View from a Gay Person's Pew

by Louie Crew

First appeared in The Witness 66.8 (1983): 16-18.
© 1983 by The Witness.  © 2004 by Louie Crew

         I knew that  Dad might not live for me to see him again as I got off the Greyhound after the 26-hour journey and caught the cab in 105-degree heat to drive to the nursing home.  Mother had died five months earlier after their first 12 days in this place.  The three of us had always been very close.

         Even through his immense pain, Dad rallied again and again to enjoy our reunion.  When I went for the last time, I held his hand to say, "Dad, I know that I have not been the son you wanted, but I love you very, very much."  (Who would ever really choose a son whose very identity as a gay person would put the parent through the scornful hoops our church and society routinely require?--so I reasoned, in my heart of hearts.)

         Dad  took    about three minutes as he insisted on pulling himself up to the rail of his bed.

         "Louie, you are very wrong, my son.  You are the son I wanted!  I love you very much."

         In scores of ways, the church still insists that my heavenly father loves less completely than my biological parent, who died three weeks later.

         Wayne Olson, UCC chaplain to campuses in Indianapolis, recently analyzed every major denomination's statements on homosexuality.  Every one, he reported, manages to say "no" by pretending to say "yes."  Liberal groups such as UCC, the Unitarians, and PECUSA, differ from the more conservative and evangelical mainly in the liberals' relative lack of candor.  Rejection is constant, even where masked.

         Lesbians and gays are but one of many of the sexual challenges to the church.  With very few exceptions indeed, church leaders have retreated from most sexual issues  of our time.  Population escalates out of control,  yet the largest Christian body consciously,  willfully defaults, not urging even those means of control which its theology allows.  Family and nurture in America are on the skids.  Approximately half of all couples divorce, yet the church usually narrows its ministries to families  only as biological units, surely the lowest common denominator.  At best the church neglects, and often it actually condemns the millions who live in nontraditional households.  It shuns many who live alone.

         It is surely no accident that the soaps, those clear measures of the national 8th-grade mentality, stereotype the person with the funny collar as a sexual dummy out of touch with people in our natural settings.  It is no accident that the clergy continue to erode their moral authority when they speak gobbledygook if they speak at all about sexual matters.

         In the Episcopal church, religious word-wizardry is an art form.  In early 1976 several of us who are gay advised   a commission of General Convention to affirm that lesbians and gays are "Children of God" and are "entitled to the full pastoral love and concern of the church."  General convention passed that wording.  I felt a bit silly, as if we had asked the church to ratify Calvary--surely not the right way round, as it is Calvary which must ratify the church.  I was naive.  I did not recognize how little Children of God means to experienced church people, or how perversely the church interprets ministry.

         Now, afterwards, many church people who approved this wording still react   to lesbians and gays as if we are  the scum of our parishes.  An atheist colleague helpfully explains, "Oh, Louie, that's the way the religious always do it.  India recently outlawed naming anyone 'untouchable,'; the religious have no problem. They simply call the same people 'Children of God.'  That way they can treat them in the same old way."

         Call me "scum" if that is the way that you treat me, please.

         Ministry is bleaker magic still.  About four years ago I started rigorously replacing the word organization with the word ministry whenever I referred to our movement.  Ministry properly stresses the religious character of our work in ways that the secular term organization ignores--so I reasoned. "[Ministry] is a buzz word, of course," explains a gay priest friend of mine, "but one which the church understands, so we use it for politic reasons."

        Such reasons are not good enough. We thereby play into some  of the less affirming ways that ministry plays better in most rectories and dioceses.  The patriarchy prepares people to minister without sacrificing in any way their sense of superiority.  Furthermore, ministry lacks the sting, the confrontation implicit in organization.  The Rev. Dr. Anne Garrison stresses most forcefully, "The pastoral approach to the disturbed homosexual is a cop-out in the face of structural and systemic injustice to gays."

         Lesbians and gays soon learn how easy it is for a rector or a bishop to allow us to meet in some ecclesiastical basement.  We then become beholden to the donor, who can ask us to let up on the more substantial demands of the gospel.

