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Tears In God's Wineskin

Part 1: The Love that Dares Now Speak its Name


The Development of Queer Theology

 Hermeneutic principles are always characterized by the context in which they are realised. Recent approaches such as feminist or black understanding are grounded in response to patriarchal oppression, slavery, the 20th century civil rights movement and on-going struggles for equality; and are marked by periods of protest and political activism. For gay men and lesbians it is the Stonewall riot of 1969 that is significant as a turning point in history because this was when a handful of non-heterosexuals fought back against the regular humiliating and usually unjustified police raids on gay gatherings. The result was the Gay Liberation Front and other groups that were far more politically active than their predecessors such as the Mattachine Society or the Daughters of Bilitis.

Gay and lesbian studies that emerged from the 1970s are grounded in this period as is the annual celebration of Gay Pride. One does not need to be non-heterosexual ontologically to be able to interpret biblical texts from such a position, but one does need a world view and discourse horizon that encapsulates an understanding of ‘gay identity’ and an awareness of the ways in which sexual categories have been historically constructed – and dismissed or oppressed – depending on a variety of factors such as race, class, societal culture, age and both the religious and political assumptions that guide a society. Interpretational strategies have historically served only to solidify heteronormative life and to suppress anything outside that sphere. It is quite a different scenario to commit to upholding absolutely the dignity and self-worth of the LGBT-identified person.

Throughout the 1980s, 90s and into the early twenty-first century, social and natural scientists, and church historians such as John Boswell, Alan Bray and Bernadette Brooten, expounded the difficulties faced by gay men and lesbians and began questioning conservative social and religious attitudes. Rowan Williams proposed in The Body’s Grace in 1989, that, “When looking for a language that will be resourceful enough to speak of the complex and costly faithfulness between God and God’s people, what several of the biblical writers turn to is sexuality understood very much in terms of the process of ‘entering the body’s grace’” and further speaks of how grace should be understood in such a context: “Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted. The whole story of creation, incarnation and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ's body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God's giving that God's self makes in the life of the trinity. We are created so that we may be caught up in this; so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.” [1] Other scholars considering the same idea began to explore biblical text in depth including New Testament scholar L. William Countryman and Old Testament scholars Walter Brueggeman, Bruce C. Birch and Larry L. Rasmussen. [2]

Early lesbian and gay theologies seem to have been largely committed to essentially understanding sexual orientation as an innate biological destiny which helped to offset the legacy of anti-lesbian and anti-gay scriptural teaching. Instead, the distinctive spiritual gifts of lesbian or gay-identified persons were emphasized, sexual practice as a celebration of spiritual experience was affirmed and the authority of innate experience over traditional church teaching was stressed. [3]

Using existent and accepted theological concepts gay men began to find their own voice within Christian realms, establishing gay theology for serious consideration, and expressing the idea that God is always on the side of the oppressed so theology requires critical reflection on active involvement in the struggle for social and political justice. Lesbian theologians, however, argued that Christian theology is rooted in patriarchy, racism, heterosexism and other beliefs and practices that excluded and oppressed them, thus it would need to be deconstructed and rebuilt if it were to be truly liberating. As such differences emerged in the theological arena, lesbians and gay men were also engaging in previously unknown acts of solidarity in response to the HlV/AIDS pandemic, its horrors and its repercussions.

Out of this context, queer theology would emerge in the 1990s, part of a larger queer movement of political activism that called for legal and social equality and encouraged many sexual outcasts and outlaws to work in solidarity with one another. The term 'queer' was reclaimed from a long history as a term of abuse and its meaning 'to spoil or be different from' was adopted to describe the solidarity forged among all those who 'spoil' heterosexual normativity by being different. As a consequence, transgendered people and bisexual people were brought into the equation.

While wholly positive in its intentions and successful in provoking an overdue change in theological thinking, gay theology nevertheless tended to reinforce sexual categories and consequently, as Elizabeth Stuart points out, failed “. . . to produce universally convincing reasons for the acceptance of lesbian and gay people and their relationships within the Church and society as a whole.” [4] Similarly, Derek Sherwin Bailey notes, “[T]he Christian tradition affords us little guidance, for it knows only one kind of homosexual behaviour – that which would be termed perversion; thus to one of the most perplexing ethical problems of our time it has at best an indirect and dubious relevance.” [5]

It is queer theology that has the potential for upsetting sexual categories and moving beyond them, being more radical and provocative than gentler gay theology, although it can at times prove confrontational and aggressive, which can be viewed as problematic and antagonizing the church rather than aiding the emergence of fresher thinking and understanding. However, when one considers how battle-weary gay and lesbian theologians may become through years of theologically head-bashing the walls of church tradition and the church’s refusal at times to even consider theological developments, perhaps queer theology, as a breath of fresh air, is more timely than we have yet realised. Consequently, it is perhaps understandable that while gay theology still has a significant role to play, advocates of inclusion within the church have criticised its early theologies and look toward queer theology for its impact and a long-awaited shake up of the church.

