Jack-with-no-box – Why I have come out of the church

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IN MY LAST POST I explained how I began to find my voice while contributing to The Exuberant Church by Rev Barbara Glasson. As Barbara and I discussed the coming out process, I had a strong sense that I needed to help her write her story and, in doing so, I began to write my own.

I started in Spring 2009, and was amazed by the energy I found to write it, managing around 2000 words each time over several writing sessions. Some 15,000 words later, and with preliminary affirmation from Barbara, my partner, and one or two well chosen others, I realised I might have something of substance that others might benefit from reading.

I knew the direction the next part of the story would take, and I thought I knew where it would end – with integrating my sexuality and my spirituality and remaining within the Roman Catholic Church, which has been my spiritual and cultural home since birth.

But that is not how it has turned out.

For a while I lost momentum. Without a clear purpose, my story seemed nothing more than self-indulgence, of no interest to anyone.

I now believe this disillusionment was a new phase, taking me to a more authentic place than I could have foreseen. But before I could begin writing again, it took me away from the church.

Barbara uses a metaphor in her book for the coming out process, which also conveys the risk, for many of us, of disconnection from our communities

The coming-out process is a passionate process. It has pent-up energy associated with it, which is released in a sudden or surprising way… The best way I can describe this transformative energy is through the image of a jack-in-the-box, a children’s toy where a clown attached to the end of a spring is pushed down into a solid box. When the lid has sprung open the jack-in-the box, which has been squashed into the dark interior, bursts out and begins dancing frantically on the end of its long spring. It is not hard to see why, in the experience of coming out, when the lid is taken off the box, the people who emerge can become detached and either fall out of or fall out with the place from which they have sprung. Coming-out people, it would appear, are often exodus people.
– Glasson 2011 p.23

Writing my story appears to be having this kind of transformative effect on me: the passion and energy I found to write it, the emotional release of creative expression, the freedom to put my name to parts of the story I shared in Barbara’s book. But in doing so, the story changed course from what I imagined to something radically different.

It began while I was on a silent retreat a year later. I awoke in the early hours of the morning, not through fretful dreams, but because I felt excited and inspired. I had never before heard so many words in silence. One phrase stood out, and spoke to me of what I felt God was asking me to do with my experience: ‘Put a brave faith on.’ So I did!

You will no doubt be familiar with the expression, and perhaps the experience, of ‘putting a brave face on’. I know I was, so much so that for a while the wind changed and it stuck! I was masking fear and distress, or trying to, not being real and honest about them and letting God in.

I felt a deep desire to look at my story again, to have the courage to go deeper, and the humility to recognise God’s presence throughout it. After all, it is not only my journey to openness as a gay man. It is also my faith story; how I became a Catholic by birth and a believing Christian by the power of God to work into it an experience of unconditional love and forgiveness, in spite of my fear of rejection and my belief that I could never be ‘good enough’.

So now you know the origin of the name of my blog and, perhaps, of the book this story may become.

I revised what I had written and reached a deeper sense of purpose and peace. But as the post retreat glow faded, I remained stuck around the point at which I began to live more openly as a gay man, as if I hadn’t fully integrated that part of the journey, so lacked the passion to commit it to paper as with the earlier text.

My unease was not merely with my own story, but also with the unfolding story of the Roman Catholic Church. In September 2010, as Pope Benedict visited Britain, I was the convenor of the local Quest group for LGBT Catholics in Liverpool. Gaydio, Manchester’s LGBT radio station approached me for a live interview. I went on air immediately after they played voxpops (soundbites of interviews with the public) recorded on Manchester’s Canal Street about the visit. Unsurprisingly, they were almost unanimously hostile, so it didn’t feel like an auspicious start. Listening to the interview as I write this, I hear conflicting emotions in my voice.  I put forward as strong an argument as I could without compromising my integrity, yet I felt an overwhelming sense of having defended the indefensible, and fell into a depression for the rest of the day.

You can listen to the interview here (7 minutes 30 seconds):

Inevitably, the revelations of sexual abuse and subsequent failure to report it to civic authorities featured prominently in the backlash against the Pope’s visit. I heard many ‘jokes’ in the media implying that every priest, from the Pope down, is a paedophile. I find this distressing because it is unjust – there are many good and sincere Catholic priests who would not dream of exploiting a child. It makes no more sense than saying that all gay men are predators out to seduce young boys and ‘recruit’ them.

