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Evangelisation, Diversity and Conscience – some brief notes

Panel presentation for Root & Branch Synod, 6 September 2021

I’m so glad that our panel title has been changed. I really didn’t want to speak to you as part of a panel on diversity. It’s not my thing at all. To be clear, I don’t fault the R & B organizers for having wanted to raise the topic. I hate it that the reality of the situation we are in as Church is that the way I’m thought to be interesting is because some of you think that over the years, I’ve spoken sense as a gay man.

This frustrates me. My passion, from my first book Knowing Jesus to my most recent book, the introduction to the Christian Faith for adults called Jesus the Forgiving Victim to my most recent web initiative, is evangelisation. Working out a fresh way, one that is liveable, prayable and preachable, to make sense of the Gospel such that it can be shared, and such that we can build eucharistic communities which are learning to be signs of the kingdom.

If anyone were to ask me which part of any synodal group, or Church project more widely, I would like to be part of, I would unhesitatingly say “evangelisation”. That’s my thing, as preaching is my passion.

But it is in fact my fault that such an invitation is very unlikely to be forthcoming, for some time at least; my fault that I get, instead, invitations, like this one, to speak as in some way representative of an issue I’m not really interested in. For all of which there is a simple enough reason. I came to the conclusion, over twenty-five years ago, that my primary vocation, that of preacher of the Gospel of Grace, was incompatible with complicity in the violent dishonesty that goes along with the closet. 

In other words, I realised that I couldn’t be a truth teller in one sphere and a liar in another. Or rather, of course, that like everyone, I could be, and was, both of those things. However, I knew that I had to allow the truth and grace of the one to start slowly to melt away in me the violent dishonesty of the other. Because otherwise, the reverse would be true: the closet would form the Gospel, imposing the structure of what can and can’t be said.

And what I have found out over the intervening years is that my decision was unacceptable. The pre-condition for being involved in any form of publicly recognised Catholic evangelisation is that you do not attempt first person discourse as an L G B or T person. Though of course sometimes, people claiming to be “ex” one or other of those things are briefly given platforms and then hung out to dry by the dishonest opportunists who promote them.

But mostly, the pre-condition is that you make available an “objective” apodictic Gospel that doesn’t touch who you are; and above all that you don’t challenge the preaching of those for whom LGBT people are enemies necessary for the construction of whatever form of sacred boundary they are projecting.

It is for this reason, that, over the years, I have had, slowly, and with many ups and downs, to try to work out what it means to preach, to share the Gospel, publicly to witness to Jesus, in the first person as a gay man. With all the complications of my sinfulness, as well as the sexual, relational, and psychological incompetence and immaturity, that are part of my baggage. As they are that of many other gay men of my generation. But without too much fear of what will come to light: things of which I am ashamed, and things of which I am not ashamed, but of which some would think I should be; since I know I am loved.

Because of course, it is only as you allow yourself to become the person who you are that you find yourself loved. It is Jesus’ loving you even where you would be at your most ashamed that enables you to relax into being loved. And it is as you relax that you come to know you are loved. And it is as you come to know that you are loved that you begin to be able to preach the Gospel that is coming to life in you rather than some theological soundbite or ideology to which you must hold for professional reasons, with all their attendant “no go” areas.

And this is really the only interest the matter of “diversity” has for me: its relationship to evangelisation. And that means its relationship to the possibility of first-person discourse in Christian preaching. 

I dislike much usage of the word “diversity”. It comes across as a lazy catch-all of minority groups being pandered to by some imagined majority group who are supposedly learning to be kind to people who are “different”. That may be appropriate when it comes to Employment Law, or Health and Safety Provisions. But when it comes to being Catholic, it is our similarity, not our difference that is important. It is when we see ourselves in the differently-aged, the differently-abled, the differently-gendered, differently-bodied, differently-sexually-oriented, differently-coloured, differently-tongued, differently-monied, differently-rooted in any specific country or town, that we are enriched by each other. Whether we are in a majority or a minority in any specific area. And we are, all of us, in both majorities and minorities in intertwining dimensions of our lives, interactions and conversations.

