It seems that the culture war has outdone itself. According to these articles, a church in Colorado recently canceled a lesbian woman's funeral on the day it was supposed to be performed, leaving her loved ones to find a new venue.
The church reportedly objected to the presence, in the memorial video, of footage of the deceased (Vanessa Collier) proposing to her wife and kissing her.* The deceased's family wouldn't alter the video, and, fifteen minutes after the memorial service was scheduled to start, the church announced that the funeral would have to be moved owing to technical difficulties. I suppose that might be true, though I admit I'm finding it extremely difficult to give New Hope Ministries the benefit of the doubt here. To try and do so, I'm going to observe here that this may or may not be exactly what it looks like, and proceed to talk about what it seems to be, while acknowledging that I can't read hearts and know only what I've read about it online.
This, fellow Christians, this is what we're talking about when we talk about Christian homophobia. There are certainly queer-identifying people who will brand any and all disagreement with themselves as homophobic,** and that isn't fair. But refusing to bury someone? The Pharisees didn't pull that shit with Jesus. A funeral is not an endorsement of a person's whole life, nor even of all their beliefs. It's a funeral; that is, one of the classical works of mercy.
The Catholic Church has for centuries used the teaching device of the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. They are derived partly from the terrifying parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. They are:
1. To feed the hungry
2. To give drink to the thirsty
3. To clothe the naked
4. To harbor the harborless (or to shelter the homeless)
5. To visit the sick
6. To ransom the captive (or to visit the imprisoned)
7. To bury the dead
1. To instruct the ignorant
2. To counsel the doubtful
3. To rebuke the sinner
4. To bear wrongs patiently
5. To forgive offenses willingly
6. To comfort the afflicted
7. To pray for the living and the dead
Now obviously some of these are rather specialized. It isn't everyone who has, or can raise, the resources to ransom the captive; to instruct the ignorant requires that we ourselves not be among said ignorant; to comfort the afflicted may depend on personal intimacy with them, and even at times on a kind of pastoral expertise that we may not possess; and to rebuke the sinner is perhaps the most difficult of all these -- most difficult, that is, to do with a genuine spirit of mercy -- and I personally think that it demands of us a sense that the rebuke is also for ourselves if it is to avoid corruption.
But burying the dead is not one of these. If it comes to it, all it requires is good will and a shovel. And churches, in the western world anyway, are not generally reduced to such bitter and wholesome circumstances.
I'm not saying that everyone has a right to be buried by any church they approach, either. But on the pastor's own showing, he knew Mrs Collier personally, and knew that she was not only a lesbian but a partnered one, with children no less. That he and his church don't approve of homosexual relations is perfectly within their rights, but performing a funeral for a lesbian, as far as I can see, doesn't imply anything about that one way or the other. If the memorial video had contained, say, lesbian porn, I could understand the objection, but so far as I've read it didn't; and it seems to me that both charity and decency should have moved New Hope to keep the commitment they had already made (and had already accepted money for -- though the ministry says that that has since been returned).
Bisexual author Eliel Cruz tweeted about this, asking friends and allies to process this with him, and challenging us all to ask ourselves what we can do about this. Some responses to the first, which show a side of the problem of scandal rarely acknowledged by some Christians, included:
This story makes me feel like a second class citizen with no safe place outside an explicitly affirming congregation/church. -- Anonymous
Even in the grave, they'd rather we stayed in the closet. -- Lindsey and Sarah
I feel worthless. That's it. I feel worthless ... Dehumanized. The image comes to mind of HIV/AIDS patients being put into trash bags for fear of contagion. -- Eliel Cruz
And, saddest of all:
It reassures me that I made the right decision in leaving the church. -- Kelsey Lela
This is the cost of this kind of behavior. Christian brethren, my queer brethren and I (believing, unbelieving, anti-believing, incapable any longer of believing) are the cost. And my queer brethren and I are human beings, not a cost-benefit ratio.
And what is it that we can do? Well, let's begin by hopping back to those works of mercy above. First we can bear wrongs patiently and forgive offenses willingly. To what purpose? Well, first of all:
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is:
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his,
To the Father through the features of men's faces.***
To be the love of Christ that we want the world to possess is an admirable and adequate reason to be possessed by the love of Christ. And if we really want the world to be fully of love and compassion, we must be consistent and begin with offering our own hearts and wills up to God.
Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata, Giotto, ca. 1320
If it be answered that the people concerned don't deserve forgiveness, well, I would point out as I did above that even now, I don't think we technically know what or how much they did wrong. And that does matter. But it isn't the point, because the brute fact is that nobody deserves forgiveness. That is what forgiveness means.**** And if it be pointed out that the command Love thy enemy applies to our own enemies rather than other people's, then it is worth asking on what basis we propose to hate anybody. For we only hate people when we regard them either as our own enemies in point of fact, or as our own enemies by proxy through identifying with someone we love. And whether in the normal way or by proxy -- that is, through the Coinherence -- they are made proper objects of forgiveness by our decision to regard them as enemies.
And what then? Well, for the vast majority of us, living outside Colorado, there is little we can do from a pragmatic point of view. But we can practice the seventh of the spiritual works of mercy. We can pray for the living (for the repentance of the offending ministers, and for the consolation of those whose grief was thus outraged) and the dead (for the repose of Vanessa Collier's soul).
Requiem aeternam dona eae, Domine: et lux perpetua luceat eae.
Rest eternal grant unto her, O Lord: and let light perpetual shine upon her.
I've got to say, one thing that has impressed me about the LGBT community since I became, however ambiguously, a part of it, was the astonishing number of us for whom patience, compassion, and forgiveness, even towards bitter enemies, is a normal and natural thing. There are loud, obnoxious, and deeply hateful specimens among us -- the reverse side of Westboro Baptist Church, if you will -- and that is to be expected; it's to be expected, too, that they should get more media attention (both mainstream and specifically Christian) than their holier counterparts. But time and time again, I have seen queer people, some of them Christian and some not, rise to the occasion of mercy magnificently. I hope we see that again here -- I think I've seen bits of it already. And I hope it bears fruit.
* In saying "her wife," I am not disclaiming the Catholic teaching about marriage. If my protestation, derived from St. Teresa, is held an inadequate profession of orthodoxy, then I specifically affirm here that I receive the Church's teaching about the sacrament of Marriage in all docility and affirm it entirely, up to and including the political belief that natural, and therefore civil, marriage is properly between one man and one woman only. However, neither charity nor good manners seems to me to smile on putting scare quotes on the relational identifiers of a deceased woman and her grieving loved ones; and in any case, I've never heard of anybody being persuaded of orthodoxy by someone else's terminological pedantry.
**Indeed, the first of the two articles I've linked appears to be guilty of this, conflating the disruption of funeral observances in this case, and in Tampa last year, with the rather different difficulty of a woman being refused Communion at her mother's funeral in 2012 in the D.C. area. I call this a rather different difficulty because, on the one hand, nobody has the right to receive Communion -- even to those who are eligible to receive it, it comes as a gift, by nature, and not something that can be demanded on the ground of any justice, and a gift that the Church which stewards it is occasionally obligated to refuse to people -- but on the other hand, Cardinal Wuerl appears to have said that the priest acted out of accord with the disciplinary policies of the Archdiocese.
***From Gerard Manley Hopkins' sonnet As Kingfishers Catch Fire.
****The clip, unfortunately, does not contain a correct understanding of what the word Purgatory means; but since Joss Whedon's theology is not particularly technical I think we can leave that to one side for the moment.