Monday, December 31, 2007

CPCSM 's Year in Review

Following are excerpts from the Christmas Appeal letter of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM), the 27-year-old organization that I’ve had the honor of serving as executive coordinator since the spring of 2003.

Regular visitors may recognize that part of this letter first appeared on
The Wild Reed as an October post entitled Signs of Hope and Creativity.

Also, many of the events mentioned in this year’s CPCSM Christmas Appeal letter have been highlighted, in one way or another, at
The Wild Reed. Accordingly, many of the links within the following version of the letter will take you to previous Wild Reed posts.


Dear Members and Friends of CPCSM and Catholic Rainbow Parents,

We’d like to take this opportunity to share some signs of hope; celebrate our achievements of the past year; thank you for your continued support of our ministry; and appeal, once again, for your generous financial support in helping us continue our work in 2008.

In keeping with the season, let’s start with hope! We like to think that all who comprise CPCSM and Catholic Rainbow Parents are people who actively seek out signs of hope – especially ones that reflect creativity and solidarity, and that accordingly give hope and encouragement not only to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Catholics, but to all Catholics longing to fully participate in the life and pilgrim journey of their Church.

It’s so easy to focus upon and react to the negative. This is especially true when the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, far from embodying a pilgrim Church, chooses instead to be in a state of stasis or backward retreat. Yet as Rosemary Radford Ruether observes, the more the hierarchy stagnates and retreats, “the more freewheeling the creative initiatives that pop up on the ground.”

And, friends, it’s so true! We’re seeing such “creative initiatives” emerging all the time and all around the world. For instance:

Across the U.S., the Lay Synod Movement is burgeoning.

The Women-Church Movement and various “underground” Catholic communities continue to embody and inspire egalitarian and communal models of ministry.

Here and abroad, Roman Catholic Womenpriests are being ordained in increasing numbers.

In Holland, Catholic communities are exploring different forms of liturgy, and justifying their actions on their reading of a key Vatican II document, Lumen Gentium (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”) – and specifically, this document’s placing of the chapter on the church as the “people of God” before the one on the church as a “hierarchical organization.” The ordering of these chapters, the Dutch liturgical innovators insist, implies the replacement of a “pyramidal” Church with an “organic” Church, with the initiative belonging to the laity.

In Australia, a prominent and well-respected bishop, Geoffrey Robinson, is calling for “radical” reform of the Church.

In Mexico, a gay Catholic youth group not only successfully ministers to forty young people, but does so with the blessing of the local diocese!

Here in Minnesota, we’re honored to be part of this global movement that is bringing about renewal and reform – and thus hope and justice – to the Catholic Church. Our situation here, of course, has been made all the more challenging by the appointment of John Nienstedt as Coadjutor Archbishop. Yet we remain hopeful and dedicated to coalition-building and the taking of proactive measures so as to counter reactionary and regressive forces within our local Catholic community.

Following are images and descriptions of some of these coalition-building and proactive measures of the past year.

Above: Catholic Rainbow Parents, Myrna and Ron Ohmann, have played a crucial role in the establishment of a support group for Catholic parents of LGBT persons in the St. Cloud area. A number of CPCSM folks regularly travel from the Twin Cities to attend and support Myrna and Ron’s efforts.

Above: CPCSM executive coordinator Michael Bayly (left), and St. Joan of Arc parishioner Ron Joki led the Inclusive Catholics contingent – comprised of welcoming and affirming Catholic parishes and communities – in the 2007 Gay Pride Parade, June 24, 2007.

As in previous years, members of both CPCSM and Catholic Rainbow Parents staffed an informational booth in Loring Park during the two-day Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival.

For more images of CPCSM’s participation in this year’s Gay Pride events, click

Above: Theresa O’Brien, CSJ; Bishop Thomas Gumbleton; and Myrna and Ron Ohmann were among the guests at CPCSM’s 2007 Annual Community Meeting, which took place on June 28.

This year’s meeting served as a celebration of the April 2007 publication of
Creating Safe Environments for LGBT Students: A Catholic Schools Perspective, edited by CPCSM executive coordinator, Michael Bayly, and based on the ground-breaking work CPCSM accomplished in a number of Catholic high schools in the late 1990s.

This year’s CPCSM Father Henry LeMay Pastoral Ministry Award was given to Myrna and Ron Ohmann – members of Catholic Rainbow Parents – for their “faithful, courageous, and loving efforts in promoting the full civil and ecclesial rights of LGBT persons.”