But that means that the construction of the new “we” which is what Catholicism is all about, the “we” out of every people and nation and tribe and tongue, depends on all of us learning to preach the Gospel in the first person. The first-person plural forming the first person singular, and the first person singular reforming and keeping alive the first person plural.

And here I will grudgingly concede that a panel on diversity might have made sense. For what it means in real terms is that there are some of us who have had to do an enormous amount of spadework in order to reach a place of being able to talk in the first person. Because of this we might have something to offer to those who have not so far had to do that much spadework. For some are beginning to realise that the first-person plural, the Catholic “we”, which formed and lubricated their first person singular is not real, and that the Catholic first person singular they were happy to swim around as is no longer fit for service.

Furthermore, I guess it is clear to those here that the official “we” of Church authority lives in a sycophantic self-reinforcing bubble and throws around the word “they” in a largely delusional manner. When Church authority talks about “women” or “trans people” or “homosexual persons”, often enough what they claim to “respect” are in fact gnostic fictions of their own imagination. The real people concerned are told how, a priori, they aren’t what they think they are. Yet it is Church authority’s own self-referential concoctions whose gearwheels have no traction with reality, as so many of its own members know quite well, and will tell you, off the record of course.

Thus, if there is to be a teaching authority, rather than a “maintaining-ideology-because-we’re too frightened-to-actually-learn-and-become-teachers” authority, then learning how to say “we” inclusively but not invasively, and “you” tentatively and with real interest, and “I” occasionally and with gratitude, quiet delight, and occasionally with penitential tears, is very much going to be part of the synodal process.

So, as that process gets under way, have we yet reached the stage where the various stones that the builders rejected are able to find their way into beautifying the head of the corner? If we have it is because a huge work of conscience has been going on. People in each of the categories too lazily described as “diverse” having had to sift through many things on the way to becoming a tentative first person singular. One that is not in rivalry with, but helps glorify the new first-person plural, the Holy City that is coming down upon us.

Typically, we have had to work through the shame of the space we found ourselves occupying. Learning to distinguish between things that are sinful, and things that are part of creation, not shameful at all, but potential bearers of glory.

In order to do this work, we have very probably had to discover something central to the Catholic understanding of conscience, which is that it is, above all, inherently related to truth, to what is real. It is an abiding puzzle to me that Catholic apologists have been unable to use the “coming out” of gay and lesbian people, or the delight and serenity in who they really are of transgendered people, as one of the more evident signs of the truth of classic Catholic teaching concerning humans being inherently aligned with the truth of our creator. Humans really aren’t infinitely malleable, morally relativistic, and corporally indifferent. Our bodies and our spirits long for truthfulness and come alive with zest and song when we finally allow them to bear witness to it.

One of the privileges of being LGBT and Catholic is having had to wrestle hard with what seemed common-sensical in our upbringing in order to live in the truth and to be made free. It is not that scientific knowledge “trumps” religion for us. It is that our properly religious conscience has been helped by science to defang the strictures of the sacred and come to life in the reality of creation discovered as holy.

Thanks to conscience, we are able to filter out the remnants of the deteriorated “we” which precedes all of us, and which gives us to be, however partially and unsurely; and to be retrofitted by the new “we”, which is coming upon us as Church and turning us into distinct, but similar, “I”s, who enrich each other with the tales we are learning to share. First person accounts of having been stretched painfully into reality by the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ who was not ashamed to find glory where we dared not imagine it. Of having learned to distinguish between the powerful traps of sacred-seeming violence, and the weak and gentle draw of Holy Breath. Of being given fragile belonging in the midst of no-belonging, sons and daughters coming into freedom as we learn to receive our inheritance.

Will the synodal way have room for this?

James Alison
Madrid, August/September 2021