Tag Archives: Books

New Books Explore Homosexuality and the Church

The first notable books on theology appeared something like forty years ago. Since then, the early thin trickle has become a steady stream, as Publishers Weekly has observed:

Religious movements often build on a variety of texts: key scriptures, treatises, tales of pioneers and heroes. For gay Christians, the time has come to fill in a few gaps, and publishers are eager to contribute.

Recent and forthcoming releases help develop what have been seen, at least in gay circles, as categories needing further exploration. The trend equips readers to wrestle anew with questions of scriptural interpretation, biblical authority, and what it means to love one’s neighbor.
The listing  covers work by people of a refreshing range of backgrounds: straight allies as well as gay, young and old, Evangelical, Mainline Protestant and Catholic. One disappointment? Only one woman is represented – but an important one, Carter Heyward.
These are the books discussed, together with some notes by the publishers:
Jimmy Creech, a United Methodist pastor in North Carolina, was visited one morning in 1984 by Adam, a longtime parishioner whom he liked and respected. Adam said that he was gay, and that he was leaving the The United Methodist Church, which had just pronounced that no “self-avowed practicing homosexual” could be ordained. He would not be part of a community that excluded him. Creech found himself instinctively supporting Adam, telling him that he was sure that God loved and accepted him as he was. Adam’s Gift is Creech’s inspiring first-person account of how that conversation transformed his life and ministry.
Adam’s visit prompted Creech to re-evaluate his belief that homosexuality was a sin, and to research the scriptural basis for the church’s position. He determined that the church was mistaken, that scriptural translations and interpretations had been botched and dangerously distorted. As a Christian, Creech came to believe that discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people was morally wrong. This understanding compelled him to perform same-gender commitment ceremonies, which conflicted with church directives. Creech was tried twice by The United Methodist Church, and, after the second trial, his ordination credentials were revoked. Adam’s Gift is a moving story and an important chapter in the unfinished struggle for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender civil and human rights.

If anyone ever had a reason to leave the Christian faith, Jay Bakker did.
At the age of only 11 his parents’ global PTL ministry was engulfed by scandal and undermined by Christian backbiting -all of which played out in the 24-hour news media.
Disillusioned, Bakker turned to drugs and alcohol and left his childhood beliefs behind. But along the way, an interesting thing happened: Bakker came to understand, through his personal challenges and suffering (as well as the help of some friends), what God’s grace was really all about.
In this book Bakker explores the true nature of grace–what it means for everyday living and the hot-button issues of our day. With disarming humility, poignant observations, and spot-on theology, Bakker both challenges Christians to reassess their understanding of salvation and encourages non-believers to see Jesus with fresh eyes.
( Bakker, another straight ally, is the 35-year-old son of televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker)

In the view of many Christians, the teenage years are simultaneously the most dangerous and the most promising. At the very moment when teens are trying to establish a sense of identity and belonging, they are beset by temptation on all sides—from the pressure of their peers to the nihilism and materialism of popular culture. Add the specter of homosexuality to the mix, and you’ve got a situation ripe for worry, sermonizing, and exploitation.
In Recruiting Adolescence, Mark D. Jordan explores more than a half century of American church debate about homosexuality to show that even as the main lesson—homosexuality is bad, teens are vulnerable—has remained constant, the arguments and assumptions have changed remarkably. At the time of the first Kinsey Report, in 1948, homosexuality was simultaneously condemned and little discussed—a teen struggling with same-sex desire would have found little specific guidance. Sixty years later, church rhetoric has undergone a radical shift, as silence has given way to frequent, public, detailed discussion of homosexuality and its perceived dangers. Along the way, churches have quietly adopted much of the language and ideas of modern sexology, psychiatry, and social reformers—deploying it, for example, to buttress the credentials of anti-gay “deprogramming” centers and traditional gender roles.
Jordan tells this story through a wide variety of sources, including oral histories, interviews, memoirs, and even pulp novels; the result is a fascinating window onto the never-ending battle for the teenage soul.
(Jordan is a Catholic historian at Harvard, and also a notable writer on Catholicism and homosexuality, in history and in the modern world.  Other notable books for general readers are The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology,  The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism,  The Ethics of Sex, and  Blessing Same-Sex Unions: The Perils of Queer Romance and the Confusions of Christian Marriage)

