The Call is Coming From Inside the Closet

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The Call is Coming From Inside the Closet

Rev. Roberta Howey

Stephen over the years has given you multiple discussions on LGBTQ people and the Bible. If you want a refresher, his sermon from last year and a Bible Study is on YouTube and well worth the look. But I want to bring us through the past couple millennia where Christianity has already grown.

In preparation for today I ended up at 11pm on Thursday in the most glamorous part of the Internet- The United Church of Canada Archives. I am a history major through and through, and there were meeting minutes across all manner of subjects, including the old Presbytery’s notes from their Education and Student committee. In 2013 it was there- two tiny sentences.

Inquirer process begins for RH. Lorna and Norm to sit on the discernment committee.

Those 13 words contain nothing about my gender. Or my race, my age, my sexuality, any disabilities, my family life. All anyone will ever know, who doesn’t know me, is that Norm and Lorna are on a discernment committee for some RH in 2013. If this was all they had for my biography it would be very short. This was still in the age of the internet! Everything is recorded now! Compare this challenge to hundreds and thousands of years ago, where history dissolves into sand.

Queer historians have always had two important struggles- 1, sexuality and gender identity as a concept has always been fluid and its definitions have changed throughout time. We can’t go back and ask an ancient Ethiopian Christian if they identify as bisexual, they would have no clue what we mean. And secondly, homosexuality and gender fluidity have been, at various points in time, illegal. So publicly and cheerfully writing about how your priest is gay is simply not going to happen. Historians are not neutral observers. We, they, have always had our own ways of interpreting and measuring what someone is or isn’t. And often, that has sided with the prevailing attitudes of the day, especially whether people who are somewhere in the LGBTQ community have existed.

But queer people, are resilient. We are creative, and we are determined. So, if I may introduce you to some of the Christians that we would find in the LGBTQ community through the centuries

The Byzantine Empire, around 1000 CE, where same-sex relationships had what could be best described as a “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”. One place where such relationships are flourishing is in monasteries, where monks who have already taken a vow of celibacy live together in a community of God. Monasteries and Convents have been a time-honoured tradition for queer people. It was a natural option for those who did not want to get married. 

And while same-sex relationships are mentioned, there are also stories of saints who are assigned female at birth, but upon entering the monastery are treated as monks. For example, Saint Eugenia who is known as Eugenios. The Abbott (the head of the monastery) changes the names and genders with ease. There is also a frequent problem that the abbots are trying to address where the monks would potentially have relationships with each other. This is treated not as a disdain for same-sex relationships, and concern that they took a vow of celibacy. This included moving several of the more conventionally attractive monks around to prevent problems. 

A thousand years ago queer people were written not just into the shock of mythology, but into the banality of bureaucracy. Not exactly allyship in 2024 standards but it is a delightful surprise for a thousand years ago!

Public Universal Friend

Let’s fast forward to the 1700’s and go to America. Many religious groups have moved to the US (still a British colony) to be free from religious persecution from Europe. This includes the Puritans, the Anabaptists, and in our case, the Quakers. Jemima Wilkinson, born in 1752, was female, and a 4th generation American. In 1776, Wilkinson became sick with Typhus and in the depths of a fever and was on the brink of death for several days. However, after recovering, she declared that Wilkinson had died during those days. Her soul ascended to Heaven, and now her body was reanimated with a new soul, the “Public Universal Friend.” Now they only answered to “The Friend” and were beyond the concept of gender. 

The Friend preferred to be seen as masculine or gender neutral. And The Friend had no problem making waves. They began the Society of Friends and preached up and down the east coast the importance of abolishing slavery, free will, sexual abstinence, and friendships with the Indigenous communities of the area. They dealt with criticism from those who disliked that they were female, and gender neutral, and preaching. People called their everything from melodious, clear, but also grating and odd. The Friend did not care. They preached and pastored and loved all until they died 1819, at the age of 66. 

The funny thing about being called by God, by the Sacred that sits within us all, is that it is a call you can’t ignore. Some of you know that call. It may have been that voice that told you to go try that career path. Or the butterflies when you spoke with the person who would eventually become your spouse. It is the time you try out a new name, sampling it like fine wine. It is the feeling that you can’t ignore that tells you aren’t alone, or that you can help someone not feel alone. The call is something that exists outside of what anyone can tell you. No Abbott could tell anyone that they were not called by God. Abbotts could tell monks they couldn’t stay there, or that behaviour needed to be changed, but no one but God could change that feeling in their bones. The Public Universal Friend was so called by God that no one, not one critic or bully, could stop them. 

There will always be people who will try to police others and their behaviour. There will always be people who believe that it is their job to tell people that they are not called by God, and that God doesn’t think they are worthy. To critique and bully and punch down because they are afraid, or angry, or otherwise determined to be the boss of someone. 

God simply doesn’t operate that way. God never has. God called Samuel, over and over, because God was ready for Samuel. It was never about whether Samuel was ready for God. And God called monks and nuns across the centuries, not worrying about who they love or what is on the outside or inside. God simply called them and said “you are my children, blessed and sacred. That is enough.” God called The Friend with such fervor that not even Typhus, or because of Typhus, a corner of the world was made better. While the church helped me discern and prepare to be in the pulpit, this initial call, this reason I am here, is because of God’s call. No one can take that away.

During Pride Month we can often feel like we as queer people need to prove something. That we are smart enough or strong enough or talented enough. That we can fit the mould of having a nuclear family and be quiet about our identity, but also willing to prove we are “queer enough.” That we have given enough of ourselves to the world that historians will have no doubts about who we are and why we are here. God did not call us to live up to the measure of someone else’s criteria of queer. We are enough, in every way measurable, for God.

No one here needs to measure their own worth with someone else’s scale. Or their human dignity with the criteria of another person’s rubric. Our call, the call to love, including loving ourselves, comes without limitations or requirements. God has called. God is calling. God will call again. Speak, O God, for your people are listening.