A second coming -out
Part II – from here to eternity
Wilde’s iconic Lady Bracknell disapproved of argument of all kinds on the grounds they were always vulgar and often convincing. She, therefore, would never have approved of admitting religion into polite discourse.
As My life has been lived outside the usual realms of the conventional and respectable. I, therefore, dare to go where Lady Bracknell would never have gone – boldly or otherwise. Most cordially, I invite you to dare to travel with me.
Before reaching the point I’ve reached – the point of no return – it’s impossible not to discuss this second coming-out without considering my first and therefore reviewing the Church’s largely negatively expressed view of human sexuality in general and gay sexuality in particular.
It is now about three years now since I started back going to Church. It took me almost a year to get to Confession. Confession is culturally simplified as the Catholic’s get-out-of-hell-free-card. It’s the place where priests dispense penance with a wrap on the wrist and the penitent, duty done, is let off Scott free and leaves with a clear conscience ready to sin all over again. Confession is also presented as the means of social control through guilt. It cannot be denied both confession and the confessional loom large in the imaginations of Roman Catholics and the secularist imaginings of Roman Catholics.
As it happens the confessional arrived late in history of the church – it is part of St Charles Borromeo’s reforms in Milan in the 1570′s after the closure of the Council of Trent. Borromeo, in addition to being both a papal nephew and a saint, was also responsible for the placing of the tabernacle in the centre of the altar. Thus, two of the most iconic images of Roman Catholicism are relative newcomers to their church interiors – just as the elevations of the bread and the chalice that have come to symbolise Roman Catholic worship did not arrive in the Mass until the twelfth century and fourteenth centuries respectively. We are apt to think traditions are older than they often turn out to be. It’s as true of the ceremonial of monarchy or state as its is of religion’s ceremony.
I digress – coming late to confession and after I had taken communion was not the order in which I should have done things. Indeed the Church takes a stern view of such misconduct. The Church has a long history of taking a stern view of human misconduct. It would much have preferred I started with regular confession before resuming a fitful communion. I accept that I did it the wrong way around. I honestly cannot say why exactly – it is just how it happened. I did not plan it that way. I did not plan any of it in fact.
As I write this I’m quite unsure the unplanned nature of all these things is only too evident. It was and is easier talking to others about being gay than engaging them – and maybe myself – in what I believe and what I believe has happened to me. Yet, outside that formative choice – becoming as it were glad to be gay – this is the most profound experience of my life. I’m inclined to see everything in terms of this change in me – but we’ve not actually yet got to the hard bit – what is the change in me?
It is much more than simply going back to Church. I’m lost for words. Best perhaps just to take the plunge and hope for the best.
Love is a funny business as those who have had the happy misfortune to have been in love will know first hand. Well, this is a bit – or maybe a lot – like I’ve got myself involved with someone of whom I know everyone I know will disapprove. It is how I felt when I was thirteen or fourteen and was first aware I was really gay – almost a dark secret – this is my new dark secret – something I’m avoiding talking about because I don’t want to scare the horses or shock my friends.
St Matthew: For I came to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law..
I always thought this was a bit of an odd thing for Jesus – meek and mild Jesus – to say. Well I now know a sense of its truth. Nothing divides you from those you love like talking about your religious experience. Shutters shut; drawbridges are pulled up and portcullises fall.
People inwardly cringe – when there’s God talk – I know – I did – part of me still does. My best friends talk very little about this to my face. I think they think it’s all very odd but probably on balance, harmless. My family are also politely bemused.
No more delaying tactics, this is my Confessio: I’ve met someone – been fascinated – been drawn by – attracted to – and with whom I’ve gradually fallen more and more in love. Let’s call him by his prophetic name – Emmanuel – God with us. I confess I am in love. Saying this out loud – it’s quite shocking.
Many will say that’s actually what this is really all about – I’m lonely and I need to be loved – what I really need to do is get out more and find someone with whom to fall in love – preferably with a real tangible person – not some facet of my over-active spiritual imagination. They will also say I’m sublimating that very natural desire for such real consummation to an apparently spiritual experience which parodies it and after all a good psychiatrist can sort me out – maybe with some tablets if only to tide me over….until I get a grip…
All I can say is I have seriously considered this myself.
The truth feels to me to be exactly the reverse. This spiritual love is for me the real experience of being loved and valued – the experience I have always sought and never found. This I suppose is why it is difficult for me to talk or write about this and I suppose difficult for others to talk to me about it. It brings tears to my eyes – often – tears of joy. I’ve become an ecstatic…not quite in the class of St John of God or St Theresa of Avila…in fact not even in spiritual kindergarten by comparison….but definitely in the same Mall.