Above: The recipient of CPCSM’s 2007 Bishop Gumbleton Peace and Justice Award was Dignity/ Twin Cities president and Rainbow Sash Alliance USA coordinator Brian McNeill, who was honored with his award in July.

Above: Bishop Thomas Gumbleton (center) stands with the organizers of the inaugural Prayer Breakfast of Hope and Justice – Friday, June 29, 2007.

CPCSM played a crucial role in bringing together the coalition that planned and hosted this new initiative. Highlights of this event included the beautiful Eucharistic meal we celebrated together, the words of wisdom and encouragement shared by Bishop Gumbleton, and our awarding of Bishop Gumbleton with a “Lifetime Achievement Award for Justice and Peace,” which he is holding in the photograph above.

Above: A meeting of The Progressive Catholic Voice planning team – August 2007.

One of the most exciting initiatives we’ve undertaken this year has been our working with a growing coalition of Catholics dedicated to strengthening and unifying the progressive Catholic voice within the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis and beyond – primarily through the monthly publication of
The Progressive Catholic Voice, an online journal that we launched on October 4, the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi. To date, over 500 people have subscribed to The Progressive Catholic Voice.

Pictured in the photograph above are (from left): Beverly Barrett (CPCSM secretary), Mary Lynn Murphy (CPCSM president and Catholic Rainbow Parents coordinator), Paul Fleege (outgoing CPCSM treasurer), Gerry Sell, Susan Kramp, Mary Beckfeld, David McCaffrey (CPCSM co-founder), Rick Notch (incoming CPCSM treasurer), and Paula Ruddy.

Above: Robert and Carol Curoe, authors of the book, Are There Closets in Heaven: A Catholic Father and Lesbian Daughter Share Their Story, were the keynote speakers at CPCSM’s Second Annual Bill Kummer Forum. This event was originally scheduled to take place at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, but after the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis intervened and prohibited the Curoes from speaking on Catholic property, it was relocated to the recently established House of the Beloved Disciple, a center for progressive Catholics dedicated to “preserving Catholicism in the spirit of Jesus.”

For a commentary and pictures of the Curoes’ October 22 presentation, click here.

For The National Catholic Reporter’s coverage of the Archdiocese’s treatment of the Curoes, click here.

For The Rainbow Spirit interview with Carol Curoe, click here.

Above and below: The Vigil for Solidarity with LGBT Catholics saw over three hundred people gather at the Cathedral of St. Paul on December 2, 2007.

We gathered to express our disagreement with Coadjutor Archbishop John Nienstedt’s November 15 declaration that people who encourage and support their LGBT family members and friends, are “cooperating in a grave evil.”

One of the most powerful moments of the vigil was the “die-in and rising up” ritual on the front steps of the cathedral. This ritual involved many of those gathered falling to the ground in response to the reading of Archbishop Nienstedt’s “life-denying” words regarding homosexuality. Then, when eleven-year-old Joseph Olsen proclaimed Jesus’ “life-giving” words: “I came that you might have life – and have it to the full!”, everyone rose up and joyfully began singing “I Shall Walk in the Presence of God.”

We then crossed the street to the chancery where an open letter to Archbishop Nienstedt from the editorial team of The Progressive Catholic Voice was delivered. To date, we have received no response from the archbishop.

Without doubt, it’s been a momentous year for both CPCSM and Catholic Rainbow Parents, and we are happy and proud to continue our role as one of a very few prominent LGBT-affirming progressive Catholic voices in both our Church and the wider society.

Rest assured, we plan on hosting a range of proactive events in 2008 – events that will enrich and empower the local Catholic community to participate in the evolving life of the Church.

Friends, we are incredibly grateful for your past support, and hope that we can continue to rely on your generosity and kindness as we continue to live out our ministry under difficult financial conditions and an increasingly reactionary climate within the church. We thus ask you again for your support as together we work for justice and compassion for GLBT people within our church and society.

See also the previous Wild Reed post:
CPCSM's Year in Review (2006)

Out and About - December 2007

Above and below: As executive coordinator of CPCSM and a founding member of The Progressive Catholic Voice online journal, I was honored to one of a number of Catholics to organize the December 2 “Vigil for Solidarity with LGBT Catholics,” an event that drew over 300 people to the Cathedral of St. Paul, and included a powerful “die-in and rising up” ritual on the front steps of the cathedral (above).

Those who gathered on December 2 were determined to respectfully express their disagreement with Coadjutor Archbishop John Nienstedt’s
November 15 declaration that people who encourage and support their LGBT family members and friends, are “cooperating in a grave evil.”

