“Incompatible With Scripture”: Jeffrey John on Sexuality & Sanity

The news that Jeffrey John is  a leading candidate to be the next Anglican bishop has caused some panic to break out on the conservative religious blogosphere: the inappropriately and misleadingly named “Anglican Mainstream” has called for an urgent day of prayer to forestall this impending calamity. Virtue Online has dredged up and posted an address he gave back in 1998 on the theme of homosexuality in the Anglican clergy. I am grateful to David Virtue. No doubt he thinks he has posted it as some kind of “warning”:  I read it as prescient.  In the dozen years since he gave this address, years before he was first named and then asked to withdraw as bishop of Reading, the Anglican church has moved a long way, here and world-wide. But instead of simply reading the address as dated, I see it as a mirror for the present state of play in the Catholic church: exactly the same allegations of clerical and episcopal hypocrisy apply to the Church of Rome. More interesting, is that when I put this alongside the small, hopeful signs I see of an imminent shift in emphasis by Catholic bishops, I wonder if we in the Catholic church will also be able to look back twelve years hence, and to note some useful changes.

But that is speculation. Far more useful at this stage is just to read and enjoy John’s wisdom – and humour. I loved his story of the run-around he was given years before when first applying for ordination. The church authorities had established from medical records that Johns was possible gay, and had referred him for psychiatric evaluation:

So l had to go and be checked by the ACCM psychiatrist. This was the first time I realized that in seeking ordination I was entering a danger zone. I was furious that it had happened. but I duly trotted down to London from Oxford one Saturday morning and arrived at a remarkably dingy practice in Battersea. It was the sort of place one might imagine a back street abortionist to operate in, a tiny surgery with peeling wallpaper lit by one fly-blown naked lightbulb. This apparently was the Church of England’s psychiatric HQ. But the truly remarkable thing was the ACCM psychiatrist, whom at first I took to be a patient, since he was dressed in a leather jacket with studs and chains, leather boots, tight jeans, very long dark hair, and a cerise chiffon scarf. When he introduced himself as the ACM psychiatrist, I began to wonder if this was some sort of entrapment procedure – perhaps I was supposed to respond to the uniform and try to get off with him, whereupon an ACCM official would leap out from behind a curtain and say ‘Aha. Got you red-handed’

That did not happen. We had a cup of tea instead, and a cosy chat about family and feelings. Nothing at all about sexuality, nor the entry on my medical record, which was the reason I was there. After tea he said, since he realized I was more than a little angry about what had happened, that he would write his report on me right away so that l could see it myself and post it to ACCM on my way home. So he did. He wrote, ‘Dear ACCM Secretary, I have examined Mr John and conclude that he is a good deal saner than those who sent him to me. Yours sincerely,…’. I posted it in the box outside. Read the rest of this entry »

Cardinal Schönborn: Two months. No Repudiation, A Portuguese Ally

On April 28th this year, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna dropped some remarks in a news conference that hit made headlines around the world. He called for deep reform of the curia, he criticized a colleague (Cardinal Sodano), and suggested that  it might be time for the Church to moderate its thinking on same sex relationships and on divorce. Most attention fell on the remarks about reform, and the criticism of Sodano, but in the implications for Church teaching, the observations on same sex relationships and divorce were potentially groundbreaking. As my regular readers know, I have been keeping a watching brief on news about Cardinal Schönborn in the expectation of a clear refutation or repudiation by the Vatican or by colleagues, but this still has not happened – at least, not on the sexuality remarks.

On Monday this week, two months to the day after the original news conference, it looked as though things might have changed. The Cardinal had been summonsed to Rome. where he had a lengthy conference with Pope Benedict  and Cardinal Bertone, hardly the most gay-friendly of his colleagues. He emerged with a clear papal reprimand – for his criticism of Sodano.

Then there was today’s meeting between between the pope and his erstwhile protege, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, who has among other things denounced Angelo Sodano, head of the College of Cardinals, called for a reform of the Curia, and suggested that the church take another look at clerical celibacy, divorce, and committed same-sex relationships. Sodano trooped into the meeting at the end with Bertone–on hand to mediate?–and a wacky press release ensued that claimed that 1) Schönborn might have  in unspecified ways spoken out of turn; 2) Sodano didn’t really mean it when he denounced press chattering about priestly sexual abuse on Easter Sunday; and 3) only the pope gets to criticize a cardinal.

