Pioneers of Gay & Lesbian Theology: Reversing the Discourse.

Obama’s  officially designated “Pride Month” of June has come and gone, but the season of Pride continues – especially here in the UK, where the major Pride celebrations are in any case held later: in July (London) and August (Brighton). I have no compunction continuing my exploration of pride in church, which was in any case my primary motive in starting here at QTC eighteen months ago. Since then, my concerns have tended to wander, but I now want to return to my primary concern, which I do with a major series,  introducing our notable gay and lesbian theologians

One of the useful developments over the 40 years since Stonewall, has been the emergence of a wide range of writing and scholarship, across many fields, from an explicitly gay, lesbian or trans perspective  – or more generally, a “queer” perspective, or GLBT or GLBTQI , or…. Academics and activists may quibble over terminology, but the bottom line is simple. We no longer have to take all our knowledge straining through a hetero-normative filter.

I still remember the awe, the sense of shock I experienced the first time I saw a range of books displayed which included titles such as “Gay and Lesbian Theology”. The very idea at the time appeared to me welcome, but disorienting. If it was true that “theology” totally disapproved of “homosexuals”, how could it be that there could be “Gay” theology? The simple truth of course is that theology is more than just the official stuff propagated by the Vatican. It is more even, than just the formal, academic material churned out by the professional theologians. At its most basic, “doing theology” is no more than speaking about, and asking questions about, God and God’s place in our lives. This obviously includes consideration of the work that is collectively known as the “Magisterium”, but also a great deal more.

“Formal” (i.e. written by “professionals” ) gay and lesbian theology, queer theology, and even indecent theology has come in many forms, with many emphases and concerns. To guide us through the thicket, I shall begin with a summary of its unfolding by the lesbian Catholic theologian, Elizabeth Stuart, as presented in her book “Gay & Lesbian Theologies: Repetitions With Critical Differences“, which I have been re-reading.  Paradoxically, in spite of her title, Stuart in this book is not promoting but critiquing “gay and lesbian” theology, as she argues that gay and lesbian theology has failed, and needs to give way to queer theology. (Yes, there is a difference). Still, in critiquing the earlier work, she offers a most useful commentary on its historical development and sources, before introducing the newer ideas from queer and indecent theology.

The Pioneers.

It may come as a surprise that books on gay and lesbian theology have been around for over three decades, ever since a trio of titles appeared in the 1970’s. “Loving women/loving men: Gay liberation and the church”, by Bill Johnson and Sally Gearhart was the first (in 1974), later followed by Malcolm Macourt‘s “Towards a Theology of Gay Liberation” (1977) were two anthologies which between them covered a wide range of denominational and professional backgrounds. Johnson was a minister in the United Church of Christ, Gearhart an academic who had been teaching in mostly Lutheran and Methodist colleges, and Marcourt was a sociologist. Additional contributors represented more denominations, including the Anglican and Roman Catholic faiths.

Stuart writes of these books:

Early gay theology such as is represented by the books …above was nothing short of miraculous. What we witness in this theology is a sort of transubstantiation: the taking of a dominant discourse that constructed people with same-sex desire as a species of person, sick, perverse and dangerous, and the transforming of it into something positive. Accepting the designation of themselves as a sub-species, a different type of person because of their sexual desires, these theologians along with other gay libertionists, reversed the discourse claiming that they were therefore in possession of full selfhood, a selfhood that gave them greater authority than the “experts” who had invented them to speak of same-sex desire….Gay people are presented as being victimes of of patriarchy and yet managing to create some sort of a sanctuary within it, living lives and constructing relationships which manifest qualities of freedom, mutuality, reciprocity, and equality – true love- which makes their love in some senses more healthy and more Christ-like than that of heterosxual people.

– Stuart, Gay & Lesbian Theologies

Got that? More healthy, more Christ-like. So much for the Vatican’s claims of “gratuitous self-indulgence”.

In reversing the discourse, they began the process of creating a gay /lesbian theology grounded not in scholastic abstractions, but in the reality of their lives. Rooted in a tradition of liberal theology which “located the point of contact of God and humanity in the human self”, it was crucial for these early pioneers to focus on the gay or lesbian self.

What we therefore encounter in this early gay theology is an ingenious marrying of gay liberation discourse with liberal theology to establish the selfhood of gay people and therefore their right and ability to do theology….Though it is in part a rallying cry for gay people, and especially gay Christians, to “come out”, much of early gay theology is around changing the church.  It is impossible to underestimate the importance and brilliance of gay theology and a testimony to its brilliance is the fact that it has not died.

– Stuart. Gay & Lesbian Theologies

John McNeill

The first full length book by a single author, and the first by a Catholic priest, was John McNeill’s “The Church and the Homosexual (1976)”, which remains the best known and the most influential of the early works. At the time, he was still working within the structure of the priesthood and the Jesuits, and so he did not write as an openly gay man.   Instead he offered a “scholarly, liberal critique” of classical Catholic doctrine. Later, after he had been forced out of the priesthood, he came out openly and followed up the first book with Taking a Chance on God.

McNeill was heavily influenced by the French philosopher  Maurice Blondel, who places strong emphasis on the self as a source of knowledge, and as a subject yearning for fulfilment in the divine. He also draws a strong and clear distinction between mature faith, which is built on experience and leads us to reach out to each other in love, and immature faith, which is based on a simple reliance on external authority.

Like the previously discussed theologians, he also insists on the special virtues of gay and lesbian Christians, especially hospitality and compassion, and a special ability as “gifted celebrants of life”, in which the Protestant work ethic has “failed to stifle the freedom to play.”