For more commentary and images of this event, see the previous Wild Reed posts:
300+ People Vigil at the Cathedral in Solidarity with LGBT Catholics
Why We Gathered
Interesting Times Ahead
An Open Letter to Archbishop Nienstedt
NCR's Coverage of December 2 "Vigil for Solidarity"
Local Media Coverage of December 2 Vigil Falls Short
No, Really . . .

Above: Even though I’ve lived in the U.S. for fourteen years, this is the first year I’ve bought myself a Christmas Tree! And a pretty good one it turned out to be, if I do say so myself.

The tree itself came from Menards Hardware, at a real bargain prize. It’s a fake one, by the way, and deciding on purchasing it as opposed to a real tree was the ultimate “paper or plastic?” quandary!

Many of the ornaments that decorate my tree are what I call “vintage,” and were found at Value Village in Richfield and an antique store in my neighborhood. I never did find a star, though. Oh, well, that will be something to look for
next December.

The framed poster in the background of the first Christmas Tree photo is of one of my favorite movies, director Tim Robbin’s Cradle Will Rock.

Above: Members of CPCSM, Catholic Rainbow Parents, and The Progressive Catholic Voice editorial team lend a helping hand to the mailing of CPCSM’s annual Christmas Appeal letter – Tuesday, December 18, 2007.

From left: Rick Notch (CPCSM treasurer and founding member of The Progressive Catholic Voice online journal), Mary Lynn Murphy (CPCSM president, Catholic Rainbow Parents co-founder & coordinator, and founding member of The Progressive Voice), Mike Murphy (Rainbow Catholic Parents co-founder), Paula Ruddy (founding member of The Progressive Catholic Voice), and Mary Beckfeld (CPCSM, Rainbow Catholic Parents co-founder, and founding member of The Progressive Catholic Voice).

Above and below: A great aspect of Christmas time is the opportunities it provides to gather with friends so as to celebrate “the reason for the season.”

Celebrating with me in the photo above are my friends Joseph, Kathleen and Susan – December 22, 2007.

Above: Paul, Cass and Carrie – December 24, 2007.

Above: Leah, Nick, Kate and Rex – December 24, 2007.

Above: And hamming it up for the camera we have Luke, Gretchen, Mindi and Zakeya – December 24, 2007.

Above: Roger, Kath and Darla – December 24, 2007.

Above: “Out of Darkness, Into the Light”: A Candlelight Service for the Children of Iraq and Other Child Victims of War – St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church, Friday, December 28, 2007.

Above: The speakers at the 10th annual “Out of Darkness, Into the Light” ecumenical prayer and candlelight service were Meg Novak and Peter Thompson.

Following is a brief excerpt from Peter’s talk:

All three Abrahamic religious traditions, as well as Gandhian and Buddhist teachings, see children as more than just cute and innocent. A favorite story from the Christian tradition gives us some guideposts to the deeper significance of children. “Jesus took a little child and put it among them, and taking the child in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” [Mark 9:36-37]

I hear in this message that the simplicity, truthfulness and powerlessness of children are what are needed to move toward the peace and justice of God’s Reign.

What led to this teachable moment? When Jesus put the child ‘among them’ he placed the child among the disciples. What immediately precedes this wonderful teaching is the argument amongst the disciples about who is the greatest among them, AND this argument ensues right after Jesus tells the disciples of his coming resurrection from death. The reaction of adults, when they hear about kingdom, is to grab for some of that royal power and prestige. They begin scrabbling for the best spot in the hierarchy. After all, they figure due to their risky association with Jesus they want their rightful reward, now that victory is at hand. THIS IS HOW ADULTS THINK.

But what Jesus is trying to show them with the child is just the opposite. A child wouldn’t care about a position near the throne, or the values of the dominant culture. To welcome God in this world doesn’t take domination, hierarchy, and power, it takes what children know and yearn for: loving relationship. Children teach us about alternative values such as equality, relationship and nonviolence.

Above: My good friend Garth (right) visited the U.S. from Australia in late December. Although much of his time was spent in Baltimore with his girlfriend and her parents, he made a quick 18-hour visit to St. Paul on December 29-30 to visit me. How lucky was I?

Garth was very impressed with the snow – the first he’d ever seen! On Sunday, December 30, my neighbor and friend, Aaron, drove Garth and I through the wintry countryside to his uncle and aunt’s farm in Maple Lake - a trip that included a visit to the huge Cabela’s store in Rogers.

With its large collection of stuffed animals and wide-range of firearms for sale, Cabela’s is quite something (in a surreal kind of way). It’s also uniquely American, given the fact that for the vast majority of people born and raised outside the U.S., the ease at which Americans can purchase all manner of different types of guns is not only disturbing but, well, quite ridiculous, really.