“Patrick Cheng’s Radical Love is an excellent introduction to queer theology. It is readable and nuanced, a marvelous teaching resource.” –Carter Heyward, author of Keep Your Courage: A Radical Christian Feminist Speaks and Professor Emerita of Theology, Episcopal Divinity School
“Patrick Cheng’s Radical Love is not only an excellent introduction to LGBT theology but an important contribution to the discipline of theology and the life of the church. It is a must read for anyone who cares about the health of the church and theology today.” –James H. Cone, Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology, Union Theological Seminary, New York, NY
“Thoroughly Christian and thoroughly Queer, Cheng helps readers welcome a theology that leaves no one behind.” –Chris Glaser, author of As My Own Soul: The Blessing of Same-Gender Marriageand Coming Out as Sacrament
“This book is a clear, accessible and exciting analysis of Queer Theology. Cheng perfectly captures both the challenge and the rootedness of Queer Theology.” –Professor Elizabeth Stuart, Pro Vice-Chancellor, University of Winchester, UK
“I would characterize Cheng’s notion of ‘radical love’ as ‘wild grace’ with which mainstream theology has yet to wrestle. This is a good text for introducing queer theology to undergraduate and graduate students.” –Rev. Dr. Bob Shore-Goss, Senior Pastor/Theologian, Metropolitan Community Church in the Valley, North Hollywood, CA

“Radical Love – a love so extreme that it dissolves our existing boundaries! What concept could be more liberating for a culture like ours, where lives are crucified on rigid binaries like male vs. female, us vs. them, straight vs. queer? Radical Love is an excellent introduction for beginners and an excellent synthesis for more advanced readers.” –Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, author ofSensuous Spirituality and Omnigender, among many other books.
(Cheng, an openly gay professor at Episcopal Divinity School and ordained minister in the Metropolitan Community Church, describes this book as the first ever introductory text book on Queer Theology. His extended essay on Sin and Grace, exploring Christology from a gay perspective, was recently posted at Jesus in Love blog).

Carter Heyward is one of the most influential and controversial theologians of our time. Under headings “Speaking Truth to Power,” Remembering Who We Are,” and “Celebrating Our Friends,” she reflects on how movements for gender and sexual justice reverberate globally. In this volume of occasional pieces, the lesbian feminist theologian bears witness to the sacred struggles to topple oppressive power. These pieces illustrate feminist theology’s bold and transformative engagement of its cultural, political, social, and theological contexts.
“Now forty years later, while not as naïve and utopian in my politics, I am still enthusiastically committed, as a Christian, to struggles dedicated to building a world in which every person is entitled, by law, to basic human rights. I have come to realize, as I move along into my mid-sixties, that what justice-loving people most need in these times, and in all times, is courage to speak and act on behalf of this world. My desire in this book is to spark such courage and stir imagination.” –from the Foreword.
( Heyward is a key figure in the development of the lesbian / feminist strand in gay and lesbian theology. Some of her earlier books are

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Are Evangelicals Embracing LGBT Inclusion?

For years, there has been evidence that major sections of the US Mainline Protestant churches, and Protestant denominations in Europe, have been substantially reconsidering their attitudes to same – sex relationships. The evangelical churches on the other hand, like the Vatican oligarchs,  have seemed much more monolithic in their continuing opposition. Appearances can be deceptive. I have noted before a few indications that some Evangelical leaders, like some key Catholic bishops and theologians, and in the secular world, some conservative politicians in the GOP, are not simply reconsidering, but becoming active straight allies for queer inclusion in church, and social equality.

Jay Bakker: Not Your Typical Evangelical

At the Huffington Post, there is a useful analysis of the “Evangelicals’ Great Gay Awakening” by Cathleen Falsani, herself an Evangelical who writes that when as a student she learned that some of her classmates had come out as gay, her first response was to pray for them.

For most of my life, I’ve been taught that it’s impossible to be both openly gay and authentically Christian.

When a number of my friends “came out” shortly after our graduation from Wheaton College in the early ’90s, first I panicked and then I prayed.

What would Jesus do? I asked myself (and God).

