Address by Senator David Norris at the service to mark international day against homophobia at 3.30 P.M. in Christ Church Cathedral.
17 May 2009
My Dear Friends, although I was enrolled as a Life Friend of Christ Church Cathedral
back in the early 1950s under the regime of the late Dean Lewis Crosby, I may not be
an entirely comfortable guest today for I bring not peace but a sword. I am filled with what the great Dean Jonathan Swift would call savage indignation when I survey the long historical wretchedness of the way in which the Church has treated gay people throughout the centuries. But it is certainly appropriate that I should speak to you here in Christ Church Cathedral. For in the 1630s a man called John Atherton, Lord Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, who had spotted a gap in the sodomy laws which meant that for technical reasons this vicious apparatus of persecution had not yet been extended to Ireland, engaged in a ‘Save Ireland from Sodomy Campaign’. In doing so he was anticipating by several hundred years the inane activities of the Rev. Ian Paisley and similarly targeting as scapegoat a vulnerable group. He was successful in the short term. But he was all too human, all too frail and his frailties were known to his enemies. As a result Atherton a former sub Dean of Christ Church Cathedral passed by this ancient building with the Cathedral bells tolling solemnly on his way to the scaffold on Gallows Green, where on the 5th of December 1640 he was hanged by the neck until dead as a result of the conviction of both himself and his Tithe Proctor John Childes on a charge of buggery. Thus was prejudice hoist by its own ecclesiastical petard, a salutary warning to ecclesiastics of all ranks.
At this point I departed from the prepared script to say “although my anger and my righteous indignation continue I have to acknowledge with gratitude that the beautiful and moving liturgy of this service today has affected me a great deal and I feel that this historic service which would have been quite impossible even in the recent past and certainly during the Deanship of the late Dean Lewis-Crosby may indeed form the beginning of a healing process between the Church and gay people”.
Perhaps Atherton lacked imagination, for I have often felt that human cruelty and
stupidity from Atherton to Akinola is fuelled by the inability to imagine the
experience of the other.
[Nor am I myself exempt although I try to stretch the
imaginative muscles as much as possible. I recall a close friend saying to me that he thanked God that I was gay because otherwise as I would be one of the most conservative square people he ever met. But then even though I come from a conservative background I had a good lesson early on in challenging perceived ideas. I was brought up in the circle of my mother’s family, old Gaelic Irish, but of recent centuries of the Protestant persuasion and quite strongly imperialist. I was brought home from boarding school by my mother because of that school’s refusal to transmit the BBC coverage of the Queen’s Coronation in 1953. I was told authoritatively that the British Empire was the greatest thing that had ever happened spreading civilisation all over a more or less indifferent or ungrateful world. And then in school I started to learn about the Penal Laws, the Famine, evictions. It was like discovering that the nice old Santa Claus on whose knee I had been perched was a convicted Paedophile, in other words very uncomfortable. But there was no way out. Unlike Lord Denning I have always believed that appalling vistas are there to be faced not smoothed over because otherwise they will simply recur with greater force even if it means subjecting your most cherished shibboleths to critical scrutiny.
Sadly so many individuals and institutions have failed to do so in the area of human Sexuality]
I think it would be true to say that no Christian Church or sect and probably no
religious movement whatever with the possible exception of the Quakers and their
remarkable 1967 Pamphlet “Towards a Quaker View of Sex” has ever told or even
attempted to tell the truth about human sexuality. I noted with interest that Cardinal
Brady during his very welcome and overdue participation at an ecumenical service in
Trinity College Dublin last Sunday said that both Newman and Pope Benedict would
hold that “belief in God does not suppress the search for truth”. Well while it is
certainly true that belief in God need not suppress the search for truth and perhaps
Pope Benedict at some level of his being might be persuaded to acknowledge that -
there is on the other hand no doubt whatever that the Church has been very active in
suppressing the truth in particular about the reality of homosexuality. In this Pope
Benedict both as Pope and as Cardinal Ratzinger, the Chief Inquisitor, has played an
important role. How could he of all people go to Auschwitz and pointedly ignore the
terrible fate that was meted out there to the gays – the pink triangle prisoners. I
wonder had he read that astonishing memoir of the camp’s commandant Rudolf Hoess who comments with unconscious Swiftian irony that some of the pink triangle
prisoners were so addicted to their vice that they fought not to be separated from their
partners and when inevitably and forcibly they were, how they almost invariably pined away and died. What a remarkable tribute to the triumph of human love over the evil genius of prejudice hatred and cruelty.