Such self-love must embrace the body and sexuality as gifts of God and McNeill believes it is part of the prophetic mission of lesbian and gay people to lead the church back to an embracing of embodiment and the sexual as paths to God and to rediscover the playfulness of sex.

In addition to his writing, McNeill was also a co-founder of Dignity Chicago, and writes about the important place of the gay Christian community in distinguishing between the word of God and what is mere human interpolation of homophobic elements into the Christian tradition.

In his third book, “Freedom, Glorious Freedom“, McNeill explores further the spiritual journey of the lesbian or gay person. He reminds us that historically, gay people have often been natural spiritual leaders, and he urges that as a community we have an obligation to change and heal the church – but to do that we must ourselves achieve a spiritual maturity.

Gay Theology as Healing.

After leaving the formal priesthood of institutional Catholicism, McNeill worked as a psychotherapist, a practice which is evident in much of his writing on spiritual health as psychological health. Another psychotherapist whom he quotes extensively, is John Fortunato, who published “Embracing the Exile ” in 1982. Note, please, the subtitle: “Healing Journeys of Gay Christians”, which signifies the damaging effects of traditional “Christian” responses to homosexuality, and the need for healing that they create.  Part of the healing process he recommends includes a process of grief and “letting go” into exile – ideas which have significantly influenced many later writers also, among them the Catholic priest Craig O’Neill and therapist Kathleen Ritter, who developed a theory of loss as spiritual awakening, which they described in “Coming Out Within: Stages of Spiritual Awakening for Lesbians and Gay Men. Part of this spiritual awakening lies in “demythologising” scripture:

The virgin birth may symbolize the opening up of the spiritual possibilities in the gay or lesbian heart where once there may have existed only sterile fear, bitterness, and closeted shame. The imagery and metaphors  found in the Song of Songs can be applied to the moral, sexual relationship of two men or two lesbians who love each other and can in fact reflect a mystical experience of the Divine.  The ascension of Jesus into heaven can come to symbolise a journey not simply into outer space but into inward space, to the place from which lesbian and gay people find their source, the dynamic consciousness within.

-O’Neill, Ritter: “Coming Out Within”

 

Gay Experience as Sacrament

Instead of the healing importance of coming out and dealing with the gay experience , Chris Glaser focuses on its sacramental value. He is a Presbyterian who was denied ordination on the grounds of orientation, but has since found an alternate ministry writing about gay religion, for example as “Coming out As Sacrament” and several other works.

Glaser suggests that coming out is sacramental because it is related to the nature of the divine and the rhythms f discipleship. The Bible may not mention homosexuality much but it tells of many coming out stories. Adam and Eve came out of the innocence, God calls them out of their shame at their nakedness, Joseph came out as a dreamer, the exodus was a communal coming out of oppression.  Jonathan and David came out of anger, Jesus came out of the family, the Samaritan woman cae out as herself, Paul came out for grace, the fear ful disciples came out of Pentecost empowered. All these acts of coming out involve a letting go of a false reality, a letting go of fear, risk, and loss, but a coming into truth and integrity.

– Stuart. Gay & Lesbian Theologies

Some limitations of lesbian and gay theology

Summing up, Stuart repeats her praise for pioneering achievements of gay liberal theology, but concludes that it has run its course.

Not only did it reverse a discourse of exclusion and construct one of gay wisdom, but, like all good liberal theology, it reminds us that theology is about real people and affects real lives….But gay theology has revealed itself to be bankrupt…..I do not wish to suggest that gay theology has been a mistake, nor do I want to imply that it has been redundant. Rather, I want to suggest that it has proved again and again that it cannot deliver what it has promised.. Like all liberal theology, it is apologetic.  Even while it is addressing the lesbian and gay community.. it is also addressing the wider Christian community.  It has failed to produce universally convincing reasons for the acceptance of lesbians and gay people and their relationships within the church and society as a whole.

Nearly 30 years down the line gay liberal theologians have exhausted its possibilities and can only repeat themselves.. The same arguments that were made in the 1970’s were still being made in the 1990’s , and he same assumptions were being made

Gay theology has built itself on some very precarious foundation. The gay self is not an incontestable truth…For all its brilliant reversals, gay liberal theology is still a “as good as you” theology…Yet the gay self is destined to play theological catch -up with the heterosexual self as long as those very categories of sexual identity go unexamined.

Allied to this, she says, is a too easy acceptance of a single concept of “gay”, without adequately considering the diversity of experience, and especially the differences between gay male and lesbian experience. (Her next two chapters discuss separately the next waves of gay (male) liberation theologians and lesbian (feminist) theologians. But before doing so, she has some closing words warning of the neglect of God in gay liberal theology:

Any theology centred on the self will fall too easily into the trap of identifying god with the self and absorbing the Other into oneself. All too easily the Holy Spirit ceases to be the God of surprises constantly turning the world upside down and forever enlarging our theological horizons, not letting us rest in our complacency, and instead simply becomes the mirror-god reflecting our own image.

Personally, I would go along with some of this critique: I agree that too much of gay/lesbian writing, religious and secular, over simplifies the variety and richness of our experience and desires. I also agree that insofar as it hopes to change the church, energies are being wasted. Structural change will come, but is a long – term, debilitating process if that is the sole measure of progress. Far more important, and a greater concern of mine, is to help individual people of all sexualities to change within themselves, reshaping mindsets and responses to institutional church authority.

(I will have more later on Stuart’s commentary on the later groups of theologians, as well as more detailed discussion of several of the individual writers summarized here.)

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