Collect for Candlemas

Almighty and ever-living God, we humbly beseech thy majesty: that, as thine Only-Begotten Son was this day presented in the temple in the substance of our flesh; so we may be presented unto thee with pure and clean hearts, by the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Thursday, January 15, 2015


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.


  1. This is a strange -- and compelling -- story, for several reasons. It seems to me that if the pastor knew that the late Ms Collier was in fact a partnered lesbian and had given his consent to show, during the service, home movies of the deceased and her loved ones, then his discomfiture over the kiss is a bit odd. Sort of a Claude Rains-ian "shock."

    However, I'd hate to see a precedent set (or an assumption made) whereby a church's refusal to show a home movie (of either a straight or a gay couple) would automatically be deemed discriminatory, or uncompassionate, or otherwise bad. As I'm sure you know, sir, Catholic churches balk at abrupting the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with too many personal reminiscences and matters extraneous to the liturgy: whether the deceased be gay or straight is immaterial.

    And as you have noted, there are many folks in the gay community with a broad notion of what constitutes homophobia. If our civil society were to proscribe every expression of thought that abrades against certain sensibilities, I think that our church would be out of business. (Still, even within the framework of traditional teachings, there is room for greater compassion.)

    I have to confess that many of the issues you raise here do not concern me directly, or if they do, they do not affect me as deeply as they might affect others, but as always I admire the restraint, the logic, the tact, the capacious compassion and the considerable intelligence with which you write -- even when I feel the need to withhold wholehearted agreement!

    1. Oh, I agree. The curious tendency of the world at large to feel entitled to dictate what Catholic rites ought to mean, and how they ought to be observed, is rather puzzling to me. I half-suspect (as the late Fr Neuhaus hinted near the end of his book "Catholic Matters") that it comes from a dim, unconscious perception that the Catholic faith is indeed for everyone. The trouble about that is that it is for us, not from us; the deliberate opening of oneself, the decision to be receptive to rather than demanding of, the Catholic faith, is a rare activity even among those acknowledge that it's the right thing to do, and the concept is not well understood by the sophisticates of the postmodern Occident, caught between the last gasps of an emaciated Christianity and the vague, sentimental worship of secular progress. The simplest Moslem and the most body-forsaking Buddhist or Hindu monk may well enter, or at least comprehend, the Kingdom of Heaven before they.

  2. It's been pointed out to me (unfortunately the person who did the pointing out, as far as I can discern, seems to be a commenter whom I have banned, which is why I haven't simply published the comment) that the Church's canon law does put certain definite restrictions on Catholic funerals and funeral Masses. The point is worth a little attention, and I've provided a link to the relevant section of the Code at the end of this comment.

    The Church prescribes that "Unless they gave some sign of repentance before death, the following must be deprived of ecclesiastical funerals: 1) notorious apostates, heretics, and schismatics; 2) those who chose cremation of their bodies for reasons contrary to the Catholic faith; 3) other manifest sinners who cannot be granted ecclesiastical funerals without public scandal of the faithful" (Canon 1184). This is of limited relevance, since New Hope Ministries is not a Catholic association, but it could be argued that this canon is based on a principle applicable to Christians in general. It cannot be denied that, to all appearances, Mrs Collier's convictions about sexuality and marriage were out of accord with Catholic views, so that a Catholic parish would almost certainly have had to refuse to conduct an ecclesiastical funeral for her.

    However, this would have been a matter of first principles, not -- forgive me -- a matter of nitpicking about what the Church will and won't put up with in a memorial video. Moreover, this doesn't -- as far as I can tell -- prevent *any funeral at all* from being given, only a specifically Catholic one, whose implications are that the deceased died in the peace of the Church (hence, I presume, the restrictions cited above). To bury the dead is still a work of mercy, whether it is done by means of a requiem Mass or not, and is to that extent still an appropriate activity for the faithful.

    1. I'm not sure the funeral would not be granted, necessarily. The first class requires the heresy to be "notorious" - if everyone knew at the parish, say, that the deceased was a vocal opponent of the Church's teachings, that's one thing, but if it was only known that they were given to a certain kind of sin, there wouldn't be that condition. The second of course tends to be rare today, and inapplicable in this case. The third depends on how the funeral Mass were to be conducted. If it is made clear that the purpose of the requiem Mass is not so much to celebrate the life of the deceased, let along any sins she may or may not have committed, and that the pastor is satisfied that the deceased repented before her death (which we will, of course, would never know, because of the Seal of Confession), there would not have been a bar to holding a funeral. Of course, the final judgment call is explicitly vested in the bishop, and his judgment appears to be final or at least granted deference by the law.

  3. [Sorry if this gets posted twice but it doesn't seem to have shown up the first time.]

    "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."

    Speaking, as you say, hypothetically, since I know very little about the actual people and situation involved, it seems like a simple solution would have been to edit the proposal/kissing scene from the video and carry on as planned. Why is it necessarily the church's fault that it couldn't go forward? Couldn't they have met in the middle?

    1. An elegant enough solution, if the deceased's loved ones had been willing to go along with it, and in fact the church did make that request. Mrs Collier's friends and family refused, unsurprisingly -- after all, whatever we think of it philosophically, it was an extremely significant moment in her life, and it would be a very natural thing to include in a memorial video. I personally think the proposal a more difficult matter than the kiss; I mean, a kiss between two women isn't necessarily wrong, so that displaying it in a church, while odd, isn't necessarily wrong either. The traditional Christian doctrine of marriage, on the other hand, would rule out Vanessa Collier's proposal.

      If one insisted, one could therefore view this as a case of the grieving loved ones refusing to respect the ministry's principles. The thing is, the ministry itself ought to have taken care to make those principles plain before agreeing to perform the funeral (after all, in this era and country, those principles don't go without saying, church or no church). Fifteen minutes after the service was supposed to begin is not a good time to hold such a discussion.

      This may show that the ministry is guilty of foolishness and clumsiness, rather than of uncharity. If that's the case, then good; I mean, nobody wants them to be clumsy fools, but it'd be even worse if they were practicing jerkdom from the heart.

    2. I agree that the proposal is the problem and not necessarily the kiss – though it also might depend on the nature of the particular kiss in question as well.

      Again the problem may be how much we don’t know about the situation. Do we know that the church didn’t make its principles known beforehand? Was the video submitted to the church in advance, or did they only become aware of it, say, 30 minutes before the funeral, and it took them 15 minutes to give it the thumbs down?

      Another way of looking at it is, if the great tragedy here is that the funeral was canceled just 15 minutes before it was to begin, and if this was such a terribly cruel thing to inflict on the family and loved ones, it seems like omitting a single scene from a video would have been a relatively small price to pay to avoid that outcome.

      I wonder, if that had happened, if the funeral went ahead as planned and the only thing the family had to complain of was the fact that they were made to cut this scene from the video, would it have resulted in this blog post?

    3. As a side issue, after reading the linked articles, I must say that the headlines are outrageously misleading. Both admit that the funeral was canceled after the family refused to cut the proposal/kissing scene, implying that it could have proceeded if the scene had been cut. Yet the headlines read, "A Colorado church cancelled a lesbian's funeral at the last minute after church leaders learned of her sexual orientation" in one case, and "Church Cancels Funeral As Family Waits For It To Start, Because Deceased Was A Lesbian" in the other. In both cases asserting that it was her sexual orientation per se that resulted in the refusal, rather than the video, even though one of the articles states that the pastor knew of her orientation beforehand and was evidently prepared to go ahead with it, up until the conflict arose over the video. In fact, he did go ahead with it, but at another venue.