That last question, so fundamental to young Evangelicals’ thought processes, was crucial. She realized that although Jesus in the Gospels is not reported as having said anything at all about homosexuality, he did say a great deal about love. So, she determined to love, and to love unconditionally, even as she remained unsure if homosexuality is indeed sinful.
Now, her views have been transformed – just like those of other younger Evangelicals – heavily influenced by a growing band of Evangelical theologians who are concluding, just like their more liberal Mainline counterparts, that the traditional view of homosexual relationships as strongly condemned in scripture is mistaken.  Much of her account is based on the new book Fall to Grace: A Revolution of God, Self & Society, by Jay Bakker, the son of Jim Bakker and the late Tammy Faye Messner. The arguments she repeats will be familiar to my regular readers:
  • Leviticus condemns (male) homosexuality – but likewise eating shellfish, cutting your sideburns and getting tattoos were equally prohibited by ancient religious law. Leviticus prohibits interracial marriage, endorses slavery and forbids women to wear trousers. Deuteronomy calls for brides who are found not to be virgins to be stoned to death, and for adulterers to be summarily executed.
  • The New Testament words that are commonly translated in the Bible as “homosexuals/homosexuality” actually refer to male prostitution, and not to loving relationships.
  • The few texts that even appear to be critical of homosexuality are heavily outweighed by the abundant verses emphasising God’s love for all his creation. Bakker’s conclusion is clear: homosexuality is not a sin.
“We must weigh all the evidence,” Bakker writes. “The clobber scriptures don’t hold a candle to the raging inferno of grace and love that burns through Paul’s writing and Christ’s teaching. And it’s a love that should be our guiding light.”
Bakker is not alone among Evangelical leaders.  Falsani says that
Tony Jones, a “theologian-in-residence” at Minnesota’s Solomon’s Porch, one of the pre-eminent “Emergent” churches in the nation, echoes many of Bakker’s arguments. Peggy Campolo, wife of evangelist Tony Campolo, has been saying this kind of thing for years, despite her husband’s disagreement.
I have named several others in previous posts on these pages.
In the ongoing struggle to achieve full welcome and inclusion in church for queer Christians, the struggle on the ground may appear long and fruitless, with some small visible signs of progress overshadowed by the continuing hostility of so many. We must never forget though, that in the longer term perspective, progress has been remarkable over just the last twenty years – a mere blink of an eye in the time scale of salvation history.
Progress in the Mainline and European Protestant churches has recently become visible and noteworthy, but it is not that long ago that they too seemed to be intractable in their opposition. While the Catholic and Evangelical establishment views right now seem permanently fixed and unlikely to change, they are not really all that different from that of the more liberal groups twenty or thirty years ago, when voices for reform existed, but seemed to be a small minority, unlikely to make any impact.
The record shows that minority groups calling for reform have steadily increased in influence, and are achieving notable landmarks for inclusion one after another.
Is it really so unlikely that over the next twenty or thirty years, Catholics and Baptists will similarly see dramatic increases in calls for reform, and achieve some victories? We must take heart from this, and use it to boost our determination and fortitude as we continue to push for full LGBT inclusion – even in the face of apparent hopelessness, and some inevitable setbacks.

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The Queer Bible: Beyond Family Values

Under the heading,  “A Way Back Behind Christian Homophobia”, Adam Kotsko writes at the blog “An und fur sich” about a trilogy of books by Ted Jennings: Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel, The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives in the New Testament, and the third in the set, Plato or Paul?: The Origins of Western Homophobia:

“The strategy here is clear, aggressive, and absolutely necessary: he absolutely abandons the defensive stance -of “explaining away” the supposedly “obvious” homophobic elements in the Bible that “everyone knows” about and instead presents us with a scriptural account that is deeply homophilic, even to the point of presenting us with a possible male lover for Christ himself.”

Setting aside the weapons of hate

Even discounting the possibility that Jesus had a male lover (there are at least two candidates:  John, the “apostle Jesus loved”, and Lazarus), this is an approach I love.  Given the way in which queers have for centuries experienced Scripture as a weapon of hate, it is understandable that after one has overcome a natural antipathy to dealing with Scripture at all, the first enquiry from lesbigay people is to  find ways to respond to the infamous clobber texts, to learn to set aside the weapons of hate.  This is technically relatively easy – the actual texts are few, out of 30 000 verse in a Bible written against a cultural background where homoeroticism was commonplace, and many scholars have shown how they have either been misinterpreted, or are of limited relevance to modern gay relationships.

More difficult is dealing with the residual emotional baggage: this is where books pointing to positive interpretations of Scripture are so valuable. Again, this should be easy – the fundamental message of the Gospels has nothing to do with hatred against anybody, but stresses love and inclusion for everybody – most especially social outsiders and the otherwise afflicted and oppressed.  Still, for people with a homophile orientation, we can go well beyond the simple message of generic inclusion. Writers on Scripture have pointed to specifically queer values in Scripture, while historians have shown that the roots of popular hostility did not lie in Scripture at all:  the Church followed popular prejudice, not the other way around.

I do not yet have personal knowledge of Jennings’ books (but will explore further). There are other writers though who have covered much the same ground, with whose work I am more familiar.