Under this more radical banner, gay and lesbian issues have been expounded by theologians such as Keith Ward, John Austin Baker (former Bishop of Salisbury), Adrian Thatcher and Marilyn McCord Adams while heated debate spread across Christian denominations, drawing distinguished Roman Catholic thinkers into the examination, including Lisa Sowle Cahill, Mark D Jordan, Margaret A Farley and Gareth Moore, whose exceptionally well-contended 2003 work A Question of Truth: Christianity & Homosexuality relied on scriptural appraisal, theology and reason. Scholarship has predominantly been aimed at an academic readership, but other works have appeared such as Tobias Haller’s Reasonable and Holy, published in 2009. With the establishment of queer theology, substantial work in this field has been produced by Elizabeth Stuart, Eugene Rogers, James Alison, Grace Jantzen and Marcella Althaus-Reid among others, while other openly gay and lesbian theologians have been more theologically and socially conservative, such as Peter J. Gomes and leading evangelicals Michael Vasey and Roy Clements.

Increasingly over the past decade, more churches have moved towards understanding that faithful commitment and self-giving love should be nurtured in same-sex partnerships just as for heterosexual partnerships. Eugene F. Rogers Jr. argues that, for those not called to monasticism, marriage, whether between members of the opposite or same sex, can establish a place where holiness is developed in the sense of putting on the ‘wedding garment’ of Matthew 22, [6] reminding us that, “marriage analogies abound in Christian texts and practices for the relationship of the human community with God.” In Rogers thinking, “Sexuality, in short, is for sanctification, that is, for God. It is to be a means by which God draws human beings into the community of God’s Spirit and gives them the identity of being God’s Children. Monogamy and monasticism are two ways of embodying features of the triune life in which God initiates, responds to and celebrates love.” [7] Similarly, “Marriage in Christianity is best understood as an ascetic practice of and for the community by which God takes sexuality up into God’s triune life, graciously transforming it so as to allow the couple partially to model the love between Christ and the Church.” [8]

Sarah Coakley has examined how desire might be beneficially and morally directed, broadening work on human sexuality that more intensely touches on both same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. For her, the act of making oneself vulnerable is located in proximity to desire, allowing one’s self to be in touch with desire for God and, through that, to be in touch with God’s desire for oneself: “There is our own primary desire for God, of course, which we strive in prayer to put first; but underlying that is God’s unique and unchangeable desire for us, without which all our own striving is fruitless.” [9] What Coakley points to is that in making space within oneself for God we connect and reconnect with a yearning for God and to be filled with God’s goodness, which allows us to realize we are already held in a strong, underlying undercurrent of divine love that is directed at us and permeates us, so in grasping for God we realize we are already and always have been held by God, perhaps reminiscent of Karl Rahner’s notion of mystery as superabundant, positive and gracious.

Coakley further suggests that sexuality, specifically as a paradigmatic expression of desire, tells us about who we are at our deepest level, in relation to God, and expresses how our sexual desires and our desire for God are entwined with each other, “No less disturbing than the loss of noetic control in prayer and all that followed from that was the arousal, intensification and reordering of desire . . . Our capacity as Christians to try to keep sex and God in different boxes is seemingly limitless, but the integrative force of silent prayer simply will not allow this, or not for very long.” [10] In other words, our sexuality, with essential goodness at its root, is a compass that enables us to discern the precise ways we choose to love God in this life; and inversely, our love for God directs us to expend our energy toward others in particular ways, including sexually.

