This evening, the “Cutting Edge Consortium” will be hosting a panel discussion on Religion and Homophobia. I will be speaking from a Christian perspective, two others from Islamic and Jewish ones. The chairman will be from the Humanist association. This is the text of the remarks I have prepared. What I actually say will not be quite the same – never work from a memorised text.
Although we are here tonight primarily to speak about religion and homophobia, I will not be saying too much about homophobia as such. Time is short, and my brief was to concentrate instead on sharing with you some of the strategies that I use to counter the pseudo-religious arguments that fuel homophobia. Perhaps there will be time to talk about more public strategies later, in the discussion. Essentially, the key strategy that I use is to test the religious claims against some basic fact-checking: what I think of as “reality based theology”. I will illustrate this by applying some fact checking to the three core arguments used by the Church, those of tradition, nature, and Scripture, and also test one of the destructive conclusions drawn by the Catholic church- that homosexual acts lead one away from God. History and the changing tradition First, I want to take you back 1000 years, to 11th Century France, to meet two friends – Ralph and John – and their friend Phillip. Back then Ralph was the Archbishop of Tours, and John was his young lover, his sexual partner. When there arose a vacancy in the bishopric of Orleans, Bishop Ralph thought, it would be quite useful and pleasant if he could get his boyfriend installed as the new bishop. So he called on Phillip, the king of France, who was happy to help out – young John had also been the king’s boyfriend. In fact, John had rather spread himself around. It was well known that he had been sexually involved with a remarkable number of top Frenchmen. This caused a major scandal, as you would expect – but not for the reasons you might expect. Another bishop, Ivo of Chrtres, objected strongly, and lobbied Urban II (who was an important church reformer), but the opposition failed, the appointment went ahead. But note, please, that although John was renowned for his affairs with prominent men, the opposition was not on the grounds of his sexuality, or even his promiscuity. They seem to have been accepted as routine. The main objection was simply his youth, and fears that this represented a nepotistic appointment which would leave John too easily influenced by his older and more senior friend. Now I want to go back even further, to a somewhat obscure saint of the 4th century, Paulinus of Nola. He was also a bishop, and is remembered for a number of notable achievements. The standard Catholic reference books include among these some fine Latin religious verse. What they don’t tell you, is that his published verse included some which is frankly homoerotic, addressed to his boyfriend, Ausonius. Some of this is included in a modern anthology – the Penguin book of Homosexual Verse. Now, I think it’s pretty extraordinary that a modern book of homosexual poetry should include erotic verse by a canonised Catholic bishop – but he’s not the only one. Another bishop from the same period, Venantius Fortunatus, also has homoerotic verse included in the same collection. I treasure these people, and think of them as friends. They are a great support and comfort to me in my attempts to resist the lies of homophobes who use pseudo religious arguments to justify their bigotry. As I have investigated these arguments, I have found them to be without foundation. In opposition to these religious “arguments”, I attempt to develop and disseminate a “reality- based theology”: by which I mean, simple fact-checking of the claims. As the examples quoted show, Church practice, if not teaching, has most certainly not always been against such relationships. Many more prominent church men and women, saints and martyrs, are known to have had passionate same sex relationships and love affairs. For many centuries, stretching well over half the span of Christian history, there have been liturgical rites for blessing in church same sex unions. In many churches, in England and elsewhere, there are tombs holding same sex couples who have been buried together, in precisely the same manner that conventionally married couples. Although it is true that medieval penitentials condemned homosexual acts, and specified penances for them, these were not severe by the standards of the day. One example decreed two years penance for a monk guilty of sodomy – but three years penance for a priest who went hunting. When the council of London voted to impose harsher penalties for homosexuality, Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury overruled the decision, saying that the offence was mild, and that in any case it was so common, most men were not aware it was an offence. Anselm, please note, is remembered himself for some passionate love letters he wrote to his monastic boyfriends –yet is today known as Saint Anselm. Natural Law, Natural Families. So the argument based on “traditional teaching” simply doesn’t hold