by Nathan Elliott
There’s a question I want to ask, but I don’t want to ask. I don’t want to ask it because it sounds patronizing. I want to ask it, feel compelled to ask, because the question is real on my part. I don’t want to ask it because it feel like I’m asking a gay man to think through something for me, and let’s face it, the question is really for me.
About forty minutes into our conversation, I manage—pretty awkwardly—to ask the question. Here is a gay man with ambitions of being an Episcopal priest—has felt called to be a priest—within the Anglican Communion. Despite being turned down for now, for reasons the deciding committee chose not to divulge, he still, to my mind, represents the best of what the priesthood can be. If I’m going to have this conversation, this would seem to be the time.
The question: why should someone gay have anything at all to do with the church?
It’s difficult to describe his emotional response when I finally get the question out. I’ll go with bemused incredulity.
“I ask myself that all the time.” A few moments later, he follows that up with, “No queer person should feel any obligation to do anything with Christians ever again.”
My simple question cascades, in a good way, his frustration with a basic element of even some of the most progressive churches begins to emerge. Even when it comes to supposedly ‘open’ churches, he finds them wildly off the mark, and begins to address them, rhetorically, “If you’re open and affirming, why aren’t there any queer people in your church?” An example, “Our diocesan convention just affirmed the intrinsic value of trans and non-binary people as beloved by God which” he pauses for another variation on the look of bemused and outraged incredulity “. . . . . of course they are.
They were before they decided to switch gender, and they remain just as holy and beloved afterwards.”
The frustration mounts, and I’m not exactly shocked that the frustration comes back to the way that Christian institutions refuse to hear, or even see the gay community. This would-be priest is gentle but emphatic: “Christians have never shut up long enough to hear the truth of queer people. Ever.” An example? “The American Council of Catholic Bishops met to discuss the pastoral care of the gay and lesbian people. They didn’t ask one gay person how they needed to be cared for. They want us to embrace them? . . . No one is quiet enough to listen to our side of things.”
At a later moment in the conversation he gives me an anecdote that efficiently illustrated how tone-deaf so many Christian communicants still sound to the LGTBQ+ community. At a reading given by well-known writer Anne Lamott, who regularly touches on spiritual subjects, a question came from the audience during the Q&A: why did you use the feminine article for god? You’ve helped me with a lot, states the Lamott reader.
But apparently this use of the feminine pronoun is a bridge too far.
The would-be gay priest turns to the lesbian friend he is sitting next to, asking, “if they can’t even imagine that God might be beyond gender, how are they ever going to accept two men or two women in love as holy? There’s no way our lives will ever be regarded as holy.”
He’s in the church. He even got married in an Episcopal Church. He was working his way through the formal discernment process to become a priest, before the bureaucracy said no, for reasons that are unclear.
But he’s in the church. And it’s still unclear that he isn’t, well, a priest: friends and friends of friends still call. Someone needs this prayer said. Someone’s ex-lover is dying, he’s in the hospital, he needs spiritual comfort. Even if you’re gay and you’re justifiably outraged at the church, you still fall in love, you still die, you still struggle. “I feel very strongly the queer community needs some sort of spiritual resource,” he tells me.
He sometimes wonders if he should be doing these things. A friend assured him, “People will give you the spiritual authority to do those acts.”
Even in that moment, this statement strikes me as entirely true, and I find myself instantly glad someone said exactly that to him: this would-be priest has what I find I want from my clergy: relentless honesty combined with compassion, with a strong element of fierce intelligence. Priesthood conveyed, not by the laying on of hands, nor through assenting to certain dogmas, but through the recognition of the community itself.
My question, the initial question, of course, leads to more. And a second question has been on my mind for years, although it’s likely taken the better part of a couple of decades to ask it.
Why don’t Christians want to listen? Why do so few of them really want to minister to the gay community in or out of the Church? Why do so many of them razor-blade a handful of sentences about Bronze-Age sexual morality out of the context of other scriptures, and point to them—repeatedly, sometimes with anger, sometimes with a thinly affected sadness—to justify their beliefs, their actions, their bigotries? Why do they speak of the new covenant of the New Testament, then insist on the stark moral distinctions of the Old Testament?
“It would de-center their identities.” His response is flat, matter-of-fact. So many Christians wouldn’t know who they were if they gave up judging people for their sexuality. “Showing up and doing the work? Without making it about them? If liberal Christians . . . show up to stuff condoms for an AIDS organization. . . ” and the would-be priest then justifiably assumes that such a church would be anxious that such an action would tacitly mean “they approve of promiscuity.” They would, in other words, fear the judgment and gossip of other churches if they performed such acts of charity and compassion.
The would-be priest gives a counter-example to this fearful, prideful behavior, and it’s a good one: “[Henri] Nouwen never made his ministry to people dying of AIDS about anything other than helping them reconcile and face death with dignity. He didn’t impose his Catholicism on people who were dying of AIDS when no one else wanted anything to do with them in the 80s.”
