How Parishes can Welcome LGBT Catholics

Father James Martin: How parishes can welcome L.G.B.T. Catholics

James Martin, S.J. August 23, 2018 – “America – The Jesuit Review”
This talk was delivered at the Vatican’s World Meeting of Families in Dublin, Ireland, on Aug. 23, 2018.
One of the more recent challenges for Catholic parishes is how to welcome L.G.B.T. parishioners, as well as families with L.G.B.T. members. But that challenge is also where grace abounds because L.G.B.T. Catholics have felt excluded from the church for so long that any experience of welcome can be life-changing—a healing moment that can inspire them to go to Mass again, return them to the faith and even help them to believe in God again.
Over the past few years, I’ve heard the most appalling stories from L.G.B.T. Catholics who have been made to feel unwelcome in parishes. A 30-year-old autistic gay man who came out to his family and was not in any sort of relationship told me that a pastoral associate said he could no longer receive Communion in church. Why? Because even saying he was gay was a scandal.
But cruelty doesn’t end at the doors of the church. Last year a woman contacted me to ask if I knew any “compassionate priests” in her archdiocese. Why? She was a nurse in a hospice where a Catholic patient was dying. But the local parish priest assigned to the hospice was refusing to anoint him—because he was gay. Is it surprising that most L.G.B.T. Catholics feel like lepers in the church?
The same is true for families. The mother of a gay teen told me her son had decided to come back to church after years of feeling the church hated him. After much discussion, he decided to return on Easter Sunday. The mother was overjoyed. When Mass began she was so excited to have her son beside her. But after the priest proclaimed the story of Christ’s Resurrection, guess what he preached on? The evils of homosexuality. The son stood up and walked out of the church. And the mother sat in the pew and cried.
But there are also stories of grace in our church. Last year, a university student told me that the first person to whom he came out was a priest. The first thing the priest said was, “God loves you, and the church accepts you.” The young man told me, “That literally saved my life.” Indeed, we should rejoice that more and more Catholic parishes are places where L.G.B.T. Catholics feel at home, thanks to both the parish staff and more formalized programs.
My own Jesuit community in New York is next to a church called St. Paul the Apostle, which has one of the most active L.G.B.T. outreach programs in the world. The ministry is called Out at St. Paul and sponsors retreats, Bible study groups, speaking engagements and social events for the parish’s large L.G.B.T. community. At every 5:15 p.m. Sunday Mass, when the time comes for parish announcements, an L.G.B.T. person gets up in the pulpit to say, “Hi! I’m Jason or Xorje or Marianne, and I’m a member at Out at St. Paul. If you’re lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, we want you to feel welcome. Here are some events coming up this week.” And I just learned that two members of that group are entering religious orders this year.
Sadly, much of the spiritual life of L.G.B.T. Catholics and their families depends on where they happen to live. If you’re a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person trying to make sense of your relationship with God and the church or if you’re a parent of an L.G.B.T. person and you live in a big city with open-minded pastors, you’re in luck. But if you live in a less open-minded place or your pastor is homophobic, either silently or overtly, you’re out of luck. And the way that Catholics are welcomed or not welcomed in their parish heavily influences their outlook not only on the church but on their faith and on God.
That’s the real scandal. Why should faith depend on where you live? Is that what God desires for the church? Did Jesus want people in Bethany to feel God’s love less than people in Bethsaida? Did Jesus want a woman in Jericho to feel less loved than a woman in Jerusalem?
So what helps a parish to be welcoming and respectful? How can priests and deacons, sisters and brothers, directors of religious education, lay pastoral associates and all parishioners help parishes become homes for L.G.B.T. Catholics and their families?
The following observations are based on not only conversations with L.G.B.T. people but also on the experience of L.G.B.T. ministries and outreach groups that I consulted for this talk. I asked them: What are the most important things for parishes to know and to do?
It sounds obvious, but parishes need to remember that L.G.B.T. people and their families are baptized Catholics. So I’d like to talk about three areas. First, what are some fundamental insights for parishes? Second, what can a parish do to be more welcoming and respectful? Finally, what might the Gospel say to us about this ministry? Let’s begin with six fundamental insights.
1) They are Catholic. That sounds obvious, but parishes need to remember that L.G.B.T. people and their families are baptized Catholics. They are as much as part of the church as Pope Francis, the local bishop or the pastor. It’s not a question of making them Catholic. They already are. So the most important thing we can do for L.G.B.T. Catholics is to welcome them to what is already their church. And remember: Just to remain in the church L.G.B.T. people have often endured years of rejection. Our welcome should reflect that and so should be, to quote Luke’s Gospel, “a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.”
2) They do not choose their orientation. Sadly, many people still believe that people choose their sexual orientation, despite the testimony of almost every psychiatrist and biologist—and, more important, the lived experience of L.G.B.T. people. You don’t choose your orientation or gender identity any more than you choose to be left-handed. It’s not a choice. And it’s not an addiction. Thus, it is not a sin simply to be L.G.B.T. Far less, it is not something to “blame” on someone, like parents.
3) They have often been treated like lepers by the church. Never underestimate the pain that L.G.B.T. people have experienced—not only at the hands of the church but from society at large. A few statistics may help: In the United States, lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are five times as likely to have attempted suicide than their straight counterparts. Forty per cent of transgender people in the United States attempt suicide. Among young L.G.B.T. people in the United States, 57 per cent feel unsafe because of their orientation. Also, one study shows that the more religious the family they come from, the more likely they are to attempt suicide. And one important reason that L.G.B.T. youth are homeless is that they come from families who reject them for religious reasons. So parishes need to be aware of the consequences of stigmatizing L.G.B.T. people. Never underestimate the pain that L.G.B.T. people have experienced—not only at the hands of the church but from society at large.
Most L.G.B.T. Catholics have been deeply wounded by the church. They may have been mocked, insulted, excluded, condemned or singled out for critique, either privately or from the pulpit. They may never have heard the term “gay” or “lesbian” expressed in any positive way or even a neutral way. And even if hateful comments did not come in the parish setting, they may have heard other Catholic leaders make homophobic comments. From their earliest days as Catholics, they are often made to feel like they are a mistake. They fear rejection, judgment and condemnation from the church. In fact, these may be the only things that they expect from the church. This often leads them to exclude themselves from the church.
Parents of L.G.B.T. children face similar pain. There is a saying, “When a child comes out of the closet, the parent goes into the closet.” It can be confusing, frightening and embarrassing for parents to accept the reality of their children’s orientation or gender identity. They may suffer shame in front of relatives and friends. Having a child come out or say that they are transgender can make the parent feel not only that they have somehow failed but that they will be isolated, judged and excluded from the church. Sometimes they feel that they must choose between their child and God. Parents also worry that their children will leave a church that is seen as rejecting them. As a result, parishes must let parents and families know that they are still welcome, that they have nothing to fear from the church and that the church is their home.
4) They bring gifts to the church. Like any group, L.G.B.T. people bring special gifts to the church. Now, it’s usually wrong to generalize, but for a group that has been seen in the church almost exclusively in a negative light, it’s important to consider the many gifts of the group. To begin with, because they have been so marginalized, many L.G.B.T. people often feel a natural compassion for those on the margins. Their compassion is a gift. They are often forgiving of pastors and priests who have treated them like dirt. Their forgiveness is a gift. They persevere as Catholics in the face of years of rejection. Their perseverance is a gift.
In fact, recently some American parishes have fired L.G.B.T. people after they were legally married. And something about these situations always mystified me. Every time I would hear these stories, it would always be about the “most beloved” teacher, parish associate or music minister. It made me wonder why they were the “most beloved.” Then I realized why: L.G.B.T. people working for the church really have to want to be there, given the way they’re treated. They stick with their ministry despite the rejection that they experience. It’s the same with L.G.B.T. parishioners: They must make a conscious decision to stay with a church—to persevere. So when you think about their gifts, you may have the same reaction that Jesus had with the Roman centurion: amazement at their faith.
5) They long to know God. Like many Catholics, many L.G.B.T. people struggle with various aspects of the church’s teaching—for example, terms like “intrinsically disordered.” At the same time, many aren’t as focused on those parts of the tradition as people think. Many want something much simpler: They want to experience the Father’s love through the community. They want to meet Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. They want to experience the Holy Spirit in the sacraments. They want to hear good homilies, sing good music and feel part of a faith community. Treat them like that—not as protestors but as parishioners. Help L.G.B.T. people and their families to fulfil their deepest desires: to know God.
6) They are loved by God. God loves them—so should we. And I don’t mean a stingy, grudging, judgmental, conditional, half-hearted love. I mean real love. And what does real love mean? The same thing it means for everyone: knowing them in the complexity of their lives, celebrating with them when life is sweet, suffering with them when life is bitter, as a friend would. But I say even more: Love them as Jesus loved people on the margins: extravagantly.
With those insights in mind, how can a parish be more welcoming? How can we treat L.G.B.T. people with the virtues that the Catechism recommends: “respect, compassion and sensitivity”? Let me suggest 10 things. Now, the following suggestions need to be fitted to your own parish. No one size fits all. Each parish must develop its own model.
1) Examine your own attitudes towards L.G.B.T. people and their families. Do you believe someone is sinful because she’s lesbian or more inclined to sin than a straight woman? Do you hold the parents “responsible” for a gay teen’s orientation? Do you think a person is transgender only because it’s “fashionable”? Here’s another question: If none or only a few L.G.B.T. people have made themselves known to you, why might that be the case?
Likewise, are you discriminating against them in your heart? For example, do you hold the L.G.B.T. community to the same standards as the straight community? With L.G.B.T. people we tend to focus on whether they are fully conforming to the church’s teachings on sexual morality. So are you doing the same with straight parishioners—with those who are living together before being married or practising birth control? Be consistent about whose lives get scrutinized. Pastors are often more sympathetic to the complex situations of straight people because they know them. For example, even though Jesus condemns divorce outright, most parishes welcome divorced people. Do we treat L.G.B.T. people with the same understanding?
What can you do about these attitudes? Be honest about them. But also get facts, not myths, about sexual orientation and gender identity from scientific and social-scientific sources, not from rumors and misinformed and homophobic online sites. Then talk to God and your spiritual director about your feelings and be open to God’s response. Invite your pastoral team to speak about their feelings and experiences. This leads to the next step.
2) Listen to them. Listen to the experiences of L.G.B.T. Catholics and their parents and families. If you don’t know what to say, you might ask: “What was it like growing up as a gay boy in our church?” “What is it like being a lesbian Catholic?” And an important question, “What is it like being a transgender person?” We still know little about the transgender experience, so we must listen. Invite the parents of an L.G.B.T. child to speak with your pastoral team. Ask them: “What is it like to have a gay child?” “How has the church helped you or hurt you?” “How has your understanding of God changed?” And pay attention to what they say. To that end, be attentive to language that they say they find offensive and needlessly hurtful: “sodomy” for example. Names, words and terminology matter.
