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Tears In God's Wineskin: A Theology of Hospitality

Part 1: The Love that Dares Now Speak its Name


Christ as Bridegroom to All

 Since the beginnings of the church, all followers of Christ, male and female alike have been called to be the bride to Christ as groom (Ezek. 16:4-9; Eph. 5:25-30; see also John Paul II 1988: n.25). We might then legitimately ask why same-sex marriage is so troubling for a people for whom same-sex marriage to Christ for men has been doctrinally orthodox for so long. Many who oppose same-sex marriage deny being homophobic and may even campaign for human rights for homosexuals, but they stop short of the right for homosexuals to marry, considering marriage to be natural only for heterosexuals. However, is not marriage in its various social forms merely delegated as heterosexual and so contingent to that specific orientation? It is entirely natural for human beings to invent ranges of social organisation and marriage is, in its simplest sense, nothing more than a social organisation, so why regard it as uniquely heterosexual?

The difficulty may have some origin in the spiritual reality of men and women being intimately involved with and even falling in love with what is traditionally viewed as a male deity. In both Jewish and Christian tradition it is asserted that God has neither sex nor gender, but is both and neither, yet God has always predominantly been engendered as male. This leads to the dilemma of reconciling (or being unable to reconcile) functions of the body with spiritual purity, as Loughlin considers, “Thus the priestly concern with purity became an obsession with the body’s porosity, with the ejaculations and seepages of its fluids, which could cross the borders of skin and country. Human flesh is always transversing and transgressing boundaries; its fluids seeping out, its skin touching other skins, its limbs entangling aliens – human and divine.” [1] Human ideas of sex are gendered and the act of engendering God underpins traditional thoughts involving human ordering. This is why, for men, God cannot be gender neutral; God understood as male enables the exclusion of women from certain kinds of power and promotes the understanding that only men can be divine and represent God while women cannot; a point feminist theology has been unravelling for the past forty years and perhaps is beginning to reap its reward with the acceptance of female bishops in the Church of England as of July 2014.  

It may be asserted that symbolically all Christian men are queer, enjoined to reflect on Christ as their bridegroom and seeking his intimate kisses as expressed in the Song of Songs 1:2 and sermonised by Bernard of Clairvaux. Loughlin insightfully considers Bernard’s work on the Song of Songs [2] and the multiple intimacies it bestows on the bride and groom, the soul and Christ, the church and her Saviour, the Father and Son, “The kiss is first the kiss of incarnation, when the Word’s mouth was pressed to the mouth of Jesus. ‘A fertile kiss, therefore, a marvel of stupendous self-abasement that is not a mere pressing of mouth upon mouth; it is the uniting of God with man.’ And having kissed Jesus on the lips, the Word in Jesus kisses the ascending soul . . . The soul participates in the erotic life of the Trinity – between the divine lips – when she receives the kiss which is the Spirit, and which Christ gave to the church when he breathed upon the disciples (Jn. 20:20). ‘That favour, given to the newly-chosen church, was indeed a kiss.’”

Such an erotic understanding of relationship with Christ was concealed behind the church’s enthusiasm for priestly celibacy in the pursuit of perfection, where sexual desire in language and imagery could be used as long as it was spiritualised, and as long as the celibate spiritualised his or her own body through chastisement in order to be rid of fleshly desire. Loughlin rightly notes that, as celibacy eventually grew less attractive and marriage became more desirable, particularly with the rise of Protestantism, the homoeroticism involving men loving a male God was cast into oblivion and replaced with the destruction of anything that could be deemed ‘sodomitical,’ which in itself gives reason for why a 21st century discussion of same-sex marriage is so unsettling for Christian churches. [3]      

Gay marriage is a public declaration, an open legitimisation of same-sex behaviour which, for many, would be taking too far an acceptance of homosexual relationships. While the homosexual ‘condition’ might be acceptable, even its practise in secular circles – few would wish to see homosexuality re-criminalised – and while growing numbers might accept same-sex relationships in the church, though considered ‘second best’ and so long as not practised by priests, [4] homosexual marriage cannot be tolerated. Its recognition would necessitate the church accepting signs of grace which have traditionally been denied and acknowledge not only the validity of gay sex but also committed affectionate relationships, the legitimacy of vows taken and the celebration of love between same-sex partners. The church is rarely at ease with heterosexual love and its range of demonstration, but through Christ acknowledges that she is nevertheless called to faithfully love and endorse the expressions of love between people as representing the very life God imparts and bestows upon us because God himself is love (1 Jn. 4:16). Bring queer love into the mix and the church generally responds with confusion or prohibition, for she has no idea how else to respond.

