A Broken Church, and the Return from Emmaus.

The Gospel reading for today, the third Sunday of Easter, is Luke’s familiar telling of two disciples’ journey to Emmaus.

Michael B Kelly has used an interpretation of this story to draw an important lesson for lesbians and gay men in the Catholic Church, but in the present circumstances of the church, his presentation of the tale is relevant to the Church as a whole, to Catholics and other Christians of any orientation.

 

In this understanding, what is crucially important is not the familiar part, the journey itself and the encounter with a stranger who turns out to be the risen Christ himself, but the beginning and end of the story. The Gospel reading begins by saying that two disciples were on a journey to Emmaus, a village a short distance from Jerusalem. It does not spell out where they are coming from, anything of their background, or why they are travelling. Kelly fills in some gaps.This story is set in the immediate aftermath of the passion and crucifixion.  Although Christ has risen, and some of the women have reported meeting him, the message has not been accepted.  Instead, the leaders of the Christian community have locked themselves  away in an upper room, despondent,,and paralysed   with fear.  Their dream seemed to have come to an inglorious end, they had no idea how to respond. Does this not bear some resemblances to the current state of the papacy, and its response to the sexual abuse scandal, or to the obvious need to reform the clerical culture? Besieged on all sides, Benedict has withdrawn into his ivory tower, unable or unwilling to respond to the charges against him and the Church, except by references to “petty gossip” and attacks on the Church by it’s enemies, and to crack the whip for tighter Vatican control over the priesthood and over thoughtful, independent minded theologians.  It is against this background that two of the disciples leave Jerusalem.  We do not know precisely why they left  but let us assume that they are simply disillusioned, and want to go home.

Then of course, they set out, and meet the stranger on the road.  They travel with him, talk to him, invite him in for a meal, and on breaking bread, recognise him as the risen Christ.  All of this is familiar, but it is the next few lines, lines which we usually forget when we recall the tale, that are the crucial point in this interpretation.  Having left the recognised religious leaders behind in Jerusalem, they have found instead a direct encounter with the Lord elsewhere:  now, they return to Jerusalem to share the good news of the reality of the resurrection.

In his telling of the story, Kelly asks us to imagine that the two disciples on the road are two gay men.  (Why not? There is no evidence to the contrary.  They could have been). From this, he draws the lesson that for gay men and lesbians in the Catholic Church, it may well be necessary for them to leave the institutional church, literally or figuratively, to find God outside of it.  After doing so, he suggests that we (or some of us) should return to the established Church in prophetic witness, pointing out the errors in Church teaching, and telling of the reality of God’s abounding love and inclusion for all.

There is nothing wrong with Kelly’s presentation, and I have commended it to my gay and lesbian readers before.  However, I now believe that it is too limited.  Exactly the same interpretation, and the same lesson, may be drawn today for all Catholics, not only those who happen to be lesbian, gay, of another sexual minority, or otherwise rejected by the leaders of the Church.  It must surely be clear by now, that in so many respects exposed by the current crisis, the institutional church has moved a long, long way from core Gospel values. Instead of a community of believers, we have a caste based hierarchy of power and control.  Instead of an abiding spirit of love and inclusion, we have an obsession with canon law. Where we should be paying attention to the words and actions of Jesus Christ, we have instead a fundamentalist adherence to papal pronouncements and the magisterium.

It is no surprise that many Catholics feel disillusioned with the Church, and are deserting it in droves. It is right that they should. For some this will be literal and complete, for others it will be partial  – perhaps by remaining “Catholic” by identity, but not by Mass attendance.  For others – and this I would recommend – it will be mental, a psychological adjustment.  By this I mean, we need to walk away emotionally from the leadership of the Church, to disengage from that stereotypical Catholic mindset of automatic obedience and subservience to the priestly caste.  Dispense with “pray, pay and obey”. We need to identify strongly as “Catholic, not Roman”.  In doing so, we can continue to develop in our relationship and encounter with God, while developing a new and more healthy, adult relationship with the clergy.  Instead of seeing ourselves as sheep blindly following a shepherd, or children obedient to a clerical father, we  can at last see ourselves instead as adults, engaged (or attempting to engage) in dsicussions about faith and ministry with other adults (even if some of them are wearing dog collars or clerical mitres).

In so doing, we will equip ourselves to do what up up to now we have been unable to do – to return from Emmaus, and to tell the religious leaders holed up in the modern Jerusalem, the Vatican, that it is entirely possible to meet God wihtout them – and to proclaim to them some of the real Gospel truths that they have been ignoring.

Books:

Kelly, Michael B: Seduced by Grace: Contemporary spirituality, Gay experience and Christian faith

Bohache, Guest et al (eds): The Queer Bible Commentary

Goss, Robert: Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible

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