US Anglicans forty years after Stonewall

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
14 Jul 2009

The Stonewall riots in June 1969 in New York helped to transform society in the USA and beyond. The General Convention of the Episcopal Church being held in California in July 2009 is far more sedate. Topics for discussion range from ‘Liturgical Materials for Pastoral Care in the Adoption of Children’ to ‘Climate Change and the Millennium Development Goals’. Yet, once again, media attention is focused on attitudes to, and behaviour towards, lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender (LGBT) people, in the context of their families and communities. In several other Christian denominations, too, LGBT issues are still especially controversial. The spiritual challenges faced by US Christians in the 1960s have helped to set the context for today’s debates.

Human sexuality and the Episcopal Church

The Anglican Communion has traditionally avoided over-centralising authority. Leaders of member churches throughout the world can, and often do, ignore the numerous resolutions passed at international gatherings without facing any sanctions. There are also various matters on which Anglicans strongly disapprove of one another’s beliefs and actions while outwardly remaining united. There is however one exception: consecrating a partnered lesbian or gay man as a bishop, or authorising a liturgy for blessing same-sex partnerships, is widely regarded as exceptionally serious.

The Episcopal Church (TEC), mainly based in the USA and the Anglican Church in Canada, have been under particular pressure. A few years ago,moves within these churches towards greater acceptance of LGBT people were condemned by many senior Anglican clergy elsewhere. These included people who believed there was a strong theological case for greater equality but who feared that taking action now was divisive. From their point of view, it would be better to wait until there was broad agreement among member churches. Since Anglican leaders in some other countries refused to study the issue in depth or enter into dialogue with LGBT people in their midst, campaigning instead to have them imprisoned, this would clearly be a long wait.

TEC’s last General Convention (a synod of representatives from different areas, including laypersons, bishops and other clergy) was in 2006. This passed resolution B033, calling on those choosing bishops "to exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion". The House of Bishops later agreed not to authorise orders of service for blessing same-sex unions.

This has been a cause of deep discomfort to many US Anglicans, even among those who have, for the sake of international unity, supported a moratorium on moves towards equal treatment of LGBT people in the church. Many at General Convention in 2009 have called for this to be set aside, describing the harm it has done. Instead they would like the same welcome to be extended to heterosexual and LGBT people and the same disciplines imposed. Anglican leaders elsewhere in the world would still be free to act differently within their own provinces but not to dominate others.

Some of those strongly opposed to TEC condemn such reluctance to treat LGBT people differently as a sign that it is too concerned with following society’s trends rather than Biblical teaching and church tradition. Indeed some of those on both sides of the debate on sexuality are not critical enough of worldly values, and take cultural norms for granted. Yet much of the discomfort with resolution B033 is based on deep religious convictions.

The need for angelic troublemakers

There is a thread of spirituality running through US Christianity which has influenced numerous churchgoers of various denominations and has had a wider impact on society. This combines awe at God’s greatness with a vivid sense of the presence of the Word made flesh dwelling in our midst (John 1.14) and concern to seek and serve Christ in the least of his brothers and sisters (Matthew 25.31-46). From this perspective, those who do not love their fellow-humans are estranged from God too (1 John 4.16-21). However, Christ’s death and resurrection offer the hope of a new life not bound by prejudice, lack of caring or legalism, but instead inspired by the Holy Spirit and filled with love (Galatians 2.20-3.4, 5.13-17).

Injustice is thus perceived not only as an affront to the mental and physical welfare of the oppressed, who are precious to God, but also to the spiritual welfare of the oppressor. Institutions and societies where oppression is routine need to be healed, however secure and orderly they might at first appear. All are made in the divine image. And all, not just those in authority, have a part to play in seeking justice and peace: however weak or insignificant they may be in worldly terms, God’s strength can make up for what they would otherwise lack.

This was a belief held by many in the civil rights movement. It is easy to forget how disturbing it was at the time to many respectable citizens, not only those who believed that the inferiority of black people was ordained by the Bible but also more liberal people who believed in gradual change and not in large-scale disruption and confrontation.

‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,’ wrote Baptist minister Dr Martin Luther King Jr in Letter from a Birmingham Jail. ‘Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.’ He also took a strong stance against economic injustice in the USA and internationally.

Another leading figure in the civil rights movement was the Quaker peace activist Bayard Rustin, the key organiser of the 1963 march on Washington for jobs and freedom. He was perhaps even more controversial than King. An African-American Quaker, openly gay and a former member of the Young Communist League, Rustin was inspired by the Gandhian movement in India, spent time there learning from its techniques and helped popularise the notion of non-violent direct action in the USA. He spent time in jail not only for protesting against racial injustice but also for breaking anti-gay laws, and in his later life he campaigned for greater equality for LGBT people.

‘Loving your enemy is manifest in putting your arms not around the man but around the social situation, to take power from those who misuse it – at which point they can become human too,’ he argued. He believed that ‘We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.’

Though some in the Episcopal church were reluctant to get involved in such a controversial movement, others were drawn to it. They included Barbara Harris, an African-American community activist in Philadelphia, who was deeply involved in the Church of the Advocate. She would later be ordained and become one of the first Anglican women bishops, while remaining a keen supporter of further inclusion: ‘I would like to see the church come to some better understanding of what it means to be an inclusive fellowship, how to more fully exhibit the love of Christ in the world.’

Many white people were drawn to the civil rights movement too, though they risked being branded as race traitors and were also subjected to violence. William Stringfellow was one of these, a Harvard-educated lawyer who put his skills at the service of slumdwellers in New York and who was one of the Episcopal Church’s leading theologians. He argued that racism was not simply a social problem, "not an evil in human hearts or minds, racism is a principality, a demonic power, a representative image, an embodiment of death", yet a "power with which Jesus Christ was confronted and which, at great and sufficient cost, he overcame… The issue is the unity of all humankind wrought by God in the life and work of Christ. Baptism is the sacrament of that unity of all humanity in God." With his partner Anthony Towne, he sought to bear witness to his belief: "In the face of death, live humanly. In the middle of chaos, celebrate the Word." To him, prayer, Bible study and the sacraments were at the heart of resistance to violence and injustice.

Malcolm Boyd was a journalist who became an Episcopalian priest, adopted approaches to mission and ministry that appealed to young people and wrote a book of prayers which became a bestseller. He became a freedom rider and used his skills as a communicator to highlight the damage caused by racial segregation. He warned that the notion of the church as a reconciler could be "perverted to mean soft compromiser, meek agent of acquiescence in social evils, gently sentimental moderate, or apostate symbol of the status quo whose final allegiance is to society instead of God." In contrast "The church can act as a reconciler by scrupulously looking to the breakdowns in its own moral and intellectual integrity, listening before it speaks, not being afraid to speak at whatever human cost when it knows it must, and, at the core of everything, struggling to continue loving." Boyd later came out as gay.

Militancy grew within the anti-racist movement, especially after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. Anti-war activists were protesting and feminists were organising to win greater equality for women. It was against this background that an apparently routine police raid on a bar in New York City turned into a riot.

Growing visibility and the call to do justice

In the 1950s and 1960s, LGBT people in the USA faced harsh social and sometimes legal penalties. For some years, courageous campaigners for greater equality had sought to change the law and public attitudes. Meanwhile those labelled criminals, perverts and sinners faced an often harsh existence, especially if not shielded, even a little, by wealth, education or ethnic privilege.

Many of the patrons of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village were African-American or Latino. Seventeen-year-old Sylvia Rivera was one of those present in the early morning of 28 June 1969. Her life had not been easy. Born biologically male in New York, to a Puerto Rican father who soon left, and a Venezuelan mother who committed suicide when the child was three, she was raised by her grandmother, a pieceworker in a factory, who often beat her. The femininity of Rivera, drawn to wearing makeup and attracted to boys and men at an early age, was a particular source of conflict. At the age of ten or eleven she ended up as a homeless prostitute. As she later explained, on the streets she found a new ‘family’ of trans-gender people who cared for one another. She took the name Sylvia and began to get politically active, becoming involved in the civil rights and anti-war movement.

