Readers of Bondings 2.0 probably know how an ambivalent welcome feels. Last month’s World Meeting of Families in Dublin just magnified our everyday experience in the Church. On one hand a family involved in Dublin’s monthly “All Are Welcome” Mass for LGBT folk and allies was invited to help carry the offering at the closing papal Mass of the WMF; Deacon Ray Dever, father of out bisexual and transgender daughters, assisted at closing Mass of the WMF conference. On the other hand, LGBT Catholic organizations were denied exhibit space even though there was no shortage of space in the exhibit hall. LGBT folk and their allies are welcomed, but not fully welcome: “welcome-ish.”
Earlier this summer Nathan Kennedy, who writes at The Bookish Bear Blog, reflected on why LGBTQ people often have this experience even in “welcoming” churches. Rainbow flags don’t keep most churches from being “overwhelmingly cisgender, heterosexual spaces,” he argues. More inclusive theology is a start, but
“You’re going to have to change the very atmosphere of the church itself. You’re going to need to look at the language, preaching, unspoken yet strictly enforced social norms–practically every aspect of your church’s life–and address how they might exclude LGBTQ+ persons.”
He also reminds us how difficult it is for many LGBTQ folks even to enter a church. For them, church often is a place not of safety but of trauma, thanks to the condemnation they have experienced there. For anyone who has “suffered chronic abuses in religious communities,” thus “any religious setting or language has the potential for causing a triggering event.”
This script is a special case of what Kennedy calls “the pastoral gaze,” defined as “the subtle but constant pressure to be something or someone different” that can pervade church communities. The message is that we accept you as you are, but of course we expect that you’ll gradually shed your old allegiances and behaviors and conform your life to one of a few recognizable scripts.
In that regard, some of Kennedy’s most challenging words have to do with sex. He hints that, elevating celibacy and monogamous marriage, Christian communities are afraid to think honestly about the forms sexual behavior and desire that people both inside and outside the community may find meaningful:
“Even among progressive Christians, the ground of ethical reflection isn’t on the sexual lives and desires people actually have, but on some script of how they should be. Very few churches have the conceptual, pastoral, or theological space necessary to support the non-monogamous, polyamorous, or BDSM aligned relationships, nor to explore the significance of non-platonic, non-romantic relationships.”
He urges churches not to condemn these practices out of hand but to use them as a starting point: “[LGBTQ folk] want and need to integrate our sex lives with our religious lives.” Do we invite and learn from everyone’s prayerful reflections on the connection between their meaningful intimate lives and their faith? Are we brave enough to reflect on our own experience in the same way?
After all, he notes, both LGBTQ and straight, cis people tend to find community and spiritual encounter not by putting their bottoms in seats every Sunday but through “online communities, fandoms, and social movements.” In particular, churches need “to take seriously and be aware of [LGBTQ] vehicles of meaning” and “be fundamentally non-judgmental about them.” Churches can take a few pointers from the ways these spaces function, too.
Finally, he says, theoretical support for LGBTQ folk does not always result in actual inclusion. It’s one thing if a church allows LGBTQ folk to be ordained in theory; it’s another if a church actually calls out LGBTQ folks to key pastoral positions and, further, accepts out LGBTQ pastors with same-sex partners or other family arrangements. We might add, it’s one thing if a parish baptizes the children of same-sex parents, it’s another if it welcomes those parents as religious education teachers or school volunteers.
Kennedy’s post is not for the faint of heart. You may think that some of the experiences and systems of value to which he wants Christians to be open are beyond the Christian pale. To be sure, not every possible relationship, not every possible behavior, is life-giving.
Still, if you’ve made it this far in today’s blog, you’ll have realized that most of Kennedy’s plea to suspend judgment and listen hospitably apply equally well to the way to treat non-LGBTQ folk. They too can be “church-traumatized,” overwhelmed by the “pastoral gaze,” and unsure that they can safely reveal their whole history.
The bottom line of his challenging argument is that Christian churches are often hypocritical and “holier than thou.” But as Pope Francis has said, “a guest” should not be preached at but “listened to.” If being a Christian really is about welcoming people as they really are and listening to them with compassion, our behavior needs to match our words.
It wouldn’t hurt to start with being honest about where we really are, in our own non-conformity and brokenness.
—Cristina Traina, Northwestern University, September 10, 2018