Opponents of what is a steady progression towards full acceptance of gay men and lesbians may be dismayed by the increasing number of theologians and congregations acknowledging same-sex unions and understanding them to be just as holy and spiritually fruitful as heterosexual unions, or they may dismiss it as a theological fad that will eventually pass away. One opposing theologian is Joe Dallas, founder of Genesis Counselling, who refers to ‘pro-gay theology’ as, “redefining homosexuality as being God-ordained and morally permissible.” He considers, “When God is reputed to sanction what He has already clearly forbidden, then a religious travesty is being played out in bold fashion. Confronting it is necessary because the pro-gay theology asks us to confirm professing Christians in their sin, when we are Biblically commanded to do just the opposite.” Unfortunately he makes no further argument for his understanding of homosexuality as being a sin beyond referring to biblical text purely literally and concludes, “The pro-gay theology is a strong delusion . . . Some who call themselves gay Christians may be truly deceived into accepting it; others might be in simple rebellion. What compels them to believe a lie, we cannot say. What we do know, however, is this theology is false.” Dallas’ only concession is in accepting that, “[T]he caution of a proper spirit is in order. When we answer the pro-gay theology, we do so as sinners approaching other sinners, nothing more.” [11]

Advocates for progression generally consider the journey toward acceptance to be an example of the way the Spirit of truth sets people free, continuing to guide the followers of Christ in the ways of his teaching (John 16.12-14); it is revelatory, sound and here to stay. More recently, queer theology has leaned on the body of philosophical work known as queer theory, which was initially inspired by the work of Michael Foucault and became associated with philosophers and sociologists such as Judith Butler, Gayle Rubin, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Jeffrey Weeks. Drawing on Michael Warner’s phrase “resistance to heteronormativity,” [12] queer theory predominantly rejects the idea or ‘essentialism’ that sexuality is a drive that is universal and eternal, viewing it rather through a social constructionist lens which teaches that nothing is ‘natural’, including heterosexuality, and that norms merely become networked through the most common practices and institutions that maintain heteronormativity.

Erotic desire and romance do not exist above or beyond history or culture but are always interpreted within it, and its interpretation, or construction, is almost always bound up with issues of the power ­of those who categorize and label and of those who are labelled. The notion that we can define the essence of people according to their sexual orientation, only emerged fully in the nineteenth-century desire to classify people using medical models. The male 'homosexual' was invented to describe those men who would not or could not conform to the type of masculinity that modern western capitalism felt appropriate. In challenging this, in refuting the notion that they were 'sick', and promoting instead the understanding that they were generally no different from heterosexuals, the modern lesbian and gay liberation movement was born.

Social constructionism teaches us that nothing is 'natural', including heterosexuality. Some men and women may be attracted to each other in all times and cultures, but how that attraction is interpreted and the repercussions of it are constructed differently in different times and cultures; the same being equally true of gender. At the heart of this lies the human need to establish identity, the longing to authentically recognise and be recognised for who and what we are and to be counted as having no less worth or social standing than anyone else. This is why on-going dialogue is so important, particularly pertaining to political freedom and position within the faith community. As Deryn Guest remarks, “Remaining engaged in political and ecclesial discourse on these issues is vital for the well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT)-identified persons, and when one is involved in such engagement, identity labels – however contested – remain part of the discourse.” [13]

Even so, not all advocates of queer theology are supporters of queer theory. As Guest notes, “Queer Theory may be very astute in destabilizing heterosexist norms, but when it comes to destabilizing the male dominance inherent in heterosexism the keen edge is sometimes found wanting.” [14] Queer Theory can tend to assuage rather than address difference.

Applying the subversive intentions of queer theory to religious studies, liberation theologians, feminist theologians and religious ethicists began to explore queer theory’s potential in the late 1990’s, touching on themes such as queer readings of Hebrew and Christian scriptures, challenges to heterosexually biased Christian theology and explorations of where and how sexual and religious identities intersect. [15] Significant branches of liberation theology, such as the commendable work of Marcella Althaus-Reid [16] include queer theology from the peripheries of sexual deviance and economic exclusion, while the implications of transgender and intersex identities within religion are explored by the likes of S. Cornwall and Tricia Sheffield [17]

Difference within solidarity and recognition of the validity of difference are central themes in queer theology. It acknowledges that black, white, disabled, poor, rich, male, female and transgendered queers are oppressed in different ways and that some of us are involved in the oppression of our fellow queers. Western theology and society as a whole have tended to view difference as problematic and dealt with it by creating hierarchies which allow some people's understanding of the world and of God as right and true and that of others as to be dismissed or regarded as wrong.