For more images of Garth’s all-too brief time in Minnesota, click

Above: Aaron – December 30, 2007.

I tippy-toe across your dream each night,
so as not to wake you, asleep in your summer.
A garland of flowers, yellow and white around your waist.

While I walk these paths of ice,
ice my breast and strings of ice my hair,
my hands, two hooks of steel.
Ice nose, snow eyes, frozen open pout.
Flakes of snow my bridal veils.

I come down the soft white path,
bouquets of poppies spring from my heart.

Buffy Sainte-Marie
(from the 1969 album, Illuminations)

For more images of winter beauty, click here.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Back in the USA
It Sure Was Cold!
An Energizing and Spirited Weekend
Out and About – April 2007
Out and About – May 2007
Out and About – June 2007
Out and About – July 2007
Out and About – August 2007
Out and About – September 2007
Out and About – October 2007
Out and About – November 2007

A Snowy December - with an Aussie Connection

It’s been a very snowy December this year in Minnesota, ensuring that we’re experiencing some beautiful winter scenes - not to mention a picture-postcard “white Christmas” last Tuesday.

The photo above, as with many of the ones below, was taken in my back garden in St. Paul. The dormant winter garden has a beauty all its own, I’ve discovered. And it brings to mind Thomas Newman’s beautiful music for Angels in America, and, in particular, this music’s predominant use of the oboe. If the duck was a song bird, it’s noted in Angels in America, it would sound like the oboe: “nasal, desolate, the call of migratory things.”

(To watch and hear the opening of the HBO mini-series Angels in America, click here.)

I took the above photo while walking through the campus of the University of Minnesota on Friday, December 28, 2007. I’d been in nearby Dinkytown visiting my favorite used book store, Cummings Books. Not only does it have a great “piled to the rafters” selection of books, but the owner’s pets - including two dogs, two cats, and two parrots - are always present and looking for some friendly attention.

Above and below: Icicles, as sharp as needles, hang from the eaves of all the houses in my neighborhood.

Seeing icicles like these always reminds me of the book,
Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire. I read it years ago and so don’t recall all of the details. However, I do remember that one of the characters meets an untimely end when a great melting icicle falls and impales him! Needless to say, I don’t linger under the icicles on my house.

Above and below: The back deck and garden of my St. Paul home.

Above: With my friend Aaron (left) at his uncle and aunt’s Maple Lake farm - December 30, 2007.

As I write, it’s Monday, December 31 - the last day of 2007. The photo above shows what I was doing this time last year. That’s me standing at right, and, as you can see, I had no need of heavy winter clothing as I was in Australia, awaiting the successful completion of my longer-than-expected green card process. On the last day of 2006, I was enjoying, not the snowy beauty of a Minnesota winter, but the beauty of Australia’s Ellenborough Falls with members of my family.

For more images of that day, visit here.

Now, I may not be in Australia at the moment, but I'm happy to say that, in a way, Australia recently came to me!

My good friend Garth, who’s currently in the U.S. with his girlfriend, made a quick 18-hour visit to St. Paul from Baltimore!

Garth was very impressed with the snow – the first he’d ever seen! Yesterday, my neighbor and friend, Aaron, drove Garth and I through the wintry countryside to his uncle and aunt’s farm in Maple Lake. It was a great trip – despite the fact that we were all hungover and tired from having stayed up all night drinking wine (six bottles between the three of us!), talking, and, at one point, soaking in a hot tub!

Above: Garth, in front of my St. Paul home - December 30, 2007.

Garth, too, was wary of the icicles. And without ever having read Wicked!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

No, Really . . .

I hope Coadjutor Archbishop John Nienstedt continues to write letters to the editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Why? Because, to date, they’ve ensured responses from others that are quite remarkable in their clarity, compassion, and intellectual honesty – qualities that ensure a moral credibility sadly lacking in the Roman Catholic Church’s official teachings on homosexuality. It is Archbishop Nienstedt’s aggressive promotion and defending of such teachings that have prompted literally hundreds to let him (and the wider church and society) know that they respectfully disagree.

Following are two responses to Archbishop Nienstedt from yesterday’s Star Tribune.


Let’s do lunch

In a Dec. 22 letter (“Love, not acceptance”), the Rev. John C. Nienstedt says we are all called to radical honesty and moral integrity. He also says we ought to be able to have dinner with sinners without implying that we condone the sin.

