First appeared in Christianity & Crisis 37.9-10 (1977): 140- 144
© 1977 by Christianity & Crisis; © 2004 by Louie Crew
If you're gay where gays are not tolerated, should you be "discreet"? Is it all right to be out of the closet on Manhattan's Christopher Street but not an right in Plains (Georgia) country? When a particular congregation is affronted by the presence of a declared homosexual couple, how should church authorities respond?In early November 1976, almost the same day that the Plains Baptist Church agreed to admit blacks to membership, only 60 miles up the road, the priest and vestry of St. Luke's Episcopal church in Fort Valley, Georgia, informed the diocesan Standing Committee and Bishop Bennett Sims that their parish would have to be dismantled brick by brick before they would agree to withdraw their request that I, a self-affirmed gay parishioner, "find some other place of worship that may be more in sympathy to your thinking and efforts toward gay people."
These questions are indirectly but vividly addressed in the following autobiographical account. Louie Crew [in 1977] is associate professor of English at Fort Valley State College in Georgia. He is the founder of Integrity, national organization of gay Episcopalians and until recently editor of is journal, Gay Episcopal Forum. He has written on literature, theater liturgy and theology for such publications as Saturday Review, College English, The Living Church, and Lutheran Forum.
As in Plains, the Fort Valley congregation had made its initial decision to discriminate much earlier, back in March 1976, when they mailed the request for me to leave. Seventeen months before that, my lover and I had founded Integrity, a national organization for gay Episcopalians and our friends; but we had never publicly introduced the gay issues at the parish, except by our presence.
As in Plains, outsiders' attention to their discrimination stunned our congregation, who, having done their devilment in what they thought was secrecy, had hoped to contain it as a "family affair." Though hardly on the scale given the Plains decision, United Press International carried reports by writer David Anderson. Scores of letters came to St. Luke's, some praising and others protesting the decision. Almost as if in direct dialogue with the Fort Valley parish, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church meeting in Minneapolis in September 1976 resolved that "homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the church." Back in Fort Valley, the bishop and Standing Committee then met with the St. Luke's vestry to see what could be done locally to supply this "love, acceptance and pastoral concern and care."
Under pressure, the Plains Baptist Church reversed its stated discriminatory practice of several years: St. Luke's, Fort Valley, stood stubbornly defiant of diocesan and national leadership.
Since I am the only white communicant at St. Luke's it is very tempting for many to explain the vestry's rejection as principally racial, a way of ridding the black church of white trash, particularly in the face of the all-white hierarchy that came down from Atlanta to mediate. The vicar, the Rev. Cecil Cowan, has repeatedly boasted in our pulpit that in the black community in Oklahoma where he grew up, "We would shoot any white man seen on our streets after dark." Once he asserted of me in the presence of Bishop Sims: "I want to kill him; I want to kill him!"
On the Sunday after he'd heard that the Standing Committee was coming to mediate, he hurled the Communion wine at my upper palate, perhaps appropriately leaving off the sentence "Blood of Christ, Cup of Salvation," and after the service was over he screamed at me for all to hear at the church door as I departed: "Boy, are you sick!? You'd better leave me alone or else ...." In my 40 years, because I am white, I have never had my manhood systematically denigrated by the epithet boy, so it had not the same power to sting me, except that I grieved to know that he was thereby saying the meanest thing he knew how to say.
Similarly, Father Cowan attacked our friend who had spoken on our behalf before the Standing Committee making a scene at the store where she worked as a grocery checker, shouting, "What do you mean going up there with those white men, and you a black girl? You ought to be ashamed of yourself !" Even the vestry in the March letter asking me to leave hinted at this kind of attitude: "We would suggest further that you try promoting this movement at the other Episcopal Church in Fort Valley ...."
The other Episcopal church is the all-white St. Andrew's, whose rector had already told my lover and me that as a racially integrated gay couple we would not be welcome even to drop by his parish for a chat. Since the only way to attend an integrated parish in these parts is to integrate one, St. Luke's was always our only choice, particularly since my spouse, as a Baptist, could not join either. Furthermore, St. Luke's is the campus parish at the college where I teach. It would hardly make sense for me to retreat from my colleagues and from my black family to worship in a lily-white setting; I certainly have never had any desire to do so.