Michael Foucault, in an interview towards the end of his life rather astutely observes:

“One of the concessions one makes to others is not to present homosexuality as anything but a kind of immediate pleasure, of two young men meeting in the street, seducing each other with a look, grabbing each other’s asses and getting each other off in a quarter of an hour. There you have a kind of neat image of homosexuality without any possibility of generating unease and for two reasons: it responds to a reassuring canon of beauty, and it cancels everything that can be troubling in affection, tenderness, friendship, fidelity, camaraderie, and companionship, things that our rather sanitized society can’t allow a place for without fearing the formation of new alliances and the tying together of unforeseen lines of force. I think that’s what makes homosexuality ‘disturbing’: the homosexual mode of life, much more than the sexual act itself. To imagine a sexual act that doesn’t conform to law or nature is not what disturbs people. But that individuals are beginning to love one another – there is the problem.” [5]

Foucault considers Society to be an institution caught up in a contradiction where the ‘affective intensities’ of certain human relationships traverse it, simultaneously keeping it going and shaking it up. He regards such relations as “short-circuiting society and introducing love where approval for love is usually only to be found in law, rule or habit.”

The hostility of ‘anti-gay’ thinking originated in the belief that a homoerotic orientation was rooted in either pathology or criminality. Because of science, it is better understood to be simply a “non-pathological minority variant of the human condition” as James Alison names it and who considers that, in the light of this, theology is bound, by its own internal logic, to take such a finding into consideration and recognise that homosexuality is not, in any sense, a disordered condition: “In the last fifty years or so we have undergone a genuine human discovery of the sort that we, the human race, don’t make all that often . . . We now know something objectively true about humans that we didn’t know before: that there is a regularly occurring, non-pathological minority variant in the human condition, independent of culture, habitat, religion, education, or customs, which we currently call ‘being gay.’ This minority variant . . . is lived, as is every other human reality, in an entirely culture-laden way, which is one of the reasons why it has in the past been so easy to mistake it as merely a function of culture, psychology, religion or morality: something to get worked up about rather than something that is just there.” [6] Consequently, as Christians, we should be compelled to consider far more deeply what this means for the reception of gay men and lesbians inside the Church, and how incorporating provision for their flourishing, will result in a greater flourishing for the church as a whole.

In the same article Alison further points out that it makes an enormous difference to an individual’s sanity and health to discover that they “aren’t a mistake, a cruel joke. If you are used to being told that your feelings are all wrong, sick, distorted, and your attempts to tell the truth about your life are so many delusions and lies, then the relief that is felt when you find that . . . what we call being ‘straight’ or ‘heterosexual’ is not the normative human condition, but a majority human condition.” In short, while it may be true that the majority of human beings are heterosexual, it is not true that humans are intrinsically heterosexual in orientation.

Following in Foucault’s footsteps, Mark Vernon, in The Philosophy of Friendship, powerfully presents how gay relationships challenge society to recognise a greater range of human affections that deepen what has previously been understood by friendship and which allow Foucault’s ‘affective intensities’ to break through the boundaries that normally contain them. [7] This view challenges the church to recognize that the family into which Christians are called by Christ is not one of biology but of friendship (Jn. 15:15) where it is not genetics or family and societal nurture that form identity but the sharing in Christ’s blood poured out for all; and where friendships between women and between men can be acknowledged as erotic, confronting the church which has, over the centuries, entirely separated eros and philia.

