declaring her their equivalent of a modern “saint”, and another has unanimously elected an openly gay man as national moderator.
Five Transforming Trends
In attempting to explain how this remarkable transformation has come about, I have identified five distinct but mutually reinforcing and interacting transformative trends that have taken us over the past 60 years from total invisibility, to where we are now: solidly on a path to full LGBT inclusion in church:
- The Discovery of a Rainbow Bible
- LGBT clergy emerging from the closet
- The development of self – ministry & support groups.
- Queer Contributions and Challenges to Theology
- The visibility of queer families.
The Discovery of a Rainbow Bible.
A fundamental reassessment of the scriptural verdict on same – sex relationships. We have, in a sense, discovered or rediscovered a rainbow bible. If the bible really is “good news” for modern people, that must mean good news for all, including queer Christians. Beginning early in our period, a series of scholars have done work to show first, that the “traditional” interpretations of a handful of clobber texts are at best less secure than previously believed, and possibly deeply flawed, possibly even amounting to spiritual harm or “textual abuse”. Others have moved beyond defensive attempts to counter the texts of terror, to uncover and celebrate the vastly more numerous affirmative texts, and to read affirmative interpretations into others.
LGBT clergy emerging from the closet
Ever since Rev Troy Perry responded to his expulsion from Baptist ministry for having had a sexual relationship with a man not by meekly accepting the verdict, but by forming instead a new denomination with an explicit welcome for lesbian and gay Christians, a continuing stream of clergy, and those seeking ordination, have come out, insisting that there is no conflict between their sexuality and their religious faith. Responses from their denominations have differed, from acceptance and accommodation to outright hostility, but several denominations have already made explicit provision to accept openly LGBT clergy, or on course to do so, or accept them informally, in a clerical version of “don’t ask, don’t tell”. The visibility of these queer ministers, in public or in local congregations, makes it much easier for individual Christians to find self-acceptance, and to come out in church themselves.
The development of self – ministry & support groups.
While Troy Perry’s solution for supportive ministry was to found an entirely new denomination, others have formed support groups and ministry structures within mainstream denominations. In the US, Dignity was started by a Catholic priest, originally as a support group for gay Catholic patients in his psychotherapy practice. Similar organizations later followed for Catholics in Australia and the UK, and for just about all other denominations (including Jehovah’s Witnesses), and on all continents. In many Protestant denominations, there has been a parallel movement aimed not at separate support groups, but at getting local congregations to declare themselves “open and affirming”. This development of an expanding base of straight allies has been key to the succession of LGBT support resolutions adopted, or due to be adopted, at various national assemblies – and to the election of queer candidates to leadership positions.
Queer Contributions and Challenges to Theology
From about the mid 1970′s, there has been the emergence of an increasing number of openly gay and lesbian theologians, contributing to mainstream theology in all its variety, but also creating the brand new academic sub disciplines of gay and lesbian theology, and later queer theology. While this remains a minority pursuit, it has developed sufficiently that it now has its own academic journals, shelf space in theological libraries, and academic reviews of the literature to date. In her summary of the development, Elizabeth Stuart identified the origins in the early pioneers emphasising theology drawing strongly on personal experience, then developing into gay liberation theology (especially for men), and into a theology emphasising relationships (especially by lesbians drawing on feminist theology). After discussing the challenge to gay and lesbian theologies presented by the AIDS pandemic, she describes how this led to a shift from gay/lesbian theologies to queer theology. In a later, more exhaustive account of queer theology specifically, Susannah Cornwall describes several “Controversies in Queer Theology”, in which she argues (among other things) that a queer perspective on theology is useful even for heterosexuals such as herself, and that there are many insights from queer theology making valuable contributions to mainstream theology. At the other end of the academic scale, Patrick Cheng’s text “Radical Love” is described as an introductory text book on queer theology for junior college students.
The visibility of queer families.
Ever since Stonewall, gay men and lesbians have been encouraged to come out, declaring their sexuality publicly. Many, growing in confidence from the range of faith – based support groups, revisionist interpretations of the biblical evidence, and the insights from gay/ lesbian or queer theology, have done so in church, as well as in the secular world. With growing social acceptance, people of our community are forming stable relationships and families, and taking their place as families in many congregations. Their increasing visibility, coupled with the expanding availability of legal recognition for same – sex unions, is forcing the churches also to consider ways in which they can celebrate these committed, marriage – like relationships, on a basis of equality and free of discrimination. This is especially so in those denominations which have come to accept the possibility of ordaining openly gay clergy, in partnerships that are committed, faithful and publicly accountable to the community, in a manner comparable to marriage. This requirement is most easily met by providing opportunities for full marriage for all their clergy, gay or straight, without discrimination. It is not surprising then, that while many religious leaders are actively campaigning against marriage equality legislation, some others are actively promoting, or implementing, same – sex marriage, even in church. This is currently available in some denominations and geographic regions, others are likely to approve it in the next few years, and still more are approving arrangements for church blessings of civil unions.
Conclusion: The Modern Resurrection
While many of the features I’ve listed may seem familiar, we tend to be so overwhelmed by the extent of vocal opposition, especially to recognition for marriage and family equality, that we tend to lose sight of just how far we have come. From the perspective of the grand sweep of history, the past 60 years is a short time indeed, and yet progress, from near invisibility, has been remarkable. What is more, we must remember that each of these five trends continues, and they mutually reinforce each other. The process, and further progress to full LGBT inclusion in church, will surely continue. We really are, I submit, 60 years into a modern resurrection for LGBT Christians.
(This is a summary of a presentation delivered in September 2012, to the annual conference of Quest, a national association of gay and lesbian Catholics. A longer text of the full presentation is published at “Queering the Church“)