water, at least not on the teaching of the first thirteen centuries. What of the argument based on natural law? The original ideas of animal biology that later gave rise to the ideas of “natural law” were simply bizarre. But there remains a persistent modern idea that same sex relationships are “unnatural”, because the only “natural” sex is geared to procreation. Here, the proposition is easily refuted, simply by looking at sexual customs and practice in a range of human and animal societies. When I do this, I am amazed at the sheer diversity of the patterns I have found. In practice, “natural” sex is simply what a particular society is accustomed to. In classical Rome, if you were a male citizen “natural” sex meant penetrating for pleasure just about anybody under your control: your wife or concubines, your slaves, or your freedmen, (but not to allow yourself to be penetrated).and for procreation, your wife. If you were growing up male in one of a range of New Guinea traditional communities, “natural” sex was involved having your first experience of sex with an older boy. In these communities, it was important to accepting male semen, orally or anally, because it was believed that in this way you would be ingesting the essence of manly virtue. Sex with women was considered debilitating – and so was reserved for older men, who had acquired the skill and strength to withstand the harm. In parts of the Moroccan mountains, Muslim boys in a similar fashion were required to accept the semen of older men to ingest spiritual virtues. In one part of Central Africa, childhood sexual exploration was considered simply natural play – and was watched with amusement by the adults. In traditional Chinese society, there has always been high priority placed on the importance of marriage and family. However, as long as this obligation to procreation is fulfilled, it was commonplace for men, especially nobles and scholars, to have parallel sexual relationships with men. Their wives were not bothered by this, and may even have watched their diversions for their own amusement. There’s no need to remind you of the many different forms of “Greek love”, usually with an older man and a youth in a relationship that was part sexual and part educational. Similar patterns of relationship have been widely found elsewhere. Another Greek pattern was that of pairs of military lovers fighting alongside each other in battle. A combination of the two ideas was deeply embedded in the Japanese Samurai, where older and experienced warriors would take on younger lovers, to bed and to train. Native American societies did not just recognise the existence of homosexual attraction as natural, they particularly honoured individuals who had this orientation as spiritually gifted. The same practice applied in many traditional societies in Africa. In the animal kingdom too, same sex activity has been observed and described in hundreds of different species, including the full range of mammals, birds, reptiles, fishes and even insects. For bonobo chimps, it seems that the most common form of intercourse is of genital rubbing between females. Among elephants and greylag geese, some same sex couples form relationships that may endure longer than heterosexual counterparts. Animal same sex couples are even known to adopt and raise young. There are also several species in which individuals change gender, either permanently or temporarily. So, the claim from the Churches that homosexual relationships are “against nature” are also entirely without foundation. Whatever meaning we can place on “natural” sex, it clearly does not preclude relationships involving a single sex. (This does not make the opposite case that same sex activity is “good” – but it also does not exclude it. On sex, nature is morally neutral) Once again, fact-checking against reality leaves the church’s case invalid. Scripture and the Gospels Queer Values. So, on to the most frequently heard argument, that the Bible “clearly condemns” homosexuality, right? Wrong. The Vatican document Homosexualitatis Problema states that it is “undeniable” that Scripture is against it.. Well, there they overstep the mark. Some people may agree that Scripture is opposed, but this is clearly not “undeniable” – many reputable scholars and theologians do indeed deny it. Just consider the Episcopalians and Swedish Lutherans, who have consecrated between them three gay or lesbian bishops, or the ECLA, who have removed their ban on ordaining gay pastors in committed sexual relationships, or the British Quakers who formally asked for approval for blessing civil partnerships in religious premises, or the US Presbyterians and Methodists, who are debating similar measures themselves. None of these would have been conceivable, unless they accepted thatat the very least, the traditional assumption that the bible condemns homosexuality is contestable. The Bible was written in a Mediterranean, and later a Hellenistic culture, in a Roman Empire where sex between men was commonplace. Yet, in over 30 000 verses has only half a dozen that even appear to be admonish homosexuals (and even these are debatable). Against