Apparently paying attention to spiritual and physical needs is too hard, too much, for too many, in far too many churches. “Talking them off the cliff of identity is endless and exhausting,” he tells me.
And I am, again, not exactly shocked to learn that this inability to really extend Christian charity doesn’t limit itself to the queer community. The would-be priest, during another section of the interview, tells me about speaking to the leaders of a church about hosting addiction-recovery groups at their churches. Repeatedly church leaders—ordained clergy and lay members alike, ask, all but explicitly—what it’s in it for them? How many people will end up coming to their church if they do this?
A weird kind of spiritual capitalism appears to be at play: what will the spiritual return be on their investment of holy resources?
Or, in other cases, perhaps even more repellent, the so-called help of the liberal Christian ally: “It quickly became about what good people, about the work they were doing, never about queer people. . . .People can’t do work without letting go of themselves.”
The idea that people are sick, that people need a place to come and heal, a place to not feel judged while they struggle with a profound crisis in their life, the idea that it might be a church’s role in the community to provide sanctuary, without question, without judgment, without asking what is in it for the church beyond taking the obligation to love one’s neighbor as one’s self seriously: that idea is beyond the spiritual resources of so many. A simple point, central to Christianity, ends up feeling radical and controversial: “You feed the hungry because there’s poor to feed. . . . It’s not about you, it’s about helping people recover from what they need to recover from.”
“[The church] needs about 400 years of repentance to queer people,” the would-be priest laughs.
He finds the idea that churches, across denominations, after so many sexual scandals, would lecture anyone about their sexuality ludicrous.
That response resonates with me. Whatever spiritual authority any church ever had, has been completely squandered with myself. My most generous response when someone at any level of church leadership has anything to say about any kind of sexual morality? A laugh at the sheer depth of institutional hypocrisy.
Early in our conversation the would-be priest tells me about an incident from his childhood. Knowing that a priest in the confessional was obligated to tell him the truth, he confronted the priest, during confession, with the spiritual doubts of a young child: is the Easter Bunny real? Is it true?
The priest sighed, knowing that the child’s insistence on honesty, in that space, had him cornered. The priest told the child-version of the would-be priest the truth, and the Easter Bunny exited the building of literal reality for one young boy who needed it.
The young Catholic emerged from the confessional, triumphant in his knowledge.
I give you this moment, and other moments, last. I disrupt the usual sense of narrative time, of Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end, because on some emotional truth these anecdotes frames the later life. The would-be priest’s need for the truth came at his beginning, and thus makes a fitting end.
But perhaps another incident is worth revisiting. The would-be priest spent a number of years as a pagan, a polytheist, after he came to the conclusion that the Catholic church couldn’t accept his sexuality, and especially couldn’t accept his desire to be a priest and be gay at same time. He went deep into pagan ritual and belief, for years, and still has friends in that community, perhaps in part because paganism never questioned his deeply felt connection to all things spiritual. Paganism also allowed him a kind of empiricist, positivist approach to faith: perform the ritual. Were there results? Then it worked. Were there no results? It didn’t work.
At a cathedral, in San Francisco, he found himself confronted with an icon of Mary Magdalen. The icon drew him back towards Christianity, but even here the would-be priest’s emphasis is telling. This moment of profound mystical intimacy, he tells me, did not come with lights, flowers, visions, or the other moments we might stereotypically associate with the mystical moment.
Instead it was a moment, a moment of complete presence, of hyper-reality. Everything became sharper, more defined. He entered the really-real.
The child who had needed the would-be priest to tell him the truth also needed an icon who brought reality into far sharper focus.
I have no idea what happened between this man and the church authorities who have, for now, decided that his vocation to the priesthood should not be pursued; he is baffled himself. But after speaking to him, I can’t help but place the burden of proof back onto the church, back onto all churches, churches that have proven itself spiritually tone-deaf too often, to too many.
In the short time that we have been speaking, all of 100 minutes on a November evening, 3000+ miles bridged by a shaky internet connection, he’s given me spiritual insight and guidance. The would-be priest has been, and continues to be, a priest to others.
And for one night, he was a kind of priest to me, the kind who might have kept me in the Church if I had met him two decades ago.
This is the third in a series of articles about faith, progressive politics, and voices of faith from unusual perspectives. Please message Nathan on Twitter at @writeronabike if you think you know of a person, a church, a mosque, a synagogue, a faith community of any creed that might be of interest.
Nathan R. Elliott grew up in Idaho, was educated in Chicagoland, worked as a professor in Georgia and Newfoundland, and now writes and lives in Montréal. He has published peer-reviewed research on the intersections of nineteenth-century British Literature and nineteenth-century science; he has published fiction and creative nonfiction in a variety of venues. He is the recipient of the 2016 NL Arts Council’s Lawrence Jackson Writers’ Award.
Photo: “St. Mary Magdalene” by Jim Forest