Queer theologians celebrate difference as an insight into truth rather than a threat to it, but that is not to say it is a free for all and anything goes. Queer Christians are Christians because it is believed that Christianity provides the rules, language and grammar to make sense of life. Rules of Christian grammar may be argued over and disagreed with, but queer theology shares the conviction of liberation, feminist, black and other new theologies that no theology is neutral or objective. As long as queer theology can authentically reflect the reality and spirituality of those living the reality of queer lives in the muddle and chaos of the world it will avoid the risk of becoming a self-serving ideology that merely impersonates theology and instead become a theology which has the potential to transform not only queer people but all men and women of every flavour and orientation.


[1] Rowan Williams, The Body's Grace [1989], in Theology and Sexuality: Classic and Contemporary Readings, Eugene F. Rogers, Jr. [ed.] (London: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), pp.309-21.

[2] See L. William Countryman, Dirt Greed and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and their Implications for Today (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988); Walter Brueggerman, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis, MA: Augsberg Fortress Press, 1997), in which Brueggerman compares the justice tradition with the holiness tradition; Bruce C. Birch and Larry L. Rasmussen, The Nature and Role of Biblical Authority, in Birch, Rasmussen [eds.], Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life, Revised and Expanded (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989), pp.141-158.

[3] For example see G. Gerhart & W. R. Johnson (Eds.) Loving Women/Loving Men: Gay Liberation and the Church (San Francisco, Glade Publications, 1974); J. J. McNeill, The Church and the Homosexual (Kansas City, Ignatius Press, 1987); M. Macourt (Ed.), Towards a Theology of Gay Liberation (London, SCM Press, 1977).

[4] Elizabeth Stuart, Gay and Lesbian Theologies: Repetition with Critical Difference (Aldershot, Ashgate, 2003) p.28.

[5] Derek Sherwin Baily, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (London: Longmans, Green, 1955 [reprinted, Hampden, CN: Archon Books, 1975]), p.157.


[6] Eugene F. Rogers Jr., Marriage and Sanctification, in Daily Episcopalian. Available online at: http://www.episcopalcafe.com/daily/sacraments/today_through_Wednesday_daily.php

[7] Eugene F. Rogers Jr., An Argument for Gay Marriage, in The Christian Century, No 15, June 2004. Available online at: http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3069

[8] Eugene F. Rogers Jr., Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way into the Triune God (Oxford: Blackwells Publishing, 1999), p.74.

[9] Sarah Coakley, Prayer as Crucible: How My Mind Has Changed, in The Christian Century (March 22, 2011), p.37.

[10] Coakley, Prayer as Crucible, in The Christian Century, p.37.

[11] Joe Dallas, Responding to Pro-Gay Theology, Pt.1, on Exodus Global Alliance, Available online at: http://www.exodusglobalalliance.org/respondingtoprogaytheologypartip344.php

[12] Michael Warner [ed.], Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p.16.

[13] Deryn Guest, When Deborah Met Jael: Lesbian Biblical Hermeneutics (London: SCM Press, 2005), p.49.

[14] Deryn Guest, When Deborah met Jael: Lesbian Biblical Hermeneutics (London: SCM Press, 2005), p.46.

[15] See for example R.E. Goss, Queering Christ: Beyond Jesus Acted Up (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2002); R.E. Goss and M. West [eds.], Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2000); D. Boyarin, D.Itzkovits and A. Pellegrini [eds.], Queer Theory and the Jewish Question (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).

[16] Marcella Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender and Politics (New York: Routledge, 2001), in which Althus-Reid argues that all theology is sexual theology and brings queer theory into dialogue with both feminist and liberation theologies; see also her work, The Queer God (New York: Routledge, 2003) in which she challenges the normative and oppressive powers of heterosexual white orthodoxy and global capitalism.

[17] Tricia Sheffield, Performing Jesus: A Queer Counternarrative of Embodied Transgression, in Theology and Sexuality (Vol.1:3, 2008), pp.233-58, in which Sheffield shows how an Augustinian reading of Genesis 1-3, which condemns ‘heretical’ or ‘monstrous’ bodies can be re-read in the light of Christ’s body, enabling the construction of “identities of hybridity and transgression that disrupt ancient and contemporary fictive narratives of normative gender and sexuality.” See also S. Cornwall, Sex and the Uncertainty in the Body of Christ: Intersex Condition and Christian Theology (Sheffield: Equinox, 2011), in which Cornwall considers theological implications of intersex conditions and available medical treatment while exploring a shift towards body-focused theology that is made possible when we take into account perspectives that defy binary or complementary gendered embodiment.