Aboard the disco boat queen

Originally published by the God’s Friends, Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church’s magazine

The English Catholic theologian James Alison has been called one of today’s most lucid and exciting writers on our relationship with the divine. He has lived and worked in the U.K., the U.S., and South America and is the author of several books, including Knowing Jesus, The Joy of Being Wrong, and Raising Abel. Of his most recent, Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay, Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams said, “The very best theological books leave you with a feeling that perhaps it’s time you became a Christian; this is emphatically such a book.” Writes another reviewer: “These ‘fragments’ are bombshells, exploding religious idols and making way for a whole new appreciation of the place of desire in our life with God.”

In February 2005, St. Gregory’s Rector Donald Schell and his daughters, Sasha (a lecturer in history) and Maria (a freelance radio journalist), conducted this interview with Alison.

DS: Today we have a struggle for moral values, in the Anglican Communion and in secular life as well. Sexuality appears to be the focus of the struggle. Why does sexuality -and homosexuality in particular-provoke so much righteous indignation in so many people here in America, in Britain, and across the world?

JA: I’m not convinced that it’s got to do with sexuality. I think that’s a red herring. Sexuality, as Joan Roughgarden points out [in her writings and in her article in this issue], is a highly fluid reality. I think the real problem has to do with talking. And that’s what’s new and threatening. I suspect that most people really don’t mind what other people do. But when we talk about it, this starts to create different social spaces. The line for most conservative people is, “I don’t care what you do, but must you say it?”

An example: a couple of years ago, Egyptian security forces arrested 50 gay men on a disco boat on the Nile. I think the boat was called Queen, appropriately enough. These guys were charged with some ludicrous crime against Islam by the supposedly secular Egyptian government-which doesn’t have such a crime on its law books-and they were beaten up and forced to confess. Eventually, after two years and lots of international protests, they were almost all let go. The whole thing was farcical.

Now, what you had was a supposedly secular Egyptian government offering bait to the Islamic fundamentalists. And what really irked the fundamentalists was not what these people were doing but that they called themselves gay. In other words, there were people saying, “I am.” And that’s what was intolerable.

It’s no accident: President Mubarak clamping down on the boat could have been any state governor here in America, wanting to curry favor with the local Jerry Falwell crowd. There really is no difference.

DS: So would you make that connection between the boat on the Nile and the lobbying for an anti-gay-marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution? Is it the same thing?

JA: If it were not the same thing, you would surely have a significant body of people insisting that, along with the anti-gay-marriage amendment, there must be a Constitutional prohibition on divorce and remarriage. It must be obvious that it’s the heterosexual majority that is most likely to cause problems with marriage, rather than gay people. You would expect that a serious attempt to alter American society in favor of marriage would surely include an attempt to prohibit divorce. You have a very high divorce rate. As I understand it, Bible Belt states tend to have a higher divorce rate than most other states.

It must be obvious that it’s the heterosexual majority that is most likely to cause problems with marriage, rather than gay people. You would expect that a serious attempt to alter American society in favor of marriage would surely include an attempt to prohibit divorce.

DS: Thinking about what one says rather than what one does, I’d like to know your reaction to what happened last year to Jeffrey John. As you know, he was appointed Anglican bishop of Reading, but because he is gay (though evidently celibate), there was a huge reaction from evangelicals, and he was forced to decline.

JA: I think that what the evangelicals got right and the liberals didn’t understand is that the appointment of Jeffrey John, an openly gay man, as a bishop was a de facto change of doctrine.

I think it was desirable, but still, a de facto change of doctrine was sprung on people as though it were simply a matter of increased honesty. In an earlier case, a leading Anglican archbishop was forced to make a press announcement to say that his sexuality was “a gray area.” The difference between that world and the world of Jeffrey John is not about sexual practice; it’s about being able to represent who you are. The notion of “the good” has changed.

The line for most conservative people is, “I don’t care what you do, but must you say it?”

MS: What do you mean by “good” and the notion of goodness?

JA: From the point of view of the constituency of the evangelicals, it means that someone who was previously considered to be a “bad thing”-not him personally but what he symbolizes-has now become a normal or a “good thing.” Whereas previously the other guy [the archbishop] had the decency to keep the old system of goodness alive by agreeing to pretend to be a “bad thing.” Now that’s a change of world.

DS: “I’m a sinner; my sexuality is a gray area, I do my best”-that preserves the other way?

JA: Yes. And which is still the official position, as far as I can see, of the U.S. military, which is a body that teaches a masculine context. One thing they don’t tolerate in the military is people saying “I am.” But this is just the old rule of how all-male institutions worked until 50 years ago. That’s changed; today you have women serving in the armed forces.

And now in Iraq you get a woman in that most male of activities, the public sexual humiliation of male prisoners. It just shows the fluidity! When I saw that picture [of PFC England humiliating male prisoners], I thought of another picture published at nearly the same time: a lesbian couple coming down the steps of city hall in Boston with a marriage license. I wanted to put both of those pictures on a Christmas card and send them to all the bishops in my church, saying, “Which of these two is Sodom?”