Therefore I salute the moral courage of people like those involved in organisations
such as Changing Attitudes and the producers of the Catalyst Pamphlets, including one on the Christian response to homosexuality, people like former Dean Victor Griffin and Canon Charles Kenny, people who have moved within the church to establish a new vision that instead of defacing the truth encompasses it. I would also like to thank the Dean and the staff of the Cathedral, the musicians and you the congregation for contributing to this special service.
What are these attitudes that need to be changed and from whence do they spring?
There is alas no doubt that it is religion that has fostered the hatred and persecution of
gay people over the millennia from medieval witch hunts through the miseries of the
Inquisition to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Always and always once you dig you
begin to find that the persecution, torture and murderous elimination of gay people
has been justified again and again and again on the grounds of a sexual morality based on quasi religious prejudice. Judaism, Christianity and Islam which culturally and theologically emerge from each other like a series of Russian dolls and all of which have so cruelly attacked other human beings on the grounds of their sexuality find the justification and the source of this prejudice in the ancient scribal writings of the prophets of the Old Testament. But it would be a strange person today who would take as a model the sexual morality of the Old Testament, reeking as it is with the endorsement of practices regarded now not alone as immoral but illegal, inhuman and intolerable, from polygamy to the justification of infanticide rape, incest and murder.
The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney one Peter Jensen is quoted in the Church of
Ireland Gazette of the 1st of May as saying that events in North America such as the
consecration of that good and decent man Gene Robinson as a Bishop indicate that “Culture has trumped scripture”. Well indeed, and I am glad that even Archbishop
Jensen has noticed. But then I dare say that culture has trumped scripture even in his
own life. In the Levitican code which is the source of some of the earliest proscriptions of homosexual acts and which occur as part of a behavioural ethic that covers everything from sexual activity to dress and diet, the eating of shell fish is banned so is the wearing of worsted cloth and many other practices quite calmly accepted today because we understand that conditions are now different and our social and scientific knowledge has expanded. Shell fish in the hot desert of many centuries ago might well pose a health threat but we do have refrigeration now. It would indeed be a blasphemy if we allowed ourselves to be stunted in the thinking patterns of an ancient nomadic tribe. Meanwhile I have not noticed that Archbishop Jensen has advocated the banning of prawn cocktails, a prohibition on the wearing of worsted cloth or sponsored the stoning to death of women taken in adultery nor indeed a return to slavery, a practice notably endorsed by the Old Testament. So it is apparently
perfectly all right to be a la carte when the selection favours your own prejudices but
not when it might open your mind to the experience of the other. Indeed with regard to Gene Robinson I note that an obscure Northern Bishop said at the time that he felt spiritually excluded from the Lambeth meeting. What an absurd piece of pompous pretence. Here was somebody purloining the role of the victim and attempting to substitute himself instead of Bishop Gene Robinson. This person slyly attempted to pose as the injured party even though it was actually Gene Robinson who was physically and most unchristianly excluded.
I have always been intrigued by the presumptuous nature of the assumption that God
was heterosexual or that the creator of the Universe was small minded enough to take
a proprietoral interest in the plumbing details of the sexual life of the human
individual. My God is grander than that miserable vision. But then I am radical
enough to believe that the God who created human life had a hand in my existence too
and I regard it as blasphemous to state sneeringly that God created Adam and Eve not
Adam and Steve. If not God, who?
It is time indeed for the church not only to change its attitude but to acknowledge the
sinfulness of its dealing with gay people. Look at the language, the very words used to
punish gay people, even to describe them are culled from ignorant religious superstition, buggery, sodomy, faggot, words that spit themselves out of the mouth
with contempt and what do they mean. Examined etymologically one can find out. Buggery is from the middle French boulgre meaning Bulgarian because of the stigmatizing of the Albigensian heretics with the accusation of unnatural vice and sodomy. Sodomy itself of course comes from the much misinterpreted story of the cities of the plain Soddom and Gormorrah in the Bible, while faggot is a reference to the use of the human bodies of gay men and witches in medieval bonfires. Is this viciousness not a cause for shame, does it not illustrate a need for repentance? But how can we arrive at that. Can we really maintain that the suppression of truth is not frequently carried out in the name of a belief in God whilst ignoring the lessons of history. And do not forget that the origin of these laws that spelt ruin for many accused of homosexual behaviour in these islands was the medieval ecclesiastical court system. Homosexual behaviour only made the transition from sin to crime when Henry the VIII grabbed the monasteries and coincidentally took civil control of their jurisdiction. This transition was accompanied by the attempt to immolate in silence the testimony of those guilty of that “crimen illud horribile non nominandum inter christianos” – the crime so horrible that it must not be mentioned among Christians.