The Eucharist, a sharing in the body and blood of Jesus, is without question, a profound act of taking another’s body into one’s own and is as intimate as sex. Inasmuch as it brings men and women into union with Christ through the marriage of the lamb and the church, or of God and Israel, it is the embrace of both sexes and of all marriage, straight and gay alike. In the holy mystery of this union, the second person of the Trinity is a man as Jesus, but as Christ he is also woman and his followers are neither male nor female (Gal.3:28). In this regard, it is simply not possible to place queer people outside or beyond the embrace of inclusivity and oneness. The Eucharist is the consummate place for learning the practise and intimacy of love and what it means to love one another and here faith and worship unfold within the reality of God’s agape, which is interwoven with God’s eros in a place where God’s agape and eros are actually one and the same. Here, Eucharist is a rite that is radically queer.

When Teresa de Lauretis first coined the term when proposing her ‘queer theory’ in 1991, arguing for ‘queer’ as a name for what was emerging out of the cultural field, it is unlikely she considered the impact it would have on the LGBT community or how quickly it would be embraced as a name for anyone outside of or challenging heteronormative categories. [8] Queer studies and interests have turned the pathological homosexual into the political gay and the gay activist, where identity is marked not by definitions promoted by heterosexuals but from a position where queer identity is perceived as normative. ‘Queer’, as a term, has become available to anyone who feels marginalised because of their sexual identity, as David Halperin notes in an essay on Michael Foucault, “[Queer] could include some married couples without children, for example, or even (who knows?) some married couples with children – with, perhaps, very naughty children.” [9]

Referring to Halperin’s work, Loughlin considers the inclusivity Halperin envisions but observes that Halperin also warns against an inclusivity that hides or obstructs the differences between queer people, of tastes and politics that drive them apart, while admitting to its number those who have never experienced the harassment or insult (or fear of harassment or insult) that brands them as deviant because they do not exhibit behaviour today that yesterday earned the label of ‘queer.’ [10] It would appear to be for this exact reason Teresa de Lauretis abandoned the term ‘queer theory’ after a few years, since it became too commonplace and fashionable, no longer subverting the domination of heteronormativity. Theologically, however, the term remains fresh and less established, so retains the possibility of diverging from what is believed to be normative within heterosexual and patriarchal Christianity. The kingdom of God is inaugurated in and through Christ but not yet established and Christians are called to live in this ‘now but not yet’ state, living and loving like Christ, as a sign that the kingdom of God has arrived. In the same way, queer theology anticipates God’s kingdom lived and realized, not a returning to what used to be or a remaining static but a looking to the future and the new, as promised by God. Just as the church considers itself a sign of what is to come, so queer Christians regard queer thinking as a learning to live the promises of the future: inclusivity lived fully in the grace of God.

Considering the depths of relationships in terms of erotic friendships invites misunderstanding in two ways: viewing such relationships as promiscuous and idealising romance, thus disallowing substance. Paul Jennings notes in the opening of his paper, The Grace of Eros, that fashionably, eros and its offshoots are associated only with physical sexuality and ‘erotic’ is often a euphemism for pornographic. [11] Similarly in theology there is a reductionist predisposition to regard eros as ‘needy love’ and therefore the opposite of agape. Elizabeth Stuart points out how C.S. Lewis did not help matters when his book The Four Loves popularized the belief that the Greeks viewed the four loves in black and white terms, drawing definite distinctions between them and setting them in a hierarchy with agape at the top. [12] However, as Stuart correctly observes, there is no certainty they actually did this.