Overall, whether you are participating in a ministry like an L.G.B.T. outreach program or are meeting with an L.G.B.T. person one-on-one, begin with their experiences. To that end, trust that the Holy Spirit will guide them in their formation as Christians. We don’t treat other Catholics by simply repeating church teaching without considering their lived experience. So avoid doing that with L.G.B.T. people. Notice how Jesus treated people on the margins: for example, how he treated the Samaritan woman. Does he castigate her for being married several times and living with someone? No. Instead, Jesus listens to her and treats her with respect. So be like Jesus: listen, encounter, accompany. If the church listened to L.G.B.T. people, 90 per cent of the homophobia and prejudice would disappear.
3) Acknowledge them in homilies or parish presentations as full members of the parish, without judgment and not as fallen-away Catholics. L.G.B.T. people should never be degraded or humiliated from the pulpit—nor should anyone. Just mentioning them can be a step forward. Sometimes in homilies I’ll say, “God loves us all—whether we’re old or young, rich or poor, straight or L.G.B.T.” Even something small like that can send a signal. It also sends a signal to their parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. You may not think you have any L.G.B.T. people in your parish. But you certainly have parents and grandparents of L.G.B.T. people. You have people who love L.G.B.T. people in your parish. Remember that when you’re speaking about L.G.B.T. people you’re speaking about their children.
4) Apologize to them. If L.G.B.T. Catholics or their families have been harmed in the name of the church by homophobic comments and attitudes and decisions, apologize. And I’m speaking here to the church’s ministers. They were harmed by the church, you’re a minister of the church. You can apologize. It doesn’t solve everything, but it’s a start.
5) Don’t reduce gays and lesbians to the call to chastity we all share as Christians. L.G.B.T. people are more than their sexual lives. But sometimes that’s all they hear about. Remember not to focus solely on sexuality but on the many other joys and sorrows in their lives. They lead rich lives. Many L.G.B.T. Catholics are parents themselves or are caring for ageing parents; many help the poor in their community; many are involved in civic and charitable organizations. They’re often deeply involved in the life of the parish. See them in their totality. And if you talk about chastity with L.G.B.T. people, do it as much with straight people.
6) Include them in ministries. As I’ve mentioned, there is a tendency to focus on the sexual morality of L.G.B.T. parishioners, which is wrong, because, first, you often have no idea what their sexual lives are like; and, second, even if they are falling short, they are not the only ones. As a result, L.G.B.T. people may feel they have to be dishonest about who they are and that they have no place in ministries. Like everyone else in your parish who does not live up to the Gospels—which is everyone—L.G.B.T. people should be invited into parish ministries: eucharistic ministers, music ministers, lectors, bereavement ministry and every ministry. By the way, by not welcoming them the church misses out on their gifts. They will simply go to where they are welcomed, to where they can bring their whole selves. Also, asking someone who has felt left out his or her or their whole life can be a life-changing.
7) Acknowledge their individual gifts. Not only should we acknowledge the gifts that L.G.B.T. people offer in the church as a group but their individual gifts should be valued. For example, one of the cantors in my Jesuit parish is a gay man. He is kind and compassionate, and his beautiful voice has made him an essential part of our worship for 20 years. You probably have similar people in your parish. Remember how important it is to acknowledge them, to praise them, to raise them up. Don’t hide their light under your bushel basket!
8) Invite everyone on the parish staff to welcome them. You may have a welcoming pastor, but what about everyone else? Does the person answering the phone know what to say to a lesbian couple who wants to have their child baptized? At funerals, are the gay adult children of the deceased treated with the same respect as other children? What about the teacher in a parish school who has two fathers coming to a parent-teacher conference? How does a deacon treat the father of a gay man who just died and who wants a funeral for his son? Are gay and lesbian Catholics welcome in bereavement groups when a partner dies? Is your parish open to the children of all couples, not just straight couples? Are the children of lesbian and gay couples welcome in parish schools, educational programs and sacramental preparation programs? Is your parish staff educated in the full range of church teaching on nondiscrimination and pastoral outreach?
The voice of your parish is not just your pastor’s voice but everyone’s. Think about it this way: By not welcoming and by excluding L.G.B.T. Catholics, the church is falling short of its call to be God’s family. By excluding L.G.B.T. people, you are breaking up God’s family; you are tearing apart the Body of Christ.
9) Sponsor special events or develop an outreach program. Like everyone else, L.G.B.T. Catholics want to feel like they are part of the church. And, as for all its children, the onus is on the church to invite them into the community. But for many L.G.B.T. people, the church has not been a place of welcome. So specific L.G.B.T. events and outreach programs are helpful to bridge the gap between your intentions and their suspicions.
As for events, there are many possibilities: You can offer a Mass of welcome, a weekend retreat, a day of recollection, a book club or a speaker. And speaking events don’t have to be focused solely on L.G.B.T. issues. That is, sponsor a speaker to talk to L.G.B.T. parishioners about prayer. Or show a video about a topic that people need to be informed on, like the experience of transgender people. And again, that issue—transgender people—is one that the church needs to learn about because society at large is still learning about. Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vt., said: “I see no reason why transgender people would not be welcome in church. There is more evidence…that a lot of this is biological; it’s not just something a person just makes as a fashionable choice or cultural choice. This is who they are…everyone is God’s creature, and I would invite anyone to come to the table.”
As for L.G.B.T. outreach ministries, there are many models. They range from programs where L.G.B.T. people speak with one another privately to ones where L.G.B.T. parishioners meet together with other parishioners; to education programs on church teaching; to more holistic approaches where the group does not focus on sexuality but on the other questions that L.G.B.T. people face; to family groups for parents; to groups that do outreach to the L.G.B.T. community in the area, like working in shelters for L.G.B.T. youth; to what you might call “blending-in” programs, where the parish includes L.G.B.T. topics as one element among many in the parish: in adult education, social justice programs and youth ministry. All of this depends on your parish.
As for parents, one mother said, when I asked what I should say to you today: “The most important thing to give parents is a safe, welcoming space to share their stories with other Catholic parents. So many feel alone and don’t think anyone else is going through this. It’s relief to know that there are others on the journey. … And they don’t need to hear their children being compared to alcoholics. Hearing positive statements from the pulpit would also be nice, instead of acting as if their children don’t exist.”
Last year, the Jesuit parish where I celebrate Mass—called, not surprisingly, St. Ignatius Loyola—sponsored an evening of sharing stories. Six members of our parish came together—three gay men, the mother of a gay child, the father of a gay child and his gay teen son—to talk about their lives. Their sharing of stories of joys and griefs were healing for them and for the whole parish. Why healing for them? Imagine thinking your whole life that you’re not part of the church and then being asked to speak about your experiences. And healing for the rest of the parish, because it brought us all together in a way that we could scarcely have imagined.
10) Advocate for them. Be prophetic. There are many times when the church can provide a moral voice for this persecuted community. And I’m not talking about hot-button topics like same-sex marriage. I’m talking about incidents in countries where gay men are rounded up and thrown in jail or even executed for being gay and lesbians are raped to “cure them” of their sexual orientations. In those countries, L.G.B.T. issues are life issues. In other countries, it may be responding to incidents of teen suicides or hate crimes or bullying. There are many opportunities for parishes to stand with L.G.B.T. people who are being persecuted.
The Catechism says, “Every sign of unjust discrimination must be avoided” when it comes to L.G.B.T. people. Do we believe this part of the Catechism? The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote in 1986: “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent speech and action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church’s pastors whenever it occurs.” Do we believe that statement from the C.D.F?
This is part of what it means to be a Christian: standing up for the marginalized, the persecuted, the beaten down. It’s shocking how little the Catholic Church has done this. Let your L.G.B.T. parishioners know you stand with them, mention their persecution in a homily when appropriate or in the prayers of the faithful. Be prophetic. Be courageous. Be like Jesus.
Because if we’re not trying to be like Jesus, what’s the point? And remember that in his public ministry Jesus continually reached out to people who felt like they were on the margins. The movement for Jesus was from the outside-in. He was bringing people who felt on the outside into the community. Because for Jesus there is no “us” and “them.” There is only us.
To that end, I’d like to close with a story from the Gospels to help us meditate on our call to welcome and respect L.G.B.T. people and their families. The Gospel of Luke tells us the beautiful story of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus. Jesus is travelling through Jericho, a huge city. He’s on his way to Jerusalem, and it’s toward the end of his ministry, so he would have been well known in the area. As a result, he probably had a large crowd following him. In Jericho, there is a man named Zacchaeus. He was the chief tax collector in the region and so would have also been seen by the Jewish people as the “chief sinner.” Why? Because he would have been seen as colluding with the Roman authorities. So Zacchaeus was someone who was probably on the outs with everyone.
Now, here I would like you to invite you to think of Zacchaeus as a symbol for the L.G.B.T. Catholic. Not because the L.G.B.T. people are more sinful than the rest of us—because we’re all sinners. But because they feel so marginalized. Think of the L.G.B.T. person as Zacchaeus.
Luke’s Gospel describes Zacchaeus as “short in stature.” How little “stature” L.G.B.T. people often feel that they have in the church. Luke also says that Zacchaeus could not see Jesus “on account of the crowd.” That was probably because of his height, but how often does the “crowd” get in the way of the L.G.B.T. person encountering Jesus? When are we in the parish part of the “crowd” that doesn’t let L.G.B.T. people come close to God?
So Zacchaeus climbs a tree, because, as Luke tells us, he wanted to see “who Jesus was.” And this is what the L.G.B.T. person wants: to see who Jesus is. But the crowd gets in the way. Now here comes Jesus making his way through Jericho, probably with hundreds of people clamoring for his attention. And whom does he point to? One of the religious authorities? One of his disciples? No, to Zacchaeus! And what does he say to Zacchaeus? Does he shout, “Sinner!” Does he shout, “You terrible tax collector”? No! He says, “Hurry down for I must stay at your house today!” It’s a public sign of welcome to someone on the margins. Then comes my favorite line in the story: “All who saw it began to grumble!” Which is exactly what is happening today toward L.G.B.T. people. People grumble! Go online and you’ll see all the grumbling. An offer of mercy to someone on the margins always makes people angry. But Zacchaeus climbs down from the tree and, as the Gospels say, he “stood there.” The original Greek is much stronger, statheis: he stood his ground. How often have L.G.B.T. people had to stand their ground in the face of opposition and prejudice in the church?
Then Zacchaeus says that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and repay anyone he has defrauded four times over. An encounter with Jesus leads to a conversion, as it does for everyone. And what do I mean by conversion? Not “conversion therapy.” No, the conversion that happens to Zacchaeus is the conversion that we’re all called to. In the Gospels, Jesus calls it metanoia, a conversion of minds and hearts. For Zacchaeus, conversion meant giving to the poor.
All this comes from an encounter with Jesus. Because Jesus’ approach was, more often than not, community first, conversion second. For John the Baptist the model was to convert first and then be welcomed into the community. For Jesus, it’s community first, conversion second. Welcome and respect come first. This is how Jesus treats people who feel on the margins. He seeks them out before anyone else; he encounters them, and he treats them with respect, sensitivity and compassion. So when it comes to L.G.B.T. people and their families in our parishes, it seems that there are two places to stand. You can stand with the crowd, who grumble and who oppose mercy for those on the margins. Or you can stand with Zacchaeus, and, more important, with Jesus.