Setting aside family values

Chris Glaser, in his excellent book, “Coming Out as Sacrament”, has a chapter on “Coming out in the Bible”, in which he reads several well known Scripture stories, from Adam & Eve in Genesis to Pentecost in Acts,  as coming out tales.  Among these, he presents the story of Jesus Himself as “Coming out of Family Values”.  The evidence he produces in support of this argument is that:

  • “his mother Mary was told that Jesus’ own coming out would mean “that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword shall pass through your own soul too (Luke 2:35)”;
  • At twelve years of age,  Jesus ignored his family’s departure from Jerusalem to sit  in the temple, his “Father’s house” (Luke 2:49);
  • He left His family and as far as we know, never married and never “begat” children;
  • He called his disciples away from their families (9:59:62), told them he had no home (9:57) ,, and claimed that His gospelk would “set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother.” (Mathew 10:35-36);
  • When His family came to see  Him, He declared, “Whoever does the will of god is my brother and sister and mother”(Mark 3:35);
  • Members of the new faith community addressed each other as brother and sister;
  • Jesus’ own family of choice were three unmarried people – Martha, Mary and Lazarus;
  • In the New Testament, the biological, polygamous, prolifically procreative family of the Old Testament was superseded by the more vital, eternal and extended family of faith, a family to be expanded by evangelism and inclusivity rather than mere procreation;
  • Jesus had a special word of defence for the eunuch, who was an outcast in Israel because his body was mutilated, but more importantly because he could not procreate. “

I don’t know about you, but to me, but none of this, neither Old Testament nor New, sounds particularly like the “traditional family values” that the fundies claim to be protecting because they believe them to be at the heart of Christianity.

Urban gay men as role models

Going beyond queer values in the Gospels to queer lives today, the American theologian Kathy Rudy argues that this Scriptural denial of modern “family values” implies that modern urban gay culture is more in tune with the Gospel message than the biological family which Christ’s teaching rejected

“The church needs the model of gay sexual sexual communities because Christians have forgaotten how to think about social and sexual life outside the family”.

Writing about Rudy’s work, Elisabeth Stuart notes that

“The church has forgotten how to be a community, how to be the body of Christ and perhaps gay men have the grave task of teaching it to be a community wider than a family.”

Wow!

How far have we come?  Instead of simply sitting back and accepting the knee jerk, unfounded  accusations of “Sodomy”, we find that there are serious, credible Scripture scholars and theologians who have first, shown that the traditional use of the clobber texts to atack us is at best inappropriate, or possibly totally unfounded; that there are positive role models in Scripture, in both the Old Testmament and the New;  that far from encouraging traditional family values, the Gospel message opposes themwith what are quite frankly queer values, and that far from the fundies being in a position to lecture us on how to behave, we should be teaching them a thing or two about the Gospels and how to move beyond an unChristian “Focus on the Family” to a wider “Focus on Community”!

Beyond gender.

Rudy continues, says Stuart, to “construct a sexual ethic which is communal in nature and queer in its politics.”  Because in recent centuries there has been so much emphasis on first reproduction and then on complementarity as the sole purposes of sex, the result is that “celibacy, singleness and communal life, which have been valued for so long in Christian history, no longer have a place in Christian life.”

In a neat inversion of the story of Sodom, “for Rudy the story of Sodom teaches us that what is ultimately pleasing to God about sexuality is the quality of its hospitality.  This is not to say that every stranger must be offered sex, but that sex must cultivate an openness  and warmth to strangers, it must open our hearts, break down our boundaries, and push us beyond ourselves.  Hospitality is procreative, it expands and widens the community.  When we open our homes to outsiders, the private space of the home becomes the public space of the Church, and so not only is gender collapsed but so is the dualism between private and public. The cult of domesticity is destroyed and replaced by an ethic which subverts worldy concepts of gender and understands sex in the context of building up the body of Christ.”

How far from James Dobson is that?

See also:
Queering the Church:
Books:
Althaus-Reid, Marcella: Indecent Theology
Horner, James: Johnathan Loved David
 
Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey:  Omnigender
Rudy, Kathy: Sex and the Church
Stuart, Elisabeth: Gay & Lesbian Theologies

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Michael B Kelly: “Seduced by Grace”

Last night’s Mass in Soho was eventful for three different reasons – over and above the Mass itself.  Before Mass, I was interviewed for the first time by a reader, a visiting journalism student from Phoenix, Arizona.  After Mass, we arranged a screening of the powerful documentary movie, “For the Bible Tells Me So”.  I have written of this before (and hope to do so again), but a second viewing was welcome.  This was an entirely new venture, undertaken with some uncertainty whether people would stay for a further 90 minutes after Mass and refreshments, but we need not have worried.  Close on 30 gay men stayed behind – and our token straight woman.  (Where were our lesbian sisters, I wonder?). The response was overwhelmingly positive, and we will undoubtedly repeat the exercise on other ocassions.

But we were still not done.  After the screening, were introduced to another visitor, Michael B. Kelly from Australia, founder of Rainbow Sash Australia, a noted retreat director and a writer on spirituality from an explicitly gay male perspective. He is in London to present a paper at an academic conference on spiritualityin which he is to argue (if I understand him correctly) that gay men, by reflecting and sharing on their erotic experiences and using them in their own practice of spirituality, can make a valuable contribution to spirituality in the wider church.  This is a paper that I dearly long to read when I have the chance – and hope to persuade Michael to allow me to post it here.  After a brief meeting at the church, I was determined to continue the discussion, so accompanied Michael and others to supper in Soho, where we enjoyed further lengthy conversation on matters religious and sexual.  I will meet up with him again, and will certainly write more about his work and insights on other ocassions.