My many gay friends will be horrified because admitting this in the context of the institution where I’ve found it makes me an apologist for that Institution – an institution which many gay people believe thinks of gay people only in terms of their unnatural sexuality; and only then unremittingly negatively. The Church oftentimes affects not to see this. For many more practicing Christians gay activists are the barbarians at the gates. Some in Africa I’m sure would go a deal further and in Uganda they’ve done so. I for one am appalled we’ve prayed so little for a gay brothers and sisters in Christ suffering persecution for their sexuality when we have prayed for those in Sudan. That distinction speaks to a discrimination so deeply rooted that it is blind to homophobia. This becomes my cause now because I am bound by my experience to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.
There’s some very disturbing literature on the general subject of ‘homosexuality’ put out by Christian and Catholic agencies. Reading it, it is not difficult to see why gay men and women are so bitter and resentful and angry. I found this one without any difficulty on the Internet.
It gives a prefect foretaste of the mentality of firmly closed minds. There are some in the Church who genuinely believe they know all there is to know about ‘homosexuality’. They peddle stereotypes which conveniently overlook what gay studies have revealed in the last fifty years – namely that the gay men and gay women have enriched the world in many ways which we are only now beginning to appreciate and celebrate. I might venture further and seek anathema – that God most particularly loves and values what might be termed the ‘complete gay sensibility’ of which sexuality is only one component and, therefore, its partial expression. The gay community was forged in the fires of hatred and of AIDS. It is remarkably nonjudgmental of others despite or perhaps because of “the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely”.
The Victorians gave us the word homosexuality – as if human love might be simply classified. It is the classification which reduces human beings to the sum of their sexual acts not the acts themselves. It is an unscientific word with no authentic biblical use or origin. As they say on certain packages – open with caution. Many prelates in many Church Councils took the same view of the scripture – as Shakespeare has it,
Mark you this, Bassanio, the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
Yet there can be no denying that Christian churches teach and have taught consistently that beyond marriage sexual continence is insufficient, rather true chastity is the ideal, the Christian’s true calling. It may call prettily in theory but to most gay men and women it is not a pleasing summons in practice - indeed it’s not a pleasing summons to any men or to any women. Chastity is out of fashion in our age.
It is also clear that beyond the very early age of the saints - as the early Christians were called in Apostolic times – when many believed God’s Kingdom was imminently about to come – so that once newly converted these Christians even eschewed marriage and sex in all shapes or forms – if we’re honest with the evidence – chastity has never been that fashionable in any human society, even avowedly Christian ones. The notion that this is worse or made markedly different today because of the advent of gay rights or gay civil partnerships or even gay marriage is to play fast with evidence and loose with fact.
The extrinsic value the Church attaches to the state of chastity reflects a reality of it being something all human beings struggle to achieve or even struggle to accept as being normative. It seems outside the natural order of our desires and therefore of our created nature. Yet, outside marriage, the Church solemnly teaches this chastity is the normative state for all men and all women regardless of sexuality. Chastity is a state that’s also much more than the physical abstinence from sex which is its attribute. Even within marriage, as sex is to be both consensual and directed to procreation, chastity continues to reflect a normative part of the expression of conjugal love within marriage. Thus, rape may still occur in marriage and may be as grave a sin as it is outside marriage. Indeed because there is an additional breach of sacramental love and trust, it might be regarded as much more serious. Jesus very specifically answered the Pharisees’ legalism over adultery with his injunction that once adultery is committed in the heart the sin is already committed. A hierarchy of sin is a man made edifice and like the Tower of Babel it ends in confusion. God’s holy love has made us a new creation. John Henry Newman gives the great chorus of Angelicals these words in Dream of Gerontius:
O Wisest love! that flesh and blood
Which did in Adam fail,
Should strive afresh against the foe,
Should strive and should prevail.
And that a higher gift than grace
Should flesh and blood refine,
God’s Presence and His very Self,
And Essence all divine.
O generous love!
Surely, the point is, sin, any sin, is not the last word. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are the guarantee they are not the last word. His plenary forgiveness has left sin to die with death. Any genuine confession of any personal failure accesses the plenty of that absolute grace. One singular sacrifice for all sin in all time has set us all free. His wounded hands reach out to take hold of our wounded hearts. There’s nothing such a love cannot heal. We can abandon ourselves entirely in that bottomless love. It is the love who knows us not only as we are and loves us as we are; it knows us as we are meant to be and reveals that new us to us.
All our lives and life choices all fall short. We none of us are made to measure-up on any level. We do not need to measure up for God. He has made us all equally of perfect value and places us in the kaleidoscope of love commonly called grace. We fit together, one to another and in Him we are finally set perfectly and finally perfectly free to be lovers and beloved. Knowing this as we certainly do, to elevate the single strictures about particular sexual acts above that governing principle enjoined equally on all, is really to do exactly what the Pharisees were doing – and like the Pharisees we my not be seeking to do evil by this but misapplying the code of the law for its spirit reflects the same misplaced reliance on specifics of ‘doing’. The coin, the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath isn’t a clever paradox that means nothing.