She and her friends faced many hazards, from drug abuse (developing self-esteem and taking care of one’s health in such circumstances could be hard) to violence, sometimes at the hands of the police. Beatings were common, even rape. But that night at the Stonewall Inn, when police raided, people in and outside the bar fought back, throwing coins and other objects. According to Rivera this started with street gays and drag queens and others joined in.

The Stonewall riots marked a greater assertiveness among LGBT people, though some still remained ashamed and secretive. Heterosexual people had to rethink what they had taken for granted and recognise that family members, workmates or fellow-students, people they socialised with, relied on and worshipped alongside, did not fit into society’s norms of gender and sexual orientation. What is more, it became increasingly clear that LGBT lifestyles varied, as did those of heterosexuals and that some partners formed bonds of depth, stability and mutual love, providing a basis for mutual caring, emotional growth and joint service to the wider community.

Attempts had previously been common among psychiatrists, religious ministers and other figures of authority to try to change people’s sexuality, or at least persuade them to pretend to be ‘normal’, often with damaging effects. More and more, however, this was called into question: might it be better to acknowledge that people were diverse in orientation, and help them find a path that fitted their own gifts and capabilities?

For many Christians, this meant acknowledging that some of those they sought to serve and minister to and who served and ministered to them, were LGBT. This might include anyone from a destitute person in a soup kitchen or troubled teenager in a youth club to a godparent, verger or bishop. There was no longer a neat dividing line between ‘them’ and ‘us’.

Discrimination was not easy to overcome and even now, LGBT people can face exclusion, mistreatment and indeed. violence. Rivera became active in the Metropolitan Community Church of New York, where she ran a food pantry for the poor. She continued to campaign and organise, especially for the rights of trans people and a better deal for homeless LGBT youth, until her death in 2002. To her, and many other US Christians, care for the destitute and downtrodden and struggles for justice could not easily be separated out into sets of issues or programmes, to be dealt with at different times.

In other countries too, as LGBT people became more visible, often in the context of resistance to oppression, churches were faced with a new challenge. Leaders responded in a range of ways, often linked with their wider beliefs about the nature of faith, the value of justice and the possibility that they themselves might have something to learn, and gain.

Upholding the dignity of all

Though an increasing number of theologians in the USA and elsewhere came to believe that same-sex relationships were not necessarily wrong, some Episcopalians remained unconvinced. Yet for those who did come to accept that, ideally, the church should bless same-sex relationships under certain circumstances and choose the best candidates to be bishops whether heterosexual or otherwise, it was difficult to continue to discriminate, even in the interests of ‘church unity’. Given the historical background, this seemed an affront not only to those treated as outsiders or second class citizens but also to their Creator and a failure to live as a follower of Christ, emboldened by the Holy Spirit to challenge unloving attitudes and structures.

The seeds sown four decades ago have continued to grow. At a Eucharist at General Convention on 10 July 2009 sponsored by Integrity, which seeks greater inclusion for LGBT people in TEC, Barbara Harris, now retired, preached a powerful sermon arguing against the "false peace" of resolution B033 and reminding those present that God has no favourites. B033, she said, "needs to be superseded by something positive that recognises the dignity of all God’s human creation."

As debates continue among Christians of various denominations about human sexuality and diversity, the experience of US Anglicans will almost certainly remain in the spotlight. There are no easy answers. Yet for many people, and not just in the USA, the challenge remains of acknowledging the true spiritual as well as physical and emotional impact of the divisions caused by poverty and discrimination and of witnessing in deed and word to the hope – through divine grace – of a different manner of life for all.

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(c) Savi Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK and is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. An Ekklesia associate, Savi has contributed several chapters to the recent book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow (Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia, 2008).

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