What I want to share with you now is some reviews I have come up against of his book,“Seduced by Grace”.

Seduced by Grace_ Michael Bernard Kelly

I have not as yet had the good fortune to read it for myself, but on the strength of my meeting with him, and the reviews I have read, I would heartily urge you to hunt down a copy and read it for yourself.

From a perspective which is gay, but not Catholic:

“While the dyspeptic (iconoclastic?) Christopher Hitchens is content to go on bashing his straw-man ‘God’ (see God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, 2007), a more interesting set of insights into that tired, overworked tradition has come from what might seem to be an unlikely source — a self-professed Gay man and, moreover, one who knows from first-hand experience the shortcomings of his Church (specifically, its Roman Catholic incarnation). For Michael Bernard Kelly, as David Marr puts it, has ‘has come out but stayed in’—rather than quitting a homophobic Church in disgust, he is pushing for it to renovate itself from within. A potent collection of thoughtful writings by Kelly, the noted Australian Catholic dissident, Seduced by Grace gathers essays, articles, letters and talks he has produced over almost a decade, from late 1998 to May 2004, that are at once an acutely accurate critique of the shortcomings of the Church and a poignant testimonial to the heroic spirit that has, at times, invigorated it.

Kelly the activist is (in)famous in Australia. He was one of the founders of the Rainbow Sash movement that has been a thorn in Cardinal George Pell’s side, with its public challenge to the Catholic Church’s treatment of Gay and Lesbian people (the movement has been taken up in the United States, also) and in this role, he has become a prominent media spokesperson for Gay Catholics. But as is clear from the opening piece in this collection, “On the Peninsula, alone with God,” Kelly’s activism is grounded in contemplative practice. He has produced a stimulating video lecture series, “The Erotic Contemplative: the spiritual journey of the Gay Christian” (through Joseph Kramer’s Erospirit Institute) and leads Gay spirit retreats at Easton Mountain, in New York State, as well as in Australia and the U.K. His voice reaches loudly and clearly across the once impassable divide between eros and spiritus. Kelly is now working on a doctorate in the field of Christian mysticism and Gay experience at an Australian university.

Raised in an Irish Catholic family in Melbourne and educated in Church schools, Kelly was smitten early with the religious life and served as an altar boy, assisting priests in the celebration of Mass, as all good Catholic sons would do. As a teenager, he was inspired by the life and example of Francis of Assisi —“Who could resist a dancing saint?” he asks in his short piece on the inspiring 12th Century figure. He actually joined the Franciscans at 17, but eventually left the Order, and while remaining celibate, continued to work as a religious education specialist and campus minister in Catholic schools and universities for a further seventeen years, before taking the fateful decision to come out, and to come to terms with his sexuality — a decision which, of course, cost him his job. But he continued his studies in theology (including a master’s in spirituality in San Francisco) and today inspires many men with his revisioning of a spiritual life not predicated on a denial of the body. Kelly says his dick keeps him honest.

More power to him. This is the kind of “real world” starting point that earths his spirituality and renders his positions convincing to those of us who have found more breathing room outside the stifling environs of Christian idealism.”

Read the full review at the White Crane.

Or, for  a perspective which is Catholic, but not gay, go to Catholica Australia:

“By the time I’d finished reading I was convinced that every family with a gay* member should read this book — but I soon corrected that to everyone — full stop! Michael has something very important to say and we do ourselves and society a disservice if we don’t give him a hearing. As Catholics, we pay lip-service to any ideas of ‘compassion, sensitivity and respect’ if we don’t at the very least enter into a dialogue with gay people — which includes truly listening to them — and Michael B Kelly is certainly a worthy spokesperson.

“As a woman I don’t pretend to understand what it must be fully like to inhabit the body and psyche of a man, yet I love men, and particularly my husband and my own son. As a heterosexual I likewise find it extremely difficult to personally understand what it must be like to inhabit the psyche of someone who is sexually attracted to others of their own sex. It’s almost like me trying to imagine what it must be like to have been born black. In the music industry I have worked with many people who are gay, and some of them have become close friends.

Michael’s voice is a prophetic one. It enables us to better understand what it must be like to feel imprisoned as one of the sectors of society who are discriminated against and maligned because of the life circumstances they were borne into and have very little control over.Michael Bernard Kelly is a man who carries himself with great dignity and, in a very real sense, provides leadership not only to gays but to other sectors in society who are discriminated against and maligned unjustly.”

