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    The Homoerotic Catholic Church

    Friday, August 28, 2009, 3:53 PM [General]

    That's right:  not homophobic, but homoerotic.  Sure, there is homophobia, especially in the official teaching, but if you peer beneath the surface, scratch the veneer, lift the skirts of the priestly vestments at what lies beneath and within, you find a very different picture. It is a common observation that the most virulent homophobia often masks a closeted gay interior. This may well be the case with the institutional Catholic church: there is much in the Church's history, institutional character, liturgical style, church decoration, and mystical tradition that is way more than just gay-friendly:  much of it is at least camp, or even frankly homoerotic.

    Let us begin with the fun stuff.

    In his wonderfully funny but also pointed and touching bit of memoir, "Since My Last Confession", Scott Pomfret adopts a delightfully camp tone to describe the personnel, priestly vestments and equipment of the Mass. (In an extended metaphor, the Mass becomes a white linen restaurant, the priest is the chef, Eucharistic ministers are waiters, the chalice is the wine glass.)

    This camp tone is entirely appropriate: there is much in the liturgy itself, in church architecture and decor, with its blend of high art and low kitsch, which is itself high camp, and appealing to the gay sensibility (if such exists). Elsewhere, Pomfret notes that Sunday evening doughnut supper in a particular Boston parish, is the best place outside a gay bar to pick up a man on Sunday night.

    On a similar theme, Mark D Jordan ("The Silence of Sodom")describes a certain type of Catholic gay man who tends to get deeply involved in the minutiae of liturgy planning.  These men he describes as "liturgy" queens, drawing a clear comparison with that other well-known stereotype, the opera queen.  (In this context, the well-known Marian prayer, "Hail Holy Queen" takes on a whole new meaning!)

    On the other hand, what is one to make of the display of the near naked Christ on the cross, and the depictions of the passion in the "Stations of the Cross" found in every Catholic church?  Do these have a special frisson for the SM /Leather sub-group of gay men?  It is certainly so that renowned mystics such as St John of the Cross have developed a whole school of spirituality on the idea of contemplation on the body of Christ - and couched it in language that is remarkably sensuous, even erotic.

    Priesthood & Training

    It's not only the gay men in the congregation that respond to the camp. It's well known that an astonishingly high proportion of Catholic priests are gay.  There are no reliable statistics, but the guesstimates I have seen tend to cluster around the 50% mark, give or take 20% either side. Nor are these all in the lower ranks, nor should we assume that they are all celibate:  rumours and allegations of sexually active gay bishops, cardinals, Vatican officials  and even popes are commonplace. (Some conservative factions in the Church even claim that all three popes immediately after Vatican II were gay, and that Paul VI in particular ushered in a "homosexual mafia" to the Vatican staff - possibly explaining the reactionary lurch under John Paul II and Benedict XVI?)

    Why should this be so?  It is probably simplistic just to blame it on the desire to wear the priestly drag (where else can a gay men get to wear skirts public outside the theatre or drag shows?), but the camp style probably does have something to do with it.

    More important though, as Mark D Jordan has persuasively shown, is that the entire culture of priestly training in all-male seminaries is deeply supportive, even encouraging, of a gay orientation, just as it discourages

    straight men. Jordan also shows, scandalously, that it is not just the students in these institutions who are, or first become, sexually active in the seminaries: many staff members are sexual predators, taking advantage of the students in their care - even as they warn against forming "particular friendships" with each other.

    History

    In the Church's long past, carefully airbrushed out of official history, are hidden numerous examples of gay, lesbian and even transvestite (FTM) saints, bishops, and popes. Fortunately, modern scholars no longer depend on clerical approval, and this gay past is now being recovered for us(See the work of John Boswell, Alan Bray, and Bernadette Brooten just for starters.)

    Far from opposing gay marriage, for many centuries the church recognised and liturgically blessed same sex unions:  at the start of the relationships, by the ceremonies of "adelphopoesis" in the Eastern church, and by the "ordo ad fratres faciendum" in the West.  Both these terms referred to the making of "sworn brothers", and may have been largely about contracts of property arrangements - but that is exactly what opposite-sex unions were about at the time.  The concept of marriage as the consummation of romantic love is a modern invention.  Many same sex unions have also been recognised in death, right up to the 19th century, by being buried in shared graves, often inside church buildings, or with grave monuments, memorials and inscriptions inside the churches comparable to the memorials to married couples buried together.