JESUIT, Fr.James Martin, a well-known American advocate for LGBT people in the Roman Catholic Church, has just delivered this inspiring talk to his fellow Roman Catholics gathered from around the world at the current R.C. Conference on The Family, hosted by Pope Francis in Dublin, Ireland’s capital city. In his explanation of what he feels to be an important call to Catholics, he had this to say:

”   Over the past few years, I’ve heard the most appalling stories from L.G.B.T. Catholics who have been made to feel unwelcome in parishes. A 30-year-old autistic gay man who came out to his family and was not in any sort of relationship told me that a pastoral associate said he could no longer receive Communion in church. Why? Because even saying he was gay was a scandal.”

Our own Anglican Churches around the world have mostly been slow to recognise the need to welcome their LGBT fellow-members of the congregations – with the exception of Churches in North America, where both the Episcopal Church (TEC) and the Anglican Church of Canada have recently agreed to consider the possibility of celebrating/blessing Same-Sex legally-married couples in congregations where they are welcomed.

The fact that the world’s largest Christian denomination (Roman Catholic) is now being challenged to change its conservative institutional view of LGBT people – by addresses such as this at a Conference where the Pope and officials of the Roman Catholic Churches from around the world are gathering to consider how best to minister to families – including those with LGBT members – is surely of paramount importance. Maybe this Family Conference will signal to other Christian denominational Churches  (including our own) the need for fundamental change in attitude towards an important minority in the Body of Christ.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Canadian Model of Anglican Community

Diocese of Huron hosts Ninth Consultation of Anglican Bishops in Dialogue

The Ninth Consultation of Anglican Bishops in Dialogue meets in London, Ont. Photo by Anglican Video

By Matt Gardner

“Constancy” is defined as both the quality of being faithful and dependable, and of being unwavering and unchanging. After nearly a decade’s worth of meetings, all of these qualities have come to accurately summarize the annual Consultation of Anglican Bishops in Dialogue.