DS: What’s the religious dimension on this?

JA: I don’t think there’s a separate thing called “religion” in that sense. Any form of identity politics is always going to tend towards the religious, ultimately. There’s never going to be a clear distinction. It’s worth remembering that the central icon of Christianity-the only viable image of God we have-is a crucified criminal. It is not a comforting icon for a law-and-order religion.

It is scarcely surprising that some people want there to be very clear things which make them right and other people wrong-things that make a clear difference between “us” and “them.” Among some heterosexuals, I think there has been a displacement of the real difficulty about being a man and a woman together onto people who-provided we don’t know them personally-are “ruining everything.”

DS: And now we are seeing a newer discourse and a new norm emerge. How much of this de facto change has been the result of gay rights activists within and outside of the church?

JA: It’s not as though it’s been an outbreak of courage on the part of lots of individual queers. It seems to me to that the capacity of gay males to start to consider ourselves normal is the direct result of women having started to become equals or comparative equals within previously all-male groups. So the way the male group holds itself together doesn’t work anymore.

You could imagine men sitting in a club in the 19th century saying, “What’s-his-name here: an exciting fellow; not the marrying type.” That was a world in which blind eyes would be turned. Maybe certain things would happen: you tipped off the new serving boy to be a little careful when he was around So-and-so. Everything was managed discreetly; you avoided scandal. If there really were a scandal you would give the chap a revolver and say, “Go and do the right thing.” Not that long ago, in the 1930s, when King George V was told about somebody who was gay, he said, “I thought people like that shot themselves!”

Now women come into the midst of all-male societies, and they’re simply not bothered by the same things. Donald, in your lifetime the Episcopal Church started having female clergy members, and they don’t mind who’s gay. They must have found sometimes that it’s easier to get on with fellow clergy who are gay.

The more worked up people get about something, the sillier the rhetoric gets. And they’re forced back into reality. Just think how the whole debate has moved towards some sort of concession in many areas, that of course, you need civil rights and perhaps even domestic partnership.

SS: So is this about men performing masculinity in front of women, who aren’t actually that bothered by this performance?

JA: Curiously, I think that part of the difficulty is men’s shame at not knowing how to perform masculinity, once the rules of the game are over. That is a real insecurity, because no one really knows what it is to be a man anymore. You could be a man when there was such a thing as “queers,” and you weren’t one. But now there’s such a thing as “gay,” and whether you are or aren’t, it means that being a man is more of a risky enterprise, and there aren’t clear ground rules. Males have far less of a fixed identity than females, isn’t that true? Our comparative biological uselessness makes it much more difficult for us to work out who we are and what we’re supposed to do. Paternity is not a biological thing to the same degree that motherhood is.

DS: Women are shifting their place in the culture, and that is driving this debate about sexual roles. I have thought that we’ve spent the last 2,000 years trying to figure how to live out St. Paul’s words: “In Christ there is neither slave nor freed, Jew nor Greek, male nor female.” They’re all terms about “the other.”

JA: If my memory serves me, in that list of dualities the crucial duality is not phrased “male nor female” but “male and female.” That is even more radical. It’s saying, “no longer a world divided between two.”

DS: Is it a vain fantasy for a theologian or a clergyman to look and say, “St. Paul is telling us that the coming of Christ is going to turn our world upside-down,” and that we are living out the consequences of that message today?

JA: We have no resolution. All attempts at resolution are failed sacrifices, attempted by people who know they shouldn’t, because the one true sacrifice has already happened. So all attempts to resolve things into a neat “good” or “bad” are always going to be undone. This is both terrifying and a key to our freedom. It’s what I call “navigating wrath.”

What you would expect to happen as each taboo goes down is for the next thing to surf past and hit you on the head. That’s the picture that Paul gives: of people escaping from wrath, quite literally. But the wrath became an anthropological phenomenon: the wrath of people who wanted a world in which the good was the good and the bad was the bad.

DS: One thing I notice is that public discourse about this conflict is framed largely in terms of two camps: people who claim they care about moral values and people who are-as the press frames them-tolerant and blasé. What difference does this make?

JA: The more worked up people get about something, the sillier the rhetoric gets. And they’re forced back into reality. You can see that. Just think how the whole debate in this country has moved towards some sort of concession in many areas, that of course you need civil rights and perhaps even domestic partnerships-just so long as it isn’t “marriage.”

But how are we going to give a soft landing to those people still living in the old reality? How are we going to let them off the hook? That’s the key to all these things. And that’s what I’ve spent some time thinking about in my own [Roman Catholic] church. I think many of my own church authorities know perfectly well that they’ve lost this argument in the long term. We need a line of reasoning so they can not feel humiliated, and can take part in the discussion. That means moving forward to a position of extreme spaciousness, saying, “I don’t know whether I’m getting this right or wrong, but I know that it’s bigger than me. I don’t particularly mind losing, but let’s see what we can do.”

Edited by Dave Hurlbert