I can agree on both points, so I say this to him: Your stated views against homosexual behavior are morally repugnant, seemingly rooted in ignorance and misguided faith. If there is indeed sin, your denigration of good people and their loving behavior is just that. But I do not think that having lunch with you and telling you this to your face would sully me. Do you have the courage to discuss this over a sandwich? My treat.

Bruce Odegaard

Opened eyes

Once upon a time I could have written Archbishop John C. Nienstedt’s letter. But, over the years, gay and lesbian Christians and books, such as Homoeroticism in the Biblical World by Martti Nissinen and A Time to Embrace by William Stacy Johnson, have taught me to see things differently.

I now see that the biblical texts that rightly condemn lustful, exploitative same-sex behavior say nothing concerning homosexuality, as correctly understood today, nor concerning committed same-sex relationships of love and faithfulness. To use such texts to condemn such persons and such relationships is like using a book about heterosexual rape and abuse to condemn heterosexual marriage!

If the Apostle Paul were here today I believe that he would instruct us to understand those condemning texts, including his own, in their historical context and to see this, and all, ethical issues in light of the timeless wisdom of this paragraph from his letter to the church in Rome:

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:8-10).

Lowell O. Erdahl
Bishop Emeritus, St. Paul Area Synod,
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

See also the previous Wild Reed posts
Coadjutor Archbishop Nienstedt’s “Learning Curve”: A Suggested Trajectory
Interesting Times Ahead
An Open Letter to Archbishop Nienstedt
Nienstedt’s “Trauma of His Own”
300+ People Vigil at the Cathedral in Solidarity with LGBT Catholics
Why We Gathered
My Advent Prayer for the Church

Tariq Ali on the Assassination of Benazir Bhutto

Like many people around the world, I was shocked and saddened when I saw on the internet Thursday morning that former Pakistani prime minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated.

British-Pakistani historian, activist, and commentator Tariq Ali was a guest on Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! program yesterday, and offered some insightful analysis and commentary on the situation in Pakistan.

Here’s part of what he had to say to Democracy Now! co-host,
Amy Goodman, about the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.


Amy Goodman: Tariq, talk about your response on Thursday when you heard the news [of the assassination], and talk about why Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan.

Tariq Ali: Well, Amy, my first reaction was anger. I was livid that Bush and his acolytes in Britain had fixed this deal, pushing her to do a deal with [Pakistani president, Pervez] Musharraf, forcing her to play a role, which, of course, she agreed to do – it has to be admitted – in Pakistan, which she was not capable of playing. She made some extremely injudicious remarks, saying that she would go back, she was the only person who could deal with terrorism, etc., etc. The fact was that this was not the case.

I wrote at the time that it is a big, big problem when you try and arrange a political marriage between two parties who loathe each other. And so, Musharraf very rapidly, after her return, embarrassed her by instituting a state of emergency. And she then didn’t know whether to defend the state of emergency; finally, she attacked it. So the whole situation was a complete mess.

And now, everyone in Pakistan knows that an election organized in this fashion, under the leadership of a guy who’s become a master at rigging elections, is not going to achieve anything. So Benazir was advised by close advisers, including one of the central leaders of her party, Aitzaz Ahsan, who is still in prison, by the way, saying we must not participate in this election, it’s totally fake and rigged, it should be boycotted. She refused to accept that, because Washington insisted that she participate in this election, and she was torn in her loyalties. And finally, she, a woman of great physical courage, lacked the political courage to defy Washington. And I have to say this, it’s cost her her life. Had she decided to boycott the election, this would not have happened.

And for Washington to send her to Pakistan, reassuring her that she would be safe, is shocking. At the very least, if they were insistent on doing this, they could have provided her with a Marine guard like Karzai gets in Kabul. But, you know, they depended on the locals to guard her, and they obviously couldn’t do it. So she’s now dead. And it’s a tragedy. It’s a personal tragedy for her and her family. And it sort of has begun, embarked on a new crisis for Pakistan, which is going to get worse.

I mean, I think Musharraf’s days are numbered. I don’t think he will be, even if he has this fake election in a week or ten days’ time, which Bush is forcing him to do – I mean, I cannot understand, for the life of me, how the President of the United States can be so isolated and remote from reality as to insist that an election goes ahead when one of the central political leaders in the country, backed by Washington, has just been assassinated. I mean, what the hell are they going to achieve from this election? Nothing. It will not give legitimacy to anyone. It will create possibly, very rapidly afterwards, a new crisis, and then they will have to have a new military leader stepping in.

