One of the gifts of my childhood was to see the pain that the entrenched and discriminatory gender roles of our society caused my mother. In our own new marriage, my partner and I determined to be good evangelical Christians and live the equal but different roles which 'complementarianism' as it is now called in some places, dictates as God's will for us. It didn't work. Not least from my observations of my Mother's pain, I recognised that the whole effort was destructive for my partner. At some nascent level, I also understood it was doing me no good; I certainly did not want to become like the avowed 'head of the house' males I was observing.
It seemed to me that all the paternalistic theology of household in Ephesians 5 was subverted by just one verse: Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… (Eph 5:25)
When we want to maintain our privilege, and the safety of the status quo, then of course we remain stuck in our tribe's interpretation of the social strictures of the first century. But seeing the damage this was doing, I decided to ignore the whole headship thing as an anachronism and seek to live not only as true equals, but to live seeking to love her as Christ loved the church.
Obviously, the young idealist me possessed a hubris completely unmoderated by his naiveté! Yet this commitment proved to be an astonishing experience. It was clearly a healing thing for my partner, but it made me. I began to learn a new compassion. To seek to treat a person as fully human, which is to be compassionate, sets up a positive feedback loop for the growth of the person seeking to be compassionate. It is a joy to give, to forgive, and to be part of a flourishing together. It also leads to a rapid and sometimes painful 'growing up!'
There were limitations. I had identified a certain inability to abandon myself in our sexual relationship. As much as I appreciated it, I always held a part of myself back. I needed to be in control— not of my partner, but of myself.
What I could give to the relationship began to reach its limits toward the twentieth year of our marriage. I realise now that it was the same issue of control. Despite my commitment to give to her, I could not let her give herself to me and really know me; I had to possess myself. She was never able to find me. This refusal meant my love was always curtailed, and became tinged with resentment.
During those years there was much controversy in our denomination. Some folk clearly thought LGBTIQ people had no place among us, and certainly had no place in leadership. In all this, I discovered not only that some of my best friends were LGBTIQ, but that those who were clergy were among the colleagues I most admired. One of my friends took his own life.
In the same period I had come to understand something of why the church calls marriage a sacrament, or sacramental, depending on which part of the Church family you live in. Aspects of marriage, including the sexual relationship, I thought, partake of and inform our relationship with the Divine.
So when I was reading a chapter of Paul Tillich's Theology and Culture, it made complete sense to me when he wrote "that all created matter is capable of being revealing of God, or sacramental. This is because it bears God's imprint." "Of course it can!" I thought. And then— my ears did not hear this, but something tapped into the auditory nerve on the way to the brain— a voice said, "And that means the love of two men is revealing of God." It was rather like that moment when you have thought you were in the library alone, and someone makes a very pertinent comment over your shoulder!
Sometime after that, a powerful group in our congregation turned on us and drove us out. Their rejection dovetailed into the abuse and rejection of my childhood. A planned strategy could scarcely have managed to press as many buttons! I was sick for twelve months, barely functional, and sometimes suicidal.
Eventually, I was given a supply placement while a colleague was on long service leave. I was still more ill and damaged than any of us knew. The congregation innocently rubbed out my colleague's name from the calendar, and pencilled me in for many of his engagements. Which is how I came to be ministering Eucharist for an LGBTIQ fellowship who worshipped at the church.
I came to this evening service deeply sympathetic to LGBTIQ folk, and grateful for the insights I had received from friends who identified themselves in this way. I wanted to do well for them.
And 'Fred' came to worship, too. 'Fred' was a "drop-in-to-anything-that-happens-to-be-on-at-the-church" kind of person, wounded, needing attention, and with a tin ear for social niceties, much less possessing any liturgical sensibilities. I know now that wounded and rejected folk are a dab hand at recognising similar scars in others. 'Fred' ensured that I broadcast my illness and wounding like a neon sign that night. And in the joy of the service, which even I could sense despite my barely controlled temper and borderline panic, a gay man found me during the Passing of the Peace, and held and hugged me. There was no erotic tension, my momentary flinch was about being held by anyone, and then I was found, held, surrounded, blessed. I was known; all my pain and failings had been seen, and I was still loved. I count it as one of the most profound experiences ever given to me.
I come to think of all these things today because my attention was drawn to Paul's words in Galatians.
Formerly when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods; but now you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits whose slaves you want to be once more. (Galatians 4:8-9)
He corrects himself; it is not so much that you have known God as that you have been known by God. As James Alison says at this point, "'coming to know is better described as a coming to be known." (on being liked pp132)
Then he quotes 1 Corinthians 8:1-3.
Now concerning food offered to idols, we know that "all of us possess knowledge." "Knowledge" puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if one loves God, one is known by him." (RSV)
The contrast here appears to be between knowledge as something held possessively, and the sort of knowledge which comes with love, which is a certain sort of being known, and more like being possessed than possessing. (on being liked pp132)
I found a way into what Alison is getting at by considering my relationship with my partner. Domestic violence is about seeking to own and control a woman; I had sought to love her, not control her or own her. And I had found her— discovering far more than I expected. But I had never let her love me— not really. I held myself to myself. She could not find me or know me. In many ways, I would not allow her to do this.
One of my colleagues suggested to me that male violence towards partners comes because ownership fails to satisfy and fulfil the male's needs, so the woman is blamed. My growing resentment had come close to violence; by holding myself to myself, it turns out that I was essentially seeking a sort of control over her, anyway; a kind of safety from being known by her. And, unfulfilled, I became a breeding place for violence, even if it was mostly turned inwards.
Although I would not let her know me, during the night at the church, the LGBTI fellowship found me out— I lost control of myself. I could no longer hide myself, thanks to 'Fred.' "They knew my name." They possessed me. They could choose to use my failure against me, could reject me, or could mock me. Instead they loved me. I was, in Shirley Murray's words, "known and held and blessed." (Loving Spirit, TIS 418) And very slowly, still too little, I am allowing my partner to find me. She has found the devastation of my inner self, the self-hatred which cripples, the paralysing lack of confidence, the weeping wounds. And she has held me.
In allowing this, I finally love her. I not only give, but also allow myself to be found and blessed. I wrote between the lines in Alison's book: "You can only really love if you let yourself be loved— which is to be found and known and possessed."
The sacramental nature of this has become clear to me as I have discovered a similar slow possession as I am being found by God. This deeper knowing God, "or rather being known by God," is no accidental parallel. The Spirit who is my Advocate, who testifies that the world is wrong about sin, (John 16:9) who reminds me I am not the person the world told me I was, speaks to me in the voice of the one who holds me and does not reject me. God found me, perhaps as much as anyway else, through my partner! (I wondered if this were to daring a thing to say, and a friend asked, "Is this not incarnation?)"
But it occurs to me that perhaps God found me and knew me first through the man who found me and loved me and held me. The sacrament is not regulated by gender. Love is not defined by gender.
(May 2018, posted Dec 2021)
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