Monday, September 15, 2008

Gay and religious

Though the progress made toward acceptance and equal rights by gays and lesbians in this country over the last century has been enormous, it's still no easy thing to live openly in this society. Just when you think you've found your place in the world, some comfortable niche worked and hoped for since who knows when, your whole life can get turned upside down in an instant--simply because of who you love.

This has always struck me as being deeply, deeply unfair and unjust. And so it was with a heavy heart that I read a recent article in the Wisconsin State Journal that detailed the firing of openly gay music director Charles Philyaw by St. Andrew Catholic Church in Verona, WI.
After decades of honing his musical skills, Charles Philyaw landed his dream job in 2004 as the full-time director of music liturgy at St. Andrew Catholic Church in Verona.

The church, with 1,643 adult members, was more than just a place to work for Philyaw. He and his partner, James Mulder-Philyaw, joined the parish and community.

Then in June, it all collapsed. Philyaw said he was told by the parish priest, the Rev. Dave Timmerman, that he would no longer be retained because he was living an openly gay life. He was given two weeks' notice.

Philyaw later learned that five parishioners had raised concerns about him and his partner being so prominently involved in church activities. Bishop Robert Morlino's office became involved, leading to his dismissal, Philyaw said.
I'll get this out of the way right off the bat and say that I'm not surprised to read that Morlino got involved. I've pretty much come to terms with the fact that nothing that man ever does publicly will make sense to me, or be particularly compassionate.

Aside from that, though--and more importantly--I'm saddened by the decision of the church and those members who saw fit to complain. Certainly, I can understand that, having grown up as part of a church that's pretty direct about how it views homosexuality (not well), it might be confusing and an issue worth discussing when confronted with an open, happy gay couple serving in your congregation. I don't place any blame on those involved for their desire to talk about it, and to debate, within their own church, the place of homosexual members in their congregation.

What dismays me is that it was so swiftly and carelessly dealt with via simply firing the poor guy--who'd done nothing wrong at all, and who, by all accounts, was an asset to their community.

The legal ramifications of the case will be tricky because this is, after all, a church, and churches are excluded from the state's anti-discrimination hiring and firing laws "if an employee's main duties are ecclesiastical or ministerial." I would argue that the music director is not particularly ecclesiastical or ministerial, but I'm not a lawyer, and that's something that should, perhaps, be better defined by the courts.

I'm disappointed and displeased that the Christian faith is seemingly so often hijacked by divisive in-fighting over something that really shouldn't be an issue. Poverty is a worthwhile issue, as is violence, the health of our environment, and social justice. There are lots of faithful members of the Christian community (not to mention every other religious and non-religious community) who recognize these issues and work hard to address them as best they can, and I honor them. That work, to me, embodies the true message of Christ's ministry--not this strange debate over homosexuality (which, it's worth noting, the Man J.C. never said anything about).

The most frustrating and infuriating part of the entire article deals with the diocese's attitude toward the subject:
...the diocese made available the Rev. Monsignor James Bartylla, director of vocations, who is helping to coordinate locally a program called Courage, a national Catholic initiative that counsels people with same-sex attraction.

While same-sex attraction is considered a disorder by the Catholic Church, it is not a sin in and of itself, Bartylla said. "It is acting on the attraction that makes it a sinful act, a grave depravity," he said.

People with same-sex attraction must control their desires and live chaste lives, he said. If they do so, they can participate fully in church life, including in leadership positions, he said.

Because of this distinction between same-sex attraction and acting on it, it would be a mistake to say the Catholic Church dismisses anyone from employment simply for their sexual orientation, King said.

As for parishioners who are sexually active homosexuals, Bartylla said the church would welcome them, then "begin dealing immediately" with the issue. "We'd encourage them and challenge them to come into conformity with church teaching, the same as with any parishioner dealing with sin."

If a parishioner thinks a church leader is not living according to church doctrine, Bartylla suggested that the parishioner discreetly tell the parish priest.
It's intolerance and discrimination couched in vaguely accepting terms. Asking a homosexual person to "control their desires and live chaste lives" is just as ridiculous as asking a heterosexual person to do the same thing. But then, the Church has never had a particularly healthy view of human sexuality, so I suppose this shouldn't come as much of a surprise.

I have no idea how any feeling person could look at a committed, loving relationship between two people, regardless of their gender, and see a "grave depravity."

Happily, there do seem to be a large number of Philyaw's fellow parishioners who are extremely unhappy with his being let go--and some have even signed a petition that expresses their displeasure. It will take more of that open support to put enough internal pressure on the powers-that-be before real change takes hold on a larger scale, but it's a start. After all, while litigation and equal rights laws are extremely important facets in the fight for justice and equality, the ultimate victories come through personal experience, and the opening of eyes and minds on a person-to-person basis. On that level, you can't force it--nor should you try. You have to teach by example, and Philyaw was/is doing just that.


Queers United said...

religious prejudice against LGBT people is wrong!

Anonymous said...

I've never seen my mother, a 73-year-old, very religious, very Southern Baptist woman as conflicted as when she found out that the organist at the church where she worked as director of children's choirs was asked to leave because he was gay.

She liked him a lot, as did practically everybody in this quite large Southern Baptist Convention church in Texas. I think when people see that LGBT people aren't some shadowy, ill-defined "other," that they're the same people they live and work with on a daily basis, it works to chip away at preconceived notions. This is especially true in ultra-conservative places like the Panhandle of Texas, I think.

But dear Lord, why does it have to be a chipping away process? Why can't it be a "scales falling from their eyes" epiphany? I seem to recall that from somewhere.

Emily said...

QU - I agree. As is any prejudice against LGBT people simply because they're LGBT. We need to try to understand where it's coming from, though, before we can start working to heal it.

apc - Exactly. I'm glad more and more people feel comfortable enough to be out, because they're everywhere, and it's the most effective way (I think) of showing people that they're not some shadowy other, but just like anyone else. I, too, wish there was more of scales-falling-away effect, and not this painful chipping away, but progress is progress I suppose.

Em Richards said...

How are churches going to produce any quality entertainment, not just of the musical variety, without gay people?

Anonymous said...

Morlino....not surprising. That man is a walking trainwreck and has been a disgrace to the church ever since he became the bishop here. I remember my first encounter with him, a few years ago, when he said Mass at St. Paul's (a relatively liberal, student parish) and spent his entire homily ranting about abortion and the 10 Commandments monument debate of a few years ago.

"...the diocese made available the Rev. Monsignor James Bartylla, director of vocations,". James Bartylla spoke at my catholic grad student / young adult group last year, and his message was basically that if you don't agree 100% with every single thing the church says, you are not a Catholic. Because of course Jesus' main message was about excluding people.

We need to stand up to these hate-filled people. They may be the "official" representatives of the church here in Madison but they sure don't represent the majority of Catholics. Unfortunately in an authoritarian system like the church, lay people such as myself have no way to influence anything.

Emily said...

Mario - Thanks for commenting. I was raised Presbyterian, and had very little experience with the Catholic church--that is, however, until I attended a Catholic college. It was a pretty liberal campus, but even still, it was fascinating and educational to see all of the different stripes of Catholics who came there. I'm glad for the experience, because it opened my eyes to the very fact that you pointed out: that the lay folk are often far more moderate and nuanced in their views than the crazy types who tend to weasel their ways into positions of power.

I was just linked to this great book excerpt from a devout and very thoughtful Catholic who was denied the eucharist simply because he'd endorsed Obama. Definitely a recommended read.

The Lost Albatross