I find this to be one of the most pernicious forms of homophobia, not least because I have twice faced direct or implied accusations of paedophilia. While teaching in a Catholic primary school in my early twenties, I plucked up the courage to confide in a priest about my sexuality in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession). He broke the ‘sacramental seal’, the supposedly sacred guarantee of confidentiality, when he called me to see him to tell me that, if I were gay, I should reconsider my future in Catholic education, because if I got to a certain age and was unmarried, people would think their children would be unsafe with me. Then, after leaving seminary and attempting to return to teaching in my early thirties, a homophobic neighbour,  in an effort to get our landlord to transfer him to a new house, claimed he had seen me viewing child porn on my PC. I felt powerless to report him to the police for fear that the allegation alone would be enough to damage my career.

So I found it particularly distressing when, within months after becoming Pope in 2005, Benedict XVI issued a statement advising the exclusion of candidates for ordination with ‘deep-seated homosexual tendencies’. If you are celibate it should not matter who you are attracted to. There is already a major shortage of priests without excluding men of good intentions who have much to offer, who are statistically over-represented in those applying for ministry compared to the general population. A likely reason for this move was revealed by Cardinal Bertone, Vatican Secretary of State (the Pope’s number two) who said in April 2010 that celibacy was not to blame for child abuse by priests, but homosexuality was ‘the problem’. I had no desire to be scapegoated for the systemic failure of the Church to hold offending priests justly accountable for their abuses.

Yet still I remained faithful, as I wrote in an article for Manchester’s Lesbian and Gay Foundation website about the Pope’s visit:

Although I too have been deeply hurt by the words and actions of leaders I was taught to respect, I and others like me choose to remain in the church because we believe it doesn’t have to be this way. Just as the Bible was once used to justify slavery, which few if any Christians would now defend, so we believe that in time the oppression of LGBT people by the church will also be overcome by a deeper sense of social justice. We are more likely to effect this change if we remain and campaign for change within the church than if we join the chorus of disapproval from the outside. It is because individuals have followed their consciences and because the Church has eventually listened to them that today the Church actively protects the religious liberty of non-Christians and condemns slavery.

Then the Catholic Church reformed the authorised texts for use in worship in September 2011. This move was reactionary and divisive, as it moved away from the internationally agreed ecumenical texts used in common with other Christian churches for forty years, and ignored the advice of their own experts in translation. The International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) spent 15 years working collaboratively on a draft that was widely approved by bishops in 1998. Through a second process, however, the Vatican rejected this draft, thereby ignoring the guidelines of Vatican II that gives bishops’ conferences a central role in renewing the liturgy. Liturgy professor Fr. Anthony Ruff, OSB resigned from ICEL, stating:

The forthcoming missal is but a part of a larger pattern of top-down impositions by a central authority that does not consider itself accountable to the larger church. When I think of how secretive the translation process was, how little consultation was done with priests or laity, how the Holy See allowed a small group to hijack the translation at the final stage, how unsatisfactory the final text is, how this text was imposed on national conferences of bishops in violation of their legitimate episcopal authority, how much deception and mischief have    marked this process – and then when I think of Our Lord’s teachings on service and love and unity…I weep.’ – America magazine 14 Feb 2011.

This was a powerful example of a church that has ceased to listen and is retreating behind a barricade of its own creation. I did not feel I could stand in a congregation and recite these words with integrity. On the few times I attended Mass after the change, I largely remained silent, inwardly mourning the loss of my spiritual home, as I knew I could not remain there.

Last came the Catholic Church’s responses to the UK government’s consultation on marriage equality. There were two statements which locked the stable door for me. The first, by Cardinal Keith O’Brien, compared the proposed change in legislation to condoning slavery:

Imagine for a moment that the Government had decided to legalise slavery but assured us that “no one will be forced to keep a slave”. Would such worthless assurances calm our fury? Would they justify dismantling a fundamental human right? Or would they simply amount to weasel words masking a great wrong? – Sunday Telegraph 03 Mar 2012.

The consultation was on civil not religious marriage, but ‘the UK’s most senior Catholic’, as the media accurately designate him but embarrassingly for those of us who don’t consider him representative of our faith, fears that if same sex marriage were permitted, the exemption for faith groups would soon be eroded by gay couples demanding marriage, which he believes would be ‘an abuse of human rights’. Reviewing his statement to summarise it here has disgusted me all over again. I was ashamed to be in the same church as this ‘moral leader’.