I was intrigued by the reference to Kelly as ‘out’ (as gay), but still ‘in’ (the Catholic Church).  Some of my readers may recall that that was virtually the title of my opening statement when I set up this blog – “Welcome: Come In, and Come Out“.  We clearly share a lot in common.

I repeat:  find this book, and read it.

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Church, Power & Abuse

Depressing church news over the past two months has led me to pick up and start reading a book which has been on my shelves some time, but which I have previously only dipped into.  The removal of  excommunication of SPXX  members has received wide and ongoing publicity; clerical sexual abuse is again in the news with the FBI reopening old investigations in LA Diocese, and fresh revelations over   Fr Marcial Maarciel Delgado of the Legionnaires of Christ.  Meanwhile, on the progressive wing of the church, there has been less coverage in the MSM of the silencing or excommunication of the priests  Fr Roger Haight,  Geoffrey Farrow and Roy  Bourgeois, or of bizarre goings-on in the parishes of St Mary’s, Brisbane and St Stephen’s, Minneapolis, where attempts to muzzle complete parishes have led to resistance (St Mary’s) or exodus (St Stephen’s).

What all these have in common is that they are concerned with power in the church – its extension, its abuse, or attempts to defy or resist it.  so I picked up again  “Confronting Power & Sex in the Catholic Church”, by Bishop Geoffrey Robinson.  I am pleased that I did.  Published in 2007, this book has much to say that is directly relevant to current events. Although I have not yet finished reading, and this is far from a formal review, I have already found much of value that I thought would be worth sharing.

Bishop Robinson was Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney from 1984, and in 1994 was appointed by the Australian Bishops to a position of leadership in the Australian church’s response to revelations of sexual abuse.  Following his retirement in 2004, he felt freer in speaking his mind, leading to the publication of this valuable book.

Even in his introduction, he wastes no time in setting out immediately his key thesis, that there are three interlinked causal factors which can lead to sexually abusive behaviour:  an unhealthy psychological state, unhealthy ideas about power and sexuality, and an unhealthy environment or community.  In its institutional structures, argues Robinson, too easily and too often reinforces or even creates conditions that reinforce these unhealthy conditions.  It is easy enough to see the broad argument as it applies to sexual abuse, about which many others have written, and which I do not intend to elaborate.  But it is the central section of the book where he spells out the nature and expansion of church institutional power, that fascinated me.

In a very brief summary of the history of the papacy, he shows how an institution which began as just one Bishop of a single diocese, albeit a most important one, moved from a position of ‘first among equals’ to one of dominance.  Even then, for most of two millenia, the role of the Pope was one of guidance and co-ordination, not one of control.  Not until Pius X and the First Vatican Council, with its promulgation of the doctrine of infallibility, did ‘the doctrine of universal jurisdiction of of the Pope over every aspect of the Church’ become established.    It is against this longer term view of Church history that we need to evaluate Vatican II, which is now attracting so much welcome attention.  Quite contrary to the view of the Lefevbrists and other conservatives in the church,  Vatican II was significant not for overturning tradition, but for seeking to re-establish it.  (This same point was made last week on Bilgrimage, where  William D Lindsay wrote his own helpful piece on the meaning of Church and tradition in the context of the two Vatican Councils.  It is unfortunate that most of us are so conscious of Vatican II and its upheavals, that we lose sight of Vatican I and the many councils before it.)  Helpfully for Pius X and his successors, his attempts to establish universal control were greatly enhanced by the advances in communication technology, enabing him to be quickly informed of events in far flung parts of the world – and to communicate his response, desires and commands as quickly.

What Robinson recommends is not the abolition or destruction of Papal power – he notes that the Protestant faiths which have eliminated central authority ahve seen endless continuing fission within themselves – but a restoration of balance.  A partnership between Pope, the college of Bishops, and laity not only reflects the (unfilled) promise of Vatican II, it also restores the earliest traditions of the Church, reflects established  constitutional principles in secular democracies of a balance of power. The challenge in achieving this restoration in balance is that teh excessive power structures that have been built up are not simply the work of mischievous individual Popes and scheming officials. Rather, tehy have become institutionalised, built right into the ‘systme’ of Church governance, so that it is unremarkable that the autocratic structures began to re-establish themselves after the immediate enthusiasm following Vatican II.  I have yet to read Bishop’s Robinson’s views on how this re-establishment of balance is to achieved, but have one thought of my own.

I find it striking that Luther’s first great challenge to the abuse of power in the Church, and the unfolding Reformation that followed, were greatly aided and fuelled by the expansion of literacy and publishing, with the demand of the laity for access to the scriptures.  In the preceding centuries, with limited access to literacy, manuscripts and a common literary language, it was inevitable that the Church would retain a virtual monopoly on knowledge in all its forms.  With the widening of access to the tools of learning, it was natural that a widening circle of  laity would demand access to at least some of that.  The church’s intransigence led to rebellion, and the the Protestant churches immediately were characterised by an emphasis on reading of scripture by all.

