In releasing their goals for the next decade, the Religious Institute included a short review of progress over the last ten years for sexual and gender inclusion in church. While much remains to be done, the ten year view is encouraging. Now, I have been given an even longer term perspective. I have started reading Gary Comstock’s book, “Unrepentant, Self-Affirming, Practicing”, on research into LGBT people of faith, which begins with a useful historical review. It is worth recognising that the present (limited) visibility of queers in church is no flash in the pan, but is part of an established and growing historical movement that now goes back over sixty years.
The publication of John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality and John McNeill’s The Church and the Homosexual at the end of the 1970’s are widely recognised as landmark publications at the start of the gay and lesbian theology movement – but they were not the first. That recognition should go instead to “On being a Real Person”, by Rev Harry Fosdick (founder of New York’s Riverside church), which was the first to call attention to the inadequacy of clerical training in dealing with homosexuality. In 1955, the Anglican canon Derrick Sherwin Bailey’s “Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition “(the best known of these early works) was the first to re-examine the traditional interpretations of the Scriptural passages now known as the “clobber texts”, and examined the historical record of our persecution by the Church.
Other books followed with increasing frequency throughout the decade of the 1960’s from a range of faith traditions, including Rev. Robert Wood of he United Church of Christ, the Quaker “Friends Home Service Committee”, an Anglican theologian Norman Pittinger, Methodist minister H. Kimball-Jones, Catholics John McNeill ( in an early article for a clerical magazine and Michael Valente), and even a conservative Evangelical, Ralph Blair.
The first church service arranged specifically for a homosexual congregation was held way back in 1946, on Christmas Eve in Atlanta, with attendance by 85 people. Are you surprised that this took place in a gay bar?
The emergence of the early Mattachine Society (for gay men) and Daughters of Bilitis were also associated with religion. A Unitarian minister helped with the formation of the Mattachines, while in 1964 two Daughters of Bilitis were also founding members of the “Council on Religion and Homosexuals” (CRH) in San Francisco. Some years before Stonewall, this faith-based grouping was instrumental in reigning in police harassment of homosexuals. At a New Year’s dance they organised, the police “harassed, intimidated and arrested without cause” may of those attending. However, the intervention and testimony of the religious ministers of the CRH swung the sympathies of judge, jurors and news media to the side of those arrested. For the first time, the long-standing allegations of police harassment were believed, and police practice thereafter began to change.
In 1968, Rev Troy Perry founded the Metropolitan Community Church in Los Angeles, with the first of what would become many congregations worldwide.
Opposition, Resistance, and Counter-resistance.
These advances did not come without fierce resistance from the more established views. As the trickle of sympathetic publications swelled, so they were matched by an increase in publications repeating the traditional opposition. As an increasing number of clergy publicly expressed support, or declared themselves to be gay or lesbian, so a number of them suffered professionally for their honesty.
Last week I wrote of John McNeill, forced out of the Jesuit order and out of the priesthood for his honesty and courage. Similar stories applied also to other clergy, Catholic and other. As with McNeill, however, this attempted silencing by the churches as led to the publication of important books by mainstream publishers. For example, Comstock lists Carter Heyward, Troy Perry, Mel White, Rose Mary Denman, Chris Glaser and Antonio Feliz.
The growing visibility of these and other openly gay and lesbian clergy and theologians, together with the encouragement and knowledge now available from their publications, have greatly aided the growth of support networks for LGBT people in a wide range of denominations, large and small. Advocacy groups have stimulated public debate, to the point that by the 1990’s, (when Comstock was writing) the issue of LGBT inclusion had become the most contentious and most newsworthy issue facing many denominations. In 1992, a survey of delegates prior to the United Methodist General Conference showed that homosexuality was the most frequently cited issue facing the congregation. In 1992, when a local Baptist Church voted to endorse same-sex unions, worshippers at Sunday service were met by television cameras at the church door, looking for responses.
Where We Are Now
If homosexual inclusion was explosive in the 1990’s, it was to become much more so over the next decade, with the rise to prominence of gay marriage as a political issue, and the emotional controversy over the ordination of gay bishops in the Episcopalian Church. These controversies, with the vigorous and outspoken opposition by the religious right, can too easily obscure the remarkable degree of religious support that in fact exists.
Last year, an important survey of US clergy in mainline Protestant denominations (“Mainline Protestant Clergy Views on Theology and Gay and Lesbian Issues”) found strong support for varying measures of protections in civil law, and a majority supported either full marriage or civil unions for same sex couples. Most remarkable of all, almost half were willing to approve full civil marriage provided that there were strong provisions put in place to protect religious groups and institutions who chose in conscience not to host such ceremonies.
Just last week, yet another survey of Catholics, this one from the Marist polling group for the Knights of Columbus (“American Millenials: Generations Apart”), confirmed that a majority of all Catholics, and even more young Catholics, no longer see same gender sexual relationships as morally wrong. (A poll last year by the Pew organization found broadly similar results on gay marriage, and the morality of homosexual relationships).
In the past week, there have been news reports of two quite distinct initiatives by faith based groups to correct the misleading impression that conservative thinking still dominates religious thinking about sexuality. Last week the Religious Institute, launching its goals for 2010, urged progressive faith leaders to be more outspoken on matters of sex and gender. For Valentine’s Day, “Believe Out Loud” launched its own plan, based on the use of social networking platforms, to convince progressive religious leaders that there was room for them to be more outspoken without risk of alienating their congregations, as many of them fear (See the report at “Religious Dispatches“).
With small beginnings in the years after the war, the movement towards equality in Church has clearly come a long way. From a single Christmas Eve service in a gay bar, there are today many thousands of recognised “welcoming” congregations around he world. From a thin trickle of groundbreaking publications in the early days, there are now lengthy bibliographies on “gay and lesbian”, “queer”, and “indecent” theologies, which have taken their place alongside liberation and feminist theology as respected (if specialist and minority) academic sub-disciplines, with books by gay and lesbian authors now well represented in theological libraries.
From the early, hesitant, appeals for the “toleration” or “acceptance” of gay men and lesbians in Church, we now have a handful of gay and lesbian bishops, many more openly gay (and partnered) clergy, and an increasing number of clergy willing to conduct same sex weddings or partnership blessings in church.
The battle is far from won: in those denominations where there has been strong progress, there have been bitter divisions and raw emotions. The Catholic Church and some others have been left far behind, and have scarcely begun to discuss these openly. Progress in the US and Europe has no been matched world- wide: there remains formidable hostility in Africa and the Middle East. There can be little doubt though, that they too will be unable to avoid the issue forever. Sooner or later, they will have to face the facts of history, of scholarly research, and of the absence of consent for their teaching in the “sensus fidelium”.
As we reflect on the enormous task that lies ahead, let us take comfort at how much has been achieved in half a century. The next half century will surely bring a great deal more to celebrate.
Gary David Comstock, “Unrepentant, Self-Affirming, Practicing”
- “Speaking the Truth” on Catholic LGBT Inclusion (queertheology.blogspot.com)
- Queer Inclusion in Church: Evangelicals Ask, “What Would Jesus Do?” (queertheology.blogspot.com)
- The Futility of (Attempted) Church Censorship: Minnesota, Ireland. (queeringthechurch.wordpress.com)