This week is celebrated as Gay and Lesbian Pride Week in many countries around the world. The genesis of that young tradition was the riots that arose in the wake of a police raid on the Stonewall Bar in New York City on the 28th of June in 1969. These riots marked one of the first times homosexual and transgendered people stood up to persecution and began demanding rights. This week also marks the overturning, also in the United States, of the federal Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) – a crucial step toward the legalisation of same-sex marriage in that country. Here in Australia, our federal parliament recently voted to extend anti-discrimination protection to intersex people (making us the first country to do so) and in the same week an internal political brawl in the ruling party gave us a new Prime Minister, the first who publicly supports same-sex marriage and who, in his first week in office, foreshadowed significant movement toward federal recognition of same-sex marriage.
It’s fascinating to see what amazing shifts have occurred in many countries over the last fifty years since those riots spilled out of an underground gay bar, onto the streets of New York City and across the world, spawning the global gay liberation movement. The dramatic difference it makes to my life, being able to love and live with my partner, be open with neighbours, friends and colleagues gives me huge cause to celebrate this anniversary.
It’s sobering on the other hand to witness political attitudes to the very existence of homosexual people in less wealthy countries, particularly in central Africa where homosexuality remains illegal and where GLBTI people live under constant threat of violence. It emphasises to me the necessity to maintain a global view on matters of justice and human thriving, to understand that while one of is oppressed or suffering, we are all the lesser for it.
The other recent anniversary, of more significance to me perhaps than to any other person, is the first anniversary of my consecration as a bishop and the fifth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood.
Part of the reason I chose to pursue my vocation to the priesthood with the Apostolic Johannite Church is the seriousness with which this church pursues a policy of non-discrimination. The final principle in the Statement of Principles forbids discrimination on the “basis of gender, race, social status or sexual orientation”. It’s a nice phrase, which I appreciated when I first encountered the church, but lots of organisations have similar statements of intent, which fail to be borne out in practice. One of the open questions I approached my first year or two of seminary with was, “how seriously do these people take this stuff?” I gradually discovered that we take it very seriously. This principle is a constant touchstone for discussions of inclusion in every part of church life. The church has chosen to lose clergy who disagreed with marrying people of the same gender rather than change the principle.
One of the key moments for me, was the tremendous enthusiasm the church as a whole and our Patriarch, Shaun McCann, in particular approached my ordination as a priest. Every ordination is a special moment, every new deacon or priest a tremendous blessing to their local community and to the church as a whole. But I had the honour of being the very first homosexual person ordained in the AJC. That non-discrimination principle had been core to the church’s view of itself since its founding moment, but ordaining a gay man respresented a milestone in the church’s ability to proclaim that it lived what it taught.
One simple moment that made it beautifully clear that the depth of this commitment goes beyond tolerance and acceptance was when His Eminence invited my partner, Min, to come to the altar an assist him with vesting me in my priestly vestments. As a visual moment, it emphasised to those present and anyone who saw the photographs afterward, that we don’t mean we accept homosexual persons in some abstract sense – we accept homosexual persons in the full relationality of our love for each other.
Obviously, this is also emphasised in our church’s delight every time we have an opportunity to marry two people in love no matter what their gender or whenever we can welcome GLBTI people to full inclusion in the sacramental life of a parish. We are not the only church on the planet which welcomes, marries and ordains GLBTI people. More and more churches are moving in the direction of love and seeing trans-gendered and intersex people as precisely as included and loved and welcomed as cis-gendered people, seeing gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and their partners and families as members of the household of God sitting at the very same table as heterosexual people and their partners and families.
But one thing which I think makes the AJC a singular community is that we are a church founded on this principle. Just about every other church has endured an internal struggle to accept the equality of GLBTI people (and many are still in the midst of it). Members of those churches carry a memory of fights, arguments and sometimes violence in the long battle to gain tolerance, acceptance and ultimately welcome. The AJC has never had to face these sometimes bitter struggles, we have no institutional memory of war and no embedded history of argument, this simply is as it is and only people who agree with this principle join us.
You might say that where many churches have a history of struggle for GLBTI rights, the AJC has a history of blessing.
I yearn for a future in which all of us all over the world can take our rights for granted. To me, my equality in society seem certain and solid, but that equality has been fought for and won in my lifetime and it is still a distant dream for my fellow human beings in other countries. I know rationally that these freedoms are fragile things, that they must be protected and preserved, that there is still much to work for and many places to work in.