Progress towards full queer inclusion in church has been remarkable in some Christian denominations, and familiar enough for the US Mainline Protestant churches, and also in the European Lutheran churches. In the former, the chief marker of progress has been the steady dismantling of barriers to ordination and ministry for openly gay or lesbian clergy, even in non-celibate partnerships, as long as these are committed, faithful and publicly accountable, in a manner comparable to conventional marriage. In Scandinavia, the marker is even more dramatic – the expansion of same - sex church weddings (already available in Sweden and Iceland, coming to Denmark this years, and probably to Finland next year).
Progress in other denominations and faith traditions has been less visible, but is also very real. As illustration, I offer three stories I have come across over the past 24 hours, representing three very different contexts.
Remembering Joseph Colombo – openly gay theology professor at a Catholic university.
Tomorrow, February 10th, San Diego University will hold a “memorial” for Joseph Colombo, who passed away on January 2nd this year. An obituary in Vista, the college newspaper, says of him
“He was really one of the leading figures in the department,” Nelson said, “not only in terms of his excellence in teaching and the hours he gave to advising his students, but in terms of thinking about the direction of the department and mentoring young faculty. It’s a huge loss to the department in terms of an elder figure who really was a guiding light for us all.”
Colombo actively served the LGBT community both at USD and throughout San Diego. He served as the chair of the board of directors at the San Diego LGBT Center from 1991-1995 and served as the advisor of PRIDE on campus. He was the first openly gay chair of a theology and religious studies department at a Roman Catholic University in the United States.
“He was a pioneer here in that as an openly gay faculty member, he paved the way for every queer student, every queer faculty member, that we can be out at USD,” theology and religious studies professor Evelyn Kirkley said. “He really was a great mentor, role model and friend.”
There was a time when Catholic church leaders discouraged, or even prohibited, laymen and women from even reading scripture. Those days have long passed, but it is not that long ago that only priests (not even religious sisters) were expected to study formal theology. Nowadays, there are more lay people than clergy studying theology – and many of them have gone on to teach it. A fair proportion of those will be gay, lesbian or trans, just as in the wider community. As they take their places in theology departments, Catholic and other, and contribute to academic research and publication, it is becoming increasingly untenable for the traditional, clerical theologians to simply ignore the queer perspective on their field.
Openly gay chaplain at Evangelical college.
At “Bible – thumping Liberal”, Ron Goetz observes that
“Being out on an EFCU campus (Evangelical/ Fundamentalist College/University) used to be impossible. Even today it is barely tolerated, if is tolerated at all”
but goes on to publish some of the story of Doug Johnson, who was a fellow student with him at Simpson College (now University), a denominational school of the Christian and Missionary Alliance in California. After his time at Simpson, Johnson went on to a mid-Western Baptist seminary, and now works as a hospital chaplain.
Then I went back to a Baptist Seminary in the midwest and started to come out. That is also where I had my first sexual encounter, in the dorm of the Baptist Seminary. Eventually I came to the place of full acceptance, but it was a journey, especially in the institutional church where in the 80′s homosexuality was viewed as anything from some kind of heinous crime against nature to an embarrassment which could screw up one’s chances to fulfill one’s calling as a minister.
Thankfully, that is gradually changing. I am still single, but not because I think of that as more “Christian.” I am single because I haven’t met the right guy yet. I hope it happens someday.
Collectively, Evangelical Christians are known as the major faith group most closely opposed to recognition and acceptance of LGBT relationships or civil rights, but even here, there is change, far more than most people recognize. Research evidence shows that younger evangelicals, especially the millenial generation, have very different concerns to their elders, and a substantial minority do not share their strong opposition to homosexuality and same – sex relationships, or to marriage and family equality. Some are actively promoting lgbt inclusion in their writing (Jay Bakker) or advocacy (Kathy Baldock), and evangelical scholars have produced some good LGBT - supportive books on scripture. Like Doug Johnson, there are more pastors who have found ways to serve openly. There are Baptist counterparts to the Catholic organisations Dignity and Quest: The Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists in the US, and Affirming Baptists in the UK. Some Baptists, as in all other denominations, are actively promoting marriage equality. (In South Carolina, lesbian pastor Nancy Petty at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church is refusing to sign marriage licences for any couples – until she can legally do so for all).
Orthodox Jewish gay wedding
Finally, just in case anyone imagines that progress to inclusion is limited to European and North American Christian groups, it is not. Change has if anything been swifter among Jews, and is beginning to stir also in Islamic groups, and in some African countries. I’m not going to give examples for all of these, but here’s one remarkable example from Orthodox Jewry:
Yasher Koach to chatanim (חתנים or grooms) Yoni Bock and Ron Kaplan!
Standing in matching kittle’s (קיטלנים or traditionally white linen robes that Ashkenazim are known to be buried in after wearing it to their wedding as well as annually on Yom Kippur to signify purity, holiness and new beginnings) and orange kippah’s (כִּפוֹת or platter-shaped head caps worn for respect) the two men stood under the chupah (a symbol of the home that the couple will build together) in Washington D.C. holding hands.
(Presiding at this wedding was Rabbi Steven Greenberg, author of the groundbreaking study of homosexuality in Judaism, “Wrestling with God and Men“).
- English Bishop Backs Gay Marriage: Queer Ferment in the Anglican Church.
- Bringing the “Good News” to Queer Christians: My Vision for Queering the Church.
- At this Nashville church, once-shunned gays fuel growth
- For Full Inclusion in Church, Be “Comfortable in Your Own Skin”
- Christian Repentance for Sin (of Homophobia)
- James Stoll, Unitarian Pioneer of LGBT Inclusion in Church
- Huffpost’s “15 Inspiring LGBT Religious Leaders”. Who’s Not on the List?
- Doug Johnson, Gay Chaplain (Simpson College, ’78) (biblethumpingliberal.com)