Jesus wants for us to freely observe both the letter and spirit but cautions us with the obsession of one, the letter of the law over the other, the spirit of the law. He warns us we are only making another golden calf to worship. It will lead us to the same fall. We must have faith in the power of his sacrifice. Its love can be accessed forever; by all and in all times. It is a matter of trust – we must trust in Him, alone. The Creed states: He will judge the living and the dead. The Church is the custodian of His absolute capacity to forgive. The Church is not entrusted to be judge on his behalf. It is entrusted to determine what is wrong absolutely. It is not to substitute that for His right alone to be judge. The sacrament of reconciliation – confession – penance – requires us to examine our action and inaction, commissions and omissions in good of conscience. What we lack in our endless imperfections His love renews, again and again. Trusting in being loved always makes it possible for us to safely face our limitations. In that trust we grow into something better.
It is in the context of the shared obligation to the tall order of chastity that the predispositions of human sexuality should be examined. They are elements of our shared vocation to love God and to love our neighbor as our self. Many of the explicit biblical prohibitions in detail apply equally to heterosexual couples as to homosexual couples. Buggery is forbidden to all and anal intercourse is as wrong between man and woman and husband and wife as it is wrong between men. The use of male prostitutes or Temple catamites which seems to be at the heart of the matter in St Paul’s epistles is as much about abusive relationships as about performance of specific sexual acts. As money contaminates love so promiscuous sex degrades consent between contracting sexual partners. It is corrosive because it makes less of love by making sex substitute for love. The Church may rightly take a particular strict view on homosexual acts themselves but all of these particulars also sit in their own cultural context. They also sit inside a particular person whom God particularly loves. God’s motives are made explicit to us. He died for all of us; each of us being as valuable Him as the other. To us, in our world, in our place in our worlds, conditioned by its hierarchies of wealth, power and celebrity – such a love is beyond our wildest dreams; beyond comprehension.
It is however really there and it reaches out and pulls towards it. I cannot persuade anyone of the truth of any of this; it is not for me to persuade by argument. I can bear witness to its truth only because I know it and I know it to be true.
Thus, chaste loving relationships between parties of the same sex may well be exclusive, be honoured and honourable. There would be no reason not to bless such a relationship. It is already a blessing. It does not compromise the desirability for chastity. Equally, the Church might easily regard civil partnerships between gay men and gay women as something to be desired in civil society.
Promoting fidelity and sexual exclusivity in all circumstances of all human relationships as normative is a relative good as it is opposed to the greater evil of its opposite. After all civil marriage is already quite distinct from ecclesiastical marriage; its norms are set by a shared developed, legal, political and social context for all in civil society. Civil marriage is permitted to those who have multiple divorces and have had multiple partners. Civil marriage approves that state where the church holds to a different moral standard. Yet, from one perspective cherishing fidelity and exclusivity in all our relationships encoded by love and its sacred trusts, elevates what matters above the utilitarian of the civil. The church can encourage civil marriage in that sense without approving of its model or its application.
All this will led inevitably to a discussion of equality. I want x or y or z because I want to be treated as equal. Render those thing unto Caesar – and in that spirit the civil society makes its laws and those laws must be observed. Personally, I am for equality. I also believe in God and I embrace a world of love posited on theosophical inequity. These surely may paradoxically co-exist for the conditions of our brief existence are themselves paradoxical. And there’s no part of our personal existence more paradoxical than how we regard sex.
I offer no final conclusions and define no limits for what love may be for others. Good fellowship requires of all of us integrity. Our selfish actions may hurt others in a thousand ways we may never see but we may still wish to be sorry for them. Today the fashion is to apologise for this or that….a mechanical gesture we empty of meaning by endless repetition.
Yet, when we honestly bring ourselves to say sorry to those we love and have hurt or upset trivially – we are often rewarded with an easy kiss or smile that makes us feel immeasurably better and bigger hearted than our petty offence made us look. When we would do that for the least of our friends why not for the greatest? It’s never hard to be wrong; it’s never difficult to be right but that always makes it harder to forgive. But for us hardest of all is to admit we are wrong. That’s the unqualified admission that we evade. Yet we know it is the truth.
Without that interior sense of our imperfection how do we love – only as a glutton loves his lunch.
Its heartbreaking to see someone settle for so little love when it’s possible for love to be so much more. Left to our own devices all we devise is this disappointing roundel of passing fancy – amazingly, we’ve not been left to our own devices or for a moment been abandoned to this lesser self of our own devising…that is what I’ve discovered and it’s rather beautiful to share it…like love itself – all good things are better shared.