While it may be fair to point to Greek philosophy, in particular the dualism of Plato as the source behind Christianity’s emphasis on the carnality of the fallen, sin-tainted body and the goodness of the eternal, God-given spirit/soul, the seeds of such a notion are thoroughly grounded in Judaism’s priestly obsession of the body, its unclean functions and secretions, particularly where women are concerned (see especially the Levitical Holiness Code 17-26). When our thinking concerning eros is insufficient, our understanding of erotic friendship, indeed of marriage, is impoverished. Augustine’s On the Good of Marriage treats sexuality not as something to be celebrated but rather defended, in the light of the presumed greater good of virginity and only within the confines of marriage can sexuality be hallowed, where the grace of children might excuse sexual intimacy. Any notion of mutual companionship, loving partnership and support between spouses is a poor relative in Augustine’s thought, effectively separating love entirely from sexuality. [13]

The idea of romantic love, as associated with committed, faithful relationships, seems to have always been problematic in Christianity traditionally. With its insight into the inconsistencies of the human heart, Christianity holds what lovers, particularly newly found lovers, can rarely if ever accept: that emotion is not eternal and by itself is no foundation for building a lasting relationship. Romantic emotions distort perspective between partners, exaggerating the good and concealing the bad, and can be little more than self-absorption. However, as Jennings notes, Christianity acts rashly in contrasting romantic and agape love by belittling the former, rather than simply differentiating the two. Similarly, it dismisses as irrelevant any love already developed between couples, as is reflected in liturgy. Anglican liturgy relating to marriage does not generally acknowledge a couple’s relationship prior to the commitment they are about to enter into and what is intended for them in the future. Only the Church of Canada briefly mentions that the couple has complied with Civil and Canon Law prior to marriage. [14] Possibly this impersonality reflects a time when marriage was mostly for reasons of status, economic necessity, security of property or the uniting of families, but today such considerations are no longer the factors that drive a marriage. Marrying for love is a phenomenon of modernity, as historians, sociologists and psychologists might be quick to point out, and the church has failed to respond to this pastorally.

Ideas surrounding what love looks like may have changed considerably, but people have always fallen in love and desired to marry the one they are in love with. Consequently, while the church might be unwise to uncritically embrace modern Western attitudes towards love, the current liturgy and whatever historical reasons made it so impersonal requires serious review in order to consider the articulation and expression within liturgy of the celebration of the couple’s love for one another, which is one of the major purposes of a wedding, as Jennings records. [15] It is not surprising, then, that liturgical consideration for same-sex couples desiring life-partnership is exclusively the domain of inclusive and uniting churches, in particular Metropolitan Community Church which was the first inclusive denomination to engage a rite of Holy Union for gay men and lesbians as early as the 1970’s.  

A Christian tendency to dichotomize agape and eros further complicates a theological understanding of love. In his 28th Thesis of the Heidelberg Disputation, Luther distinguishes between divine and human love, establishing that humankind naturally loves what is pleasing, beautiful or deserving of love while God loves the unlovable, the undeserving, disfigured and sinful. [16] This, by definition is grace and a distinction of the creative nature of God, creating beauty where it is naturally absent while the nature of created humanity is unoriginal and reactive. However, lovers are not ruled solely by their love of what is objectively beautiful even when physical attraction may be the principal factor that initiates a relationship. If the love develops, it moves beyond the sparkle and ‘wow’ factor to a place where each knows the other’s vulnerabilities and faults, expanding to incorporate a fuller understanding between the two. This is agapic growth, but unlike the Christian virtue that grows from compassion for the broken or ugly, it enables a lover to discover greater beauty in the beloved and in this respect it remains erotic.

It is also different from the way in which the majority of people appreciate superficial beauty, because with lovers the lover finds in the beloved a beauty most likely unseen by others, reflecting how God regards a human being in their limitations yet sees them as wholly beautiful. This is something Peter Rollins is aware of, suggesting, “God is loved through the work of love itself (Mt. 18:20; 1 Jn. 4:20). It is in love that we find new meaning, joy, and fulfilment.” [17] When lovers see each other as beautiful each reflects their vision back to the beloved, enabling him/her to discover their own beauty and grow into it, something neither partner would have by themselves. And in this sense, the love of lovers is comparable to the imaginative and creative love of God; as a grace that is not intrinsic to us but given to us. “[W]hen God is found in love itself, then the very act of loving brings us into immediate relationship with the deepest truth of all . . . Is this not the properly theological understanding of God? Not a being we directly love, but rather the depth present in the very act of love itself?” [18]