         One bishop is now contemplating giving a  sizable sum to group of gay Christians so that they can design and administer a program he wants for the street hustlers in his city.  This same bishop adamantly refuses even to discuss the problems of the gay clergy and seminarians in his diocese.  Certainly the hustlers need ministry, as do heterosexual prostitutes, but heterosexual Christians would rightly protest that ministry to their prostitutes alone does not fulfill the church's minimal obligations to heterosexual Christians.

         We lesbians and gays operate under tremendous pressure to play according to the rules, and the number 1 rule in most places now is that lesbians and gays are clients.  Christ, however, would have us prophets--shakers and movers, tellers of the whole truth.

         Possibly from my own bad lead, INTEGRITY's current stationery now makes no reference to "gay" or "lesbian," but says simply, "an Episcopal ministry," as if we can get some kind of respectability by grabbing a hold on the church's coattails. Respectability and integrity in this case are antonyms.  Any respectability the Episcopal Church has to offer any of its sexual outcasts is won at too great a price if we must forfeit Calvary, scene of God's indiscriminate love for everybody.  We surely cannot afford in 1983 to become the theology that dares not name its name, however comfortable our silence might make some people.

         We need to get on with the very important agenda that no one really wants to talk about.  The church needs to acknowledge and affirm the lesbians and gays who are clergy and seminarians. The church  is silly to acknowledge them only in whispers.  Gays require fresh air, the space to affirm God's full love of them.  Now the church acts as if God somehow made a mistake in designing gays' body chemistry.  Now the church requires lesbians and gays  to lie about who they are if they expect official  space to exercise the ministry to which they are called.

          I am tired of heterosexual bishops who tell me about unnamed other bishops whom they admit to having seen in late-night gay assignations.  When they tell me, they do so as if their gossip is tantamount to affirmation. Gay bishops too need the space in which to be whole, in which to be honest.

         As importantly, we must find ways to affirm all lesbians and gays in their struggle to relate to one another.  Perhaps with heterosexuals and gays alike, the church should go out of the marriage business altogether, in view of the church's failure to have much positive impact on the marriages which it solemnizes with such great pomp.  Maybe we ought to follow Jesus's lead and wish all couples well, even spike their punch as at Cana, but leave the real task of marrying where it properly belongs, to the people themselves.

         Certainly the church is hypocritical in the extreme with regards to gay relationships.  On the one hand, the church condemns us for allegedly not forming stable relationships. On the other, the church strictly forbids us to form such relationships.  The ostrich interests us less for its head than for what it so flagrantly leaves to full view.

         The truth is that many lesbians and gays, in every town in America, in spite  of all kinds of abuse have affirmed one another  in a variety of relationships.  Many, many more lesbians and gays have no access to such evidence, since most good relationships are by nature  fragile.  Many lovers refuse to subject themselves to the hostility which the public readily heaps upon gay couples who declare themselves as such.

         Meanwhile, most clergy remain dismally ignorant about our issues, and most Episcopal seminaries have barely budged, if at all, to address that ignorance. The church routinely ordains ministers and counselors who have not done basic homework regarding at least 5-10 percent of the communities whom they will serve.  Heterosexuals would not for a moment license priests before they had at least survey courses in family problems, yet 80 to 90 percent of seminary graduates would be hard put even to identify D. Sherwin Bailey, John McNeill, or John Boswell, much less to summarize their pioneering scholarship regarding homosexuals and the Christian traditions.

         We have had three important decades of gay Christian scholarship, but to what avail if those in charge don't read it?  Similar pioneering in almost any other theological area would have sent divinity scholars scurrying the darkest corners of libraries for evidence to corroborate or refute new claims.

         Few of our seminaries bother even to take publications by lesbian and gay Christians, and some seminarians would be hard put to name more than one of the dozen or more special gay and lesbian ministries within Christendom.  Very few have bothered to visit such groups.  One seminarian admitted to me recently, "You just can't hope to get ahead in the church if you risk messing around with those known to be 'queer.'"

         It is a severe indictment of the church that good old boys like Mike Douglas, Dick Cavat, David Suskind, and Phil Donohue do more in any one month to confront Christians with the sexual issues of the 20th century than church leaders have done in eight decades.