The ninth Consultation of Anglican Bishops took place from July 18-22 in London, Ontario at the Ivey Spencer Leadership Centre. Bishop Linda Nicholls and the Diocese of Huron hosted the gathering. As they have each year, the bishops released a testimony after the meeting laying out the content of their discussions.

This year’s document was entitled A Testimony of Constancy in Faith, Hope and Love. That focus on constancy reflected the spirit of perseverance that guided many of the bishops as they made their way to the gathering from across Africa, Canada, and the United States, often encountering many obstacles along the way.

“As the host, it was a good experience, but challenging, because there’s always logistical glitches that you hadn’t anticipated—people’s luggage that frankly never did arrive, and people missing flights and things like that,” Bishop Nicholls said.

“But the consultation itself, it’s the opportunity to sit down and talk with people whom you would never have that opportunity with otherwise—bishops and archbishops from all across the [worldwide Anglican] Communion that come together and sit down and talk over meals, talk over coffee breaks, and be part of the conversation.”

The consultations initially emerged out of dialogue at the 2008 Lambeth Conference. Since the first gathering in 2010, bishops have steadily grown in their understanding of each other and the culture and contexts that surround their respective ministries.

The testimony for the ninth consultation uses the metaphor of a tree to describe that growth of the consultations over time, beginning “as a seedling begins: first small, hidden, and unseen; then pushing through sometimes crusty soil to reach the light, establishing roots and a strong central direction.”

Bishop John Chapman of the Diocese of Ottawa has attended eight of the nine consultations. He described the annual gathering as “always the highlight of my year … I think collectively, we recognize the fact that we have been called by the Spirit to model reconciliation, mutual care, and shared faith in the life-giving spirit that fills our church.”

Much of the focus of this year’s consultation was in preparing for the Lambeth 2020 conference, where members of the dialogue will present some of the fruits of their experience together over the previous decade.

One of the major lessons is the importance of dialogue during times of tension. Much of the initial disagreement that led to the consultations after Lambeth 2008 lay in differing views over same-sex marriage.

Though differences still remain, the experience of meeting and talking with each other regularly has greatly affected how bishops from different parts of the Anglican Communion engage in that conversation.

Bishop Nicholls recalled being struck by the words of one African bishop who said that “the dialogue had helped him to see that there were gay and lesbian people in his community.”

“Our core purpose and our core as a church is around the gospel,” Bishop Nicholls said. “What we discover when we sit down and talk to one another is that we’re dealing with exactly the same kinds of issues in how we live the gospel. It’s just different in different contexts. And we’ve also been clear that we would be open and honest with one another about what our churches are doing and struggling with.”

Colonialism and reconciliation

A recurring theme in recent consultations has been collectively dealing with the history and legacy of colonialism that binds together Europe, Africa, and North America. During their meetings together, bishops have often visited sites on each other’s continents that have historical links to the slave trade—places where Africans were forcibly taken from their homelands, put aboard ships, and sailed across the ocean into slavery.

Bishop Paul Bayes, who will be hosting next year’s consultation in the Diocese of Liverpool in England and first began attending the dialogue at the invitation of the bishop of Virginia, said that the Diocese of Virginia, the Diocese of Liverpool, and the Diocese of Kumasi in Ghana “have a three-way relationship which replicates the old and dreadful slave triangle.”

“We call ours the Triangle of Hope,” he added. “Because we were in Ghana [during the seventh consultation in 2016], we were able to visit some of the so-called castles where slaves were kept before they were shipped across to the New World. It was just very special for me to be able to relate to those bishops in that context.”

This focus on colonialism has also helped Canadian bishops draw a connection to the ongoing work of the Anglican Church of Canada around reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. While meeting in the Diocese of Huron, the bishops acknowledged that the land on which they were gathered on is the traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee, Attawandaron (Neutral), and Wendat peoples.

In a theological reflection, the Rev. Canon Dr. Todd Townshend touched on the subject of reconciliation, which he described as a core “thesis statement” of the New Testament. He cited a representative passage from Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians:

…that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against him, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. (2 Corinthians 5:19)

The Rev. Rosalyn Elm, an Anglican priest from the Oneida Nation, spoke to the gathering about the impact of European colonialism on Canada’s Indigenous population. Using both words and images, she detailed stories of forced migration and the removal of Indigenous people from their land. But Elm also shared wisdom from the Dish With One Spoon treaty, an agreement originally made between the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee that binds all to shared stewardship of the land, and to reconciliation with each other, with creation, and with the Creator.

Lessons for the Anglican Communion

Attending the latest consultation left participants with a sense of hope and optimism for the Anglican Communion as they look ahead to Lambeth 2020.

Bishop Chapman said that the biggest lesson of the consultations is that “we can walk together in difference, and it works. And we have been doing that.”

“Unanimity of thought is not the goal of the church,” he added. “I think when we learn to walk together in difference, then we tend to listen to each other more acutely. We tend to be more generous in understanding diverse context and conditions.”

Bishop Bayes suggested that the experience of the Anglican Bishops in Dialogue offered an antidote to pessimistic views of the Anglican Communion that focus on disagreements rather than continuing shared values.

“The Consultation of Bishops gives exactly the opposite message,” he said. “It indicates that we’ve got a huge amount in common—that with the levels of respect and mutual learning that we’ve got together, the Anglican Communion really does have a future.”

Read A Testimony of Constancy in Faith, Hope and Love.


At a time in the worldwide Anglican Communion, when protesters in GAFCON and FOCA are separating out from the rest of us on matters of gender and sexuality, this Annual Meeting of Anglican Bishops from around the world provides an oasis of Peace and Reconciliation – the very opposite of schismatic separatism. 

That this initiative should come from the Canadian Anglican Church – which has its own problems of colonialism and difference – is perhaps the most encouraging feature of this annual hosting of bishops from both the Global South and Global North of the Anglican Communion. Alongside with one another are people from Canada, where the subject of Equal Marriage is still being debated; and from Kenya, where both the government and the local Church are yet to agree to any such provision.

Bishop Linda Nichols of Huron, Ontario (Host of this Meeting) offers this explanation:

“Though differences still remain, the experience of meeting and talking with each other regularly has greatly affected how bishops from different parts of the Anglican Communion engage in that conversation.
Bishop Nicholls recalled being struck by the words of one African bishop who said that “the dialogue had helped him to see that there were gay and lesbian people in his community.”

This willingness to discuss and listen to diametrically opposed views on matters of some importance for all Anglicans (and, for that matter, in this day and age, for all people) is one of the charisms of traditional Anglicanism, where an ethos of ‘Unity in Diversity’ on all kinds of issues can bring together in both formal and  informal ways the infinite variety of opinions and theological viewpoints of a disparate – but united in agape/love – Communion of Believers. 

This group’s earnest looking forward to the projected 2020 Lambeth conference of Bishops from around the world, should provide the perfect antidote to any fear induced by the gathering momentum of  the likes of GACON/FOCA which favours schismatic separation on matters of Second-Order importance; at a time when the world is waiting for the loving, healing and reconciling message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

There are much more important theological and logistical problems of dire importance than for the Church to continue to be consumed by quarrels over innate gender and sexuality issues. Many of these more serious problems are endemic in parts of the world where both local governments and Churches should be caring for the disadvantaged and the poor in situations of rapid climate-change, embedded corruption and graft, and institutional injustice.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand


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Leadership? What sort of leadership? What sort of Church?

via Leadership? What sort of leadership? What sort of Church?


In this survey of Church Leadership in the Church of England, which questions the basic integrity of an evangelical fervour which can overlook the inclusive message of the gospel in favour of a triumphalist tendency to separate the sheep from the goats, Anglican Vicar  on his blog ‘TheoreO’ points to the malaise that he sees as affecting the pastoral outreach of the Church of England to many of its local would-be adherents.

