Peter Anthony meditates on the Transfiguration
How mad do you have to be to want to be ordained? It’s a serious question. Just how out of your mind have you got to appear if you want to become a priest?
I know sometimes, when one looks at the antics of the House of Bishops of the Church of England, it does indeed feel like the insane have taken over the asylum. But I mean something a bit different.
To give up a well-paid job in the secular world – or the prospect of having one – to offer yourself for a vocation in which you are called to spread the gospel of a theoretical being who might not even exist must look to the outside world like madness. But don’t imagine there’s anything new in that. For it is an idea we find both in the scriptures and in the Fathers, and often in connection with meditation on the Transfiguration.
The place where the gospel of the Transfiguration was most regularly heard in the ancient West each year was on the first Saturday in Lent. In the old rite, this was the only day in the year when, apart from the Feast Day itself, the Gospel of the Transfiguration was read. It was only when the new calendars and lectionaries of the 20th Century were constructed that a Transfiguration gospel was moved to mid-Lent or just before the beginning of Lent.
Nobody really knows why this Gospel reading got attached to this obscure Saturday in Lent, but it might have something to do with it being an ember day in Rome. On this day, ordinations frequently took place there. Indeed we have a Transfiguration homily preached by Leo the Great almost certainly on this day at an ordination in the mid fifth Century.
In that homily Leo comes back to an idea that recurs in patristic commentary on the Transfiguration – for the disciples to experience that great vision, they had to be slightly out of their minds. Leo says this: ‘Peter the apostle was so inspired by these divine revelations of mysteries that he wished to spurn and despise wordly things and his mind was taken with a kind of elated distraction for eternal things.’
There’s a hint here that in his ‘elated distraction’ Peter is kind of out of his mind. So wonderful is the vision before him that Matthew describes it in terms of Peter not knowing what to say. The important point Leo makes is this: to love Jesus you’ve got to be sort of crackers – you need to be madly in love. And if you want to serve him as a priest you’ve definitely got to be crackers and head over heels in love with the one you feel called to serve.
For the mountain-top vision stands as an image for what a vocation to priestly vocation is like. However a candidate for ordination felt God’s prompting – be that a dramatic moment or a still small voice – somewhere, somehow, an encounter with the living God has so overwhelmed that person, so changed them, so humbled them, that they simply want to be with him.
Someone with a vocation of any kind will want nothing more than to luxuriate in God’s presence, and throw everything else to the wind. Just like a teenager in love for the first time, we are gripped by a kind of love madness – our priorities are suddenly transformed. We no longer value what the world values. We simply want to be with the beloved.
But Jesus calls us to take something of that encounter and go down the mountain and return to the world with that experience in our heart. For it will be the energy, the power, the inspiration behind all that we do in response to God’s calling, as he pours his spirit into those whom he calls.
If we attempt at any point to respond to a new sense of calling or vocation from God, we shouldn’t worry if at times we feel odd or strange, or mad or demented – or indeed surrounded by others who definitely are! It’s supposed to be like that and we are living out a deeply scriptural and patristic idea. For as Paul teaches us, the wisdom of the Gospel is very different from the wisdom of the world: ‘…we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.’
The Love That You Show Me
David Wilson makes an impassioned plea for the status quo on marriage and a rediscovery of the gay community’s gifted presence
With tears pouring down my cheeks, I prayed… begged: I cannot manage the lie any more. Help me, show me what to do! I had tried so hard to be a good, straight, Christian. A few months later I was in church arranging flowers for Easter when Duncan walked in on the arm of the Vicar’s daughter. He and I will be celebrating our 30th anniversary in a few weeks’ time.
It might be assumed, then, that we are busy applauding the Bishop of Oxford and others in their push to legalise gay marriage in the Church of England. Alas, far from it. The entire enterprise of using gay marriage to undermine the Sacraments of the Church saddens my heart, whilst the campaign seems to me to confess the lesser sin to hide the greater. Whilst superficially gay-supportive, in fact, it is not. It talks the talk, whilst failing to acknowledge the full gay experience of the Church and its long history, as we have walked the walk. If this was better recognised it would be quite clear that the validity and encouragement of gay relationships within the Church does not necessitate gay marriage.
