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‘The Rainbow Sash & the Church’
   (A Personal Response, Sept, 1999)
  by Ivan Tchernegovski
 
 
 
Modelled on a questionnaire by an Adelaide Catholic student doing a social/religious project on the Rainbow Sash Movement. Though not an official Sash statement, Ivan gives his personal response to these.

 

What is the Rainbow Sash Movement? 

What are it's aims?

With the coming of Gay Liberation there has come a strong feeling amongst Gay and Lesbian people that we well no longer accept the shame and second rate status that society has given us down the centuries. We have a right to be like any other people. One of the main organisations promoting homophobia in society against this has been the Church(es). 
Those of us who come to discover our gayness and are devoutly Catholic have gone through a lot of pain and soul searching. Do we disown a very deep, personal part of who we are (the way we consider God made us) or do we leave a Church where we are not understood, condemned and excluded (unless we hide)?
We wish to be open and honest in who we, while the church authorities wish us to live double lives…like living a lie. There are a significant number of clergy who are homosexual in orientation who live in self-denial or live in secret. How do they feel, condemning us from the pulpit and condemning their own inner selves at the same time? 

Our aim : is to be open, even with the hostility we receive. We hope to break down the fear around the areas of sex and sexuality inside the Church(es) ; show how Gay and Lesbian people suffer and rightfully demand recognition and respect. We intend to make a difference in the Church and the world for the good. 2000 years ago one man, named Jesus, made all the difference.

Rainbow Sash Movement's origins?

The Movement started (1996) with two devoutly celibate Catholic men, Nicholas Johns and Father Ahern who sought communion not as sexually active people but as openly Gay men, living strictly within the Church's sexual laws. They were refused and condemned for being honest about their sexuality. After a year of great challenge and tension over their stand, it became too much and the Rainbow Sash nearly fell into silence. At this point five of us Gay men gave the Sash a new spirit of our dreams, passions and ideals (1997). We have been less apologetic and more confident and gay-prideful in our approach.

Does the Sash have a legitimate role in the life of the Church?

There are many roles inside the Church. I see the Sash's primary role as being prophetic. We witness within the Church that which it wishes to deny and not see.
Though the Church likes to say it's teachings are fixed and never change, they do. The Church no longer prohibits “interest making” nor advocates slavery nor condemns dancing as it did two hundred years ago. The Church does have a truth but it does not have the total truth. Only God has. Science can often reveal a truth that the church is not aware of nor taken into account. New homosexual scientific research and recent psychological insight is largely ignored in church teaching. Thus the Sash is here to help Christians to be aware and more thoughtful and be more loving to all.
The Pope, after 500 years, has admitted the Church's treatment of Galileo was wrong. For how long do we have to wait?
It is claimed that many Gay and Lesbian people live lives of unbridled promiscuity and pleasure. With a history of fear, exclusion and no social or religious recognition, this is understandable. Is it not time to bring some social stability to Gay or Lesbian relationships by recognizing and valuing their unions, to encourage love and faithfulness? For how long will the Catholic Church disown her Gay and Lesbian children?

Why did Archbishop Pell refuse Communion?