((From BeliefNet)

About “homosexual” relationships, not a word. (I have not seen anything on this in any of the reports of the meeting, mainstream or fringe).

Are we to assume then, that respect for homosexual relationships of good “quality” has become acceptable doctrine?

In the meantime, while I have been apprehensively looking out for repudiation from Schönborn’s colleagues, I have instead found  independent support, from a bishop in Portugal.

The Catholic religious right are aflame with indignation at the reported comments of Portuguese Bishop Januario Torgal Ferreira, who heads the ordinariate for the armed forces, over some sane remarks on homosexuality and on “family planning”. The only English language reports I have found are the heavily edited and filtered reports on sites like Catholic Culture and Lifesite News, so I attempted to find the full, original report in Portuguese,  and to read it via Google Translate. The result in a (clumsy) English  translation is  here.

I can’t say the exercise has left me with any of the subtleties of his thinking, but I’m pleased I did so – the full report includes much that was omitted from the edited English reports, and has left me with some idea of the person behind the remarks – a person that strikes me as a breath of fresh air in the Church. Taking all the reports together, I have a sense that this is a man who is simply asking for more flexibility and realism in the church. On gay marriage, he is personally opposed, but also acknowledges that gay relationships are a reality the church should deal with. He asks his colleagues, he says, if they have ever spoken to homosexuals? The Church would surely show a great deal more sensitivity on these matters if only they did so. Although he opposed the legislation which introduced same sex marriage, he thinks the President was right not to veto – because that was the realistic thing to do, avoiding unpleasant public displays of anger and protest, with an inevitable legislative override of any veto.

He also argues for more decentralization in Church governance, and is commendably frank in pointing out that bishops are human, like everyone else – and nobody needs to be scandalized by the thought of him, or any other bishop, going to a beach in swimming trunks, and possible lying next to a woman sunbathing topless.

Overall, the man is clearly that rare creature in the echelons of the Catholic oligarchy – a bishop who is capable of blending into his theology a healthy dose of reality, and I commend him for that.

Combating Bigotry, A Cause for Sainthood: Brooklyn Diocese

At a special church service on Thursday night, Bishop Nicholas A. Di Marzio of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn opened what is known as a “canonical inquiry” into the cause of sainthood for a Brooklyn priest, Msgr. Bernard J. Quinn.

New York Times

The basis of the cause is Msgr Quinn’s proud record of fighting against bigotry,  inside the church as well as outside.

Monsignor Quinn, who died in 1940 at age 52, championed racial equality at a time when discrimination against blacks was ubiquitous in America, even inside the Catholic Church. In the Depression-era heyday of the anti-Semitic, pro-Fascist radio broadcasts of the Rev. Charles E. Coughlin, Monsignor Quinn encountered sharp resistance from some fellow priests when he proposed ministering to Brooklyn’s growing population of blacks, many of them fleeing the Jim Crow South or migrating from the poor Caribbean countries.

When Msgr. John L. Belford, an outspokenly antiblack priest in New York, wrote in 1929 in his church newsletter that “negroes should be excluded from this Roman Catholic church if they become numerous,” Monsignor Quinn took pains during the public controversy that followed to state his strong disagreement.

The bigotry that Msgr Quinn fought against was racial, not sexual – but the principle is the same. Racial discrimination was once commonplace, and was widely “justified” by spurious references from Scripture. Today, overt displays of racial prejudice are taboo, and many Churches like to cast themselves as models of racial justice.   Why can the church not see that the injustice of discrimination in Church is every bit as distasteful when applied to sexual minorities, as to racial groups?

This will change, is already changing. In years to come, we could easily see a repeat of something very like the above announcement, requiring changes to only the name and a very few words:

At a special church service on Thursday night, Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn opened what is known as a “canonical inquiry” into the cause of sainthood for a … priest/sister, Fr John McNeill / Jeannine Gramick/………….(insert your nominee).

Fr John McNeill / Jeannine Gramick/………….(insert your nominee)n championed sexual equality at a time when discrimination against sexual minorities was ubiquitous in America, even inside the Catholic Church. In the  heyday of the heteronormative, homophobic campaigns against marriage equality waged by so many bishops and prominent lay Catholics, Fr John McNeill / Jeannine Gramick/………….(insert your nominee) encountered sharp resistance from some fellow priests when he proposed ministering to the growing population of openly gay and lesbian Catholics, many of them fleeing homophobic violence  or migrating from countries same sex relationships could meet prosecution, or even the death penalty.

Will it happen? not necessarily in those exact words, but in principle, I am sure it will. When will it happen? only time will tell.

Our Stories As “Sacred Texts”.

Our stories, in their simple unadulterated truth, offer the best defence we have against the lies that are the fragile foundation of formal Vatican teaching on same sex relationships. These plain lies are manifold, from the claim that our sinfulness is demonstrated in the story of Sodom (not so),  or the claim that it is “indisputable” that Scripture disapproves (immediately contradicted by the many theologians who have so disputed), or the bland assertion that homosexual “acts” are purely self-indulgent self-gratification. This last assertion, based on absolutely no evidence, is perhaps the most egregious of all.

Even conservative Evangelical theologians, grounded in their own personal experience of how a personal, sexual relationship can lead both partners through mutual self-sacrifice closer to God, have recognised that precisely the same process can work in same sex couples. Vatican bureaucrats, starved in their own lives of this particular path to the divine, fail to recognize it in others.  Yet basic mathematics has a simple remedy: to disprove a proposed universal rule or law, all that is required is a single counter-example.

In my own life, I have already provided that counter example. My own experience was that the attempt to live strictly within Vatican rules on sexual ethics led me to drift away from the church. Living honestly as gay led me back  in.  Of  course, the counter argument could be that the proposition was never intended to be universal, just a general norm: then we need more than a single counter-example. We need a mass of them, all testifying and bearing witness to the error in the teaching.

The Vatican itself, in “Homosexualitatis Problema” urges us to remember the Biblical injunction to “Speak the Truth in Love“, and “The Truth Will Set You Free“. There are both theological and political reasons for telling our stories: there is a clear biblical instruction to do so, and doing so will go a long way to undermine the bland, entirely unjustified assumptions underlying Vatican hostility. Destroy the foundation, and we can pull down the entire edifice. This  Saturday, 12th June, I shall be going in to London for a meeting of the RCC of the LGCM (“Roman Catholic Caucus of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement”), where this precise idea, of telling our stories. is the major theme for the day.

The principle, as I have summarised it above. is one I have long promoted. Duigan McGinley,   in “Acts of Faith, Acts of Love: Gay Catholic Autobiographies As Sacred Texts“, goes one step further. He says that  telling our stories is not merely helpful, it is sacramental. The tales that we tell, he says, deserve to be taken seriously, as sacred texts.

“For too long, gay Catholic lives have been shrouded in the secrecy advanced by official Catholic teaching. For many gay Catholics, the “closet” remains a powerful metaphor for the secrecy and shame which keep many of us to keep our sexual identity hidden. At times, the decision to remain “in the closet” is carefully calculated and deliberate. At other to,es, the closet is forced upon us from outside. Yet it is in this context that gay Catholic must reconcile their sexual and spiritual lives.  Gay Catholic autobiographical acts reveal the delicate interplay between  sexuality, spirituality, and the many other components of identity which make a person unique.These acts of self-disclosure – of confession – stand as revelations of God’s intervention and actions in hay Catholic lives.  I offer an interpretation of Matthew 10:27, on open and fearless confession:

What I say to you in the dark,  tell in the daylight. What you hear in whispers, proclaim from the housetops.

When a gay Catholic takes the risk of narrating his gay identity, transforming what was once secret and publishing it for public dissemination, his public act becomes a “whisper from the housetop”.

So, I say unto you…….

Obey the voice of Scripture, obey the clear command of the Church: tell it like it is, even if (especially if) in this respect, it is not what the ivory tower Vatican moralists want to hear.

Wrestling With God: The Sacrament of Irony

Last week I re-posted an earlier piece on Richard Cleaver’s conception of coming out as wrestling with the divine.  Kevin J Calegan, writing in one of several pieces that made up an NCR cover story on gay and lesbian Catholics for Sep 2 1994, says it’s not just coming out that is wrestling with God, but the full gay experience “wrestles with God in an embrace that calls me to a new identity“.  Here are some extracts:

Recently I had the opportunity to see a performance of Tony Kushner‘s, “Perestroika,” Part 2 of his tour de force, “Angels in America.” In his play, Prior Walter, a 31-year-old man living with AIDS, is visited by an angel who declares him a prophet and tempts him to forgo the suffering ahead and find peace in heaven.