For the full transcript of Democracy Now!’s interview with Tariq Ali, click here.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Benazir Bhutto Killed in Suicide Attack
– Reuters, December 27, 2007.
In Wake of Assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Bush Administration Rushes to Defense of Musharraf – Keith Jones (World Socialist Web Site, December 28, 2007).
Hundreds of Thousands Mourn Bhutto – Ashraf Khan (Associated Press, December 28, 2007).
Militants, Bhutto Aides Allege Cover-Up
– Ravi Nessman (Associated Press, December 29, 2007).
Pakistan Smolders with Rage After Bhutto’s Death
– Ashraf Khan (Associated Press, December 27, 2007).
The Key Questions in the Bhutto Murder Inquiry - BBC World News, December 29, 2007.
Obituary: Benazir Bhutto – BBC World News, December 27, 2007.

Image 1: Pakistani women light candles in front of a portrait of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto during a vigil at her Pakistan Peoples Party office Saturday Dec. 29, 2007 in Lahore, Pakistan. Pakistan says it does not need foreign assistance to investigate Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, despite deepening controversy over how exactly she died and who killed her. (AP Photo/Ed Wray)

Image 2: Pakistan’s former Prime Minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto pictured during an election rally in Rawalpindi December 27, 2007, shortly before she was killed in a gun and bomb attack. Bhutto was assassinated on Thursday as she left an election rally in the city of Rawalpindi, putting Jan. 8 polls in doubt and sparking anger in her native Sindh province and across the country. (Associated Press/B.K.Bangash)

Image 3: Policemen stand in front of a poster of slain Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi, December 29, 2007. (Ahmad Masood/Reuters)

For more of Tariq Ali at The Wild Reed, visit the previous posts:
Tariq Ali Discuss Rudyard Kipling
Tariq Ali on the Resignation of Tony Blair

See also the related Wild Reed post:
Praying for George W. Bush

Friday, December 28, 2007


Above and below: British actor James Murray as Dick Dewy
in the 2004 BBC adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree.

Alright, alright, I admit it: I’ve got a thing for a guy with sideburns. No, not just your regular sideburns, but those over-sized ones sported by the likes of 1960s’ crooner Engelbert Humperdinck or the smoldering, often tortured male protagonists in any number of film adaptations of classic English novels.

This rather superfluous fact about myself hit home (literally) last Sunday evening when, snowbound in St. Paul, I found myself in front of the telly unable to resist watching the BBC's 2005 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree (1872).

Actually, it was actor James Murray as handsome, passionate (and, yes, generously sideburned) Dick Dewy that I couldn’t resist.

Perhaps you’re not familiar with Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree. To be honest, I wasn’t until this past Sunday night. It’s cited as Hardy’s lightest and most comedic work, and has been described as a “rollicking ode to the goodhearted rural traditions of 1840s [English] town life.

Here’s how outlines the story:

When a young educated woman with the preposterous name of Fancy Day (played by Keeley Hawes) returns to her small rural village of Mellstock to care for her father, she finds herself pursued by three very different men: The poor but handsome Dick Dewy (James Murray), the crude but wealthy Mr. Shiner (Steve Pemberton), and the erudite but pompous Parson Maybold (Ben Miles). The story is slender but enjoyable, with hints of class conflict and the changes due to come from the impending Industrial Revolution.

Now, truth be told, I don’t think I’m the only gay man to be drawn to those handsome, dashing, and romantic men of English historical fiction. Dick Dewy may be the latest of such characters to appear on my radar, but there have been others – Horatio Hornblower , for instance, comes to mind.

Above: Ioan Gruffudd, sans sideburns,
as Horatio Hornblower.

And it’s not just gay men who find the looks and antics of such men attractive. In 2004, the Orange Prize for Fiction conducted a poll in which almost two thousand women voted the character of Mr. Darcy in Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice as the most popular “fictional romantic character” and “the man they would most like to go on a date with”!

Above: Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the
1996 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Writing about the results of this poll and the popularity of Mr. Darcy-type figures in general, Cherry Potter makes the astute observation that, in reality, “dark, smouldering, moody, charismatic, arrogant Darcy types, whom we hate at first sight and later fall in love with, often . . . turn out to be rigid, dominating and controlling.”

Dick Dewy, you may be pleased to know, doesn’t really fit the Mr. Darcy mold. Said another way, he may wear (and look good in) a Lord Byron-style poet’s shirt, but he’s free of the characteristics of your typical Byronic hero. For a start, he’s not arrogant. Neither is he self-critical, painfully introspective, moody, or self-destructive. And he’s certainly not a loner rejected by society. For Mr. Dewy, there’s no wandering about desolate and windswept moors, as with the case of poor Heathcliff. No, people actually, er, like Dick.