The Catholic Church eventually backed down on this, but still restricted higher studies in theology to priests.  That too has now gone, and today there  are more lay people studying formal theology than seminarians.    The information age, and its rapid expansion of the tools of learning, has now taken access to theology outside the formal classroom.   Knowledge is power.  The expanding blogosphere empowers us all to extend our own knowledge.  The more obvious it becomes that the officials of the curia do not have a monopoly on truth, the more we use the media available to us to voice our response to abuses (as we have witnessed over the last two months), the more obvious it will becomes to those at the top of the power  structures that their ‘power’ is not after all as absolute as they might imagine.  Then, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, they may at last begin listening as well as pronouncing, and they may again acquire Authority to accompany their power.

“Sex As God Intended” (Book Review)

sex-as-god-intended-_-john-mcneillJohn McNeill, Lethe Press 2008.

I have just two small niggles about this book, so let me get them out of the way now. First, I was initally disappointed to find that this is not all new wrting by McNeill.  Only half the book is by McNeill, and the rest is a collection of celebratory articles, a “Festchrift”, by others. This Festschrift is welcome, but even his own writing is not all new.  I have not read all the previous works, but even so I recognised large chunks of the material as not just a restatement, but verbatim reprints, of  sections of  “Taking a Chance of God.” So big chunks of this are not new material.

Also irritating was the poor editing.  McNeill appears to have gone to a new publisher, who have clearly made good use of a spell-checker – but paid insufficient attention to grammar.  There were many instances  where the flow of the text was interrupted by obvious missing words, with important parts of speech simply not present, leading to incomplete sentences or clauses that just did not hang together.

Celebrating John McNeill

But these were irritations only.  It does not matter that this is not all new writing by McNeill, and should not be treated as such.  The Festchrift is the clue: this is not a continuation, but a celebration, of the earlier work.  Just running down the contributors, all of whom have made major contributions of their own to the continuing struggle of LGBT Catholics, is testimony to the importances of McNeill’s work as theologian, as writer, and as therapist. (One of the contributions is titled  “You saved My Life”  this is intended to be taken quite literally). Amongst the contributors, I was already familiar with the work of  Toby Johnson, Mark Jordan, Robert Goss, Sister Jeannine Gramick and Daniel Helminiak.  The contributions of others has left me wanting to explore their work too.

So what is this life work of McNeill, and why should we celebrate it?

“The Church and The Homosexual”, published back in 1976, was groundbreaking.  Many writers since have testified to the liberating impact it has had on their own lives, and it has become a staple in the exploding bibliographies on the subject ever since.  It was originally published with the blessing and ‘imprimi potest’ of his Jesuit order, but soon attracted the displeasure of the Vatican.  Ordered to refrain from publication and teaching on the subject, McNeill initially complied, and fell silent for some years.  In conscience though, he felt compelled to continue to write and to speak out. Like so many others, he left the priesthood and embarked on a precarious career as writer and psychotherapist. Subsequent books included “Freedom, Glorious Freedom”, “Taking a Chance on God”, and “Both Feet Planted Firmly in Midair.”

“Sex as God Intended”

In the current book, McNeill examines systematically the treatment of sexuality, particularly in same sex relationships, and finds conclusions rather different to those usually used against us.  As he and others have done before, he dismisses the old interpretation of the story of Sodom as a gross misinterpretation  The sin of Sodom was not that of sexual relationships between men, but the failure to offer hospitality to guests – an important traditional obligation in a desert society.  Where McNeill differs from so many other writers who have made the same point, is that he is not content to simply argue against the old ‘clobber texts’.  Rather, he goes further, arguing for the positive place of sexuality in the Old Testament.  Highlighting Genesis 2 (the older version) rather than the more usual creation story in Genesis 1, he shows how Eve was created because Adam needed a companion, not just a mother for his children. This balances the procreative nature of marriage, so beloved by our opponents, with that of love and companionship.

An important piece of new writing in the book is a celebration of the Song of Songs, as a scriptural basis for sex as play. He also presents evidence that this may have been written to celebrate love been men.  The gender of the protagonists, though is ultimately not important.  The passion and ardour expressed is sufficiently powerful that the Song can be read with any interpretation you choose – but impossible to come away with the idea that sex is only about procreation.

