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Queer Justice/Queer Holiness: A Challenge to the Church

by Mary E. Hunt

December 7, 2000 – Opening Evening

Good evening. Many thanks to Jim Ferry, Sara Boyles and the Working group of Gay and Lesbian Issues here at the Church of the Holy Trinity for the kind invitation to join you for this exciting, forward-looking weekend as we celebrate the contribution of gay/lesbian/bisexual and transgender (glbt) people to the  life of the churches, as we strengthen and deepen our networks as glbt people and our supportive friends, and as we move toward the full inclusion of all those who wish to be part of the Anglican Church of Canada . I am delighted to be at this historic church funded by a woman on sacred land.

I am honored to share the platform with Archbishop Richard Holloway. I had the pleasure of lecturing at a glbt gathering at the church conference center at Dunblane in Scotland in 1990 where I met many committed and talented colleagues like Alison Webster, Elaine Willis, Richard Kirker and many others. It was an historic conference that moved the agenda in those circles. I look forward to his remarks as well as to times of dialogue this weekend.

I hope that we will model, as much by what we say as how we say it, my conviction that this issue, like so many in the history of the church, will be settled by the work of the Spirit much more so than by anything we will say. I only hope that we will know this weekend when to pause, sit in silence and let Her speak.

I am delighted to be back in Toronto, a beautiful city in a country that showed these past few weeks that it is able to elect its highest official in a dignified way, without resorting to recounts and court battles. I come as a U.S. citizen aware of the hegemonic presence of my country on this continent, thus humbled by your welcome.

Tonight I will offer a brief general assessment of our conference theme, “Loving Justice: Celebrating Queer Holiness.” Then on Saturday morning I will detail my view in a lecture entitled “Ready or Not, Queer We Come.” And, on Sunday morning I will be delighted to preach here at Holy Trinity a sermon I have titled “That Your Love May Overflow,” taken shamelessly from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. I hope that my remarks taken as a whole, and as well as each segment taken on its own, will convey two basic points:

1. That queer love, like every other love, is from God and as such it is not going away. I consider this the theological articulation of “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”

2. That the struggle for queer justice, indeed the achievement of even a bit of queer holiness, is part of the historic quest for liberation that expresses itself in many ways. It is for my/our generation to accomplish this change as part of a much larger agenda that includes issues of race/class/gender and the many other ways in which people are kept from their full humanity and the planet is in danger as well.

Tonight I would like to begin with a brief autobiographical word so as to situate my remarks. Then I will offer several observations about the current glbt scene with reference to our conference focus on churches, and I will conclude with my sense of where we are going.

I am a white, U.S., Roman Catholic, lesbian feminist theologian. This accounts for a good deal of my perspective so a word about each aspect will give you a sense of why I see things as I do. As a white person in the racist U.S. society I have long lived the privilege that my skin color affords. I have enjoyed the fruits of economic plenty and the benefits of a first-rate education. But I have come to realize that these accrue at an increasingly higher price when skin color and ethnicity, access to hegemonic language and the other privileges I used to take for granted are denied to my sisters and brothers of color, especially to native and immigrant people. So I see how injustice works from the safe side as a white person. My religious beliefs in love and justice lead me to say that it must end and to work accordingly. As a U.S. citizen I have long clutched my blue passport around the world, aware of the power of my country and the price others pay for its imperialism. Likewise, I live in the greater Washington, D.C. area, what some call the “belly of the beast.” I live in Maryland in a middle class neighborhood surrounded by families of all descriptions, including five lesbian families on my block. We live the contradictions of whether to vote for Gore or Nader, whether to urge development or stop it, whether to invest or resist, in short, we struggle with the same globalized issues you face but from within a system that distorts as it disempowers. My citizenship requires resistance from within.

I am a Roman Catholic. That is a statement of fact even if you will, I hope, note some sharp discrepancies between my theological views and those of the Vatican. For example, I am a pro-choice Catholic as well as pro-glbt Catholic lesbian. I am more opposed to the death penalty than some Catholic bishops are, more insistent on economic sharing than others. In all, I remain quite persuaded that sacrament and solidarity are one tried and true route to holiness, not the only one, but the one my ancestors bequeathed to me and for which I feel a deep affinity. To say that I am anything but Catholic would be to lie, and I hope the institutional church would never do that! Rather, I approach this matter as Gloria Steinem did when she turned 50. People looked at her and said, “But you don’t look 50.” She replied “This is what 50 looks like.” So, too, when people say, “You don’t look Catholic.” I reply, “This is what Catholic looks like in the 21 st century.”

