Pro-Gay and Ex-Gay – Is There Room for Dialogue?
Part one of a three-part article.
He saw a market and a need for this type of publication, Bruce Joffe says. President of a communications firm and an adjunct professor at George Mason University, Dr. Joffe was always on the lookout for areas in which his company could produce publications. This area seemed to be an obvious one: many publications existed that discussed gay theology, but none to his knowledge looked at the subject from an ecumenical point of view.
Dr. Joffe began soliciting articles: a Baptist minister contributed an article examining Old Testament passages on homosexuality, an Adventist contributed his thoughts on New Testament passages, ministers and lay persons from various denominations wrote about pastoral concerns. In the meantime, Dr. Joffe's advertisement of the journal began to bring responses. Seminaries and theological schools expressed interest in the project. A psychiatrist told Dr. Joffe that one of the biggest obstacles that many of his gay patients had encountered in their path to self-acceptance had been religion; he wanted to subscribe to the journal because he thought it would help some of his patients.
Gay Theological Journal: Homosexual Hermeneutics on Religion and the Scriptures published its first issue in September. "The articles are basically an easy read," says Dr. Joffe. "They're not filled with arcane Greek names." Indeed, like many works of its kind, the journal leans toward a popular approach to the subject. Dr. Joffe was able to gather an impressive editorial advisory board, with representatives from the Presbyterian, Catholic, and Episcopal churches, among many others. It is, as Dr. Joffe had hoped, an ecumenical approach to the subject of gay theology.
Dr. Joffe says that he was surprised at how much the different denominations agreed in their views of homosexuality. One restriction of the publication, though, is glaringly obvious to any reader perusing the journal's table of contents: all of the writers hold a pro-gay view.
AN INSTRUMENT OF GOD'S COMPASSION
Gay theology is a hot subject. The Web directory Yahoo devotes 40 pages to the category "Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals: Religion." Lambda Rising, a gay bookstore in Washington, D.C., reports that its gay spirituality department is one of the bookstore's fastest-moving sections. Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Catholic Handbook, a Web site on gay Catholicism, lists 300 links. Thousands of sites are run by groups wishing to reform Christians' attitudes toward homosexuality.
Other Web sites exist as well. One site is deceptively titled Stonewall Revisited, alluding to the 1969 protest that marked the beginning of the gay civil rights movement; on examination, the site turns out to be filled with information from the so-called ex-gay movement, a federation of Christian ministries that hold to the view that homosexuality is a sin and a psychological illness that can be overcome. Similarly, Christianity and Homosexuality contains resources that present the traditional Christian view on homosexuality.
What is remarkable about these two types of sites is their lack of dialogue with each other. A few of the sites attempt to present the opposition's point of view in a fair manner, but for the most part, the traditionalists and progressives exist in separate worlds, speaking about each other's work only in order to denounce it in a harsh and sometimes virulent manner.
That two such movements should exist – both convinced that they are following the true Gospel, both convinced that the other movement is utterly wrong – is one of the tragedies of modern Christianity. The split began four decades ago, when some Christians began hesitantly to question whether imprisonment was really the best pastoral response to homosexuals. Not until the late 1960s, though, did the chasm open between the movements.
In 1970, the Rev. John J. McNeill of New York was among those questioning whether Christians should take a second look at the question of homosexuality. Drawing upon his work as a Jesuit priest, his Biblical research, his studies of sociology and psychology, and his private experiences as a gay man, Father McNeill began to write a book entitled The Church and the Homosexual.
Little had been written on the subject of gay theology until that time. Father McNeill drew heavily upon the work of Derrick Sherwin Bailey, who in his 1955 book Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition had argued that the sin of Sodom in the Old Testament was not in fact sodomy. The residents of Sodom and Gomorrah, he said, were not punished for attempting homosexual acts; instead, God was angered by the inhospitality shown by the residents. This thesis, which continues to be debated even by pro-gay scholars, became the first significant act of what traditionalists call biblical revisionism.