As a vestry and as individuals we are inordinately distressed by the news that you have been asked to "find some other place of worship" as an alternative to the Episcopal church you have chosen to attend. This request, conveyed to you through a document signed by s of one vestry, places upon all vestries (including ours) the burdensome question as to the nature of our functions. Are we elected to oust from our churches those whose lives do not conform to what we consider the norm, whose moral integrity [is] nationally debatable, or who deviate from any other arbitrary standards we undertake to establish? Our answer as a vestry is that we believe and_we are confident the Episcopal Church believes, that we are all one under God, called into one holy fellowship in which the claim to ship of any individual increases in direct proportion to his need for grace. We recall you years among us with great fondness and still appreciate the commendable contribution you made to our worship.... As vestry members we accept in varying degrees your view on human sexuality, but nonetheless we admire and respect you for your outright honesty and unbending convictions....The letter went on to offer me a permanent invitation to reestablish my ship with them "if you are ever denied admission to, or made to feel unwelcome in, any other Episcopal congregation."
I wanted to share the good news of this letter. I conferred with Bishop Sims, who wanted me to keep it under a lid. Since I could not agree with his request, I released the letter. The bishop was furious, as I learned through the local paper headline: "Bishop Issues Rebuke for Defiance of Order." The article explained in part:
Bishop Sims telephoned The Macon Telegraph and News Friday and issued the following statement: "Dr. Louis Crew, communicant of St.Luke's, Fort Valley, has been rebuked by his bishop for defiance o an explicit request that he not further disturb the peace and good order of the church by making public an exchange of correspondence between himself and a congregation of his former membership in the Diocese of South Carolina. Dr. Crew has been summoned to meet with the Bishop and Standing Committee of the Diocese of Atlanta. This disciplinary move is not directed to his identity as a homosexual."
Imagine the effect if Jimmy Carter's cousin, standing in the door of the Plains Baptist Church, had whispered, but to no newspersons, "We've decided to find a place for these people so long as no one knows anything about our decision." How can one ask someone to keep something within the family while at the same time not treating the person as a of the family?
What the bishop called a "confrontation" was delayed for almost four months, until after the progay resolution at General Convention. Still, in late September 1976, when I went to meet the Standing Committee and the Bishop, I went with legal counsel, on the advice of William Stringfellow and several other interested persons in the church. My attorney began by establishing that the canons of the diocese do not authorize discipline of the laity, short of excommunication, which the bishop and the Standing Committee had expressly denied as intentions. Bishop Sims explained that he had described our session as "disciplinary" only in anger, with no authority. Then the Standing Committee gave a compassionate hearing to my witness, and later made their visit to my vestry to work toward conciliation, as I mentioned.
The vestry itself has never talked with me, with the exception of two women -- who refused to sign the original letter. Some have even complained when I have sent free copies of our Gay Episcopal Forum so that they would not have to rely on gossip but could judge for themselves the kind of ministry we are growing into. The heterosexual majority has placed much pressure on the several closeted gays in the church to join in opposing me, and several of the heterosexuals who have related to us in kindness have been frequently intimidated. Some who have had their hair dressed by my spouse have been talked into withdrawing that patronage. Speaking of me, Father Cowan tells people openly, "I'm not his priest. I merely give him Communion when he comes to my church." He told the bishop, "I cannot agree to be his priest." He long ago withdrew all pastoral relations with us, and often will not even speak. All this seems rather normal for the Middle Ages in which we live.
In our parish as in most others, many heterosexual marriages are on the rocks; much alcoholism is rampant; some children are abused, many persons sport mistresses and illegitimate offspring. We do find rather incredible the claims to moral indignation about our very staid and conservative domestic life.
Our experience leads us to believe that the church is in serious danger of being subverted into becoming one of the greatest covert intelligence agencies of them all, making its major work not the nurture of children of God but rather the granting of credentials of "respectability" to paying clientele with no regard to spiritual interests. Ernest and I feel that God could not care less about his own reputation, and allowed it to be smudged for all times at Calvary for the sins of all persons including ours. We believe that the church should be a place for all sinners to come to the foot of the cross. Ironically, it is when we accept Christ's welcome to come just as we are that we provoke the greatest consternation from the hierarchy.
I continue to attend every mass when I am in town, at Christ's invitation. I need this nurture, especially in view of the lay ministry in Integrity, which now has grown into a national "parish" of over 1,000, about one-third of whom are gay priests, many of whom are dreadfully isolated. The efficacy of Father Cowan's priesthood is not dependent on his state of grace, no more than is Christ's love for me dependent upon my efforts. This Anglican theological stance is important to me, and keeps me where I am. I am not in the business of church shopping. I have no desire to check out our welcome down the road in Plains, although Mr. Carter has repeatedly said some gays have been attending there.