    Does it matter?

    That there is at least a strand of homophile or homoerotic culture, sensitivity, and activity in the Catholic Church is clear.  So what?  Should we care?  For those of us in the Church who are gay, I believe it matters immensely.  By recognising the hypocrisy, it becomes easier to stand up to the theological bullying, and to counter the lecturing with rational argument.

    Further reading:

    Books

    Scott Pomfret, "Since My Last Confession" 
    Mark D. Jordan, "The Silence of Sodom" 
    Alan Bray, "The Friend" 
    John Boswell, "Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality" 
    John Boswell, "Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe" 
    Bernadette Brooten, "Love Between Women" 
    Engel, Rangy: "The Rite of Sodomy"

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    Exodus, Ex-ays & Diabolical Perversion

    Monday, August 10, 2009, 6:56 AM [General]

     

    Ex-gays, "cures" for homosexuality and the possibility of change in orientation are back in the news, with the APA conference now under way in Toronto.  One study, due for presentation this morning, is said to present evidence that contrary to the conventional view over the past few decades, "change" is indeed possible. This paper, by an openly evangelical Christian, was a longitudinal study of men who had undergone change therapy with Exodus .  The study was funded by Exodus, but results, he says, were not influenced by them. These showed that although the program was not successful in all cases, it was so with some of the subjects.

     

    Are you surprised?

    Now, I am not particularly bothered by claims that change is "possible".  Some LGBT commentators get worked up at the very suggestion, but I do not.  After all, it is fairly clear that we are not all uniformly "homo" or "hetero" -sexual:  most people sit somewhere on a spectrum.  Just a quick look at the very many out gay & lesbian people who have been married, and become parents, shows that it is at least possible to function in the hetero role. Change is possible in many areas of human behaviour.  Meat eaters routinely become vegetarians - and sometimes back again.  Lifelong couch potatoes can acquire an enthusiasm for the gym. And many people routinely change religious faith.  Christians become Muslims, Jews become Catholics, Catholics become Evangelicals, Evangelicals give up religion all the time.

    And yes, even heterosexuality can be cured!

    So I am not at all surprised by claims that there can be change in sexual practice.  Where I take strong exception, though, is with the idea that this can be called "therapy", or is even desirable.   In fact, it is quite the reverse. The evidence from neutral psychotherapists, those with neither a religious nor sexual axe to grind, is that the best route to mental health is to live within your natural, primary orientation.  The evidence from personal stories of millions of gay men and lesbians around the world who have come out, confirms this. Nor is sexual "conversion" good for one's spiritual health. Even within the Catholic tradition, theologians who are also professional psychotherapists confirms this. (See, for instance, Daniel Helminiak and John McNeill).   Exodus International is mistaking the disease for the cure.  What is particularly scandalous in my mind is the name they have chosen.

    The Biblical story of the Exodus is one of liberation from slavery and oppression.

    "Let my people go" was a slogan taken from Exodus, freely adopted by the American civil rights movement, and by early black nationalists in South Africa.  Many LGBT commentators have proposed that gay Christians should use the book of Exodus as a theme for regular prayer and reflection in our own struggle against oppression by church and state and in our continual, endless process of coming out. ("Ex-odos"  is from the Greek for "way out"). More, in standard theology one of the primary tasks of the church is to take the "prophetic role" - that is , to speak up against evil and injustice. During my involvement with the Catholic Justice & Peace Commission back in South Africa, two texts that were endlessly repeated were  from Luke, and from Micah:

    "The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
    He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
    to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."

    Yet here we have a so-called Christian organisation appropriating the name to lead us not away from the oppression of the closet, but back into it.  This confounds & subverts their expected prophetic mission to oppose injustice. If coming out is a spiritual experience, what word is appropriate for being led back in?

    I suggest "diabolical".