Father McNeill's book was another step along that road. Looking at the Bible, he could see only passages that referred to immoral homosexual relationships, nowhere, he believed, did the Bible examine the possibility of a homosexual relationship founded upon deep love. Drawing on Scripture, theology, and science, he concluded that morally good homosexual relationships are possible.
Not surprisingly, this thesis brought him into immediate conflict with his superiors. When word of Father McNeill's views reached the Vatican in 1974 by way of two Catholic periodicals, the head of the Jesuits forbade him from speaking, publishing, or teaching about homosexuality until a commission of theologians had examined his teaching. Bureaucratic delays followed, but finally, in 1976, Father McNeill's book received the church's imprimi potest, a license allowing him to publish the work.
The Vatican was not pleased. When its Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith examined the book, the Congregation regarded the book as a popular work rather than a work of scholarship, and it feared that the book would cause harm because Father McNeill advocated a departure from traditional Catholic teachings. The group protested the "scandal" caused by Father McNeill's promotion of the book, saying that it gave false hopes to Catholic homosexuals and caused confusion in the Catholic community. The Congregation laid down the law: Father McNeill was henceforth prohibited from publicly speaking on the subject of homosexuality.
For the next nine years, Father McNeill remained publicly silent, although he continued to minister to homosexuals. Then, in August 1985, he spoke at a convention of Dignity, a gay Catholic organization that Father McNeill had been involved with since its early years. Although his talk was not directly on homosexuality, it caused unease at the Vatican. Once again, Father McNeill received orders: he was to "withdraw from any and all ministry to homosexual persons."
The head of the Jesuits softened the order somewhat; he said that Father McNeill could minister privately to homosexuals, but not publicly. After several months of reflection and prayer, Father McNeill told his superiors, "I believe that God has called me to a ministry of compassion to gay people and I cannot in conscience renounce that ministry. . . . Whatever special gifts God has given me, gifts of understanding, self-acceptance and confidence in God's love and mercy, I believe that God has given them to me so that I can share them with others like myself. I have become an instrument of God's compassion."
The head of the Jesuits tried to persuade him to change his mind, but without success. In November 1986, Father McNeill issued a press release protesting a new statement on homosexuality from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; the Jesuits immediately began the process for expelling Father McNeill from their order.
Today, Father McNeill lives in Pennsylvania; he is retired from his ministry to homosexuals, although he continues to hold retreats. Much has changed since 1970. Hundreds of books have been written on gay theology, among them John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, which won the 1981 American Book Award for History and became the central text in the new gay theology. Father McNeill's first book, now in its fourth edition, continues to be mentioned in bibliographies as a pioneering work in its field.
Father McNeill has not had any new encounters with the Catholic hierarchy – "They're ignoring me, hoping I'll go away," he says – but he remains bitter over the traditionalists' treatment of homosexuals. As an example of what he believes to be the willful blindness of traditionalists, he quotes a passage from one traditionalist work that said in essence, "Many homosexual persons will appear to you as holy, but don't let that fool you."
"Conservatives feel there is no reason for dialogue," he says. "Dialogue presumes that there would be new understanding and truth. . . . In the end, I think that for conservatives the whole issue of homosexuality is a fundamental prejudice."
While Father McNeill was struggling with the issue of homosexuality in New York, Bob Davies was guiltily checking out books on homosexuality from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The more he learned about the gay community, the more he was drawn to act out the desires he had known since he was a child. Only fear held him back.
Fear and guilt had also caused him to stop attending church during his teens, but at the same time he was perusing books on homosexuality, he also began to be drawn back to Christianity. He attended Prairie Bible College in Alberta and developed a strong prayer life and social life. No one knew of his secret desires.
Then came the moment in September 1978 that changed Mr. Davies's life. A speaker at his church testified about the missionary work he had done overseas; Mr. Davies developed an immediate desire to serve God through ministry as well. The trouble was, Mr. Davies knew that the work he was being pulled toward was not a standard ministry. "Are you willing to pay the price?" he heard God say in his heart.