I identity as a lesbian, because my primary affective attractions are to women. I neither boast nor apologize for this aspect of my life, now more than twenty-five years after coming out. Rather, I enjoy it! I am less sure about what such categories as glbt mean these days than I was in the early 1970’s when I first cam out, an issue I will touch on Saturday morning. But I am sure that the high cost that my generation of women-loving women has paid ought not to be paid again. I am blessed by a twenty-one year relationship with a magnificent woman, something I consider as much luck as skill, more grace than effort.

My feminist identity is equally compelling, perhaps more so, as it is what has shaped my primary experience of oppression and my deepest efforts at change. As a white woman from a relatively privileged background, I had to experience sexism in the dramatic denial of my potential call to ordination in the Roman Catholic  Church to touch solidly the rock of patriarchy. It was maddening to train alongside my Jesuit classmates, indeed to be praised by some of them for bringing up our class grade point average, and have to stand by while they were ordained. I have long since cherished my Sunday mornings with the New York Times and bagels, and I have long ceased attending a parish based Eucharist in favor of now nearly twenty years of active participation in a women-church base community that meets in the homes of its members.

My feminism is grounded in a conviction that what Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza called “kyriarchy,” or the structures of lordship that place prioritize males over females, whites over blacks, heterosexuals over homosexuals, U.S. citizens over most other people in the known world, that kyriarchy, based in the familiar “lord have mercy” twisted into a power-over model of both church and state is what needs changing. Because churches are so deeply interwoven into the political fabric of society I feel compelled to struggle in them.

Nineteenth century U.S. suffrage leaders such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton realized that only with deep religious changes would social changes occur. I think they were right. Hence, I work as a feminist theologian, understanding theology as the art and science of asking critical questions without end. Theologians invite the insights, stories and reflections of communities. We bring those into conversation with the traditions and sacred texts of our communities. We chronicle how our people seek to live out the values of equality and mutuality, how we strive to become a “discipleship of equals” to use another phrase from Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. Then we communicate our findings only to begin the process anew. Feminist theologians specialize in asking hard questions that put women’s well being and the well being of dependent children at the center of our concern. It is as a feminist theologian that I do queer theology.

I hope that this synopsis of my starting point helps to orient you to my thinking. It is the kind of accountability that, far from being self-indulgent or solipsistic, permits us to weigh and evaluate the positions of a person in direct contradiction to any presumed objectivity. It gives you some clues as to why I approach issues as I do, and invites you to the same kind of self-critical reflection as you develop and change your own positions.

Let me turn then to the matter of the current glbt scene and the churches with reference to our conference theme. As I have noted, I am a Roman Catholic not an Anglican so I will leave to you some of the finer points of your own polity in a show of ecumenical politeness. Heaven knows we’ve got problems of our own!

First a note on language. I use the term “queer” advisedly. It is useful in that it puts to rest by radically renewing the derisive term of old. It is helpful in that it encompasses the range of gay, lesbian, bi, trans and questioning options that are out there, indeed leaves room for more. But I use it advisedly because its  very virtues also mean that it tends to erase the particularity of each experience, which from a feminist perspective is not good news since it is typically women’s experiences that are lost first in the shuffle. So I will be slow to adopt it in that I am slow to chance such erasure yet again.

This year I am a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at Harvard Divinity School. There I am researching the history of the glbt religious movements for a volume in a series that Columbia University Press is publishing on religions in the US (Islam, Catholicism, Judaism etc.). While I am well aware that the Canadian scene is different– for example your local MCC offering marriage licenses is a novel approach–I think there are some parallels that may shed light on your situation. This historical look has helped me to observe three aspects of our movement:

1. The first is obvious but worth noting that in virtually every religious tradition where there have been serious efforts to bring about inclusion and change in the past thirty-five years, we have made nothing but progress. Set backs are numerous, but the general trend toward more and greater acceptance is clear and indisputable. Some could argue that things were so bad we had nowhere to go but up. But I prefer to think of this as proof of the presence of the Spirit, and the best guarantee that we will keep moving in the same direction.