For instance, unlike Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice (who loathed Mr. Darcy upon first encountering him) Fancy Day is quite taken by the handsome and charming Dick Dewy. From the get-go, there’s a strong sense of mutual attraction between the two. And, for all its simplicity, Dick’s gentle brushing of his hand against Fancy’s as they wash their hands together in a bowl of water, conveys a potent sexual energy that both of them clearly sense, share, and are drawn to explore further.

Yet if Fancy is to follow her heart and marry Dick, who, it needs to be said, works as a humble carrier in the village, she would be marrying beneath her social class. Her well-meaning old Dad is adamant that either the wealthy Mr. Shiner or the handsome and learned Parson Maybold would be a far a better “catch” for her. Needless to say, after various trials and assorted misunderstandings, Fancy and Dick find true love with each other

It’s a journey beautifully depicted in the following video by Ladyhawke87, who artfully blends scenes from Under the Greenwood Tree with the Dana Glover song, “It is You (I Have Loved).”

So, what’s the message I take from Under the Greenwood Tree? Well, it’s a simple one, as all the important messages are: love knows no boundaries – be they class, race, or gender. History and current events document that humanity’s realization of this truth, though slow at times to dawn, has nevertheless dawned and continues to dawn.

The story of Under the Greenwood Tree also reminds me that love vanquishes ignorance and fear – our own and others’. In the face of life-affirming and life-giving love, strictures on love between consenting adults – be these strictures ecclesial or societal in origin – are inevitably shown to be the feeble and foolish things that they are. History and experience demonstrate again and again that such strictures are no match for the human flourishing that authentic love brings forth in the lives of partnered individuals and, by extension, their communities. I compare such victories to the gentle yet relentless growth of flowers through cracks in seemingly impenetrable concrete. Yet grow these beautiful and resilient little flowers do, and in their courageous awakening and growth they weaken the concrete and allow more life to flourish. So often, that’s how change in our society and church occurs. It’s difficult, to be sure, but also beautiful, life-giving, and inspiring.

Finally, as I watched Under the Greenwood Tree alone in my house, with snow gently descending outside my windows, I was reminded of how much I miss being in love and sharing my life with another. Without doubt, intentional and committed relationships bring an added dimension of focus, clarity, and energy to one’s life. I really believe that being connected with another in this way energizes and compels us to be the best we can be – on multiple levels of our being.

As a gay man who is not called to celibacy yet who is not partnered with another, I sometimes struggle to stay hopeful and true to this vision of what love and, by extension, sexual expression should be about. Aspects of gay male culture undoubtedly encourage gay men to view themselves and others solely as objects for sexual gratification. That may work for some, but not for me. Now, having said that, I also have to acknowledge that I resonate with author Thomas Stevenson who, in his book Sons of the Church: The Witnessing of Gay Catholic Men, writes:

No doubt, a greater degree of personal relating can take place more commonly within the context of a growing committed relationship. But that is not to say, categorically, that personal relating can never take place within so-called promiscuous behavior, notwithstanding the very prevalent dangers of depersonalization that so often surround and happen with promiscuous behavior.

Stevenson’s book documents the experiences and insights of numerous gay Catholic men. He refers to these men as “witnesses,” and when summarizing their thoughts on different types of sexual experiences and relationships, notes the following:

There is a difference between losing oneself and losing oneself. On the one hand, our witnesses are concerned with the ways in which promiscuous behavior can leave one with a sense of emptiness, or destroy one’s self respect or even one’s life. These are very real possibilities of losing oneself. On the other hand, there is the losing of oneself in an ecstasy of giving and receiving persons. Whereas the first way of losing oneself tends to lead, in matters of degree, to nothingness, the second tends to lead, in matters of degrees, to fullness and bliss.

I also appreciate the perspective of Coleman Barks who, when writing on the love poetry of Rumi, reminds us that:

At the core of each person’s nature are unique seeds of desiring, which flourish through the development of personality, not through any suppression of it. We are not to become pale renunciate ciphers with no wantings. [Desires] are not to be thwarted but lived, transmuted, and incorporated. This is the art of forming a personality. Only when we live [our desires] do we learn that those satisfactions are not what we truly wanted. There’s more, and we are here to follow the mysteries of longing beyond where they lead. The purpose of desire is to perfect the longings, for at the core of longing is the Friend, Christ, Krishna, the emptiness . . . The great love at the center of longing has no fear in it.