The agar into which the early Christian Church grew – dominated by the civilisations of Greece, Rome and the near East – was a gay-friendly world, yet there are no Greek or Latin words which translate as ‘homosexual’. It is only the modern world which seeks to define gay experience as primarily sexual, or even pathological (homosexual being a term of medical psychology since 1886). In its classic understanding, gay experience embraces the riches of same-gender eroticism, passion, affection, love, romance and intense friendship. Sexual interest still varies greatly amongst those identifying as gay and may or may not be included at all. For the upper classes of Greece and Rome, sexual preference and fluidity seem to have been considered entirely ordinary. In love affairs, those between men were commonly held to be the most profound. The more effeminate men in these relationships were often referred to as natural or born eunuchs, Greek street slang translating roughly to the modern terms of poof, fairy, queen etc.
Eunuchs often served as personal palace officials (literally, Eunouchos, bed-holder), but as Clement of Alexandria warned: ‘the true eunuch is not unable, but unwilling to have sex’ with women (Paedagogus, III 4.25). The solution were so-called man-made Eunuchs, or the castrati, surgically altered males, usually as boys, to make them similar to natural born eunuchs. These also often served as prostitutes, Noted for their quality of voice, castrati also dominatedChurch music from its inception, until the 19th century. Eunuchs of both kinds were deeply embedded in the cultures and creation myths of the near-East, from ancient Sumaria and Egypt through to the Indian sub-continent and beyond.
It is almost impossible to summarise the rich complexity of the gay experience of the Ancient World in a few paragraphs. The point is that it was all considered quite everyday, and that it was into the height of classic gay culture occurring during the first two centuries AD that the early Church was starting to grow and the Gospels were written.
With the decline of those great empires and their slow disintegration, and the increasing influence of barbarian kingdoms, the landscape in which the Church grew started to change. Dissenting voices on some same-gender sexual practices had always been present but now they started to become more vocal and widespread. Even within the Church, however, they remained a vocal minority for some centuries. These dissenting voices bear witness, through their complaint, of the flourishing gay culture widespread in monasteries, Churches and throughout the Christian community. The High Middle Ages of the late 11th and early 12th Centuries are often held up as the height of Christian gay cultural accomplishment and tolerance, if only for the sheer breadth and depth of the literature produced.
Yet within a period of about 150 years, for no easily discernible reason, at least not one that scholars agree upon , the position entirely changed. Europe transformed from being broadly gay-tolerant to making homosexual practice punishable by death. 1300 years of rich and varied gay Christian experience was replaced by a further 700 years of oppression and denial, as the Church joined secular forces to promote a normalising conformity. This consolidation of power also disadvantaged many other minority social groups. More importantly, perhaps, it saw a major change in the intellectual life of the Church, as Church Fathers who promoted anti-gay viewpoints became the established norms of the Church, whilst Church Fathers who embraced gay culture were censored. The systematic eradication of the gay-tolerant history of the Church through this period should perhaps be regarded as the establishment of an anti-gay heresy, as it has no proper biblical basis. It became the great forgetting, which forms the collective amnesia of the modern Church. As the printing press arrived and the Bible became questionably translated into the vernacular, this heresy gained increasing prominence, the main challenge being an intellectual one. Classical gay texts were essentially unprintable in most of Europe without censorship from the late Middle Ages, well into the 1980s. This has created a great wall to our gay-friendly past through which it is hard to think, as the nuances of the Classical world, particularly Greek translations, were often lost, censored or deliberately misrepresented. This included passages in the Bible which became used to persecute gay people, by utilising the absurdly reductive basic premise that gay relationships can be reduced to one physical act. This took two forms:
Firstly, active bullying through the use of what are often called the Clobber Passages: Genesis 19; Deuteronomy 23.17-18; Leviticus 18 & 20; Jude 7; 1 Corinthians 6.9-10; Romans 1, 21-28; and 1 Timothy 1.10 Yet all suffer from mis-representation either of context or in translation. Most concern sexual violence and none can be taken to be definitively anti-gay. In some cases (in St. Paul) we have no idea as to the correct Greek translation of certain key words. As soon as you see the word ‘sodomy/sodomite’ or ‘homosexual’, as commonly found in vernacular translations of these passages, it is a mistranslation, as there is no original lexical equivalent. The ‘clobber’ passages have themselves become embarrassing to the modern Church.