I had higher hopes the following weekend when the two most senior bishops in England and Wales wrote a letter to be read in all churches. This was more disheartening for what it could have said and failed. Having offered an orthodox Catholic position on marriage, they added:

we also want to recognise the experience of those who have suffered the pain of bereavement or relationship breakdown and their contribution to the Church and society. Many provide a remarkable example of courage and fidelity. Many strive to make the best out of difficult and complex situations. We hope that they are always welcomed and helped to feel valued members of our parish communities. – Full text here

Very worthy, you may say. But what about the experiences of lesbian and gay people who experience the pain of isolation and our contribution, our example, our striving, our welcome and value? Noticeable by their absence. Yet the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states:

(Homosexual persons) must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. – para 2358

Omitting this crucial piece of orthodox teaching, I believe, gave implicit assent to the travesty of a moral argument proposed by their Scottish ‘superior’. And to make matters worse, the letter implied that the Government would compel Catholic churches to conduct same sex marriages, when the consultation was on civil marriage only. International human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell demonstrated this by surveying members of the congregation of Westminster Cathedral as they left church that day. Three quarters of the people he spoke to were under the impression that the archbishops were talking about same-sex marriages in churches. Peter Tatchell commented:

Deception is not a Christian value. An inadvertent deception that is not corrected is equally un-Christian. – Pink Paper 14 Mar 2012

Or, to put it biblically ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour’ (Ex 20:16), even if they are gay.

So that is how I became a ‘Jack with no box’. As I began to share my coming out story and seek to find God in it, the pent up energy built up to the point of inevitable release. The coiled spring of my attachment to the Catholic church became unsprung, unattached, and I have been on the bounce ever since. I have become part of the exodus from the Roman Catholic Church, one of the chorus of disapproval on the outside rather than fighting in vain for change from within.

I have felt bereft, but not completely at a loss. My partner is Anglican, and he has found a spiritual home in a liberal Anglican parish community in which I know I am welcome, we are welcome as a couple. We worship there together at least once a month. But when I heard the Church of England’s response to the Government consultation on equal marriage, I wondered if I was leaping from frying pan to fire. A ‘senior figure’ told the Daily Telegraph that same sex marriage could be the biggest threat to the establishment of the state church since the reign of Henry VIII. We all know how orthodox his views on marriage were. This sounded to me a lot like a justification of the Church’s own privilege and status rather than an example of Christian social justice.

Yet I am not so easily discouraged, as the memory of the blessing of our civil partnership (the first to be registered in an authorised place of worship in the UK) is fresh. We are blessed with many friends in ministry, who were virtually fighting each other to be able to conduct our blessing. This milestone seems to be the new destination of my ‘brave faith’ story, a rite of passage to a deeper openness shared with the man I love, our families and friends, and our God.

I also take consolation from the fact that the ‘Jack’ in many ‘Jack-in-the-box’ toys is portrayed as a jester (see top of page).The jester or fool was employed to entertain a monarch, wearing brightly coloured clothes and eccentric hats, and carrying a mock sceptre. Regarded as mascots, they also had licence to criticise their master or mistress and their guests. Queen Elizabeth I is said to have rebuked one of her fools for being insufficiently severe with her. The fool’s status was one of privilege within a royal household. His folly was often deemed to be divinely inspired. Jesters could also give bad news to the King that no-one else would dare deliver.

As I have begun to claim my unique voice through sharing my story, so I dare to be a jester – a fool who speaks to those in authority in the church, saying what they need to hear but would rather not.

The jester in Shakespeare’s As You Like It is known as Touchstone. A ‘touchstone’, in the medieval ‘science’ of alchemy, was used to discern whether something is made of pure gold or base metal. As Barbara explains in The Exuberant Church:

It is this alchemy and foolishness of God that I think is at the heart of the coming out story. And as we are reminded in Corinthians (1 Cor 1:27), the foolishness of humanity can be the wisdom of God; it is the quirky, playful, profoundly painful and joyful face of God’s kingdom on earth. – Glasson 2011 p.126

There is something to be said for leaving our boxes behind, especially if they are not of our choosing. Benedictine theologian Sister Teresa Forcades challenges the Church to embrace ‘queer theory’ and listen to those who don’t fit the boxes they make for us:

the grace of “queer” theory is that it says “very well then, instead of tolerating them and putting them aside in a box or discriminating against them as certain fundamentalists do, and persecuting them and punishing them, and even killing them, as has happened throughout history, no, we invite them to teach us something essential about who we are. Because, in fact, it’s not appropriate to put any of us in a prefabricated box. And, as such, it helps us to think about ourselves in more open categories. Full text here

The coming out process has much to teach people of faith about the transformative potential of the human spirit. If only the Church had the courage to listen.

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