James Alison, Feeding God’s Sheep.

What Is A Gay Priest To Do? is a major and difficult question for a substantial proportion of our Catholic clergy, but one that most lay Catholics seldom even think about – even those of us who are also gay, lesbian or trans. We have our own challenges to face, trying to find a path of authenticity and integrity in balancing our natural sexuality and faithfulness to scripture and church teaching. (The Catechism says we must embrace and integrate our sexuality, but other Church documents and pronounce it disordered, and imply it should be hidden). For priests, this is not simply a matter of authenticity, but one that goes right to the heart of their lives. Coming out carries risks that the rest of us simply do not have to deal with: there will certainly be a reaction, some of it markedly hostile, from parishioners, and possibly harsh response from religious authorities. For clergy, the church is home and family as well as a career and income. To anger one’s direct employer carries the real risk of losing every aspect of one’s material life – and to walk away from secure employment in the Church is to do so without savings or golden handshake, having to make a new start in the world, with nothing to fall back on.

John McNeill has written on his own experience when he chose to leave the Jesuits to continue his important work as a theologian of writing and publishing on gay theology. James Alison is another who faced major insecurity when he chose, as a matter of conscience, to leave his employment as a Dominican theologian in South America. Part of the impetus for that decision came during an interlude in an Ignatian eight day retreat in Santiago, Chile. He went out walking one afternoon in an area that was also a notable gay cruising area. In the presence of the Lord later, he received an important internal message:

Thinking to myself on my return to the Jesuit house where I was staying that such an afternoon walk was scarcely a proper way to be going about my guided retreat, I spent time in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. And at some stage the words “Feed my sheep” came to me not from my own perturbance, but from Another, resounding like a gentle kettle drum in a silence beneath the jangling of a drum-less orchestra. And this of course threw me completely. Gradually, but completely. Since it seemed to suggest that my afternoon walk was not only one of mixed motives, as I would have been happy to admit. But that there was a loving regard for the men on that mound that had no mixed motives, and simply liked them.

James Alison

” Ecclesiology and Indifference: Challenges for gay and lesbian ministry“.

So he left the Dominicans, in spite of all the material uncertainty and insecurity that entailed, and has been feeding God’s sheep, as theologian and pastor independent of church structures and control, ever since. He is currently based in the slums of Sao Paolo, Brazil, where he ministers to the local rent boys, as I learnt from some remarks by his friend Sebastian Moore, in a radio interview. I know nothing more of this work, so add no comment – except that at face value, this is clearly a very firm example of the call to feed God’s sheep.

In parallel with this ministry, he has developed an extraordinary career as an independent theologian, highly regarded as a speaker at gatherings worldwide, to a diverse range of audiences. It is important to remember though, that while his work is an important contribution to gay theology, it is also much more than that. He is always very precise with his words, and is careful to describe himself not as a gay theologian, but as a theologian who writes from a gay perspective. As such, his thinking is important to the Catholic Church as a whole – an excellent example of how the experience of gay and lesbian Catholics can enrich the wider Catholic church. When I attended the launch of one his book “Broken Hearts – a New Creation” last year, I was struck by his publisher’s remark that he is every theologian’s “second favourite” theologian – second, that is, after himself. Note this remark was “every” theologian’s second favourite, not just every gay theologian. The publisher obviously had a vested interest in pushing this claim, but others have also reported on his standing. Here are two quotes form a review of “Broken Hearts”, in the theological journal, “The Furrow”:

James Alison’s theological colleagues in academe and elsewhere have been contending with his ideas before now, of course, and his work is subjected to the usual peer scrutiny, from which he emerges well. He has admirers (Rowan Williams is one) and critics (John Millbanks and Sarah Coakley come to mind), but the admiration is not uncritical, nor has the criticism been unappreciative of the richness and depth of his contribution. I can’t speak for the Catholic systematicians, but have little doubt that the most inveterate natural lawyer among moral theologians must be stimulated to think afresh theologically if immersed for long enough in the springs and streams that Alison causes to flow.

Who is this book intended for? Most of the pieces originated in talks and presentations to groups not formally involved in the study of theology but that hasn’t prevented Alison from challenging the intelligence and imagination of his hearers. The voice here is always that of the teacher – sometimes also the preacher and the prophet – a teacher who is a thorough scholar and a master of his field. Challenging the material may be, but Alison has a gift for explanation, for the vivid phrase and the telling example. That doesn’t mean that this or any of his books is an easy read, but a patient reading will be rewarded, and once can take comfort from the subtitle of the introduction, “Doing theology is a slow business.”

James Alison is a serious theologian, reaching an audience of serious, professional theologians – but he begins by talking to non-specialists, in language that they can understand. This really is so, but please take seriously the subtitle the reviewer refers to – “Doing theology is a slow business”. Read Alison’s books – all of them – but take your time. Do not attempt to read them at a sitting:  savour them instead in small doses, a chapter at a time, then reflect and return to them later.

But don’t limit yourselves to the books. Alison delivers the talks that form the basis of his writing to diverse groups the world over. If you can, attend one. Next month for example, he will be the keynote speaker at the 35th anniversary conference in Birmingham, UK of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.  Or watch and listen on- line. In this Youtube video clip, he is seen talking to an Australian Uniting Church congregation  (and also seen elaborating in a personal interview). This is worth repeated viewing, for the themes that are central to Alison’s theology, and its significance: the hostility of twentieth century thinking was born in a belief that a homoerotic orientation was rooted in either pathology or criminality. Now that we know from science that it is simply a small but “non-pathological” minority variant of the human condition, theology is bound, by its own internal logic, to take this into consideration, and recognise that it is not, after all “disordered” in any sense.  This recognition will then force us to consider deeply what this means for the human flourishing of gay men (and lesbians) inside the Church, and how providing for our flourishing, will in turn lead to greater flourishing for the church as a whole. God, he reminds us in the words that end the clip, has no wrath against gay people.

Or, watch this interview with Susan Raven


Books by James Alison:

Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay

On Being Liked

Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-in

Broken Hearts and New Creations: Intimations of a Great Reversal


Related posts at QTC:

Fr Owen O’Sullivan’s Series on LGBT Inclusion:

  1. ‘Homosexuality is unnatural.’
  2. ‘Why don’t they just keep quiet about it?’
  3. ‘It’s not wrong to be gay, but it is wrong to act gay.’
  4. ‘Homosexuality is objectively disordered.’
  5. What’s wrong with saying “Do your best”?
  6. Our theology of sexual relationships
  7. ‘In the end we will be judged on how we have loved.’
  8. Are homosexuals showing church and society a way forward?
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