Secondly, the gay-affirming passages of Scripture are denied their gayness. Any biblical gay relationship is presented as ‘obviously Platonic’ and therefore, not gay. Alternatively, it is frequently argued that translations of such passages are too ambiguous, the relationships set in too distant a cultural world, so as to be easily understood as being the equivalent of contemporary same-sex relationships.
I disagree. Many biblical relationships are perfectly comparable to contemporary same-sex relationships. Why should gay relationships be different? Indeed, the sexual fluidity across much of the ancient world is, once again, re-establishing itself in Western culture making such Biblical relationships more easily understood than for the past seven centuries. The only definition of gayness that is defied is that which absurdly reduces the gay experience to a single sex-act.
In fact, the Old Testament contains two of the finest gay love stories in classic literature. The story of David and Jonathan (Samuel 1-2) is searingly homoerotic. Whether or not they had sex is a moot point, although if it were a man and woman in the text such a presumption would be made. Saul clearly thought that they did, delivering the sort of speech that every gay person fears from their parent and all too many receive (1 Samuel 20.30). The story of Ruth and Naomi is equally searingly homoerotic, as Ruth is described as ‘clinging’ (dabaq) to Naomi in the same way as Adam declares that a man should leave his parents when he grows up and cling (dabaq) to his wife (Genesis 2.24). Her declaration of love to Naomi (Ruth 1.16-17) has often been read at Christian weddings as perfectly capturing the essence of love. Whether or not they had sex is also a moot point but were it a man and a woman in the text, nobody would be in any doubt at all.
The New Testament also contains some inspiring gay-friendly moments, as the early Church encountered the non-Jewish world. The encounter between Philip and the nameless Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8) makes for rich Bible study. Second is the story of the healing of the Centurion’s servant (Matthew 8.5-13 and Luke 7.1-10), almost certainly his sex slave. Donald Mader (The Entimos Pais of Matthew and Luke, 1998) gives a detailed study of the nuances of the Greek text and how its cultural signals would have been understood by the audience to which its polished Semitic Greek was directed. The story was undoubtedly shocking to a Greek-Jewish audience, as it transgressed cultural boundaries, as indeed did many of the other actions of Jesus Christ in his ministry. There is no condemnation of the relationship by Christ himself, rather, the Centurion is commended by Jesus to the assembled crowd around him for his extraordinary faith.
Finally, comes the teaching of Jesus Christ himself on the nature of marriage in Matthew 19. Many deny that Jesus had anything to say on the subject of gay marriage. Yet, with regard to gay marriage, the lines here are as clear as those on divorce:
The disciples said to him, ‘If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.’ Jesus replied, ‘Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.’ (Matthew 19.10-12)
It is the most bittersweet moment. Jesus Christ himself, casually mentions poofs, queers, fairies (however you wish to translate ‘effeminate gay people’) as part of the creation order, even in the same breath as monks and nuns but as part of a list of those excluded from marriage. Also included in the list are those who have been neutered in the process of surgically altering them (today this includes trans-surgeries) to be like effeminate gay men , that is, eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others. No doubt it can be theologised and historicised away, as is often the way, but the instruction remains.
To be clear about the meaning of one of the most frequently mis-translated passages in Scripture (‘born eunuch’ often being deliberately mis-translated as somebody born with physical inability) it is best to contextualise it within the Jewish Law of The Talmud, with which Jesus would have been quite familiar. It is one of the few ancient religious texts that specifically mentions same-sex marriage.
In the Sifra (composed c.350-250 BC), legal comment is found on the Book of Leviticus: ‘Like the deeds of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, you shall not do’ (Leviticus 18.3) – What would they do? A man would marry a man, a woman would marry a woman… Whilst in the Babylonian Talmud, the later written form of the ancient oral Tradition known to Christ, Rabbi Eliezer refers to eunuchs by nature, asserting that they can be cured by marriage to a good woman (that old chestnut… but hardly diseased or defective then!). Jesus did not accept this view, making it clear that any form of eunuch should not marry.
If Jesus had intended to change the Jewish tradition on gay marriage, as he changed so much other Pharisaic teaching at this time, this would have been the easiest moment in human history to have done so. Roman Law differentiated between natural born and man-made eunuchs. Unlike man-made eunuchs, natural eunuchs were freemen, who were eligible for marriage. Gay marriage was widely practised in Rome just as today, we have State gay civil partnerships. How easy it would have been for Christ to allow his gay disciples to marry. Jesus did not do this. He upholds Jewish Law and teaching, against that of the world around him. The Church finds itself in a similar place today. The one who can accept this should accept it. Are you a Christian, following the teachings of Christ, our Saviour, or not?
Against this background, the demand for gay marriage is a trivially recent one. For 1300 years gay people both flourished in our churches and perfectly happily followed the teaching of Christ on marriage. Why has this changed? Why this demand and why now?
The last 700 years of the Church’s persecution gives a sad history to gay marriage, being one of gay men marrying women and gay women marrying men, to protect themselves from persecution by conforming to a norm. That the failure to follow the teaching of Christ was the effect of social persecution is a great unhappiness. It seems to me almost perverse, to now demand that the gay community be normalised and conformed, once again, by failing to follow the teaching of Christ through adopting those same marriage practices. It is based on a mistaken secular belief that equality equals sameness, instead of taking Christian pride in our equality in difference, as commended by St. Paul (1 Corinthians 12.12-27). It seems to me to be shocking that The Church of England is once again taking its guidance from civil society and government, rather than from the depths of Church tradition. The Church should be following the example of Christ in upholding Church Law and Sacrament against the secular forces demanding otherwise. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Christ to do. He did not. The one who can accept this should accept it.
Gay couples do not need such normalisation. The goods of marriage are open to us in other ways. Secular legal protection is given by Civil Partnerships, whilst Duncan and I bonded ourselves to each other and to God by walking the Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. I highly commend it. If you have not killed each other in the first three weeks, you will probably make it as faithful, partnered people for several decades more, without feeling a need to ape the arrangements provided by God for heterosexual couples. 30 years later, we still walk faithfully together, with Christ as our guide. Nobody should be seeking to trash this and the wider sacramental life of the Church to pander to the emotional incontinence of those egos making egregious demands. Rather, we should seek to return to the accepting embrace that the early Church had for all those in pain, leading them on the pathway to Christ by following his teaching, restoring the gay poetry to our bible texts in the process.
The gay Christian community has always been here, it was once long respected and integrated. Do not pretend that messing with established order and tradition will bring about acceptance. Instead, I say to fellow gay Christians put yourselves into God’s hands. Go on pilgrimage. Pray. Fast. Seek ye the way of the Lord through his teaching. And let the gay community once again become godparents to our church communities in all their forms as churchwardens, PCC members, artists, flower arrangers, musicians, cooks, even clergy. Let our Churches embrace gay flourish! The Anglo-Catholic communion is generally very good at this. Let it stand firm, once again, and as always lead by example.
Dr David M. Wilson is Lay Chair of the Forward in Faith (Canterbury) branch.
– Living in Love and Faith (Latimer Trust, 2021)
– Faris Malik: Born Eunuchs – Homosexual Identity in the Ancient World (published online)
– Richard von Krafft-Ebing: Psychopathia Sexualis (1886)
– Boswell: Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (University of Chicago, 1980)
– Tyler & Connoley: The Children are Free (LifeJourney Press, 2011)
Barbara Pym: A Glass of Blessings (Jonathan Cape, 1958)