    Further reading:

    Books:

     

    Daniel Helminiak: Sex and the Sacred
    (esp Ch 4: Sexual Self-Acceptance and Spiritual Growth;
             and Ch 9: Jesus: A Model for Coming Out)

    John McNeill: Taking a Chance on God
    John McNeill: Sex and the Sacred
    Richard Cleaver: Know My Name

    On Quering the Church:

    The Intimate Dance of Sexuality and Spirituality
    Homoerotic Spirituality

     

    On Ex-Gays, ex-ex-gays, and ex-straights:

    Truth Wins Out
    Leviticus International
    Peter Toscano
     (Quaker, queer, and ex ex-gay)

     

     

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    God's Tricksters, Prophetic Vision, and Justice in the Church

    Monday, August 3, 2009, 2:17 PM [General]

    (Cross-posted from my regular blog, "Queering the church")

    I’ve been reading about Catholic Bishop,  Patricia Fresen .  That’s right: Catholic Bishop, Patricia Fresen.

    Bishop Fresen is one of three consecrated Bishops in the Womenpriests movement.  Now, I’ve been fascinated by Bishop Fresen since I first heard of her a couple of years ago, but all my natural instincts are in turmoil over this.  On the one hand, part of me says this can’t be valid – the Catholic Church does not allow women priests,  let alone bishops.   On the other, another part of me says, right on! After all, she appears to have been legitimately and validly consecrated by a (male) Catholic bishop in good standing, witnessed by three other male bishops, and other women bishops – who had previously been consecrated themselves, in similar fashion.

     

    The second feature that appeals to me, that warms the cockles of my heart, is that I share one part of Bishop Fresen’s path of resistance.  She and I both spent the major part of our lives in the church in South Africa.  As legally "white", we were both beneficiaries of the apartheid structure.  As Catholics, we both accepted the national church’s insistence that it was right and appropriate to stand up against injustice, and to resist, even to disobey, unjust laws. I myself attended several meeting of peace and justice commissions, where the regular slogan was “If you want peace, work for justice”, and quite deliberately ignored and contravened some significant pieces of legislation, opening myself to real risk of prosecution.

    Bishop Fresen logically applied church teaching on justice to her own position:

     

    “As she left childhood, she realized that this neat division into black and white was not the Will of God. It was unjust. Through her experience in her Dominican community, which had broken barriers of white and black among the sisters and in their schools, Patricia came to understand that there is a moral obligation to change unjust laws and that this is often done by refusal to obey those laws. Therefore, when she heard about the ordination of seven Catholic women on the Danube in 2002, she immediately recognized that their ordinations were moral resistance to the apartheid of sexism in the Catholic Church.”

     

    I do not know enough about canon law on what constitutes a legitimate  episcopal consecration, but I do know that this issue is not going away any time soon.  In addition to the women already ordained, they are training more – as well as married and gay men.

    I am also struck by the action of the (male) bishop and his colleagues who had the courage to initiate the ordination of womenpriests, and then the consecration of three women bishops, to continue the work.  I have been reading Virginia Mollenkott on “God’s Tricksters”, in “Take Back the Word” (edGoss & Webb).

     

    Mollenkott argues that for those compelled to read Scripture, and to follow authority from “low and outside”  (which includes women, gay men, and especially lesbians), it is sometimes necessary to adopt a certain amount of deception and trickery.  This sounds dishonest, but she quotes convincing Scriptural precedents for the strategy  (Jeannine Grammik has proposed something similar, for subverting Vatican authority from the inside).  I also like Mollenkott’sobservations on assigned authority.  She is not here speaking of the Catholic Church in particular, but if the cap fits…

     

    “Those who find themselves disadvantaged, on the outside, in the margins as it were,

    make use of trickery and other forms of manipulative behaviour because they do not have assigned power….Assigned power is just that:  assigned (usually by the elite in favour of the elite) but masquerading as divinely ordained, cosmically correct and unquestionably true.”  (emphasis mine)

     

    It seems to me that the unnamed male bishops have done just that – used their legitimate authority to ordain & consecrate women priests and bishops.  But because the people chosen are women, and therefore not approved in the modern church (the evidence is that this was not also the case:  women deacons, and possibly priests, were certainly ordained in the early church), the identity of the consecrating bishops must be kept secret for now.