And then there’s this wonderful
observation from D. Stephen Heersink (aka the Gay Species):

Mechanical Sex, the kind that sex manuals teach their readers to enjoy with abandon, quickly becomes pedestrian, indeed mechanical. Get it up, get it in, and get off. On the opposite side of the spectrum is sexual, or more accurately, ‘erotic” love. These extraordinary occasions are pregnant with meaning, intimacy, caring, sharing, mutuality, and immersion. But this requires an investment in the other, and some measure of self-control by one’s self. The “significance” is when the eyes, lips, and breath of the Other is itself so captivating that one is not aware of any of the mechanics.”

The insights of Steveson, Barks, and Heersink make a lot of sense to me. I resonate with them and believe that most other people - open to the presence of the sacred in human life - would also. They are insights that reflect a very wise and compassionate way of understanding and talking about the complexities of sexual desire and experience.

Unfortunately, the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on human sexuality fail to reflect such complexity and diversity. As a result, the people and relationships that embody these realities are dismissed and maligned. Like the vast majority of gay men, I don’t fit either of the limited and dehumanizing stereotypes officially promoted by Roman Catholicism. I am neither a martyr to celibacy nor an irreligious hedonist consumed by promiscuity.

Indeed, as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not very good at being either celibate or promiscuous. Instead, I’m dedicated to a searching life “somewhere in between.” It’s not a desperately searching life, but rather one filled with hope and the joy of pilgrimage, one that is respectful of honest doubts, and open to different types of authentic relationships (and thus to God present in my life and the world in different ways).

I trust that one day one of those “types of relationships” will be defined and sustained by the mutual attraction and connection I’ll share and express (sacramentally and sexually) with another man. Together we’ll endeavor to ensure that such “mutual attraction and connection” serves to welcome and nurture many different types of experiences that, in the words of D. Stephen Heersink, will be “pregnant with meaning, intimacy, caring, sharing, mutuality, and immersion.” They’ll be life-giving, in other words. (So much for expressions of gay love not being “procreative”!)

I’m grateful that I live at a time when such life-giving sharing and expressions of love between two people of the same gender are increasingly being recognized, affirmed, and accepted – by individuals, families, societies, and faith communities. This shouldn’t be at all surprising, for as theologian Maria Harris notes in her contribution to the 1999 anthology, Homosexuality and Christian Faith: “[In our current times] the human race undeniably has a different understanding of sexuality from what it had in the past.”

Harris goes on to observe that: “Studies subsequent to the two Kinsey Reports have confirmed the fact that the human race has an imaginative diversity of sexual expression. Sexual intimacy between consenting partners of same sex seems to be nothing less and nothing more than part of that wonderful range of expression.”

In embracing and articulating awareness of such diversity, Harris invites contemporary Christians to “see homosexuality as part of God’s creation, sanctified by the Incarnation.” She goes on to write:

The world of our bodily senses is not a veil that obscures divinity. The material world, whatever its groans and travails, is the expression of divine goodness. The best impulses of that world – the genuine struggles for the fulfillment of bodily existence – cannot be dismissed . . . People’s sexual expressions have to be seen within that context.

Now I realize, of course, that the characters of Dick Dewy and Fancy Day are just that: fictional characters. Yet they can also be seen to represent real people who at certain times and within certain contexts in the evolution of human consciousness, challenged the strictures, rules, and societal norms of their day in order to allow love to break and shine forth. Such breaking forth continues today. We see it in the efforts and struggles of same-gender couples to live authentically as partnered couples.

I see “the greenwood tree” as a metaphor for life – in all its unfolding beauty and diversity. There’s room in the cooling shade of this tree’s welcoming and sheltering branches for all of us. It’s here in this realm of consciousness and compassion that I intend to dwell and flourish as a human being. And who knows, perhaps in my flourishing I’ll attract and be drawn to my own Dick Dewy. He won’t be a hero or a savior, but simply another man open to that special type of relationship and journey to which we’ll both feel called to share with one another. And, in all honesty, he can be with or without overgrown sideburns!

Recommended Off-site Links:
All Things James Murray
Mr. Darcy is to Die For
– Cherry Potter (Sydney Morning Herald, October 20, 2004).
Animal Energies - excerpts from Rumi: The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing by Coleman Barks.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Changing Face of “Traditional Marriage”
Naming and Confronting Bigotry
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
This “Militant Secularist” Wants to Marry a Man
Somewhere in Between
Trusting God’s Generous Invitation
Sons of the Church: A Discussion Guide
Thoughts on Celibacy (Part I)
Thoughts on Celibacy (Part II)
The Triumph of Love: An Easter Reflection
The Many Forms of Courage (Part I)
The Many Forms of Courage (Part II)
The Many Forms of Courage (Part III)
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex