Today, June 28, 2009 is the 30th Anniversary of the Stonewall riots, often cited as the first instance where homosexuals fought back against oppression. For 25 of those years, I have been a gay activist, although age and decreased energy have diminished my passion. For several years now, my church, Trinity Episcopal Church in St. Louis, under the leadership of Rev. Anne Kelsey, has held a “mass on the grass” under a large tree in the corner of Tower Grove Park, the current site of St. Louis Pride activities during the last weekend in June. I have been to every one of these masses, and wasn’t about to miss this one. I even proudly wore my original tee shirt from the first full pride celebration April 12-20, 1980, although it has shrunk, and I have not.
The mass on the grass was well attended, I’d say at least 200 souls, and had its usual familiar format. A group of musicians playing guitars and recorders accompanied the hymns. The mass was a standard mass with liturgy of the word and eucharist served to everyone who wished to partake. What was new and different about this service is that our bishop, the Right Rev. George Wayne Smith of the Diocese of Missouri, gave the sermon. I listened with care to his message, and want to report what I heard him say on a couple of topics and how I experienced him.
Previous to the service, Bishop Smith went through the crowd and greeted people. During the sermon, he told us that he was glad to be with a “peculiar” people, and confessed that he too, even though a white male person of privilege, was also peculiar, as one of his children who was attending that day might testify. He reminded us that Jesus Christ was at particular pains not only to associate with people considered peculiar or even worse in his day, but to love them. Christ started to build his kingdom with the strange, outcast and peculiar people of his time. The Bishop told us that he does not agree with the people who say that strange and peculiar people do not deserve to hear the Word of God. He also said that he has come to understand that God is saving all of us as a group, and that he understands that he needs us, and everyone else, for his own salvation. After the sermon, he and other assisting priests served us communion.
I think it was indeed a joyous time, with old friends and acquaintances renewing connections. During most of the service, an African American man in white collar and black clerical garb, for this and several other years in a row, yelled at the top of his lungs for us to turn away from our satanic homosexual lifestyle. Several of the assembled souls walked the 50 or so feet towards him and engaged him in conversation, so that for most of the bishop’s sermon, he was comparatively silent. But shortly thereafter he was back at it. Actually, that’s kind of symbolic for me, since for my whole life, there has been some crazy allegedly straight person screaming for me to change my ways in the background.
As glad as I was to see the Bishop at mass on the grass, to receive his warm and sincere greetings, and to hear his supportive words, I have to say that he still has not said enough. I know from other contexts that Bishop Smith feels that in his role as Bishop, he must represent the Episcopal Church, and that since the church as a whole is not in agreement about serious issues such as the ordination of openly gay or lesbian bishops and priests, and conducting services of holy matrimony for same-sex couples, he is bound to represent the whole body of Christ. I certainly can accept this Bishop’s view of his own role. However, this position is not universally held by people in similar positions. Bishop Spong and others have chosen to take a leadership role in routing out and exposing the prejudice and downright ignorance of biblical scholarship that lies behind the exclusion of the GLTB community from full inclusion into the sacramental life of the Church.
No one can legitimately expect a person to go beyond what his or her own well-considered conscience is saying. I am reminded of a conversation I had with my own father some 30 years ago. My dad, unlettered with only a 9th grade education, studied the Bible all his life. His copy of the King James Version was almost completely underlined in pencil. I came out to my mom and dad in 1973, in all truth, because I wanted them to love me for what I was, not what they thought I should be. Some time after this initial revelation, I asked my dad how he viewed my homosexuality. He replied, “Well, Jim, you’re a queer and I’m a drunk. But I love you.” And I have no doubt that dad did love me. My mother was fond of telling me that once she asked dad what they were going to do about me, and dad replied, “Lorene, he’s our son, and we’re going to love him.”
What my mom and dad didn’t get about me was that while I was indeed a sinner along with the rest of the world, part of my sin was not that I was a homosexual or that I engaged in homosexual activities. It was impossible for them to get their minds around the fact that homosexual thoughts and behavior are a natural variant of human sexuality. And since it is a natural activity, what matters is not THAT we do it, but HOW we do it, meaning are we loving and respecting of the people involved. The Church is being less than loving and respecting when it does not bless our sincere and well-considered bonding, and when it can’t imagine that a bishop could be openly gay and still do a good, a holy job.
Until I hear that, I won’t have heard enough.