    At Bilgrimage, meanwhile, William Lindsay has been critically discussing the stance of Archbishop Rowan Williams on gay marriage, contrasting it with that of the British Quakers.  He notes that what is required here is not endless debate, commissions, scholarship and clear majority support, but the adoption of a prophetic stance against injustice.

     

    “To my mind, what British Friends have just decided to do, and the theological rationale they advance to justify their decision, strongly supports the argument I offered yesterday against the Archbishop of Canterbury’s understanding of how churches change their moral minds. When social attitudes begin to show churches that certain practices they have long taken for granted are no longer morally defensible, churches usually change their moral minds not because they have reached wide agreement about a new moral consensus, or as a result of ongoing study and discussion about the new consensus.

     

    They change their moral minds because prophetic, cutting-edge groups within the churches and outside the churches needle the churches into rethinking their complicity in practices that can no longer be justified on theological, biblical, or moral grounds. “

     

    This is precisely what I was taught by the Church in South Africa, what Bishop Fresen has followed in her calling to the priesthood, and what the Quakers have now done.

     

    See also:

    Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey Reading the Bible from Low and Outside:Lesbitransgay People as God’s Tricksters ” in Take Back the Word, (ed  Goss & Webb)

    Wild Reed, Women Priests ordained in Minneapolis

    Roman Catholic Womenpriests:

     

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    Gay and Transgendered Saints - and Others

    Wednesday, July 29, 2009, 5:11 AM [Gay Christians]

     

    The war of words between the homophobic religious wingnuts is generally so strident, with both sides shouting past each other, that generally I hold my peace.  I see no point in trying to defend religion from atheists, nor in defended a same sex orientation from homophobes.  But what is to be done about the very many of us who are caught in the cross-fire?  For those of us who are gay, lesbian, or other variety of "queer", but also have religious faith, we often find that is as difficult to be out as religious people in the gay community, as it is to be out as gay in our faith communities.

    I find that to remain sane in this war, it is helpful to look beyond the slogans, and to explore the rich vein of queer material that runs through the Christian faith (and others - but I know less about them).

    For it is a complete myth that Christian Scripture and tradition have been invariably and undoubtedly against same sex relationships.  Last week, I wrote about gay bishops and same sex unions in church history.  Over the last thirty years, there has been a publishing explosion of books dealing with matters of faith from an LGBT perspective.  Many modern scholars have shown the errors in the traditional "clobber texts" in Scripture, and have moved on from defensive postures to finding specifically gay friendly readings of the Bible. There has also been an emergence of serious new academic disciplines such as gay /lesbian theology, queer theology, and indecent theology, as well as investigations of spirituality from an explicitly homoerotic starting point.

    I do not wish to go into these matters here - although I do write about them on my regular blog, Queering the Church.

    Instead, I would like to have a little more fun, by expanding on the brief reference I made last week to gay saints. I find that simply calling to mind their existence, is enough to remind me of the accepted place we have held in the church in the past, quite contrary to modern attempts to demonise us.

     

    The best known, and widely adopted as symbols of gay men in the church, are Saints Sergius and Bacchus, 4th century Roman soldiers, lovers and martyrs. (Their "cult" was suppressed by the Western Church in 1969, and their feast day removed from the Western Church calendar.  But it remains fact that they were honoured for 16 centuries of Church history, and remain so in the Eastern Orthodox Church).  It is known that Sergius and Bacchus had been united in a formal liturgical rite of same - sex "union".

    Also believed by some to have been united under this rite are the pair "Philip and Bartholomew". These are familiar to us as names coupled in the Eucharistic prayer of the Mass,as are Felicity and Perpetua, martyred together in Carthage - and some have claimed that their mistress/servant relationship masked a lesbian one.

    Also from the 4th Century is Bishop Paulinus of Nola, who wrote memorable love poetry to his boyfriend, Ausonius.