Similarly, in examining the New Testament, McNeill’s focus is on the positive messages for LGBT Christians, rather than a repetition of arguments against the clobber texts.  He shows for instance, that in his family of choice, Jesus is associating with same sex groups rather than with ‘traditional’ family groups. His analysis of the healing of the (male) ‘servant’ of the Roman centurion shows how this servant was almost certainly a sexual partner, even  lover, of the centruiion.  He also draws attention to the special attentions paid to John  the Evangelist as “the apostle whom Jesus loved.”  It has often been noted how Jesus in the Gospels has absolutely nothing to say about homosexuality.  John McNeill has shown clearly that in His actions, the Lord goes much further than words in acknowledging and accepting such relationships.

Joy and the Holy Spirit.

The joy of McNeill’s writing is always his emphasis on the positive.  His recurring refrains are a quotation from St Irenaus “The glory of God is humans fully alive”,  an insistence that healthy psychology and healthy theology go hand in hand (and healthy psychology requires in turn healthy sexuality), and  a strong underpinning of Ignatian Spirituality, in which we find God in all things – even in persecution and exclusion by the church.   You can take McNeill out of the Jesuits, but you cannot take the Jesuits out of McNeill, and I thank the Lord for that.

Central to this thinking is that the Holy Spirit is constantly at work in our lives and in the world.  In a context where official teaching on sexuality out of Rome is so obviously misplaced and psychologically unhealthy, it is too easy too lose one’s spiritual bearings.  McNeill reminds us that where Rome fails, the Holy Spirit is permanently at hand for guidance  – we need  only ask.

He goes further. In an important address to Dignity, reprinted in this book, he speculates on the active participation of the Holy Spirit in the church of today,  directly intervening in a ‘Kairos Moment ‘ to restore a proper balance between what has been the unbridled power of the papacy and the rest of the Church.  (I am delighted that I have secured permission from McNeill to post this address in full  on this blog, here.) At the time of writing, it was prescient.  Given the turmoil in the church in recent weeks, and the resistance of so many to the series of Vatican fiascoes, I suspect we may now be seeing signs of just this intervention.  As evidence, just see how Benedict has been forced to react to outrage over the most recent disaster concerning the SSPX by completing a nearly complete turnaround. What at one time appeared to be a slap in the face for the spirit of Vatican II has now become a firm endorsement of it!

This book may not contain significant new writing by John McNeill, but no matter.  If you have not yet had the benefit of enjoying his exuberance, this will be an excellent introduction.  If you have read the earlier books, then you should still buy it, read it, and circulate it, to join the celebration.

John McNeill, thank you.

“Christianity is a Queer Thing” – Elizabeth Stuart

I have been re-reading Elisabeth Stuart’s wonderful “Gay & Lesbian Theologies: Repetitions With Critical Difference“, which presents a ‘genealogy’ of the changing approaches by self-identified lesbian & gay theologians, culminating in the last two chapters with a discussion of “Queer theology”.  It was these latter two chapters that I was particularly interested in.

gay-and-lesbian-theologies

As I went through Stuart’s rundown of the leading figures in the development of Queer Theology, I found myself excited by the description of almost all, and planning on adding them to my ‘Wish List’, which I have now done.  I thought I would share with you why.  The notes below are super – brief descriptions of the key ideas that caught my interest, and the books, as reported by Stuart, that hold them.

Strangers and Friends (Michael Vasey)

Vasey argues from an historical presentation of the sexuality and the family.  He points out that far from being the ‘tradtional’ model, the family as idealised  by modern Christians, especially the evangelicals,  is a relatively modern invention.  The gradual development of this model as normative, has largely been responsible for the parallel development of a distinct gay identity, largely in reaction.  (The campaign against the ‘homosexual’ is attacking what it has itself created.) Conversely, the early church idealised male friendship and community life, rather than the family as now understood.

Sex and the Church: Gender, Homosexuality, and the Transformation of Christian Ethics (Kathy Rudy)

Rudy also looks at the historical development of the family, from a feminist perspective.  Her conclusion is that LGBT people are mistaken in looking to mimic heterosexual families, suggesting that urban gay male culture offers a model of human relationships modelled on community. She denies the argument that Christian sexuality needs to be procreative – Christianity reproduces itself not by procreation, but by conversion.  What matters is not whether two people can produce children, but whether they can embrace outsiders – the key characteristic of Christianity.

Omnigender: A Trans-religious Approach (Virginia Ramey Mollenkott)

Mollenkott shows that many features of God’s incarnation and manifestation to humans, and many practices of the church, fall outside socially approved, binary ideas of gender. She also discusses numerous examples of canonised saints who have defied gender roles.

Indecent Theology: (Marcella Althaus-Reid)

Althaus-Reid’s starting point is within the framework of liberation theology, but she points out that this has often proceeded from within a traditional approaches to gender and sexual identity. She “foregrounds a Christ outside the gates who is the eternal Bi/Christ who always gives us something to think about.”