George Pell has put himself in a situation of ultimate judge…he refuses communion not only to openly Lesbian and Gay Catholics who are sexually active but, knowingly, of Sash wearers who are celibate or heterosexual. He demands total submission to his view of Church moral teaching. This coercion, demanded against ones inner voice of truth and reason, is like a new Inquisition. Such sham behaviour of “giving one's full ascent” is what one expects of authorities in Stalinist Russia, Iran or Tibet.
George relies solely on orthodox Church teaching about the exclusive sanctity of heterosexual marriage. Of course George says the Church always insists that marriage is open to life (no artificial birth control).
I see the Church's stance as a double standard. Such sins as racial discrimination, other social justice issues, gambling, drunkenness, overeating etc. are approached in far less “black & white”, rigid terms than sex and sexuality issues (lawful sex, birth control, contraception, homosexuality, women priesthood, married clergy etc.). There appears to be an obsession with dotting every 'i' and crossing 't' of church sanctioned sexual behaviour.
One answer to why this is so is that the Church authorities have a long history of controlling people through sex. Sex and sexuality are a very deep, personal part of each person. If the Church is readily able to influence a person (induce guilt and shame) in this profound aspect then they have significant control over people's lives.
By all means, socially and individually, there is a need for the Church to set goals and ideals that we can all move towards... as though we are all on the journey (or pipeline) towards the truly human and loving use of one's sexuality. Those of us who are single are called to use our sexuality in a more loving and responsible way. Those of us who are married (gay, lesbian or straight couples) are called to become more deeply married. The problem is that the Church does not believe in a journey but in an static form of instant perfection.
Ironically, Homosexuality and the Church have long been historical partners. At various times in Church history a majority of Catholic clergy have been homosexual in orientation. Sts Aelred and Anselm obviously spiritualised their special affection for their fellow monks and priests. Thus the priesthood has provided the biggest closet in Western civilisation where gay men could hide in safety and with a purposeful life. The openness and pride of the today's Lesbian/Gay subculture has negated the need for this closet. It is hard to quantify but, no doubt, the drop in clerical numbers is in part due to this fact.
Presently the world is in a phase of deep and profound shift. Basic foundational notions of who we are and what it is to be human are in a state of transition and transformation. The reaction of most religious traditions to this has been to retreat into the past and into scriptural/creedal fundamentalism. Take for example the dilemmas of overpopulation and “development at any cost” (a policy the Church tacitly supports). These are leading to a dying planet (environmental degradation and finally, in time, global collapse) and, hence, a human race that is no longer a viable species (fowling our own nest). 
The Church doggedly proclaims that sex is purely for reproduction...with a recent minor amendment, recognising the secondary importance of relationship. However as destruction and misery increase this claim will become more and more unethical and immoral. The Church will be forced to seek a new Christian ethic, so desperately needed for our times. 
Does George have a right to exclude? I don't think so. He represents a narrow-minded extreme end of conservative Catholicity that tends to retreat into a very legalistic and pedantic understanding of Church bylaws and rulings. All Law and very little Spirit. Where others see room for negotiation, listening and compassion, George has painted himself into the tightest of moral corners. He sees himself in a lineage of the “Prince-Bishop” tradition that has absolute authority.

What would Jesus do in this situation?

This is a hard question. No doubt Jesus was limited to his time's understanding of homosexuality (to him, maybe, a behaviour freely chosen over heterosexuality... or he may never have heard of it). However, overwhelmingly, Jesus was open and accepting of the despised and excluded of his time (lepers, the woman with an issue of blood, Samaritans, the blind…the list goes on). It is to be remembered that disease was then seen as a punishment for something a person had done wrong ; an understanding, with modern medicine, we no longer accept. Jesus' heart always went out to all except the insincere and narrow-minded. Jesus' Kingdom of God was more inclusive than that of established Jewish authorities.
In showing the probable openness of Jesus towards Gay and Lesbian people it is to be remembered that homosexuality is today no longer treated by medicine and psychology as a disease. It is seen as part of the spectrum of healthy human sexual expression. One can look at the astoundingly rich beauty and diversity within our cosmos, within on natural world and amongst people and their cultures. Why God would intend to limit all people to just one sexuality? 

Does the church have a duty to stand with the marginalised ?

The Church needs to listen deeply and start to understand. The exclusive “ivory tower” moralising by an ageing, celibate, male clergy, fearful of the body and sex, has led to an often distorted, skewed form of sexual ethic. If the Church listened deeply to the pain of the marginalised there would be a deeper soul-searching and feeling of sorrow (look at the pain we have inflicted on these people!) instead of the knee-jerk “Take our teaching or get out!” behaviour.
How would Jesus react if he discovered that he had said or did something wrong? Would his ego or insecurity cause him exclude all who reminded him of this or cover his tracks and hide the truth?


Why did many Catholics applaud Archbishop Pell?