    St Anselm, prior of Bec, and later Archbishop of Canterbury, may be remembered for passionate love letters to men (as well as for his role in "preventing the promulgation of the first antigay legislation in England":

    "Sweet to me, sweetest friend, are the gifts of your sweetness, but these cannot begin to console my desolate heart for its want of your love.  Even if you sent every scent of perfume, every glitter of metal, every precious gem, every texture of cloth, still it could not make up to my soul for this separation..."

    St Aelred of Rielvaux is known to have had homosexual relationships in his youth. He is believed to honoured hi vows of celibacy after entering the monastery, but this did not prevent him developing two distinct emotionally intimate love relationships with fellow monks, both recorded in passionate love letters.

    Writers on erotic gay spirituality like to quote from the very well known mystic, St John of the Cross (remember, these are written by a malewriter:

    "I love you alone above all else, 
    You alone are my love and desire""

    "Like a turtledove who has lost her mate 
    And stands forever on the barren branch 
    So I grieve ceaselessly 
    Until I enjoy your love again."

    As late as the 19th century, Cardinal John Newman (soon to be beatified) was known to have had an emotionally intimate, but possibly physically chaste, relationship with his fellow priest Aubrey St John. This relationship was so intense, that he insisted that he be buried in the same grave as St John, exactly as man and wife.  This request was honoured, until at Vatican insistence, there was an attempt to disinter his remains and remove them to Birmingham Oratory preparatory to the beatification procedures next year.  However, on opening the grave, no remains were found - which some would claim as evidence of the third miracle required for full canonisation!

     

    Lesbians in Church History

    Nor are we talking only about men (although I know more about them). 12th century manuscripts between two unidentified religious women are clearly lesbian:

     

    "I love you alone above all else,

    You alone are my love and desire"

     

    "Like a turtledove who has lost her mate 
    And stands forever on the barren branch 
    So I grieve ceaselessly 
    Until I enjoy your love again."

     

    Bernadette Brooten, in her highly regarded book "Love between Women", investigated many notable examples from the early Church.

     

    Cross Dressers  in Church History

    Then there is the extraordinary group of women collectively known as the "transvestite" saints. These were women, mainly from Eastern areas of the early church, who dressed themselves as men, depending on this deception to be admitted as monks to all male monasteries.  Better recognised by the Eastern church than the Western, some are recognised by both branches of the church, but with different feast days.

    The most famous of all crossdressers of course, was Joan of Arc.  Burnt as a witch by church authorities, she was later canonised as a saint by those same authorities.  There is profound symbolism here:  historians have shown that the rise of strong opposition to "homosexuals" coincided with opposition to Jews, heretics and witches.  The Church has already apologised for burning heretics and supposed witches in the past, but has not eyt done so regarding "sodomites". That day will come, too, as will eventual recognition of the errors in its current teaching.

     

    Gay, Lesbian and Other Sexual Outsiders in Scripture

    Before the age of designated "saints", we have notable examples from Scripture. The love between Jonathan and David is well known; some believe that the story of Ruth and Naomi similarly conceals a lesbian relationship.  Behind the story of Daniel and companions in the lions' den, lies a further sexual reference. Given their status as young slaves in foreign captivity, and explicit mention of their good looks, it is likely that that they had been brought to the king as eunuchs for sexual use. In the Song of Songs, well known for its sensuous, erotic language as metaphor for the love between man and God, it is not widely recognised that the original text may have written as between two male lovers, Asher and Caleb.  However, at least one modern scholar (the Evangelical minister Paul R Johnson) believes that the oldest text was clearly so written, and that later copies deliberately changed the pronouns to hide its homoerotic nature:

    How delightful you are Caleh, 
    My lover-man, my other half. 
    Your pleasing masculine love is better than wine. 
    The smell of your body is better than perfume. 
    Your moustache is waxed with honeycomb. 
    Honey and milk are under your tongue. 
    The scent of your clothing is like the smell of Lebanon.

    In the Christian New Testament, there is the story of Philip the Ethiopian, who was a "eunuch".  Remember that it is dangerous to equate modern terms with biblical words: so it is with "eunuch".  Some scholars believe that it can be loosely compared with the modern word "homosexual", in a time when the latter term simply did not exist.

