Liberalism, Lesbianism, and Theological Education
The Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., is a queer seminary in more ways than one. Not only does the school boast among its faculty two of the original “Philadelphia 11,” a group of lesbians ordained by the Church of The Advocate during the summer of 1974, but also it advertises with pride its feminist, liberationist, and gay theology as the hallmarks of the social life and academic perspective available to its ministry students.
I had not known of the seminary until this past week, and for good reason. A casual examination of its faculty members’ curriculum vitae reveals a largely unpublished or obscurely published hodgepodge of angry dissenters and ecclesiastic renegades who have wreaked havoc in each of their respective confessional traditions. For lack of an interested constituency or any broad confessional appeal, this ragtag group of malcontents has distilled themselves onto the beautiful campus of a Northeastern seminary whose architectural and landscaped grandeur betray its moral and doctrinal perversity.
The much vaunted “queerness” of Episcopal Divinity School was articulated during the seminary’s chapel service on February 19, 2004, when one of the school’s lesbian professors of theology, The Rev. Dr. Carter Heyward, gave an address on “The Queer Christ: Transforming Anger into Hope.”
But before I carefully elaborate on the professor’s numerous and profane blasphemies, perhaps an introduction to Carter Heyward would be helpful.
Against the counsel of the presiding bishop, Carter Heyward joined ten other women on July 29, 1974, for an ordination service in a small and disenfranchised church on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Heyward had been open from day one about her universalism, feminism and lesbianism, and she soon became the poster person for homosexual clergy in the Episcopalian Church of America. It comes as no surprise, then, that she was among the staunchest supporters of openly gay New Hampshire Bishop Gene V. Robinson. For her it was the latest victory in the battle begun thirty years ago by a group of eleven rogue women clerics.
In the course of her academic career, Heyward has written a few autobiographic pieces about her own struggle for equality, a pamphlet manifesto for homosexual clergy, and several small books on justice, war, and social theology. Interestingly, an online search revealed that Archbishop Desmond Tutu commends her work wholeheartedly. Is anyone really surprised?
The purpose of Heyward’s chapel address last month was “to celebrate the affirming presence of an angry and queer Christ.” Standing in a chapel whose windows are graced by a stained glass commemoration of Frederick Denison Maurice, a 19th Century theologian fired from Kings College in London because he rejected the doctrine of eternal punishment, Heyward paid tribute to every perversion of moral and biblical fidelity imaginable.
The term “queer” does not only refer to being “gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and other ways of being at odds with dominant gender culture,” according to Heyward. “Queerness is public solidarity in the struggle for sexual and gender justice and of irrepressibly making connections to other struggles for justice, compassion and reconciliation.”
Heyward then makes the giant leap from affirming her own lesbianism, which she says is “by the grace of God,” to discussing the queerness of Jesus Christ. To what authority does Heyward turn to affirm the queerness of Christ? Strangely enough, she talks of her own mother, Mary Ann Heyward.
But the queerest thing about her mother, Heyward explains, is “that she is such a bundle of apparent contradictions. She is confrontational and compassionate, angry and gentle, representing for me One through whom we meet God face to face.”
Did you catch that? This professor of theology has taken language that the Gospels use to reveal the unique relationship of Jesus and the Father, and she has transferred that language to her own mother, who, it seems, is manifest God in all her cranky ways. But Heyward’s blasphemies don’t stop there.
She continues: “There are many people, including many right here in this chapel, who embody Christ for me in stunning ways. But there is no one through whom I catch stronger intimations and glimpses of the Wisdom of God, Christ herself, than my own queer mother.”
Christ herself? It’s no wonder that the doctrinal jump from Jesus to Heyward’s mother isn’t that difficult. In typical feminist fashion, Heyward makes Christ a woman, her aged mother a god, and herself an ecclesiastic crusader on an angry mission to undo the Christian faith as articulated by the apostles and prophets.
And why is she so angry? Because “without anger, we cannot be good Christians,” Heyward says.
We remember the murders of our brothers and sisters who have hung on these crosses and still do, more than we will ever know, and we are angry. We listen ad nauseum to the fear-based voices of legislators, governors, candidates, president, bishops, [and the] pope—and they make us angry. We are beaten up by the absurdities dressed in Christian rhetoric and by hate disguised as Christian love. Of course we are angry. And if we are not angry, we are dead or we are dying.
Bingo, Dr. Heyward. Your theology is dead and your seminary is dying. And those who claim to be ministers of the gospel and affirm the commission you received from your denomination to preach a false Christ and affirm your lesbianism are equally as dead.
Carter Heyward wants us to be sure that she is on a mission, and that she is not alone.
Just who is with her, you ask? Why none other than God herself, she suggests. “God will help us. She will not fail us. She goes with us. Thanks be to God.”
As the homosexual marriages begin in New York and continue in San Francisco, and as the Massachusetts legislature bows to the whim of an unrestrained court, and as the nation struggles frantically to reinforce the foundation of marriage in our culture, a little lesbian in a little seminary in Cambridge invokes her female goddess before a chapel of would-be ministers who have been deceived into thinking that they are a part of something noble.
For all her blasphemies, Carter Heyward is right about one thing: it is okay to be angry. It is okay to be angry when Jesus Christ, God’s sinless Son, is enlisted in a cause as foreign to his gospel as that which now threatens to corrupt our national morality. It is okay to be angry when lesbian theologians breach the trust of the churches their seminary serves and uses the endowed chairs of theology in which they sit to advocate all manner of sexual perversity. It is okay to be angry, Dr. Heyward, because God is angry.
I’m not sure that anger, however, is the emotion Carter Heyward should be expressing. Theologians like Heyward ought rather to be grateful—grateful that the church long ago stopped enforcing the Old Testament prescriptions for dealing with false teachers. She should be grateful that the Episcopal Church in America has lost the moral and ethical courage to apply without hesitancy the command of Christ to tie a millstone around the necks of those who show ultimate disregard for the implications of their teachings.
But we conservative Christians have something to be grateful for as well. We could have had all sorts of Carter Heyward’s teaching in our seminaries had our forbears not fought the early influences of liberalism and reclaimed the mantle of moral and doctrinal ascendancy for our evangelical heritage. Let us not, therefore, grow weary in well-doing—we shall reap the cultural fruit of our biblical conviction in due season.
February 1, 2004
Benjamin S. Cole is a Baptist minister who earned his M.Div. at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC, and has returned to his home in Dallas, Texas. He plans to do doctoral work in church-state studies at Baylor University. Mr. Cole can be reached for comment at his website or here.