For 24 hours, Mr. Davies barely slept or ate; finally, he records in his memoir, he surrendered himself to God and gave his life over to the work that he felt called to. That was the beginning of Mr. Davies's involvement in the ex-gay ministries.
Today Mr. Davies is executive director of Exodus International, a coalition of ex-gay ministries throughout the world. He has witnessed the growth of Exodus from the late seventies, when a handful of ministries were joined together, until now, when Exodus has 90 ministries in North America alone.
Many people working in the ex-gay ministries formerly led homosexual lives; some, like Mr. Davies, are now married. Mr. Davies is unusual in that he never acted out his homosexual desires, but he sees his background as being of tremendous use to him in his work.
"It's like the AA [Alcoholics Anonymous]." he says from his office in Washington State. "Many of the people leading these ministries struggled with homosexuality in their own lives at one time. . . . I had spent years trying to understand the Scripture in order to understand my own homosexuality. I had years and years of experience that came rushing up to help me help others."
Although he believes that homosexual behavior is sinful, he refuses to ally himself with traditionalists who reject homosexuals. Like many in the ex-gay ministries, he agrees with those first reformers of the fifties who wished to treat homosexuals in a compassionate manner.
"Where we see a lot of Christians make a mistake is that they think in order to take a stand against this behavior, they have to reject the person," he says. "I don't agree with that. I believe that we have to love the person unconditionally while taking a gentle, loving stand against what they're doing."
He is, of course, aware of other Christian ministries that exist: ministries which teach that homosexuality is not inherently sinful. "We don't have a lot of hostility toward the pro-gay ministries," he says. "We realized they were never going to change and we weren't going to change, and we basically exist side by side and each do what we believe that we have to do."
Side by side. It is an odd, comradely image, but it aptly describes the parallel universes in which the ex-gay and pro-gay ministries exist.
BREAKING DOWN STEREOTYPES
The ex-gay ministries came into existence during the early seventies; the pro-gay ministries also came into existence around that time. In 1968, the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches became the first gay denomination. Gradually, denomination-associated groups were organized: Axios (Eastern Orthodox), Honesty (Southern Baptist), Kinship (Seventh-day Adventist), and many more. Other faiths developed gay organizations as well, but the main struggle continued to take place within the Christian church.
And a struggle it was. Chris Purdom first became aware of what homosexuals were facing when he was ordained an elder at Tabernacle United Church in Philadelphia, a congregation affiliated with both the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Amidst a denomination-wide controversy, he and his fellow church members began examining the Presbyterian Church's statements on homosexuality. "We studied, and the more I learned, the more appalled I became," he says in a memoir. "The relationship between this issue and the Sanctuary Movement was very obvious. Here were people being persecuted not by our government, but by our denomination and by Christianity as a whole."
One story particularly affected Mr. Purdom's views: A boy told one of the priests at his school that he was gay; the priests told the other boys, and they beat him up. Whereupon the priest told him, "That's what you get for being gay." After hearing that story, Mr. Purdom plunged into the gay rights movement. As he did so, he became aware of the way in which many people regard Christianity and homosexuality as being opposed to each other.
People in the media, he says, believe the propaganda of traditionalists. He tells the story of a denominational debate in which clergy who spoke against extending health insurance to domestic partners were identified on television by their affiliations, while the one clergywoman who was shown speaking in favor of the measure was identified by the television program as a "lesbian activist." Says Mr. Purdom, "The media characterizes this debate as a case of religious people vs. gays. . . . These stereotypes make [gay] people feel cut off from organized religion."
Mr. Purdom and his wife now coordinate a Web site for the Interfaith Working Group, which seeks to educate the media about religious support for gay rights. Mr. Purdom does not have much to say about the ex-gay ministries; his thoughts are elsewhere. "The problem with the ex-gay movements," he says, "is that they are used by the religious right in a way that they turn a blind eye to. These groups have huge budgets, and they are very effective at making people think that their view is the only one."