         The  church is thus a dangerous place for lesbians and gays unless we want to violate our integrity by denying our sexuality.  Too many of us join and become a part of the problem.  Too many assume that the Gospel really is about respectability.  We gays have given tons of stained glass and enough organ pipe to circle the globe at least twice; yet we can't say, "Tell the truth!"  I believe that we are fooling ourselves if we think people will change  without our telling who we are and what we need.  God Herself already knows about our sexual orientation, and She must like it.  She made us.

         Gays and lesbians who go near the established church must be fully grounded in God's prior affirmation of us.  We must go to minister, not to be ministered to. Those of us who need to lick our wounds, need to do so in safer hospices which we must create for ourselves.

         On a very rare occasion, an Anglican prelate, Bishop Valentine, came one Sunday night in 1981 to a cocktail party the local Gay Academic Union gave when I visited the University of Manitoba.  Bishop Valentine was one of only two "certified" straight people at the large gathering.  After the munch circuit, he took me aside:  "Louie," he said, "I understand that you have agreed to speak to a conference of my clergy tomorrow morning.  I have let all know that I will be there too, because I want them to see that I believe this issue is important.  Let me suggest to you some things, based on who will be there.  Mainly there will be three groups:  first, those who already  agree with you but want to know what to do; second, those who will never agree with you,  but need still to minister to the gays within their midst; and finally, those who haven't made up their minds, but still need to stop delaying their ministry."

         That is an overseer, a real bishop speaking.  I can count on my fingers the number of such bishops I know, almost with a hand left over.

         Compare the response of my own bishop and my rector who this past Christmas expressly denied their permission for the Rev. Dr. Anne Garrison, our house guest,  to celebrate the Christ Mass at the dining table of my lover and me.  My priest explained for the two of them that their reason was specifically sexual, not this time that my spouse and I both just happen to have penises.  That was cause earlier for Father's having told me that I should tell my lover that he would not be welcome at the parish with me.  This time the cause was that Dr. Garrison does not have a penis.  Without one, she cannot, these two men feel, image Christ as they can, even though they both wear skirts to cover theirs.

         Gay priest Father Grant Gallup spoke the only sanity we heard for this occasion:  "They [your rector and your bishop] simply cannot have it both ways--they are dogs in the mangers of human nourishment, snapping at the kine of God who would eat, while their own taste is for kennel rations.  You should go right ahead and plan a festive feast of the Incarnation.  Celebrate the Eucharist in a manger at the barn of Kathryn [a mutual friend and local lesbian].  Ask gays and lesbians from all over the central part of Wisconsin to come and take part!  Get the foreign students [themselves the object of much local violence in the past year] to be Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar of a Twelfth Night party, and get an interracial, cross-cultural feminist-gay-lesbian bilingual prayer service going.  Bless the table yourself:  let it be fruitcake and Boone's Farm.  Your rector's appeal to the canons which require his permission is outrageous, since he intends to ignore those canons which empower the ordination of Anne Garrison, and those guidelines of the Convention and the House of Bishops which call for hard work on behalf of gay civil rights.  He must come to the canons with clean hands, and with the scales balanced."

         Would that more priests would thus empower us!

         Lesbians and gays have enormous gifts to give the church specifically as who we are, but I am not anxious for the church to hear of these gifts if the church is not prepared to value them.  Christ warns us not to cast our pearls before swine.

(I probably would have chosen a more politic metaphor.)  Lesbians and gays can teach much about  risking for the sake of the good news that God loves everybody.  Because we have so little to gain from further deception once we declare who we are, lesbians and gays should be able to help enormously as heterosexuals examine their exclusive problems with child-abuse and wife-abuse.   I believe that it is no accident that lesbians and gays have all along gravitated in large numbers into the service professions, as teachers, social workers, psychologists, priests, and other ministers.  Gays and lesbians have much to give to revitalize corporate worship and liturgy.  Our services have the intensity of the catacombs.  We live the paradox that one is happy when persecuted.  Gospel glee has always been the special province of the scandalous, from Mary Magdalen  who washed Jesus's feet, to the dying thief on the next cross, right down to the next older gay male to genuflect--an unending line of outcasts reclaimed.

          Most important, gay males and lesbians can give to the church new models of courage, not those of the church Militant with  Christian soldiers marching as to war, but the model of the town sissy or the town dyke with more strength than anyone else, the strength to risk being oneself.


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