James Alison - Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay and On Being Liked
(London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2001).
Alan Bray - The Friend ( Chicago - University of Chicago Press, 2003).
Elizabeth Stuart - Gay & Lesbian Theologies: Repetitions with critical difference (London:
Review by Martin Pendergast
If only 5% of people are gay, there could be 207,000 gay Catholic men and women in England and
Wales. Signed-up members of lesbian and gay Catholic groups are clearly a tiny minority. However,
judging from the work of theologians who have emerged from this community in recent years, they
certainly punch above their weight.
Theologians and historians such as James Alison, Alan Bray and Elizabeth Stuart, each contribute
particular insights into the relationship between sexual orientation and faith. They have moved
beyond arguing an apologetic style of theology, dissecting the intricacies of Vatican teaching, to
offering profound reflections, enabling growth in understanding of sexuality, belief and ritual for gay
and straight people alike.
James Alison's Faith Beyond Resentment - Fragments Catholic and Gay is not so much his first
book of gay theology, but much more daringly, Catholic theology from a gay perspective. It
addresses both those who are not gay and those who are not Catholic, 'people of whatever
background negotiating the world of faith in the time of a collapsing closet.'
Reviewed and admired by such significant theologians as Stanley Hauerwas, Enda McDonagh and
Rowan Williams, Alison's first book to be published in the UK, following his return from Latin America
and the USA, introduced many to the rigorous work of Rene Girard. Avoiding scapegoating,
victimisation and guilt-ridden vendetta we learn how to inhabit the text of our common story of faith.
Living free from resentment we come to create that mutual space in debates about homosexuality
which is not about 'us' and 'them' but repositioned as 'we' and 'us'.
This is no cosy domestication. Alison confronts the difficult issues of anger and violence, sin and
creation, sex and honesty but in so doing offers a space to those who might be perceived, one to
another, as being in a very different place. Using Girard's thought, Alison offers us a gift to
overcome our fear, to dwell in those places of hatred and death from which we would run away or
against which we could only retaliate. What we have is a work of unexpectedly subversive orthodoxy,
emerging out of brokenness but enlivening the vulnerability of those open to receive the gift.
James Alison is no easy read, but the enthusiasm for FBR soon led to a subsequent book, On
Being Liked, containing three triptychs, three collections of three theological essays - a 'salvation'
triptych, a 'gay' triptych, and a 'contemplative' triptych. Reflecting on the 'I love gay people but I just
want them to change' - love the sinner, hate the sin in other terminology - Alison challenges us to be
active participants in the creation/salvation/death and resurrection story rather than simply being
God's covenant with us is not a loving disdain, but a liking of us as we are, which then enables us to
like ourselves, as we are, beyond masks. This means a hugely imaginative shift: from 'God dealing
with sin' to 'God wanting us to share in the act of creation' as being the central axis of the Christian
story. Such a leap of faith is, of course profoundly disturbing for those with an interest in maintaining
marginalisation, or perpetuating the kind of temple barriers that Jesus appears to have subverted in
his ministry and teaching. Apply this to lesbian and gay people, and mature faith becomes seriously
Elizabeth Stuart, another English theologian rooted in the best of Catholic tradition, has likewise
sought to shift the frame of discussion. Highlighting the paradigm of human and sexual relationships
as based in friendship rather than power, Stuart has further promoted foundational baptismal identify
as basic to the 'queer' identity of gay Christians, thus relativising sexual orientation per se. In her
latest book, Gay & Lesbian Theologies, Elizabeth Stuart concludes that gay people, theologians,
and their opponents in the Church have bought too easily into modern constructions of sexual
identity. They have cut themselves off from a Christian tradition which is far more 'queer' in that it
refuses to accept the fixed stability of gender and sexual identity.
Stuart presents the first critical survey of gay theology across a range of denominational
backgrounds, acknowledging that its emergence was little short of miraculous. At the same time she
concludes that there is a certain 'bankruptcy' in some of this theology, incapable of providing
universally convincing reasons for the inclusion of lesbian and gay people and their relationships in
the Church. She sees this particularly in its inability to deal conclusively with what she considers to
be the defining experience of gay communities in the late 20th century - HIV/AIDS and its continually
devastating impact on gay men.
Elizabeth Stuart and James Alison were friends and admirers of Alan Bray, who died in 2001, and
whose major work, The Friend, was published posthumously in 2003. Bray, a key social historian
and architect of the radical gay liberation movement in the 1970's, was also the author of
'Homosexuality in Renaissance England'. Prompted by the uncovering of buried history and
rediscovered narrative by feminist thinkers, Bray was conscious of a great deposit of historical
evidence, ritual expression, and memorial illustration relating to same-sex friendship.
Bray was too critical and perceptive to fall for an easy co-option of this material as evidence of
homoerotic relationships when there were none. Even so, his critical probing has uncovered the
complexity of the private nature and social celebrations of same-sex friendship.
He recognised that some such relationships were indeed described in personal literature and public
memorials as 'connubium' or marriage. He has unearthed the evidence of mediaeval and earlier rites
of 'sworn brotherhood', of betrothal type rituals at lych-gates or church porches, of more formal
solemnisation in a Eucharistic context. His work witnesses to those who, so profoundly united in life,
wished to lie together in death, perhaps most significantly John Henry, Cardinal Newman and
Ambrose St John, buried in the same grave at Rednal in Warwickshire.
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