It is not often that the works of C. S. Lewis and Tony Kushner resonate with the same group of people.
Such was the case, however, at the controversial and much-anticipated Revoice Conference held at the end of July. The conference drew nearly 500 Christians who came together in an ecumenical gathering “to support, encourage, and empower gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.”
The conference could mark a turning point in conversations on L.G.B.T. issues within the broader Christian Church. Eve Tushnet, a keynote speaker and author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting my Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, said in an email after the conference: “When I became Catholic, I didn’t even know of any other gay people who were trying to live in harmony with church teaching. To be in a crowd of hundreds of us was amazing.”
The recent Revoice conference was unique in its approach to L.G.B.T. issues within the Christian community.
As Ms. Tushnet indicates, the purpose of the conference was not to lobby for a change in Catholic teaching.Rather, as Johanna Finegana exclaimed in a pre-conference event, “We declare that something is more valuable than the kind of sex and romantic love we naturally long for. We declare that genuine Christianity should change and shape your whole life.”
The conference was unique in its approach to L.G.B.T. issues within the Christian community. Conversations provided a bridge by both assuming traditional teachings on sexuality and affirming the dignity and unique experiences of L.G.B.T. people. (At one point, St. Augustine and Audre Lorde were cited in tandem on Christian approaches to sexuality.)
Wesley Hill, author of Spiritual Friendship and professor of Biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry, captured this dynamic when he spoke about the parable of the woman at the well. Recalling his own experiences of shame as a gay man, he noted, “Jesus heals this woman’s shame, but he does not do it by rewriting the rules on morality and adultery.”
Participants challenged cultures within the church that breed suspicion, repression and shame for L.G.B.T. individuals.
The conference also provided a platform to learn from other openly gay individuals. For Ms. Tushnet, “The most significant and unique aspect of Revoice was that it gathered several hundred L.G.B.T. or same-sex attracted people, who accept a fairly difficult and countercultural path of obedience, and let us loose to pray together and learn from one another.”
The conversation swims against not only the secular culture, which affirms same-sex marriage, but also challenges cultures within the church that breed suspicion, repression and shame for L.G.B.T. individuals.
Multiple speakers remarked on the maligning of teachers, pastors and writers for coming out even when they promoted the church’s teachings on celibacy. They noted that conversations within the Christian community on homosexuality come almost exclusively in the context of sin and condemnation while there is more that animates gay people’s lives than struggle to avoid sexual sin. As Mr. Hill noted, “Same-sex love and gay identity is not reducible to the sin God forbids.”
Many at the conference see the Christian community polarized between two camps: one that affirms queer culture and rejects church teaching on sexuality, and another that affirms the church’s teaching and rejects all of queer culture. Attendees are seeking a middle ground.
Many at the conference see the Christian community polarized between two camps. Attendees are seeking a middle ground.
Speaker Grant Hartley said, “The church has failed to view queer culture missiologically…. Christian engagement with it should be one of critical enjoyment and appropriate wariness.” Mr. Hartley explained, “Rather than combing through and analyzing which parts are to be rejected, redeemed or received with joy, Christians have often discarded the virtues of queer culture along with the vices, leaving culturally connected Christian sexual minorities torn between two cultures, two histories and two communities.”
Mr. Hartley noted that some queer literature and poetry, as well as the L.G.B.T. community’s experiences of marginalization and “chosen family,” can all find resonance within the Christian tradition.
Jack Bates, in a talk entitled “Coming Out in the Shadow of the Cross: Queer Visibility as Redemptive Suffering,” lamented the experience of L.G.B.T. Christians who lose jobs, friends, family, credibility and church support after coming out.
“Queer Christians are called to stand in the place of Job,” he said. “In the midst of our suffering, God still invites us to respond like Job: Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
This response was on display at Revoice as hundreds of Catholics, Evangelicals and Mainline Protestants gathered twice daily for praise and worship and spoken prayer. “I was wiping away tears as we were singing together in praise of God,” Ms. Tushnet recalled. “I knew how many people in that church had spent their lives in crowds of people praising Him, never knowing any other gay people who shared their convictions. That night they got to worship in a crowd of people who knew them, who understood where they were coming from.”
Unfortunately, this kind of experience is rare for many L.G.B.T. individuals. As Mr. Bates noted, “So many of us pursue God with all we can muster and find our mental health, our bodies, and our lives so broken in ways our faith communities don’t prepare us for or help us with.”
Some attendees believe Christian teaching on sexuality is more likely to be received if coupled with a more robust notion of love, desire and friendship, a deeper theology of celibacy for lay Christians and a more serious appreciation of community.
Johanna Finegan noted, “Our present conceptions of community and friendship are extremely impoverished. We are so used to overwhelmingly valuing marital and romantic relationships over friendship, and directing our energy into nuclear family units, in a way that doesn’t leave much left over for those outside.”
The impoverished sense of love is felt also in the church’s inability to adequately welcome and speak to L.G.B.T. individuals. According to Ms. Tushnet, “So many gay people grow up thinking God is an arbitrary and cruel master, that Love Himself doesn’t love them or do elight in them, that their sexual orientation separates them from Him and makes obedience impossible.”
She hopes for a church better equipped to communicate God and his love to gay people, where “they begin to know God as he truly is: the one whose eye is on the sparrow, whose blessings are poured out on those whom others condemn, mistrust or despise.”