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RGOD2: Jesus, protect us from your followers

The medieval Irish pilgrim once quipped: “Going to Rome is a lot of work and is exhausting, but you will not find your God there unless you take God with you.”

The quest for the perfect family, even in Rome, may be equally hazardous or fruitless.

My RGOD2 column last week intimated the important significance of the Roman Catholic Synod on the Family but nobody could have anticipated the enormous attention that has been given to LGBT issues by the media, over other equally, if not more important issues.

Although Pope Francis encouraged the 190 bishops and 60 additional advisors to have a frank and candid discussion, as they prepared a preliminary document for greater exploration and discussion over the next 12 months, the media defaulted to our “instant news, instant gratification” cycle that removed any sense of confidentiality and ongoing debate such Papal candor requires. The carefully prepared document released on Monday was meant to be a springboard for the church universal to dive into important and contentious issues as we try to swim towards a common shoreline in the next 12 months, rather than liberals or conservatives struggling to win a race by the close of business tomorrow.

Context, context, context!

The preliminary document is really worth everyone reading and taking a collective long and deep breath.

LGBT people cannot de-contextualize our own issues from those of the rest of the community. This document is complex and sensitive, and however flawed and couched in churchy language, it is an attempt to include our issues with the wider issues. Poverty and sexism are integrally connected to LGBT global issues. They are much more important in my list of priorities than say, gay marriage. The media and the Vatican Curia often disagree about these priorities. It is a shame western gay marriage debate takes center stage to more significant issues that the church and society has difficulty facing like LGBT poverty or sexism.

This document includes everything from the issue of gender inequality, domestic violence and polygamy. Sexism is the deep root of homophobia and we will never experience equality and dignity while the majority of women on the planet are seen as the possessions of men and their patriarchal structures. What linkages might we, within the LGBT movement globally, create with the women’s community in the coming year, as this document stimulates discussion and policy changes, towards this greater task?

LGBT and gender equality must be linked more strategically

For example, Maxensia Nakibuuka from Uganda, a leading Catholic lay woman and straight ally, told me last week before she left California that she would like to return to New York to take part in discussions during the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations in March 2015. How do we build a case for global equality for women and LGBT people?

This past week, activists from several countries where LGBT people are still criminalized met with the president of the World Bank to build a case for safeguards for gender and LGBT equality. This is an important strategic and in my framework, a theological priority. St. Paul’s Foundation was invited by the LGBT community in Cameroon last February to offer papers at the African Sexual and Reproductive Rights Conference in Yaoundé beginning to link these two issues. Maxensia and I were well-received by the conference, but it is difficult to ask for LGBT rights in a country like Cameroon where 40% of the population still sell their girl children into sexual abuse by older men. It is called by a number of names including “child brides” or even the practice of female genital mutilation is allowed to exist, without little condemnation from religious bodies in Cameroon including the Roman Catholic Church.

We need to develop a moral framework where all forms of sexual violence is not only outlawed, but repaired. Because it may be culturally and socially acceptable to sell children or lock up LGBT people, the church is failing to give moral leadership to these obvious forms of socially acceptable dysfunctions. The more issues of sexual violence and injustice are worked on in isolation from one another, the longer it will take us to find sexual wholeness as a human race.

How long, Lord? How long?

Two observations may be helpful to how we see the Synod both as an opportunity for deeper dialogue, if the LGBT community will hold back on our own forms of (media driven, instant results) judgment and re-tool that energy into constructive debate and deeper and more strategic collaboration with the gender equality movement.

The first comes from a story told by pioneer LGBT and civil rights activist Canon Malcolm Boyd of Los Angeles. He describes a mainstream church in the Southern part of the USA struggling with the issue of racial equality in the 1960s. This all-white congregation, like the nation, was deeply divided on the issue of racial equality and for several years the congregation debated and struggled with the issue of how they might reflect a more inclusive interpretation of the gospel to welcome everyone, including African-Americans, who were still seen as “the other.” Many of this all-white congregation had little experience or relationship with the African-American community and what experience they had was often expressed in employee/employer terms only.

