Beyond Lesbians and Gays in the Church

Simeon Solomon, 'The Annunciation', 1892
Simeon Solomon, 'The Annunciation', 1892 (oil on board) (1840-1905) / © Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth, UK / Bridgeman Images

Beyond ‘Lesbians and Gays in the Church’: New Approaches to the Histories of Christianity and Same-Sex Desire

On 25 and 26 September 2015 a symposium event was held in at Birbeck University, London which welcomed members of faith groups, students and an international group of academic researchers. This meeting was jointly sponsored by University of the Arts, London, Birkbeck University of London and Affirming Catholicism. The aim was to enable a diverse group of participants to come together to discuss new approaches to the histories of Christianity and same-sex desire. The organisers were  (Chair of Cultural and Visual Studies, University of the Arts, London) and Mark Chapman (Professor of the History of Modern Theology, University of Oxford). 

One of the key images that often appears in public debate is that of ‘lesbians and gays in the church’ as a significant ‘problem’. On the one hand many members of faith communities have remained hostile to physical expressions of same-sex desire, whilst on the other hand many lesbian and gay activists have been suspicious of various forms of religion. The compromise that has been reached over religious exemptions from the obligation to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies in England indicates that many people do continue to find interactions of religion and homosexuality to be highly problematic. This event aimed to approach these issues from a different viewpoint. John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (1980) and Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe (1994) created considerable controversy because they argued that the early and medieval Church was not inherently hostile to same-sex desire and that this was a development of the later middle ages. Inspired by such research we wanted to invite discussion on new creative approaches to the histories of Christianity and same-sex desire.

In Dominic Janes’ work on Anglican Catholicism since the nineteenth century (published this year as Visions of Queer Martyrdom from John Henry Newman to Derek Jarman) it is argued that the priesthood was an important focus for the creative development of aspects of queer culture in Britain. Moreover, this book argues that creative interactions between forms of Catholicism and same-sex desire in later Victorian England were written out of lesbian and gay history not only because of religious prejudices but also because of the secular perspectives of the much of the rights movement that emerged from the United States during the 1960s. We were delighted that Mark Jordan (author of many important studies including The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism) attended this event and gave a challenging but inspiring talk on camp as a route to the truly divine. Discussions are continuing with the participants—who came not only from the UK but also from France, the Netherlands and the United States—over the development of a follow-up event and a programme of related publications.