Same-sex couples seek marriage or the blessing of their partnership for the same reasons as heterosexuals and their desire for union is based upon exactly the same experience of falling in love and developing that love profoundly and maturely. This element is frequently ignored or forgotten during our current debates surrounding gay marriage, and in its place we tend to find overgeneralisations and nonrepresentational assumptions. It may be pertinent for the church to rethink the question of falling in love and recognise the need to respond to gay and lesbian couples who, no differently from heterosexual couples, have uniquely experienced a grace-filled falling in love with each other and the development of both eros and agape in the depths of their relationship. If we consider the possibility that God is at work in the love between responsible adult lovers developing a mature relationship, then we must recognise that it is insufficient to merely find reasons for accepting committed same-sex relationships. The question the church should be asking is what reasons are there for standing in the way of the work of the Spirit and similarly consider the risk and magnitude of disallowing what God finds acceptable and excluding what God includes.



[1] Loughlin, Ompholos, in Queer Theology, p.116.

[2] Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons on the Song of Songs 2.3, in, Readings in Medieval History Vol II: The Later Middle Ages, Patrick J. Geary [ed.] (Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 2010), pp.342-350


[3] Loughlin, Ompholos, in Queer Theology, p.126.

[4] In December 1991, the House of Bishops published Issues in Human Sexuality. In this is endorsed the traditional Christian belief that, biblically, heterosexual marriage is the proper context for sexual activity between two people and declares that ‘homophile’ orientation and activity cannot be endorsed by the Church as: “. . . a parallel and alternative form of human sexuality as complete within the terms of the created order as the heterosexual. The convergence of Scripture, tradition and reasoned reflection on experience, even including the newly sympathetic and perceptive thinking of our own day, makes it impossible for the Church to come with integrity to any other conclusion. Heterosexuality and homosexuality are not equally congruous with the observed order of creation or with the insights of revelation as the Church engages with these in the light of her pastoral ministry.” It further states, however, that the conscientious decision of those who enter into such relationships must be respected, and that the Church must “not reject those who sincerely believe it is God's call to them.” Nevertheless, because of the “distinctive nature of their calling, status and consecration”, the clergy “cannot claim the liberty to enter into sexually active homophile relationships.” Church of England 1991: para.44-7; 5.13-5.22. Available online at: http://www.churchofengland.org/our-views/marriage,-family-and-sexuality-issues/human-sexuality/homosexuality.aspx

[5] Michael Foucault, in Tom Roach, Friendship as a Way of Life: Foucault, AIDS, and the Politics of Shared Estrangement (New York: State University of New York Press, 2012), p.136-37.

[6] James Alison, The Fulcrum of Discovery or: how the “gay thing” is good news for the Catholic Church, on James Alison.Theology. Available online at: http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng59.html

[7] Mark Vernon, The Philosophy of Friendship (Hampshire, UK and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

[8] Theresa De Lauretis, Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities, in Differences No 3:2, 1040-7391 (Bloomington: Indiana Press, 1991)

[9] David Halperin, Saint Foucault: Toward a Gay Hagiography, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p.62.

[10] Halperin, Saint Foucault, in Loughlin, Queer Theology, p.9.

[11] Paul Jennings, The Grace of Eros, in Ecumenism (September 2006, No 163), pp.12-19.

[12] Elizabeth Stuart, Just good friends, pp.52-53.

[13] It should be noted that Augustine begins this particular work by acknowledging the importance of fellowship within marriage, but the emphasis he makes on it is quickly passed over in favour of concerns over sexuality and having children.

[14] The Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada (Anglican Church of Canada: Anglican Book Centre, 1985) p.529.

[15] Jennings, The Grace of Eros, in Ecumenism (September 2006, No 163), pp.3-4.

[16] Harold J. Grimm and Helmut T. Lehmann [eds.], Luther’s Works Vol.31: Career of the Reformer (Fortress Press and Concordia Publishing House, 1957), p.57.

[17] Peter Rollins, Insurrection: To Believe is Human; to Doubt, Divine (Croydon: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., 2012), p.118.

[18] Rollins, Insurrection, p.120-21.