Just two paragraphs of the above article are sufficient to alert Anglicans in other places to the issues that face the ordinary parish priest in the exercise of ordinary pastoral care of the people in the community:

“As an ordinary parish priest in an ordinary parish, I am privileged to witness the amazing amount of good that ordinary people of good will do each and every day. But, the problem is that every time another scandal is reported, another cover up exposed, another example of the ‘purple circle’ looking first and foremost to the institution’s interests is revealed, the power of the extraordinary ordinary is diminished. And, it isn’t good enough. We have to do better – if we are serious about the gospel and being agents of Him who is genuinely good news.

“Our ‘leadership’ seems to be obsessed with growth, but what it isn’t doing (at least not in a way that is obvious to me) is tending to the foundations and doing the really hard work of real ethical leadership. It seems that the Church of England has fallen prey to group think, a bland uniformity where ‘strategic growth’ is all that really matters.”

In Aotearoa/ New Zealand, we are in danger of emulating the conservatism of the Church of England – in places where, for instance, some militantly evangelical clergy are actively recruiting their parishioners in a sectarian opposition to a process of Same-Sex Blessings that has been recently agreed to by General Synod of ACANZP. This has now led to the prospect of some parishes in my own Christchurch diocese actually serving notice of their severance from the national Church – in order to join up with a separatist organisation of mostly conservative African Churches seeking to dominate the ethos of Anglicanism around the world.

The organisation – GAFCON/FOCA – seeks to form a new brand of Anglicanism based on a Sola-Scriptura model that outlaws any acceptance – or understanding of – the need to now accommodate gender and sexual differences that are not based on the ‘binary’ model of the traditional understanding of such matters – focussed on procreation as the sole purpose of sexuality in human beings, rather than what the Prayer Book calls “the mutual comfort” of a couple in legal marriage.

It is in this sort of setting – in a diocese that has been suffering for years now from the devastating after-effects of earthquakes and the continuing public arguments about the restoration of the Cathedral – that our diocesan synod has just elected a new Diocesan Bishop. This Church Leader will need all the grace available to cope with how the Church will recover from the controversies that have arisen during the episcopal reign of our hard working Bishop Victoria Matthews, who could be excused if she heaved a sigh of blessed relief at returning to her homeland in Canada.

Prayers are ongoing for her, and for her duly-elected replacement.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand


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What the early church thought about God’s gender

August 1, 2018

The Episcopal Church has decided to revise its 1979 prayer book, so that God is no longer referred to by masculine pronouns.

The prayer book, first published in 1549 and now in its fourth edition, is the symbol of unity for the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Communion is the third largest Christian communion founded in 1867. While there is no clear timeline for the changes, religious leaders at the denomination’s recent triennial conference in Austin have agreed to a demand to replace the masculine terms for God such as “He” and “King” and “Father.”

Indeed, early Christian writings and texts, all refer to God in feminine terms.

God of the Hebrew Bible

Hebrew Bible. Stock CatalogCC BY

As a scholar of Christian origins and gender theory, I’ve studied the early references to God.

In Genesis, for example, women and men are created in the “Imago Dei,” image of God, which suggests that God transcends socially constructed notions of gender. Furthermore, Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible written in the seventh century B.C., states that God gave birth to Israel.

In the oracles of the eighth century prophet Isaiah, God is described as a woman in labor and a mother comforting her children.

And the Book of Proverbs maintains that the feminine figure of Holy Wisdom, Sophia, assisted God during the creation of the world.

Indeed, The Church Fathers and Mothers understood Sophia to be the “Logos,” or Word of God. Additionally, Jewish rabbis equated the Torah, the law of God, with Sophia, which means that feminine wisdom was with God from the very beginning of time.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable things ever said about God in the Hebrew Bible occurs in Exodus 3 when Moses first encounters the deity and asks for its name. In verse 14, God responds, “I am who I am,” which is simply a mixture of “to be” verbs in Hebrew without any specific reference to gender. If anything, the book of Exodus is clear that God is simply “being,” which echoes later Christian doctrine that God is spirit.

In fact, the personal name of God, Yahweh, which is revealed to Moses in Exodus 3, is a remarkable combination of both female and male grammatical endings. The first part of God’s name in Hebrew, “Yah,” is feminine, and the last part, “weh,” is masculine. In light of Exodus 3, the feminist theologian Mary Daly asks, “Why must ‘God’ be a noun? Why not a verb – the most active and dynamic of all.”

God in the New Testament

New Testament. kolosser417CC BY

In the New Testament, Jesus also presents himself in feminine language. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus stands over Jerusalem and weeps, saying, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”

Furthermore, the author of Matthew equates Jesus with the feminine Sophia (wisdom), when he writes, “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” In Matthew’s mind, it seems that Jesus is the feminine Wisdom of Proverbs, who was with God from the beginning of creation. In my opinion, I think it is very likely that Matthew is suggesting that there is a spark of the feminine in Jesus’ nature.

Additionally, in his letter to the Galatians, written around 54 or 55 A.D., Paul says that he will continue “in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.”

Clearly, feminine imagery was acceptable among the first followers of Jesus.

The church fathers

This trend continues with the writings of the Church fathers. In his book “Salvation to the Rich Man,” Clement, the bishop of Alexandria who lived around 150-215 A.D., states, “In his ineffable essence he is father; in his compassion to us he became mother. The father by loving becomes feminine.” It’s important to remember that Alexandria was one of the most important Christian cities in the second and third centuries along with Rome and Jerusalem. It was also the hub for Christian intellectual activity.

Additionally, in another book, “Christ the Educator,” he writes, “The Word [Christ] is everything to his little ones, both father and mother.” Augustine, the fourth-century bishop of Hippo in North Africa, uses the image of God as mother to demonstrate that God nurses and cares for the faithful. He writes, “He who has promised us heavenly food has nourished us on milk, having recourse to a mother’s tenderness.”

And, Gregory, the bishop of Nyssa, one of the early Greek church fatherswho lived from 335-395 A.D., speaks of God’s unknowable essence – God’s transcendence – in feminine terms. He says,

“The divine power, though exalted far above our nature and inaccessible to all approach, like a tender mother who joins in the inarticulate utterances of her babe, gives to our human nature what it is capable of receiving.”

What is God’s gender?

Do images limit our religious experience? Saint-Petersburg Theological AcademyCC BY-ND

Modern followers of Jesus live in a world where images risk becoming socially, politically or morally inadequate. When this happens, as the feminist theologian Judith Plaskow notes, “Instead of pointing to and evoking the reality of God, [our images] block the possibility of religious experience.” In other words, limiting God to masculine pronouns and imagery limits the countless religious experiences of billions of Christians throughout the world.

It is probably best, then, for modern day Christians to heed the words and warning of bishop Augustine, who once said, “si comprehendis non est Deus.” If you have understood, then what you have understood is not God.


In the great debate about gender language in worship, here we have an article about whether Almighty God should be addressed as either male or female – as though God were made in the human image instead of the other way round.

Of course, we all know that Jesus instructed his disciples in prayer (the Lord’s Prayer) to address God as “Our Father in Heaven”, whose name was/is to be hallowed. The question for us today might be: ‘Was this the only title by Which God could/should be addressed or known? One problem with this is that Christians are aware that God cannot be limited to any human understanding of a single (gender) identity. God, as we recite in the Creeds, is both ‘Three and One’ at the same time – a ‘Trinity of Persons’, by whom the world was created, and in whose ‘Image and Likeness’ all humanity is created. This fact, alone, would tell us that we cannot imprison God in any one gender classification.

The’Mystery’ that is God is beyond our human definition – certainly in terms of our representation of God’s image and likeness. Otherwise, we might be tempted to imagine God as male, female and intersex – a prospect that would not help us in any attempt to ‘genderise’ God in purely human terms.

However, this being the case, what ought we to make of Jesus’ own reference to God as ‘Father’? One thing we can be sure of is that Jesus meant we should treat God as our origin and model of nurture as human beings. In his incarnate life on earth, however, Jesus, though he was masculine in physical characteristics, actually did refer to the necessity of the feminine in our experience of the overarching nurture of God in our lives: referring to himself as a ‘mother hen’ caring for her chicks. (Mother Julian of Norwich was once said to have addressed God, in prayer, as ‘Father-Mother God’!)