Borrowing the story line from Genesis 32, Prior wrestles with the angel, saying, “I will not let thee go except thou bless me!” The angel refuses, incredulous that Prior still wants to live. “Who demands: More life?/When Death like a Protector/Blinds our eyes, shielding from some tender nerve/More horror than can be borne.”

“Bless me anyway,” Prior replies. “I want more life. I can’t help myself. I’ve lived through such terrible times, and there are people who have lived through much worse, but …. You see them living anyway.”

The metaphor of angel-wrestling has helped me make some sense of my relationship to God, to myself and the world. In the dark of night, I, like both Jacob and Prior, find myself in mortal combat with mysterious figures: angels, demons, viruses.

I just can’t seem to let go.

Finally, after an all-night battle, the combatants release me — not just with a blessing but with a whole new name and identity, a new Israel, “one who strives with God.” I have been in many a wrestling match — political, theological, medical. I have wrestled with God, with God’s ostensible representatives, with sisters and brothers — often in a sweaty, straining, forceful embrace that calls me and those with whom I contend to new identities and new relationships. The fight becomes an act of love.

……..

We who “strive with God” prove those well-meaning but frightened folks wrong every time we jump onto the mat to fight for our rights — our civil rights and the rights of our baptism.

It’s a sad commentary on the state of our church when the courage and willingness to go to the floor on the issues that count, to speak the truth when it hurts, is cause for oppression and contempt (see the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith‘s two recent documents on homosexuality, 1986 and 1992). What continues to amaze me is that God’s powerful grace is so palpable precisely where the hierarchy denies it can be. I call it the “sacrament of irony.”

The Church constantly reminds us of the fundamental importance of truth. Even the CDF under Cardinal Ratzinger concluded “Homosexualitatis Problema” with a reminder to “Speak the Truth in Love”. So indeed there is profound irony that those who control the Church condemn and even penalize gay and lesbian Catholics in their moments of greatest honesty (as with the Canadian altar server, or by withholding communion from Catholics who wear a rainbow sash to declare publicly their orientation, or by driving out priests and religious women who speak honestly about sexuality). Yet, in the same document which preaches the importance of speaking the truth, their own case is based on falsehoods, half-truths, and rhetorical sleight of hand. To counter the lies, it is essential that we take the injunction seriously, “Speaking the Truth in Love”, telling and disseminating our stories as they are, not as the Vatican would like them to be: just as Kevin Calegan has done.

In all those times of wrestling with the tough issues, with church leaders, with each other, with disease, I have been pinned down and squeezed, touched, massaged, embraced, cuddled and, yes, pleasured by a challenging and everloving God. I have been transformed and reconciled. No longer frightened or ashamed, I am learning to confide in God’s love and the love of my fellow wrestlers. And after the match is over, I look forward to walking humbly with my God, even if it is with a limp.

(Read the full reflection)

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Gay Popes, Papal Sodomites

For the month of Gay Pride (in church), it would be great if we could simply celebrate a list of unambiguously gay popes – but we can’t. This is not because they don’t exist (there were undoubtedly several popes whom we know had physical relationships with men), but because of the inadequacies of language, and the weakness of the historical record over something so deeply personal, especially among the clergy. Both of these difficulties are exemplified by Mark Jordan’s use of the phrase, “Papal Sodomites”.  In medieval terms, a “sodomite” was one of utmost abuse, which meant far more than just the modern “homosexual”. It could also include, bestiality, or heresy, or withcraft, and (in England, after the Reformation) “popery”, which is deeply ironic, and hence treason.

So in the years before libel laws and carefully controlled democratic institutions, accusations of “sodomy” were a useful slander for the powerful to throw at their political enemies. Read the rest of this entry »

Gay Popes, Papal Sodomites

For the month of Gay Pride (in church), it would be great if we we could simply celebrate a list of unambiguously gay popes – but we can’t. This is not because they don’t exist (there were undoubtedly several popes whom we know had physical relationships with men), but because of the inadequacies of language, and the weakness of the historical record over something so deeply personal, especially among the clergy. Both of these difficulties are exemplified by Mark Jordan’s use of the phrase, “Papal Sodomites”.  In medieval terms, a “sodomite” was one of utmost abuse, which meant far more than just the modern “homosexual”. It could also include, bestiality, or heresy, or withcraft, and (in England, after the Reformation) “popery”, which is deeply ironic, and hence treason.

So in the years before libel laws and carefully controlled democratic institutions, accusations of “sodomy” were a useful slander for the powerful to throw at their political enemies. Read the rest of this entry »