The Queer Angels of the Lord

During these twelve days of Christmas, you will hear and sing in liturgical celebrations, a great deal about angels.  They’ll still be on many of the Christmas cards adorning your walls or shelves, and perhaps on the Christmas tree in your living rooms, or in a household nativity display. In the preceding weeks of Advent, you will have encountered many more. In any school or parish nativity plays, they feature prominently,  and also in seasonal shop  windows,  in many of the Christmas and Advent carols that endlessly accompany the ringing of the tills - even in some high street festive lights, designed incongruously for getting us into the appropriate (spending) Christmas spirit.  This year, I’ve been doing more – I’ve been thinking about angels, in a way I’ve not done before. The Christmas story begins not with Advent, but nine months before Christmas day, at the Annunciation and the visit of the angel Gabriel, when “the angel of the Lord declared unto Mary….”.

angel-of-the-annunciation-1527.jpg!Blog

The Angel of the Annunciation, Lorenzo Lotto (1527)

Angels as Intermediaries With Heaven

This feast is important for my point here,  conveying accurately the significance of what angels are all about.  The word derives from the Greek αγγελος  (aggelos), “messenger”. That is, the angel is a messenger from the Lord, to humans. In the Abrahamic religions, and also in Zoroastrianism, they are thus seen as intermediaries between heaven and earth. It is precisely this aspect of the angel that is important in the story of the Annunciation, that of a messenger from God, bringing to Mary the news that she is to bear a son, who will be the son of God. Usually, in the Christian telling, the emphasis falls on Mary’s reception of the message, with it’s important assent to God’s will: “fiat“, or  “let it be“. But when I was reflecting on it recently, my thoughts were dwelling not on the reception, or on the message – but on the messenger, the angel – and the many parallels I saw between the role of the angel, and the place of queer people of faith, in the Christian church.

Angels as Genderqueer

For the second connection, consider this: what is the gender of the angels? Many Christians see them as uniquely sexless, but the names of those familiar to us are clearly masculine (Michael, Raphael, Gabriel). The overtly militaristic Archangel Michael in particular, depicted here by Tintoretto in battle with Satan, is invariably thought of as masculine (“Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle”.)

battle-of-the-archangel-michael-and-the-satan.jpg, Tintoretto

Other angelic depictions are decidedly more ambiguous – or even feminine in appearance, with their flowing locks, and robes that resemble women’s dresses. The angel Gabriel, shown in the top image, and those attending the Queen of Heaven (below), would emphatically not be thought of as masculine. If we must classify angels as a group with a single gender tag, it could only be – genderqueer.

Master_of_the_St_Lucy_Legend_-_Mary,_Queen_of_Heaven-_c._1480_-_c._1510_(hi_res)

Angels as the “Strange flesh”  at Sodom

Perhaps the most infamous of the clobber texts used and abused by heteronormative Christians to beat us over the heads, is the idea that Sodom was destroyed for the sin of same – sex behaviour.  This is wrong on two counts – first, the destruction of Sodom for its general wickedness was decided on before  the events described in Genesis 19, which were just the trigger for the final decision. Second, the point of the actual threatened assault on the visitors was that it was an assault, a rape, not anything to do with a loving, consensual sexual relationship. I’ve been over this before – but here’s the point that is relevant here: they were not, in fact, men at all – but angels, in human disguise. Similarly, biblical warning that spring from this story about “lusting after strange flesh” do not refer to same – sex desire – but to the inappropriate desire at Sodom for intercourse with angels (for more on this, see Derrick Sherwin Bailey, in “Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition“).

Queer spirituality

 Outside of the Abrahamic religions, the “people of the book”, there are numerous examples of cultures and religious traditions in which gender and sexual minorities are seen as possessing particular spiritual gifts, uniquely suited to practice as intermediaries between heaven and earth. (See Greenberg, “The Construction of Homosexuality for instance, on this, or Naphy, “Born to Be Gay“)  This is the first parallel between the LGBT faith community, and the angels. Why not in the modern Christian church, too, in our situation as queer/LGBT Christians today?

In fact, this is not as far – fetched as it seems. Many modern writers on spirituality have argued precisely that point – that we do have particular and valuable spiritual insights from which the Church as a whole could learn. See, for example, John McNeill’s books, or Daniel Helminiak’s “Sex and the Sacred“, or James L’Empereur’s “Spiritual Direction & The Gay Person“. There are many more. A few years ago, I was privileged to meet and talk with  the Australian theologian and spiritual director Michael B Kelley, when he visited London to address a conference on spirituality. The subject of his address, and of the academic research he was then engaged in, was exactly this idea that gay men in particular, have unique spiritual experiences and insights from which the wider church can profitably learn.

The same author has written in his book, “Seduced By Grace“, on the important lesson for lesbian and gay Catholics in the well – known story of the Emmaus journey – in which he places the emphasis not on the journey there, but on the return of the disciples to Jerusalem. The conclusion he draws, is that gay and lesbian Catholics often find a need to walk away from the established Church – just as the two disciples did in the story, leaving behind their religious leaders in Jerusalem. But having done so, they may well find a personal encounter with the risen Christ – as the disciples did at Emmaus. Thereafter, just at these two immediately rushed back to Jerusalem to share the good news – Kelly argues  that we too have an obligation to return with confidence to the established church, proclaiming to those we had previously left behind, the authentic truth of the risen Christ and his Gospel message – which is very far removed from much that we receive from the designated “leaders” of the Catholic Church today.

From the time that I first read it, this interpretation has made a deep impression on me, and has coloured much of my present thinking. It is a principle that I have begun to apply in my own life, with increasing involvement in my local parish and diocese, in addition to my activities with Soho Masses and here at the queer church.

In the present ferment around the Soho Masses, I suggest that there is also a lesson here, for our congregation: there can be little doubt that during our time at Warwick Street, and before that at St Anne’s, we have grown and matured as a community, growing in commitment, maturity and self- confidence as LGBT Catholics and allies. This may be seen as our time of self – imposed exile from the mainstream Church, our journey to Emmaus. But now could well be the time when it is appropriate to return, as the Emmaus disciples did with their return to Jerusalem.

One member of our organising team made an important observation about this, in an email message (others have expressed similar sentiments):

 I am personally looking forward to being part of the Farm Street Church. We will no longer be ‘preaching to the choir’ there!

Like queer angels of the Lord, it is time to move beyond preaching to the choir – and start sharing God’s real message of the Gospel openly with the rest of the Church.

 

UPDATE:

If you think this concept of leading the rest of the church is far- fetched, just take a look at this pleasing observation A pleasing observation at the Call to Action facebook page (my emphasis, added) :

Valerie Stroud
Please see the Soho Masses Pastoral Council statement athttp://www.sohomasses.com/
Their strength against all manner of opposition is winning through. Talk just gets you nowhere. There has to be non-violent action.

Our friends in the GLTB community are showing us the way, in my opinion.

Books :

(links to Amazon.co.uk, for British readers)

 

(links to Amazon.com, for US readers)

 

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