The congregation polarized, fought, some left and eventually, after years of struggle, the leaders of the congregation came to a place where they agreed to welcome African-Americans to pray and share the good news of the love of God in Jesus. They opened their doors, but to their surprise, no African-Americans joined them. Week after week, month after month, the doors were open, but no-one came. There were other places and forms of community and worship that were fulfilling this important community need, but the deep wounding and damage had been done, and institutions like the congregation Boyd described, were not going to be part of the fabric of the new America that many had worked for. America at prayer is still a divided nation. There is still enormous repairing to do, even though most congregations in this country claim to be inclusive and welcoming of their neighbors.

The Synod on the Family is a welcomed and refreshing change in the often one-sided conversation between church and society, but is it too little and too late? I don’t see hordes of remarried straight couples flocking to church or LGBT people sitting in the pews these days because of a few symbolic gestures from a deeply loving pastoral Pope.

All of our churches continue to give answers to questions that most people I know, are simply not asking. We are simply and largely out of touch. We are becoming irrelevant and yet global religious extremism has become one of the most important forms of political exchange in recent years that we cannot simply disown religious traditions and institutions. The recent report from Maurice Tomlinson, a fearless advocate for LGBT people in Jamaica, shows how important the churches can be to our work, mainly in opposition.

The parliament is struggling with the question about how to be an inclusive state, or is Jamaica, basing its laws on Judeo-Christian values, merely a theocracy? These are bigger questions and often LGBT issues prove to be the litmus test for the majority community to decide on bigger issues. All the more reason for us to be part of the debate, as Maurice and people like Angeline Jackson are doing. They have spent all week in parliament. They understand the difficult work ahead.

Like a mighty tortoise, moves the church of God

The second story is about how my own global church comes to decisions and, as Anglicans, we are very similar to Roman Catholics with the important leadership of senior management (the bishops) taking a significant role in debating church teaching and pastoral practices. Every year (until recently) for the past century, bishops from around the world meet for the Lambeth Conference in England.

The conference provides us with a remarkable photograph on where the management of the church is on a particular issue (not always where the laity and clergy are on an issue) at a particular period in history. The pattern can be seen woven through our handling of contentious issues like birth control, (hotly opposed by the conference at the beginning of the 20th century) women’s ordination, (hotly opposed at the end of the 20th century) and the place of LGBT people in society, which still deeply divides our bishops globally. It takes 30 years for an institution like Anglicanism to first raise an issue on their radar, (often in fear and opposition) then for another 10-20 years, to struggle and study the issue at a local level, but within 30 years, that which we feared and excluded most, has often become part of the management and polity itself. Women bishops sat in several Lambeth Conferences and Gene Robinson, our first openly gay bishop was more present in Lambeth than absent because of the sheer fuss of excluding him from the last conference. The fact that it is raised and discussed at all, signifies the beginnings of its inclusion.

Turning the Queen Mary

The Roman Catholic Church is much, much larger than our 80-million-member Anglican Communion, so we cannot expect these issues of gender and LGBT sexual violence to be changed significantly, even when the final report comes out of the 2015 gathering. Our institutions just cannot function in this way and to expect them to do so is simply a waste of time.

In the meantime, criminalization of LGBT people will continue, the degradation of women will be tacitly or sometimes explicitly endorsed by our major world religions and the difficult process of changing hearts and minds will go on. This is the work we are called to do, but we cannot do in in isolation from many of the issues this closing Synod has named. The more we engage these other issues, the more we will be taken seriously and build allies who are struggling as much as we are to repair a bad theology, limited and contradictory interpretations of holy texts and a broken world.

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RGOD2 looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view and is written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle, Vicar of St. Peter’s, Lithgow in Millbrook, New York. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of San Diego-based St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE. RGOD2 appears on SDGLN and GLBTNN.