At least in English-speaking countries a gay subculture has developed a distinctive form of humor—ironic, sharp, debunking, also self-debunking. Oscar Wilde, who has deservedly become an icon of gay martyrdom, exemplifies this quality. It pertains to the perspective of marginality, of the outsider who yet is inside the society (the German sociologist Georg Simmel has written a classical description of the outsider/insider in his essay “The Stranger”.) This perspective also characterizes Jewish humor, for the same reason. The following joke hinges on an English wordplay that cannot be translated into other languages, but the ironic sensibility can:
At the tip of Lower Manhattan is the terminal of the ferry that sails across the bay to Staten Island. A tourist stops a passing pedestrian: “Could you please show me the way to the ferry boat?” The tourist is a foreigner, who pronounces the first noun to sound like “fairy”. The man he has stopped makes an exaggerated gesture of puzzlement and exclaims: “I didn’t know we had a navy!”
The Telegraph, a leading British newspaper, carried a story on April 15, 2014, with the title “Lesbian couple makes history with the first same-sex church wedding” [in England]. Jan Tipper and Barb Burden had been together for nineteen years, but they did not want to enter into a “civil partnership” (which had been available in the United Kingdom for years, practically equivalent with marriage in its legal effects), because they wanted “to tie the knot before God, and in front of their church, friends and family”. They were married in the Metropolitan Community Church in Bournemouth.
The “historic” nature of the event is due to the fact that Parliament has recently enacted same-sex marriage, part of Prime Minister Cameron’s project to demonstrate that conservatism is cool. The Roman Catholic Church, here as in other countries, vocally opposed the legislation. The Church of England, with its long-standing pragmatism, decided not to fight the new law and to accept it, without enthusiasm, as the law of the land, but to reaffirm its view of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. And Anglican churches will not perform same-sex weddings. So far, so good—marriage-minded gays and lesbians made happy (and, perhaps, more favorably disposed to the Tory party), while the religious freedom of dissenting Christians is protected. But there is a problem: British clergy performing legally binding weddings are acting as “registrars” on behalf of the state, and thus make themselves liable to be sued on grounds of discrimination. Parliament then passed “exemptions” for churches that refuse to perform same-sex weddings. So far, it seems, everyone is happy again. Lesbian couples who want to “tie the knot” in a church simply have to find one that has not asked for an “exemption”, as happened with the couple in the Telegraph story.
Despite the differences in church-state relations, the threat of anti-discrimination suits is not that different in the US and the UK. In both countries the courts are full of cases of alleged discrimination against homosexuals in the provision of services by various providers, not just churches. There is a somewhat depressing quality about this. The movement to protect the human and civil rights of homosexuals began in the 1960s as a long overdue effort to reverse centuries of injustice. Some of the unjust persecution was downright barbaric—as in the case of Oscar Wilde in prison for “sodomy”, forced by a sadistic warden to spend hours on a treadmill. The movement has been successful beyond the wildest dreams of those who started it. Many of its effects have been good. Every movement, if it survives, develops into an organization run by apparatchiks (or several organizations). In this case there is the mythical “LGBT community”, with powerful lobbyists and with lawyers looking for yet another anti-discrimination case (against, for instance, an elderly couple running a bed-and-breakfast and refusing to rent to a same-sex couple the only available room, which is next door to theirs…)
Only now, in following up on the Telegraph story, I discovered that the Bournemouth church in which the historic wedding took place, is part of an international denomination. I should think of a joke with the new punchline: “I didn’t know we had a denomination!” In America, of course, everything becomes a denomination—a voluntary association with a message. What is now called the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCCs) was indeed founded in California (where else) in 1968 and seems to have most of its members in the U.S., but it now consists of 222 congregations in 37 countries (including, I was intrigued to notice, Antarctica). The denomination considers itself part of mainline Protestantism, though it was denied membership in the National Council of Churches and only has observer status in the World Council of Churches. For its theology the denomination simply refers to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds; photos of its clergy show men and women garbed much like Episcopalian priests. But its core is conveyed by the adjectives “inclusive” and “welcoming”, by which it described itself. A special welcome to be included is extended to gays and lesbians—which of course was originally, and probably still is, its raison d’etre. MCCs have been influential in lobbying for same-sex marriage in the U.S., Canada and the UK.
There is a theological problem, though: Historically, one of the “marks of the church” (criteria for whether a group is deemed to be a real church) has been “catholicity”—that is, whether all persons, regardless of background, may belong. Actually, “catholicity” is a synonym of “inclusiveness”. But how can this criterion be met while excluding all who don’t endorse a very specific political agenda? Apparently some MCC members were troubled by this problem. A large MCC, in Dallas of all places, split from the denomination after its failure to attract any liberal Protestant heterosexuals to join. The latter demurred: Why should they join what appeared to be a gay club? It seems that some gay MCC members did not like this perception either: They did not want to go to church in a gay club, no matter where else they were prone to express their sexual orientation. (I wonder whether this particular outreach might have been or be yet more promising in a different venue than Dallas—say, California. If they had wanted to stay in Texas, they might have chosen Austin. There are more refugees there from the Southern Baptist hegemony.)
There have been other cases in Christian history when oppressed or marginalized groups felt constrained to start their own churches, while still maintaining that in principle “catholicity” was required. An important case was that of the Black Church in America. African-Americans were excluded from white churches, and had little alternative but to worship by themselves. I still experienced the South under segregation. Black churches never excluded whites; on the contrary they warmly welcomed whites (not too many) who visited their services. Eastern Orthodox Christians under Muslim rule formed churches that mostly were purely ethnic in their constituency—Greek, Bulgarian, and so on. None of them formally repudiated “catholicity”. Martin Luther King would easily have been perceived as an “ethnarch” by Orthodox Christians living in the Ottoman Empire. An argument for churches specially ministering to homosexuals may well have been plausibly made in America in, say, the 1950s. It is less plausible today. (Except perhaps in Dallas.)
One exotic flower to come out of the MCC environment in the 1990s has been so-called Queer Theology. “Queer” of course is a term of opprobrium used to denigrate homosexuality, so its being used now by some who want to celebrate the latter has an “in-your-face” quality—which is precisely the point. Queer theory, theological or not, is what postmodernists call “transgressive”—shocking those “straights” who can still be shocked. The French used to describe this sort of discourse as “epater les bourgeois”; the problem is that the old bourgeois culture is now rapidly shrinking, in America as well as in France. In any case, Queer Theology is based on the idea of “radical love” or “polyamory sexuality”—in other words, anyone with anyone, in any numbers or combinations, as long as consenting adults are involved. Supposedly this is in tune with the radical nature of the Christian message. A key figure in this outpost of countercultural religion was Marcella Althaus Reid (1952-2009), author of The Queer God. She was born and grew up in Argentina, where she was influenced by Liberation Theology. One of her telling phrases was “the holiness of the gay club”. It may interest you to know that there are courses on Queer Theology in a number of elite Protestant seminaries, including the Harvard Divinity School. Althaus Reid, who died quite young, was in her later years a professor of theology at the University of Edinburgh.
Speaking of Scotland, I will not refrain from citing a well-known saying, best pronounced with a Scottish accent: “The whole world is queer but me and thee. And sometimes you seem a bit queer too”. Come to think of it, this is why I enjoy writing this blog. But let me end on a more serious thought about the current excitement in the churches concerning same-sex marriage: Rome has spoken, and is unlikely to reverse. It is mainly Protestants who are agonizing about this. A modest suggestion: They might benefit from meditating about the implications of the Reformation having reduced the number of sacraments from seven to two—with the result that marriage was no longer considered as a sacrament.