It is important here to note that Jesus himself never took part in the human act of procreation – which might have marked him out more clearly as the perfect male of the species. Of course, the complications that might have arisen from physical descent from a person of the Godhead (which Jesus was) could have posed a problem that would not have helped in this discussion.

The Incarnate Jesus, though ‘equal’ with the Father and present at the creation of the world; in human form did not ‘consider himself equal’ – in other words; Jesus, in his earthly form, acknowledged the difference between his (male) humanity and his innate God-ness. This was necessary for us to understand that, in our human state, we can never claim equality with God. Nevertheless, we are called by Jesus to become ‘children of God’ – whatever our gender or sexual orientation. It is interesting to note that the agency of our becoming ‘children of God’ is generally understood to have been the work of the Holy Spirit (the Comforter) whose feminine characteristics are sometimes referred to in theological discourse. 

That we are called into relationship with God, as children (“Unless you become as little children you cannot enter the Kingdom of God” – Jesus) is evidenced in our call to Baptism into Christ – a relationship which is both temporal and eternal – yet another part of the ‘Mystery of Faith’ that we sign up to as members of the Body of Christ. Perhaps we might even acknowledge God’s ‘motherhood’ in the part that the Church plays in our Christian nurture – as ‘Mother Church’ – bringing us into a special relationship with God at the Font, where we are ‘born again’ of water and The Spirit.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand



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Episcopalians rally around ‘Way of Love’

Episcopalians rally around ‘Way of Love’ framework for living into Jesus movement

By David Paulsen
Curry July 5 sermon

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry introduces The Way of Love during his sermon July 5 at the opening Eucharist of the 79th General Convention in Austin, Texas, in this image taken from an Episcopal Church video of the sermon.

[Episcopal News Service] Presiding Bishop Michael Curry spent much of his first three years as head of the Episcopal Church talking about Episcopalians being part of the Jesus movement. He has called them to follow Jesus into loving, liberating and life-giving communion with God, with God’s creation and with each other.

“Pretty early on, people started saying, how do we do that?” said the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, the presiding bishop’s canon for evangelism, reconciliation and creation care. “So, the presiding bishop really took that to heart.”

Curry provided an answer last month by launching a “rule of life” framework dubbed “The Way of Love”, featuring seven practices for Jesus-centered living. The churchwide response to the initiative so far has been overwhelmingly positive, Spellers said, and efforts to promote The Way of Love have just begun.

“You want to be people of the Jesus movement? You want to follow Jesus and to live his way? Well, his way is the way of love,” Spellers said. “And if we as a whole church commit to living a set of spiritual practices with conviction and in community, we will more and more live as Jesus’ people in this world.”

Way of Love wallet card

Worshipers were given Way of Love wallet cards at the July 5 opening Eucharist of the 79th General Convention in Austin, Texas, as seen in this photo taken from an Episcopal Church video of the service.

Curry first spoke of The Way of Love in his sermon July 5 for the opening Eucharist of the 79thGeneral Convention in Austin, Texas. Since then, Spellers and her staff have produced more than 100,000 wallet cards for the initiative and posted additional print-ready materials to The Way of Love website. Those materials have begun showing up in church bulletins across the church, and Episcopal partners, including Church PublishingForward Movement and Forma, are developing and releasing their own Way of Love resources for congregations. Some bishops, meanwhile, have issued personalized messages to their dioceses inviting them to follow the Way of Love practices.

Those practices, hardly revolutionary, should be familiar to most Christians.

  • TURN: Pause, listen and choose to follow Jesus.
  • LEARN: Reflect on Scripture each day, especially on Jesus’ life and teachings.
  • PRAY: Dwell intentionally with God each day.
  • WORSHIP: Gather in community weekly to thank, praise, and dwell with God.
  • BLESS: Share faith and unselfishly give and serve.
  • GO: Cross boundaries, listen deeply and live like Jesus.
  • REST: Receive the gift of God’s grace, peace and restoration.

ECWW – Olympia@DioOfOlympia

As we focus on the 1st discipline in The Way of Love, TURN, here is a question to ponder: Who will be your companion as you turn toward Jesus Christ?
Tweet your response so we can all learn from each other as we follow The Way of Love together!

Curry, his staff and a group of outside advisers known as his “kitchen cabinet” began working on that framework in December. “We realized that we already have what we need in the tradition of the church going back centuries,” he said in his July 5 sermon, citing monastic traditions that have long relied on rules of life.

The presiding bishop also drew a comparison to the set of practices followed by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the civil rights movement to focus their efforts. The Jesus movement, then, is built on the practices of The Way of Love, and Curry’s initiative aims to refocus Episcopalians on what it means to be a Christian in today’s world.

“I know and I believe that we in this church can help Christianity to reclaim its soul and re-center its life in the way of love, the way of the cross, which is the way of Jesus,” he said.

Spellers called this “an invitation to come home again.”

“If you look at what it takes to really grow spiritually vital Christian community, it’s not rocket science, but it does take commitment,” Spellers said. She thinks The Way of Love has been an early success because church members are hungry for spiritual formation and eager as Jesus’ followers to work for justice.

Church leaders also emphasize this isn’t a solitary journey. The shared commitment to The Way of Love echoes Episcopalians’ commitment to their baptismal covenant, a way of saying “yes” to God in a particular way.

“That’s powerful, and it’s also what movements do,” Spellers said.

Spellers’ team plans to begin a major push on social media soon in support of The Way of Love while encouraging local congregations to share their experiences with the hashtag #WayOfLove. They also are developing Way of Love liturgical materials that will be ready in time for Advent in December.

Wallet cards and brochures explaining The Way of Love can be downloaded from the website and printed for distribution locally. Spanish-language resources are being prepared. Congregations also are encouraged to experiment in how they incorporate The Way of Love into their parish life, part of an “open source” approach to developing the initiative  View image on Twitter

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Conway, Arkansas, has paired each of the seven practices with a different liturgical season over the coming year, and The Way of Love will help shape all ministries from the youth group to a senior citizen book club. Jerusalem Greer, the minister of formation and connection at St. Peter’s, is active in Forma and was part of the group Curry assembled to develop The Way of Love.

“One of the things that makes this really necessary right now is, as a culture we feel a little free-floating, a little lost,” Greer said. “And I think this helps us create a trellis, to try to kind of cling to and grow up.”

And as Curry inspires more and more people with his talk of being part of the Jesus movement, “people want to know how do you do that,” Greer said. “I think it’s that age-old question, how then shall we live? … I want to figure out how to be light and hope in a very dark world.”

One of the questions The Way of Love asks is “who will you walk with?” Forming discipleship groups will be an important step, to support each other and share experiences of spiritual growth, Spellers said. Parishioners may choose to form small Bible study groups, and several Episcopal seminaries have committed to developing on-campus gatherings centered on The Way of Love, including Virginia Theological Seminary, General Theological Seminary and the seminary at Sewanee: University of the South.

“That gives us the chance to shape the leadership of the church and to deepen the spiritual roots for the next generation of Episcopal leaders,” Spellers said.

The initiative also is drawing attention from other corners of the Anglican Communion. A priest in Canada wrote recently to Spellers saying he’d like to print Way of Love posters for his church. A similar inquiry came from someone in the Anglican Church of Mexico.

Curry’s team conceived of The Way of Love as part of the Anglican Communion’s Season of Intentional Discipleship, an initiative following the theme of “living a Jesus-shaped life.” That language and vision pairs with how Curry describes the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement.

“I want to ask not only you but every Episcopalian, to make a commitment to throw yourself into the hands of Jesus. And then live life out of that,” Curry said in his sermon at General Convention. “These tools may help you.”

Others in the Episcopal Church are helping to spread the word about The Way of Love.