REMAINING FAITHFUL TO THE CHURCH
"We're very much a minority viewpoint," says the Rev. John Harvey. "People don't think much of us."
Father Harvey, who lives in New York, is one of the founding fathers of the traditionalist movement that studies homosexuality; he has been working in the field since 1953, when the head of his religious province suggested that he write an article on homosexuality. At that time, he says, Catholic theological work on the subject consisted of "a footnote in the Latin manuals."
When his article appeared in a theological journal in 1955, he received letters from around the world from Jesuits and missionaries, eager for information on the Catholic Church's attitude toward homosexuality. "I wanted to stop writing on the subject after the article," Father Harvey says. "A couple of years later, a Jesuit I greatly esteemed, John Ford, told me, 'You should write more on the subject.'
"I said, 'I don't want to.'
"'Why not?' he asked.
"'I don't want to be called a homosexual priest,' I replied."
Nevertheless, he continued to write on the subject. "It's been something I didn't choose to do," he says. "I began to realize that there was a great need for help here. People started coming to me for counselling from the very start. First I wrote articles from research; then I began writing from my own personal experience in pastoral work."
His pastoral work led to the founding in 1980 of Courage, a gay organization that is officially recognized by the Catholic Church. Like the Protestant ex-gay ministries, Courage works on the premise that homosexual behavior is sinful. In other respects, though, the Catholic and Protestant ministries differ.
Strictly speaking, Courage is not an ex-gay ministry; like some other traditionalist groups that work in this area, Courage does not insist that all homosexuals adopt a heterosexual lifestyle. Indeed, in his early years, Father Harvey did not believe that homosexuals could become heterosexual, but he has modified his views as a result of his reading. He describes his present beliefs as "a cautious, middle-of-the-road position," acknowledging that not all homosexuals may be able to rid themselves of their desires. Courage offers assistance to homosexuals who wish to change, and support to homosexuals who simply want to remain chaste.
In Father Harvey's eyes, a more serious difference between the Catholic and Protestant ministries are their approaches toward rehabilitation. Like the Protestant ministries, Courage attempts to improve the entire spiritual life of a person rather than focus simply on the person's sexuality. Both Protestants and Catholics use prayer and Bible study to achieve their ends, but Courage adds distinctively Catholic approaches to its work. "In towns where there is no Courage chapter, we refer people to Exodus," Father Harvey says. "But the Protestants have very little understanding of the sacramental life, and they have no concept of the blessed Mother [the Virgin Mary] taking part in one's life."
Nor is Father Harvey impressed by the quality of most traditionalist scholarship. Scholarship, in fact, has been the weak point in the traditionalists' battle against progressives; the traditionalist movement has not yet produced a John Boswell, and ex-gay ministries usually support their arguments through popular works such as a recent book by Exodus member Joe Dallas, A Strong Delusion: Confronting the "Gay Christian" Movement. Such books are often criticized by progressives as exercises in proof-texting (argument by means of isolated biblical passages), and Father Harvey sees such an approach as a serious tactical and spiritual error.
"I think we're making a mistake if we try to show homosexuality is wrong simply by quoting biblical texts," he says. "The trouble is that the revisionists write off these passages against homosexuality as cultic superstitions of the day. The best argument from Scripture is the teaching of Christ in the New Testament, where he teaches what marriage should be. If you accept the teaching of marriage in the New Testament and in church documents, then the inescapable conclusion is that homosexuality is immoral."
Over the years Father Harvey has debated pro-gay scholars on many occasions. "My contact with the opposition has been civilized, but it was always clear that we were moving in very different directions," he says. "My job is to try to reflect as faithfully as I can the teaching of the Catholic Church from Holy Scripture and divine tradition. I'm simply trying to enunciate the church's position. The pastoral program flows naturally from the dogmatic teaching of the church on faith and morals."