    Finally, there is the Roman Centurion, who asked the Lord to heal his "paidion", usually translated as servant, or as "boy". But in the context of the living conditions of Roman Centurions, it is more likely to have been a slave boy, almost certainly used for sexual purposes. It is further likely that sexual use would have developed into emotional intimacy, thus explaining the use of the word "boy".  Now remember the words of the Centurion:  "Lord, I am not worthy that you come to my house.": words repeated today in the Mass, immediately before Communion.

    So, to the alert ear, in the Mass there are at least three gay affirming references: to Philip and Bartholomew, to Felicity and Perpetua, and to the Centurion's prayer.

    Gay and lesbian Christians have always been part of the long tradition of the Church.  Only in recent centuries have the authorities made concerted efforts to exclude us, and now more and more responsible churchmen and women are returning to the true, historic path of inclusion.     

    Further reading:

    Books: 
    John Boswell:  Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (University of Chicago Press,1980) 
    Boisvert, Daniel: Sanctity and Male Desire:  a Gay Reading of Saints 

     

    On-Line:

    Lesbian Gay and Transgendered Saints in the LGBT Catholic Handbook

    Queering the Church

     

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    Welcome to Queer Church

    Saturday, July 25, 2009, 9:56 AM [Gay Christians]

     

    As gay Catholics, we have often found ourselves double outsiders. As a sexual minority in a world where heterosexuality is routinely taken for granted, and even suffered ridicule, discrimination, violence or worse, we have often felt excluded, left out - or even invisible.  Typically, we have felt even more rejected in the churches than in the secular world, with widespread condemnation of the ’sin’ of homosexuality.  This hostility from the religious establishhment has led to a counter-reaction from many in the LGBT community, who see religion as the architect and driving force behind our ‘oppression’, and consequently refuse to have any truck with organised religion.  The result for gay Catholics is too often, exclusion by both camps.  I have often heard the observation from my gay Catholic friends, that it can be as difficult to be out as Catholic in the gay community, as it is to be out as gay in the world at large.

     

    However, in the secular world at least, things have changed. Ever since Stonewall, many of us have discovered the power of coming out publicly.  At a personal level, affirming, not hiding, our identities has been personally liberating for our mental and even physical health;  at a public level, the increasing visiblity of persons of diverging sexual identities has played a big part in breaking down stereotypes, prejudice, and increasingly, discriminaiton.  For young (and not so young) people who are beginning for the first time to face the idea that they do not fit inside the sexual roles their social conditioning has led them to expect, this increased visibility of public role models also makes it easier for our coming out, than it was for earlier generations.

    This increased visibilty has not yet significantly reached our parishes, cloisters, or ecclesiastical parishes, partly because so many of those who are most comfortable identifying as gay, refuse to identify as churchgoers.  But in parallel with the secular world, the more we are indeed out in the church, the easier it will be for us, and for those who follow.

    So, to all you who are gay Catholics or lapsed Catholics, a plea and invitation:  come in and come out. If you have lapsed, come back in to the Church, and help to make a difference.  If you remain a regular churchgoer, come in deeper – take on more active ministry.  Let there be no doubt of your credentials as Catholic. Then, cautiously and gradually, come out as gay.  If you can not trust your parish to be accepting, find one which will (welcoming communities do exist).  This site will help you to find one.)  Or, if you prefer, seek out  a special Mass for an LGBT congregation.  These too exist in many bigger cities, even if not on every Sunday. For most people, coming out in the secular world was not easy.  You  probably needed help and support from LGBT friends, and may have deliberately sought out explicitly gay public venues as much for affirmation as for the objective services offered (I know I did.  Why else pay higher prices for a pint in Soho than in your neighbourhood local?)

    Coming out in the church will be more difficult, so you will need even more support.  I hope that this site will help you to find a suitable support network for face to face contact and discussion.  But the virtual society of the blogosphere can also represent support of a kind – and that, we definitely aim to provide.

    (For more, see my regular blog Queering The Church)

     

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