St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne since George's enthronement has become a Mecca for conservative Catholics. Thus wearing the Sash to Mass there is always going to receive hostility.
I remember well the day the congregation applauded Pell's words. It is indelibly etched in my memory. After refusing Sash wearers Holy Communion, George read out a statement restating Church sexual teaching. Immediately after this, at the instigation of someone at the back of the Church, loudly clapping and cheering, 80% — 90% of the congregation were within 30 seconds on their feet noisily doing the same. It was horrible. A wall of hostility all around us as we sat in small groups.
In our society martyrdom of the old type is not possible. Our society would not accept such barbarity and intolerance. However, our experience on that day was a form of martyrdom. Something dear and precious of whom we are (our sexuality) was scorned and trampled on by George and his followers. This was the only irreverent and obscene part of the Pentecost Mass.
A small number of congregants, in shock, approached us afterwards, apologised and commended us on our discipline, courage and conviction. At work, where I am out, and amongst many in the general public, there was shock that the Church could still do such a thing as exclude Gay and Lesbian people. They had assumed the Church accepted us.

What is the Sash's future?


I think although we exist on “the smell of an oil rag”, we have a promising future. 
George may have the money, influence in high places and the best advice (lawyers, strategists…and the Pope's ear) but he does not have the vigour and idealism of his cause. He is limited to repeating the past, (a past that is slowly ebbing away) with no vision of a new future required in our times.
I remember in a height of idealism when we first started (we now have our feet more firmly in reality) we saw that we wanted to change the Church and the world for all people, gay and straight, for the better…that is still our vision and passion.
However, the church authorities, through 2000 years experience, have many strategies in store. They could order us from church property. They can take us to court. They could excommunicate us. Who knows! But they cannot stop us being who we are and what we demand.

Evidence of Jesus with homosexual people?

I am not a biblical scholar but recent scholarship suggests that the gospels of Jesus' life were not a purely blow by blow account about what Jesus said or did. They reflect the diverse cultural attitudes of the writers and were written with the problems present in the various local churches strongly in mind. Hence because of it's lack of mention in the gospels, homosexuality does appear to be of minimal concern, if at all, to Jesus and the gospel writers. 
At the barest minimum, I guarantee Jesus would have been more sensitive and caring than the generally cold, heartless attitude of present church leadership.
There are suggestions that Jesus and the disciple Jesus loved (St John) loved totally and that “the thorn in St Paul's side” was his homosexuality. Interesting, but these things cannot be proved either way.

Does Archbishop Pell's action affect lives?

In a Church that repeatedly tells you that you are not welcome because of your honesty and openness, it is an uphill struggle to believe in the Love of God inside His Church. Thus evangelism of the Lesbian and Gay Community is an option that has been lost for all time. So many Gay and Lesbian people seethe with anger towards the Church and some call us of the Sash “gay nazis”. George's actions perpetuate an attitude of self-loathing, shame and secrecy amongst closet Catholic gays and those especially young people (within Catholic schools & families) who think they may be lesbian or gay (click here about youth suicide). This saps any hope that there can be reconciliation in the near future. 
I believe the Rainbow Sash, like no other issue, crystallizes two main issues that the present Church is stone-walling on and that will haunt it until it faces them square on….namely a new Christian sexual ethic and the abuse of control and power inside the Church. Despite the thousands of bishops and other leaders throughout the world I utterly astounded at the paucity (scarcity) of alternative views and leadership shown. Hence the present Church leadership, entrenched in past ways, will never change. They will have to die out (and they'll do their utmost to perpetuate their views) before the colossal doors of the largely autocratic Medieval Church we still have begins to tumble. I know I will die before it happens. George may be surprised to see me on a heavenly cloud nine beside him one day. What I do is not only for me but for my Catholic Gay brothers and Lesbian sisters of the future; that they will be wholly part of God's People.
It is said St John, the Evangelist, when asked to sum up the mission of Jesus, repeated the word “Love, Love, Love…and Love.” I agree. It is not the sex of who you love that matters but how you love...to love sincerely, tenderly, devotedly, deeply...fully.