Is there any hope, then, that progressives will be able to find common ground for discussion with traditionalists? Father Harvey has a simple answer to this: "Only on condition that they agree that homosexuality is immoral."
"My entire life has been a gradual descent into hell."
This is Bruce Robinson's wry summary of the religious developments in his life. His family was Baptist, but changed to the United Church of Canada when he was young; probably as a result, he was never baptized. At age 16, he became a Unitarian, and has remained one, though he attends church only on occasion. He considers himself a Humanist. Upon retiring from electrical engineering, he began looking for a new project to do. The project he finally undertook – with the help of another Unitarian Universalist, an unaffiliated Christian, and a Wiccan – was to start a Web site promoting religious freedom and tolerance.
The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, as they call themselves, address such issues as cults, religious discrimination, and school prayer. Mr. Robinson says that the group is driven by anger – anger at the persecution that certain minority groups must endure. "I'm both blessed and cursed by a very logical mind," he says. "I'm appalled by the idea of setting certain groups apart and considering them subhuman. This idea seems to me so illogical that it infuriates me.
"I think we're blessed at the moment with more religious [disputes] than at any other time in the past 500 years," he says with a laugh. "It's an exciting time to live in. . . . In North America, we've been trying to implement the idea of equal liberty and justice for all. I look upon it as a continuous process. The Southern Baptist Convention recently apologized to African Americans; I expect them to do the same to the gays some day, but not within my lifetime."
Indeed, one of the site's most popular sections is the page on homosexuality and bisexuality, which in turn leads to pages with titles such as "'Healing' Homosexuality" and "Attacks on Gay/Lesbian Religious Institutions." Mr. Robinson (who, like the other members of the group, is heterosexual) acknowledges that some traditionalists support human rights for homosexuals, and that many believe in loving the sinner while hating the sin. But for Mr. Robinson, the issue comes down to a single question: "Who will we define as a full human being?"
There are really two forms of Christianity, he says: the church of love (liberal) and the church of the law (conservative). "If you look their beliefs, they are hopelessly different. They tend to act as two solitudes – they have their own magazines, their own publishing houses, their own churches. . . . These are not free times for theologians of the conservative wing. A lot of their freedom of speech is abridged. Even if they became convinced personally [that homosexuality wasn't a sin], they wouldn't translate it into their work."
Because of this, he is pessimistic about any imminent hope for dialogue between the two movements. "I think we're stuck," he says. "It's very much a case of everyone working within their own belief system."
Attempts have been made, of course, to establish a middle ground: some traditionalists argue that homosexuality is essentially sinful, but that homosexuals who cannot lead a chaste life should be encouraged to form monogamous relationships. This view receives attacks from both sides. A gay man wrote to protest this view after it was presented in "Gays – No Easy Answer," a sermon by Baptist minister C. David Hess.
"If homosexual love is a sin – which I define as something which separates us from God and God's will for us as individuals – then it should be purged from our lives," the correspondent argued. "If it is holy – that is, if it can bring us closer to God and God's will – then it should be embraced. Why – how – could a minister advise his flock to sin 'if perfection doesn't work out'?"
It seems likely, then, that the pro-gay and ex-gay movements will continue to compete for the souls of gay men and women. Mr. Robinson's pessimism about the possibility of dialogue appears to be shared by most people involved in these movements. The more optimistic individuals speak of respecting each other's good intentions; others talk in terms of warfare and destruction. In this battle, now nearly three decades old, there appears to many to be no hope of a truce.
"It is the subject that is tearing the churches apart," says Philip W. Turner III, dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. A traditionalist Episcopal scholar, he delivered a speech in 1994 about the groundwork needed for a civilized discussion, but he believes that since then the chasm has widened between the traditionalists and the progressives. "You just have warring camps on both sides," he says. "It's a very uncivil conversation. I think the subject has become not discussable."
Perhaps so. But during the past few years, a strange turn of events has taken place on certain battlegrounds.
Related articles and links are listed in part three of this article.
© 1997 Heather Elizabeth