By Rebecca Wilson
Here at the Anaheim Convention Center, you could swing a cat in any direction and hit a theologian capable of learned disputation on the theology of evil. I’m not one of them.
But today, as Convention concludes its debate about full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, I’m thinking of two stories I heard last weekend:
On Saturday afternoon, the Very Rev. Rowan Smith, dean of Cape Town and St. George’s Cathedral in South Africa, described his congregation’s early work toward inclusion of gay people. They began three years ago at a retreat on reconciliation, when congregational leaders decided that they needed to heal relationships with gay and lesbian people in the same way that South Africa had healed racial strife after apartheid.
Since then, the leaders of St. George’s have held conversations about inclusion of gay people with other parishes in the diocese, and also met with the archbishop. And next month, Cathedral leaders will bring to their diocesan synod a resolution to permit blessing of existing same sex unions.
It’s a small step, but notable because it indicates that other parts of the Anglican Communion beyond the usual North American suspects are grappling with human sexuality. But here’s what struck me most in Dean Smith’s story: The congregation’s reconciliation retreat was held at Robben Island, the site of the prison where Nelson Mandela and other South African political prisoners were held during the apartheid era.
Another story, from Sunday afternoon: At a Chicago Consultation lunch, Bishop Bruce Caldwell of Wyoming used the public narrative model, much in favor at this General Convention, to tell his story of how an “elk-hunting, horse-riding bishop” became a GLBT activist. You can watch his speech here.
In 1998, after Caldwell became bishop of Wyoming the previous year, Matthew Shepard was tortured and killed near Laramie. Shepard, an active Episcopalian, was targeted by his murderers because he was gay. Bishop Caldwell presided at Shepard’s funeral Eucharist in front of, as he recalled, flowers sent by Elton John.
When it was time to distribute the elements, Caldwell went to the furthest corner of the parish hall. Gay and lesbian people came with open hands outstretched, he remembered, “and they came, and they came. “ As he was distributing the bread and wine, he thought, “Why are they here? Why would they have hands outstretched after the way they’ve been treated?”
That moment, at Matthew Shepard’s funeral, is when Caldwell became an activist. He concluded his speech on Sunday by saying, “My question that I pose today, because those hands haunt me: Is it time to fill those hands? Can we fill those hands together with the absolute love of God?”
Full inclusion advocates are celebrating victories we didn’t entirely expect to achieve at this General Convention. The votes have been by wide margins, and it’s clear that minds and hearts have changed in the last three years, and even in the last ten days. There have been hours of testimony on full inclusion, and many people have told inspiring stories of loving same-gender couples, committed gay Christians doing mission work, and beloved gay and lesbian children.
But we’ve also heard stories like the two recounted above, including lesbians in Africa who are subjected by their families to what is horrifyingly called “curative” rape. And in last week’s World Mission committee hearing, the story that moved the audience most was not about loving commitment or Christian ministry, but about a young gay man named Arthur who killed himself in middle school because of bulling and harassment.
Our hearts break open when we confront the worst that human beings can do to one another, and out spills the prejudice or apathy that we’ve been harboring. It seems inescapable that we move toward justice because of places like Robben Island and people like Matthew Shepard, and perhaps they are even necessary to get us to move. So as we celebrate, the dark places we have seen and the people we have lost are much on my mind.
Rebecca Wilson is communications director for the Chicago Consultation.