I wrote some time ago, about a belief that LGBT Christians need to “take back the tradition” in Church history, just as others have begun to “Take Back the Word” in biblical studies (to use the title of a book edited by Robert Goss). The young Fr Joseph Ratzinger wrote about the dangerous “distorting tradiion” against which we must be ever vigilant. It it high time that we correct the distorted tradition.
For LGBT History Month in the UK next February, queer church history will be a major theme. As my contribution, I will be developing an extended series of posts on the subject, which I hope I will also present in audio – visual form, as well as conventional blog posts.
Below the fold is my current outline for this project (to be constantly updated and expanded).
“Take Back the Tradition”
Some Topics in Queer Church History
Pope Benedict XVI was viewed by many LGBT people as “Maledict”, for some of his writing, especially the Hallowe’en letter he wrote when still Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the CDF – the modern successor to the Inquisition.
But there’s another aspect to Benedict of importance to LGBT people, beyond his disordered language on sexuality, and that is his insights into church history – and the lessons we can draw from these LGBT Christians.
As pope, Benedict once had some important words about St joan of Arc. He noted that she was tried, convicted and burned for heresy by the cardinals and theologians of the Church.
(We should remember too, that part of the charges against her was for cross – dressing, and gender non-conformity). However, he continued, centuries later she was rehabilitated and canonized, and now regarded as a saint. The pointed lesson he drew, was that Christian leaders, cardinals, theologians, and others, can be wrong.
This is just one pertinent example of a much bigger problem that he had written about years ago, when still the young theologian plain Father Joseph Ratzinger.
This was that alongside the valuable tradition in church history, there’s a distorting tradition, against which we must always be on our guard. LGBT people have suffered grievously as victims of this distorting tradition.
- There’s a distorting tradition in biblical interpretation, which uses spurious claims that the bible “clearly” condemns homosexuality, resulting in biblical abuse to support prejudice and discrimination.
- There’s a distorting tradition of marriage, which falsely claims that marriage has always been between one man and one woman, for the purposes of procreation.
- There’s a distorting tradition in theology, which abuses Thomas’ Aquinas of natural law to condemn allegedly “unnatural” sex.
- There’s a forgotten tradition of queer people of faith, in which men and women with a same – sex affectional orientation have been airbrushed out of history.
- There’s a forgotten tradition of queer spirituality, and respect for the value of intimate male relationships.
- There’s a forgotten tradition of Christian activism in support of lesbians and gay men (including marriage / life partnerships)
It’s time to take back the tradition.
The distorted tradition in biblical interpretation
For years, it’s been commonly assumed, and vociferously claimed by some, that the bible “clearly” condemns same – sex relationships. This is very far from the truth, as a growing body of work by modern biblical scholars has shown.
The distorted tradition of marriage
Opponents of same – sex marriage or civil unions falsely claim that marriage has always been between one man and one woman, for the purposes of procreation. History and biblical texts both show clearly that this is very far from the truth. For Old Testament Jews, marriage could be polygamous, and certainly not between “one man and one woman”. For St Paul, marriage was a remedy against sin, not for procreation. For the early Christians, virginity within marriage was more highly valued than procreation, and for many centuries thereafter, formal marriage was required only for the wealthy, to preserve inheritance rights, and form dynastic alliances.
On the other hand, same – sex marriage, while always rare, certainly was known in some societies, and even in the Christian church, formal rites existed for blessing same – sex unions, thus creating formal ties of kinship between families.
The distorted tradition on natural law
A corner stone of much of moral theology is the work of Thomas Aquinas, including his teaching on “Natural Law”. In this, he rejects any form of sexual expression which is not between a man and a woman, for the purposes of procreation. This remains central to Catholic sexual doctrines.
However, in preserving Thomas’ conclusions, this ignores his methods, which if applied today, with modern knowledge and understanding from natural and social sciences, would lead to very different conclusions.
The forgotten tradition of queer saints and martyrs, bishops and popes
The modern rejection of “homosexuality” as somehow incompatible with a faithful Christian life, ignores the rich evidence from Church history, of a multitude of men and women honoured by the Church across two thousand years, who show clear evidence of same – sex affectional orientation or gender nonconformity. These include those recognized as saints, by popular acclaim or by canonization, as well as those raised to high ecclesiastical office as abbots and abbesses, bishops and even popes.
The forgotten tradition of queer spirituality .
Some of these have written movingly of the direct spiritual value of intimate same – sex relationships, either in general, or in their own lives. Others, celebrated mystics among them, have used plainly homoerotic language as a metaphor in their spiritual writing.
St John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich
In his keynote address to a conference on queer people in church history, Professor Mark D Jordan reflected on the value of the word, “invert”, which was the usual terminology in the late nineteenth century. That word denoted somewhat more than mere sexual relationships or interests: it was widely claimed that a distinguishing feature of the invert was a greater than usual interest in both aesthetics, and religion. In support of this thought, it is notable that many of the early pioneers of gay activism and consciousness, were also strongly involved in either formal religion, or less formal forms of spirituality, (Edward Carpenter, Daughters of Bilitis).
The forgotten tradition of Christian LGBT activism
Netherlands, New York, UCC, Unitarians