I do feel that my continued presence, though unwelcome, is an important witness for the others at St. Luke's, for offended heterosexuals no less than for the frightened, hidden gays. Father Cowan says that several parishioners have asked him to insist on my taking communion by intinction, ostensibly to relieve their fears of getting VD from me at the altar of Christ. Surely my refusal to request intinction must revitalize for these persons what communion really means. More importantly, my presence is witness to our catholic faith that no one can be excommunicated by the vote or the ill-will of any vestry or other form of posse. When individuals force upon me their de facto excommunication--as when my pew is invariably empty until most others are chugged full; as when the kiss of peace is done away with--they fence themselves out, for nothing can separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.
Bishop Sims is a man who has been vexed severely in this dialogue, feeling, quite rightly his first duties as pastor pastorum. He has shared with me his appreciation for our freeing him of some of his naivete, recalling specifically his shock at the time three years ago, before the founding of Integrity, when Ernest and together visited him in his office to ask for support for gays. The mere presence of two live gays was news to him.
It is important for non-gays to strive for rationality in confronting us. When they don't they typically project their own irrationality onto us, and the pressures of our lives often yield behavior that would seem to support those misconceptions. Ernest and I did not meet and establish a relationship just to offend St. Luke's or to shock Bishop Sims. Our openness with these people may, in the long run, be more generous than would be the expected secrecy with which so many gay bishops, other clergy and laity relate to the heterosexuals among us.
Nevertheless, Ernest and I have no interest in prescribing either openness or closetry for others; those decisions are much too personal and must be tailored to individual needs, timetables, personalities, etc. We are concerned that there has been a visible gay ghetto in the US and in Christendom for well over 50 years, and no established church has yet made much effort to minister to our needs. Claims to love the sinner but to hate the sin don't hold much credibility when that love is not demonstrated. They said we were "sinners" and "sick" but built no missions or hospitals for us.
If this account is short on theological detail, it is because it focuses on our day-to-day efforts at survival while heterosexuals hem and haw with our fate. It is very hard for us to believe that Romans I or Leviticus or I Corinthians directly provokes the most recent hate call or other mockery. We do respect the fact that persons have biblical problems, as we have had them too; but we do expect a measure of the same grace by which people now read passages about dietary laws, damnations of dwarfs, punishments for children who laugh at bald men, demands to pool church resources from all communicants, et al. We also respect the concern of persons wanting to protect the family, but more so when they recognize that we are a part of the family, and that the most certain thing about homosexuals is that we do not reproduce ourselves in homosexual acts. We would also like more honesty about the decline of the heterosexual family, even with all the supports of society that are expressly denied to our relationships.
Were not the follow-up so threatening, we could have been amused by the theology of apostate Bishop James Dees of the Anglican Orthodox Church, who wrote about us to the Macon paper after a tornado had devastated our town, missing our apartment: "Would one expect God to keep silent when homosexuals are tolerated? We re what he did to Sodom and Gomorrah." That's queer power indeed, but patently bad theology, though none of the score of other Anglican-trained clergy (or any others) wrote the paper to say so in the weeks of threats we experienced following that hocus pocus.
Later even the local policemen in a group heckled me in the public streets while I was routinely posting my mail, children began regularly to ride ahead of me when I was jogging and spat on me until they made me a prisoner in our apartment, and once the employees of the local Ford dealership taunted me with the full support of their manager as I walked past.... By these physical abuses Christians actualize the more verbal condemnation or equivocation of their spiritual leaders. The children's spittle in our faces is tactile evidence of their pastors' and their churches' attitudes.
More typically, though, Scripture and theology are used as smokescreens, preventing the users of them from seeing us and the 2 million other gay Americans as persons for whom Christ died. All of this is very painful and does not speak well of the Body of Christ. It is because I believe in the moral authority of the church that I speak out to redress the erosion of that moral authority by centuries of speaking in sexual ignorance. I would indeed hush had I not faith that the Body of Christ is able to respond when it finally perceives human need. All around the country we are discovering hope in our ministry to gay Christians.
My horror tale is not nearly so grim as those stories, all true, of thousands of other gay people who do not share our knowledge or our confidence that God is indeed no respecter of persons. We share the bad news of our pain in the hopes that more will join us in the effort to share the good news of Christ's indiscriminate love for any and all who, call upon God.
An Important Historical Footnote
In 1979, before Ernest and I left Fort Valley for Wisconsin, the new rector, The Rev. Quinland Gordon, held the first open meeting of St. Luke's while I was there. I asked the congregation to vote to reverse the vestry's unwelcome, and they did, with three negative votes, all of whom were part of the original vestry, two of whom were rumored to be lesbigay. When St. Luke's celebrated its 70th anniversary in the late 1990s, the parish invited Ernest and me to be part of their celebration. Although we could not make the trip, it was an important affirmation that we are all in this together, that it God who issues the most important invitation to the table.
-- Louie Crew, Easter Monday, 2004
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