2. My research shows that such progress has been uneven at best. It favors some groups over others according to fairly predictable patterns: gender (gay men more than lesbian women), race (white people over people of color), age (our very young glbt kids lacking community and our elders suffering neglect while the middle rules), economic advantage (poor glbt people remain disenfranchised as poor as well as as glbt). This phenomenon bears an eerie resemblance to the HIV/AIDS pandemic now affecting women even more than men, people of color, especially from some African nations like Zimbabwe and Swaziland looking at 20% infection rates for their 15-49 age cohort, young people whose generation is bearing the burden of our silence and older folks whose sexuality is denied until it is too late for prevention, not to mention people who are poor and HIV+ who simply can’t afford the drug cocktails that may lengthen and improve their lives. My research documents that gay and lesbian people have made strides where bi-sexual people are only beginning to tread. Note Debra Kolodny’s Blessed Bi Spirit, the first anthology on religions and bi people.  Transgender people remain radically disenfranchised, both by the larger society, and, to some degree, within our community. These dynamics, though admittedly generalizations, hold true in church-related movements. They present us with obvious and important challenges for our future work.

3. It is frustrating to work with churches and other religious groups that squander their moral capital by discriminating or ignore their self-professed faith-based obligations to be spiritual homes for all who wish to assent to the conditions of membership. Nevertheless, I am persuaded that we in the religious glbt movement have been and remain a reliable and effective force for change within the larger movement. Our twin advantages in this work are first, what theological ethicist Daniel C. Maguire calls the “renewable moral energy of religion.” Unlike our so-called secular counterparts, we have a history and tradition that can be harnessed anew in the face of ever-unfolding social and personal revelation. We have thousands of years of practice to draw upon, not all of it useful of course, and some of it relevant even if mistaken. But such a treasure makes the inability of some churches to move beyond discrimination simply a disgrace. We have the tools to say so. The other advantage we have is a vocabulary and social expectation that we will act justly. This is not a matter of choice or debate in Christian communities though it is all too often left aside, but an imperative that emerges from the heart of our faith. Of course we choose how we do so, and we debate what it means But that we carry this obligation as part of our participation in the Christian community is not optional. This is what it means to speak of holiness, queer and otherwise, holiness as a fruit of justice. On Saturday I will pick up this theme in my lecture “Ready or Not, Queer We Come.” But let me conclude with two final comments.

First, for all the ink that has spilled over issued of sexual ethics, I think the major change that we have brought about and continue to encourage is a radical expansion of the notion of love. We have moved from a narrow, hetero norm to a view that sees love where it will, that notices love as it grows regardless of the gender of those engaged, and that sees love expand into new family and community constellations that are now as common as the  flowers except to those who don’t stop to notice. This contribution of glbt people and our friends to the world as we know it is nothing to trivialize and indeed something to celebrate. We do that this weekend with gratitude to those who have led the way and with courage to take up the task.

Second, as I read the history of our movements, I see checkered progress with churches like this magnificent Holy Trinity in the vanguard and others, which will remain nameless, bringing up the rear. However, as I look ahead to the challenges we face, I see two major ones: (1) the challenge to equal justice within our movements, and (2) the challenge transgender people bring who are shaking up all of our categories. Even the most progressive among us need to move beyond the binaries of gay/straight, women/men, in/out. I think we are only at the very beginning of what will be a long road toward justice and holiness for anyone as all of this is newly up for debate as successive generations join the struggle.

Some churches will need remedial work to get on the program with gay and lesbian concerns before they can tackle this new material. Others will need to go back to the drawing board and ask critical questions about issues they thought they had already figured out, like what a woman is, how a lesbian is defined, what it means to say “queer.” But all of us who are Christian will reply on the presence of the Spirit and put the survival needs of those who are most marginalized especially our young, poor, racially oppressed women at the center. The Spirit will guide and demand our best efforts.

Mary E. Hunt

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