this, there are 362 sexual admonishments for heterosexuals. (That doesn’t mean that God doens’t love heterosexuals. It’s just that they need more supervision – Lynne Lavner). On the other hand there are many biblical passages that are supportive of homoerotic relationships or queer identity. In the Hebrew bible, the longest love stories are those between same sex couples: David and Jonathan, and Ruth and Naomi. You can even make a case that the very first love story is between two males – God and Adam. The prophets Daniel and Nehemiah were probably eunuchs. The Song of Songs may have been written originally between men, and later had pronouns changed. Especially in the Gospels, I find queer values which contradict the religious right arguments based on Biblical “traditional family values”. There is the well known story of the Roman centurion who asked that his “pais” be healed. This is usually translated as “servant”, but in context it is likely that there would have been a sexual relationship. Certainly, those present would have understood that as at least a possibility, but Christ did not hesitate to go to the house. He never married, surrounded himself with single men and women, and encouraged his followers to leave their families behind and follow Him. So, Scripture too does not offer the unambiguous condemnation that the homophobes claim. Of the three main strands in the religious argument, the claims that underlie them are deeply flawed. To conclude, I want to consider one final claim of the church, which is not so much an underlying argument, but a conclusion – which is equally destructive. The Test of Experience The Catholic Church says that homosexual expression is mere gratuitous self- indulgence, when leads one away from God. Once again and characteristically, the statement is made without any substantiation. The evidence that in fact exists, suggests quite the opposite conclusion. Empirical research as well as anecdotal evidence from popular stereotypes shows just how far gay men are more likely than others to be drawn to the caring professions, as nurses, teachers, social workers – and in ministry, both professional clergy and lay ministry. The AIDS pandemic was remarkable for the extensive support networks and outreach services the gay community developed – far in excess, I suspect, than occurred in those countries where it is primarily a heterosexual disease. In my own life, the central irony of my story is that I grew up in a Catholic family and was educated in Catholic schools. I took it for granted that I needed at least to attempt to live within the given rules for sexual conduct, and made that attempt. The result was an early and injudicious marriage, swiftly followed by two young children. As the marriage slowly disintegrated in disastrous fashion, we both drifted away from church observance, and then from any religious belief at all. Later, after the breakdown of the marriage and after I faced my own reality check and came out, I settled down with a male partner – who in time led me back into the church. Operating as a fully out and open gay couple in parish life, I explored more and more deeply Catholic faith and spirituality, particularly in the tradition of Ignatius of Loyola. Since coming to London and participating actively in the Soho Masses, I have gone ever more deeply into Church history and theology. So for me, my experience of living according to invalid Church rules led me slowly away from the faith and the church. Living authentically an honestly in open but conscientious dissent led me back in. The final irony of my experience is that Catholic schooling and practice over half a century in South Africa gave me a deep sense of the social gospel, of fighting for justice, and the importance of setting conscience before human law. Those principles apply to injustice inside the church as to injustice perpetrated by government. So it is , that in setting myself against the evident injustice of church practice and teaching against homoerotic expression, I am simply following through on the faith as it was taught to me.
See also pPrevious posts at QTC:
The Church’s changing tradition
Gay Bishops: How Many?
Catholic Church Ordains Gay Bishop (in 1098)
Saint Paulinus of Nola Saint
Anselm of Canterbury
Secrets & Lies – and uncovering the truth
Homoerotic Christianity: The Medieval Flowering
Some Cross-Dressing Saints and Martyrs
Lest We Forget: the Ashes of Our Martyrs
Natural Law, Natural Families
The Wildlife Rainbow
Queer Bonobos: Sex As Conflict Resolution
Exclusive Heterosexuality Unnatural?
Natural Law and Laysan’s Albatross
Africa’s Male Wives: Spiritual Guides
Africa’s Female Kings and Husbands
Natural Families: Acquiring Manly Virtue
The Real Sin of Sodom
A New Reading of Leviticus
The Man That Lies With Mankind: Leviticus in Context
The Queer Bible: Beyond Family Values
The Gospels Queer Values
The Beloved Disciple
Sex v Relationships in the Gospels
The Gay Centurion
Magisterium and Scripture
Lutherans, Gay Clergy: Shifting Theology
Excluded From God’s People?
The Sin That Cries out to Heaven For Vengeance
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