“Any rule of life takes practice, and really that’s the point, practice. In a sense we never stop practising,” Diocese of Olympia Bishop Greg Rickel said in a video message encouraging Episcopalians there to take up The Way of Love. “It’s a lifelong practice, one most of us never get to be perfect, but in this, the practice is the gift.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at


Looking in on the Episcopal Church (ENS) website this morning, I came across this wonderful exposition of the message of love at the heart of the Gospel. In his initiative – to put love at the heart and centre of the Christian life – TEC Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has hit onto the ‘new and perfect way’ of living out the way of Christ in a world of competing values. Above all, Bishop Michael places the charism of Christian Love as the only way to make up for the negativity and the class hatred of people different from ourselves that is evident in our world.

This feisty opponent of President Donald Trump’s self-preservation ethic in U.S. politics is a gift to the U.S. Episcopal Church at this time in its history; when the forces of prejudice and institutional racial, gender and LGBTI discrimination rife in the Republic are reacting against the more gentle way of true religion – as identified in the Incarnation, life, death and resurrection life of Jesus Christ.

The Episcopal Church has much to teach the rest of us in the Provinces of the Anglican Communion – about the basic action of loving concern for our neighbour in the communities in which we live – and especially in the Body of Christ.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Sexuality and the Catholic Church

The Specter of a Sweeping Rewrite of Catholic Sexual Teachings

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Last week, Pope Francis approved a revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding the death penalty. While the previous iteration already declared licit use of capital punishment to be “practically non-existent,” the new wording strengthens this stance, pronouncing the death penalty “inadmissible.”

This change has prompted a flurry of speculation, from various media outlets, anticipating a sweeping rewrite of those Catholic teachings that most offend contemporary sensibilities—namely, Catholic sexual morality. Francis Debernardo, writing for The Advocate, cites the catechism revision as proof that the Vatican has “evolved,” and that any Church teaching can thus be altered following “decades of theological debate and discussion.” Over at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher begrudgingly agrees with Debernardo, calling the Pope’s Catechism edit a “big win” for LGBT Catholics who want to change Church teaching: “I wish [Debernardo] were wrong. I don’t think he is.”

The revised section appeals to the principle of human dignity in its condemnation of capital punishment, and Debernardo argues that LBGT advocates can invoke this same principle to usher a new sexual morality into the Church of the future.

But here is what this perspective fails to grasp: that very principle—the unassailable value of human life (even of death row inmates)—is the foundation of the Church’s current teaching on human sexuality. What the Church says about sex is fundamentally about life.


In an account of his own conversion, G.K. Chesterton highlights the paradox a would-be convert encounters, when viewing Catholicism from the outside:

He is looking through a little crack or crooked hole that seems to grow smaller as he stares at it; but it is an opening that looks towards the Altar. Only, when he has entered the Church, he finds that the Church is much larger inside than it is outside. He has left behind him the lop-sidedness of lepers’ windows and even in a sense the narrowness of Gothic doors; and he is under vast domes as open as the Renaissance and s universal as the Republic of the world.

Narrow and lop-sided aptly describes my perception of Catholic teaching before I became a Catholic myself. From an external vantage point, where everything is refracted through American politics, the Church seems an odd mishmash of conservatism and progressivism—against the death penalty, concerned about the poor and the environment, yet curiously opposed to women priests and same-sex marriage. I was particularly perplexed that the Church was against abortion and contraception—was this not an obvious contradiction? Is not contraception clearly the best means to reduce abortion? (This, as it turns out, is not the case.)

The Church seemed like a magnificent but sluggish giant, lumbering steadily toward the present, but always a century or two behind. It would get on “the right side of history” sooner or later, I reckoned, but not quickly enough for me.

But now I am on the inside. And here, under the dome of the whole, I see how these scattered spots of light, which from afar seemed a meaningless blur, actually form a constellation.

To perceive reality as the Catholic Church does, a radical shift must be made—that of locating oneself under a sacred canopy, as part of an interconnected created order, rather than an autonomous atomized self, crashing about in the void.

The pope himself provides a compelling account of this created order in his encyclical Laudato Si. Predictably, discussion of this encyclical tends to muck about in the shallows of American politics, missing the overall vision. Laudato Si is about climate change, yes, but more so about envisioning the cosmos as an integral whole, which “unfolds in God, who fills it completely.” Drawing from his predecessor, Pope Benedict, Francis declares that “the world cannot be analyzed by isolating only one of its aspects, since “the book of nature is one and indivisible,” and includes the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth.” The Church’s teachings about social and environmental justice, then, are not isolated from her sexual ethics, rather, these are unified by an unflinching regard for human life.

This eternal principle is always at work in Catholic sexual morality, and recognizing it requires remembering something our culture is teaching us to forget: Sex is the ground of human existence, the fountainhead of all human life. 

Our sexed bodies are not simply pleasure machines, orgasm generators. The features of our bodies that are designed for intense sexual pleasure are the same features that are designed for procreation. The pleasure center of the woman is the entrance to her womb; the moment of climax for the man is the very moment he gives his seed. The telos of sex is not the orgasmic thrill, but the transmission of human existence. Its unifying power is purposeful; the intense bond formed by sexual union does not exist merely for the insular good of the couple, but for the flourishing of the new person who might result from it.

A Catholic understanding of the universe not as accident but as cosmos demands that we regard the nature of our bodies as good and meaningful—including the fertility and sexual complementarity that binds us to our species and the natural order as a whole. In this view, there is a givenness to our bodies, particularly in their sexed natures, that connects us to all human life. The entwining of pleasure with life-giving potential that is written in our bodies is not incidental or pathological, but the fruits of divine intention. As Francis acclaims in Laudato Si:

Human ecology also implies another profound reality: the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of an “ecology of man,” based on the fact that “man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will.” It is enough to recognize that our body itself establishes us in a direct relationship with the environment and with other living beings. The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology (§155).

In sexual union, love and the potential for new life are intrinsically linked. This endows a dignity, a significance, to sex that goes far beyond the fulfilment of adult desires—beyond even a longing for romantic love or intimacy with another person. And that weighty significance demands something of us—all of us—no matter our sexual histories, proclivities, or marital state. It demands that we make sexual choices based not on desire, but out of respect for human life and the objective creative potential we carry. True human flourishing is not accomplished by transcending or rejecting the intrinsic connection between sex and life, but by acting in harmony with it.

Unlike some conservative Protestant understandings, Catholic sexual morality does not run along a gay/straight axis. Rather, “bad sex” in the Catholic understanding is sex that has been intentionally isolated from the potential for new life, when human beings try to put asunder what God, in the fabric of our nature, has joined together. This view of sexuality actually levels the moral playing field between those who experience same-sex desire and those who do not. Here, in fact, those categories become irrelevant, because everyone is asked to channel eros into agape, to live sacrificially for the sake of life, to honor the goodness of the created order with our bodies.


In the earliest days of Christianity, around the same time Saint Paul was writing his epistles, a treatise called the Didache, the Teaching, circulated among the nascent churches. This is the first catechism, the seed from which the current catechism has grown, and it begins by making an emphatic, clear-cut distinction: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death; but a great difference between the two ways.”

The way of death, as described in this text, includes interdictions that are palatable to the modern-day progressive, such as “not pitying the poor man, not labouring for the afflicted.” Among the litany of possible sinners are those “advocates of the rich” and “lawless judges of the poor.” But the Didache is also concerned with how we make use of our sexuality and safeguard new life: “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.”

In the moral tapestry of Catholicism, all of these concerns are interrelated, tracing back to a bedrock orientation toward life. The Church does not have a prurient obsession with “pelvic issues”—she has a mission to cherish human beings, and therefore must remain concerned with how those beings come to be.

Perhaps the Church is a magnificent giant, moving through history at a measured pace—but she is not wandering aimlessly. From her earliest days and even now, she is being led down the Way of Life. The truths about human sexuality that have been entrusted to her are not mere edicts against something, but an invitation toward something: a heroic regard for the human person and an otherworldly kind of love that is fortified by sacrifice.


The fact that conservative Roman Catholic commentator, Rod Dreher, can write about a recent openness to the revision of Catholic teaching on human sexuality – and grudgingly accept that fact, ought to alert other traditionalist conservatives of the Roman Catholic and other Churches (including Anglicans) that the Church – in order to retain credibility – has to move with the times.

