The Rev. Winnie Varghese, priest in charge at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery in New York City, was in India recently to attend “continuing indaba” conversations among members of the Church of North India, the Diocese of Derby in England, and the Diocese of New York when the Mid-Day paper in Mumbai caught up with her. Varghese is an ethnic Kerali, who was raised in Dallas.
As a lesbian Episcopal priest of Indian descent in New York, how do you square it all out — homosexuality, race, Christianity, gender?
My parents belong to extremely orthodox sects of Christianity — my father is Mar Thoma and my mother, a Jacobite from Kerala. But I was raised in the US in a very liberal Christian family, as my parents, who were young adults right after Independence, grew up with an understanding of Christianity that was framed by the many Independence movements of the 20th century. The Bible is organised around the story of the Exodus, which is that God saves God’s people from slavery in Egypt, and we learn that God is on the side of the oppressed. In fact, the theme throughout the Bible, whether the Old Testament, or the New, is that of God redeeming people, not because they are good, or doing the right thing, but because they are marginalised.
I was raised in an atmosphere where the idea of faith was that you are made in the image of God, which is very much about the dignity of the individual. It’s where a lot of modern human rights language comes from.
What about the notion that homosexuality is a sin?
In the Levitical Code in the Bible, there are many acts that are prohibited, like wearing fabrics of two kinds in one garment or eating shellfish. These may seem absurd to modern people, but these were specific things that communities did to distinguish themselves from other communities, but which most Christians do not follow now. So it’s not difficult to take the Levitical Code — where a sexual moral code is discussed — and say that that’s from another time and another culture. The Code, for instance, says things like, if your child talks back at you, stone her. We don’t observe those practices now.
If we look at the Bible’s overarching themes, the most consistent one that runs through the text is a preferential option for the marginalised and the need to offer them justice, which is what people of a sexual minority need today, as they are marginalised and denied justice legally, and in terms of human rights.