When new revelation in biological and social sciences, concerning human sexual development, prompts a more progressive understanding of the nature and purpose of human sexual drive; the Church – upholder of the good in The Creator and The Creation – has to recognise the basic effect of sex as both a community building instrument (procreation and family life) and a source of pair bonding for two people who love one another and who seek to live their lives in harmony and grace in the community.

Roman Catholic spirituality, up until this time (and echoed in a great deal of the writing of this article), has majored on the theme of sexuality being solely given by God for the purpose of procreation. This, despite the fact that, in the Song of Songs in the Scriptures there is a strong erotic theme present in the relationship between the ‘Lover’ and the ‘Beloved’. This, surely, is direct scriptural evidence of another (natural) purpose for our instinctual sexual yearning.

In this article, by Abigail Favale, the writer suggests that the revision by Pope Francis of the Catechism, which concerns the inadmissibility of capital punishment, might also open up the way for a revision of the Church’s sexual ethics – to accommodate the possibility of Same-Sex Partnerships:

Francis Debernardo, writing for The Advocate, cites the catechism revision as proof that the Vatican has “evolved,” and that any Church teaching can thus be altered following “decades of theological debate and discussion.”.

This has led Rod Dreher to: “ begrudgingly agree(s) with Debernardo, calling the Pope’s Catechism edit a “big win” for LGBT Catholics who want to change Church teaching: “I wish [Debernardo] were wrong. I don’t think he is.”

Church teaching has in fact ‘evolved’ over the centuries, on matters such as institutional slavery, usury, the emancipation of the place of women in society, and other social constructs; so that in these days of official recognition of LGBTI human rights, the Church is gradually coming to terms with what is needed for the highest good of all in the pursuit of human flourishing.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch

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Resistance to change in the Roman Catholic Church

In intellectually sophisticated pieces like editorials in First Things or in Douthat’s book To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, or in far less informed diatribes directed at Francis, cardinals or bishops like those regularly propagated by websites like LifeSiteNews and Church Militant, Francis’ actions and teaching are met with unease, disagreement and sometimes active dissent. The Aug. 2 announcement of the modification of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to declare the death penalty “inadmissible” further raised a howl of anti-Francis noise, especially among U.S. Catholics whose political support for the death penalty seems increasingly in contradiction to authoritative teaching.

So how can this be described as ultramontanism? Isn’t anti-papal ultramontanism a contradiction in terms?

The missing link that connects the two movements is not support for a particular papacy, but opposition to change. Reading O’Malley’s book and re-reading some of the primary sources, on one hand, while keeping Twitter open on my computer on the other, has underlined more clearly for me that, both in the 19th century and today, the possibility of the church changing is the monster hiding under the bed, or the pew, for many of these thinkers.

Infallibility Wellcome c.jpg

An 1869 English illustration satirizes the debate over papal infallibility during the First Vatican Council. (Wellcome Library, London)

That the church changes — the “dirty little secret” as Garry Wills named it in the 1970s and as Jesuit Fr. Mark Massa revived it in his study of 1960s Catholicism — would be a contradiction in terms for both Veuillot and his contemporary equivalents. This may explain some of the parallels.

Any theologian or church historian knows just how often and radically the church has changed in the past, knowledge that some further reading in theology might benefit the average rad-trad on Facebook.

John Noonan’s magisterial A Church That Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching is just the most thorough treatment of how in relation to slavery, usury and marriage church teaching on morals has changed, sometimes radically, in the past. And for those converts to Catholicism for whom the conservatism and stability of the era of John Paul II and Benedict XVI was the refuge to which they fled from the upheavals and relativism of the past forty years, this new experience of development, however minor or gradual in the wider horizons of church history, will be a profound test of faith.

But if I’m correct, and the real heart of ultramontanism, new and old, is not simply the papacy, but how to understand the historical reality of the church, then we’re in for a bumpy ride.

Those of us who may have thought that the issue of the historical nature of the church was settled at the Second Vatican Council should be alerted out of our complacency to speak and teach about the phenomenon of ecclesial change. And we ought to remember that it was Veuillot and Ward who won the day through their skillful use of media, not the Archbishop of Paris or the theological elites who argued with them in theological journals.

The youthful populism of earlier ultramontanism warns us against dismissing similar movements today, particularly in relation to the world of upheaval and uncertainty threatening many educated, indebted and economically vulnerable young Catholics.

And yet, as John Henry Newman famously wrote, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Continuing to share the good news of the life of the church, a life that involves change, is one additional task for theologians and church leaders for this time in our history.

[Brian Flanagan is associate professor of theology at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He is the author of Stumbling in Holiness: Sin and Sanctity in the Church, to be published this September by Liturgical Press, and a contributor to the blog]


This is just a snippet from the latest N.C.R. article entitled ‘New Ultramontanists’: Why do some Catholics fear change? You can click on this link to read to article.

I wanted, this morning, to draw attention to the fact that, not only in the Roman Catholic Church, but in all Christian communities – not least the Provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion – there has always been a group of people who are terrified of any changes in doctrinal certitude.

In his excellent piece on the ‘Ultra-Montanism’ and the ‘New Ultra-Montanism’ present in the Roman Catholic Church; the author, Brian Flanagan, points to the fact that there have always been outspoken critics amongst the membership of the Church of any tendency on the part of the Magisterium (Papal authority) to alter the basic tenets of what they see as the initial ‘Deposit of Faith’ as originally determined by Early Church Councils.

This very same reluctance on the part of ‘Sola Scriptura’ Anglican communities to recognise that, with the progress of humanity and the emergence of scientific and social evidence of the need for attitudinal change, gives evidence that the Church needs to move with the times – in order to retain its influence and credibility as a spiritual force for the good in the society it seeks to minister to.

The natural human desire to remain with what has always been, and to close one’s eyes to the reality of life as it now is lived out in society, should never prevent the overhaul of dogma and doctrines that militate against the ongoing needs of justice in a world ever more open to the experience of institutionalised injustice and inequality that prevents the prospect of common human thriving for all people – not just the socially or religiously adept. With the Incarnation of Jesus, a new paradigm was bought into being which challenged the status quo of received religion and spirituality – to the extent that He intentionally ministered to the disenfranchised, the poor and the outcast of society.

The Church throughout its history has had to deal with the need for change – in order to meet the practical and spiritual needs of society. Its basic doctrines as stated in the Catholic Creeds have been agreed to as immutable, but subsequent dogmatic pronouncements – on the impact of the spirituality on the ways in which human behaviour is to be governed – have had to be reviewed in the light of new  revelations of how humanity can best be served in the light of a radical and new understanding of the mission of Christ in the Scriptures.

If our faith in God as Trinity; where Father, Son and Spirit are One and still involved in the ongoing work of creation (a belief that is perfectly consonant with the articles of the Catholic Creeds) is to remain relevant; we must always be open to new revelation from God on matters pertaining to our spiritual and material progression. As our understanding of God’s plan for us is progressively revealed, the Church must keep abreast of attitudinal changes that have to take place – in order for humanity to approach more nearly the ‘perfection’ that God has in mind for us. Any resistance to the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, whose light has been shed on matters of slavery, male-dominance, racism, intellectual elitism, sexism and homophobia – and other socially destructive elements of our common life – could be seen as counter-productive to the ‘Coming of God’s Kingdom’ for which purpose the Church initially was bought into being.

Pope John XXIII’s call for ‘Semper  Reformanda’ –  at his institution of the Second Vatican Council – began a revolution in Roman Catholic theology, which still resonates today among many faithful RomanCatholics. However, there is a remnant in that Church which is critical of the reforming zeal of the reforming zeal of Pope Francis, whose intention is to carry through, and perhaps even improve upon, the movement made by the Church at the time of Vatican II to bring the influence of the Church into the world of the Third Millenium.

Similarly, in our very own Anglican Communion, there are those who resist, with all their energy and reason, the more pragmatic movement of some of our local Provincial Churches to include LGBTI people in their ministry and mission in and to the world of today. As with the nay-sayers in the Sanhedrin, who questioned the Christian activities of the Early Church, they were advised that, if their activities were of the Holy Spirit they would survive. So we shall see!

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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