We have had notable remarkable scholars inside the church, including the Roman
Catholic Church. What has been their fate? Take for example the Rev. Dr. John
McNeill, a man of outstanding intellect, a scholar of the highest international repute who wrote some thirty years ago a scholarly work which was an examination of all
the biblical texts detailing the attitude of the early fathers to homosexual practice and
attempting to understand them. Naturally he also introduced the notion of historicity,
the need to understand ancient texts in their contemporary cultural context, not to
yank them out violently and apply them willy-nilly to immediate circumstance
without an understanding of background. Being a loyal and faithful member of the
Roman Catholic Church - he negotiated for permission to publish this book within the
moral ambit of the church. This was granted. The book was published and was a critical success widely praised by academics. Frightened now by where the truth might lead the office of Cardinal Ratzinger in Rome attempted to suppress the book. The publishers were written to and asked to withdraw the book. But courageously they refused and instead published a new Italian edition using as preface the threatening correspondence from the Vatican. McNeill however was silenced. This tragically is what the Church means by dialogue and the search for truth. When irrefutable fact becomes inconvenient, uncomfortable, when as a result of scholarly investigation the neatly packaged self reflecting universe starts to appear more frighteningly complex, then it is time to bury the facts. As Lord Denning might say “The appalling vista must be avoided”.
This is often done in the name of cherishing human values, family, spiritual love, and
yet oh my friends, not far separated in time from the moment when the angry voices of the Old Testament were belching forth their hatred of gay people, in Greece a gentler
spirit prevailed. For it is to the Philosopher Plato that we must turn for our first real notions of spiritual love which we will find in that extraordinary document ‘The Symposium’ which is nothing other than a dialogue on the spiritual love possible between humans. But its lofty philosophical flights are in fact based on the erotic and physical relations between males.
Theology itself is not guiltless. A specialised language has been forged which is out of touch with every day reality and common sense. Homosexual acts are “unnatural”. But what does the word natural mean? Surely it means occurring or observable in the natural world. By this definition homosexual acts are certainly natural. As Professor Wainwright Churchill wrote
“Homosexual behaviour occurs throughout the mammalian order increasing in
frequency and complexity as one ascends the phylogenetic scale”.
I have invoked the nature of historicity and it comes into play if one tries to
understand imaginatively what the Old Testament writers were attempting. Why for
example this ruthless dismissal of homosexual experience? First of all the Hebrews
were a small nomadic tribe, weak, few in number caught between two strongly
homoerotic and powerful cultures the Greek and the Egyptian. It was natural to define
themselves as different. Moreover any form of sexual activity that did not carefully
husband the vital resource of sperm in the interests of fertility, in particular the
bringing forth of male children was seen as nothing other than national treachery. The
children of Israel needed to reproduce and in particular to reproduce the elements of a
warrior race to defend their identity. It is not surprising therefore that God, at the beginning of the Old Testament, commands man to go forth and multiply.
But surely in the name of reason this command has been more than fulfilled. Surely even the most intellectually challenged can see that in the 21st century that the most significant problem is not unproductive sex but unbridled reproduction. This has led to a trebling of the world population over less than a hundred years creating a crisis in every field of human experience whether it be the looming exhaustion of fossil fuels, the problem of water supply, food, climate change, natural disasters, all of which have a powerful link not to the acceptance of homosexuality but to the moral failure of political and spiritual leaders to point to the dangers of unrestrained human reproduction.
Indeed apart from Archbishop Tutu there has been very little in the way of moral
leadership on the issue of gay rights. As the 60s turned into the 70s I was one of the
founder members of the Southern Ireland Human Rights Association. We fought to
obtain full civil rights in terms of employment and housing for Roman Catholics in
Northern Ireland. It then came as a great shock to me that Cardinal John O’Connor
who was a strong supporter of what we were doing in Ulster should turn round in the
arch diocese in New York and use the entire muscle of his politico-religious machine
to try to deprive gay people of precisely these fundamental civil rights.
Some years ago I wrote an article critical of the Vatican and Cardinal Ratzinger in the Evening Herald. There was some trouble. I asked for twice the space the next week to expand on the matter and I did so confronting my critics. I was stopped during this controversy by a very decent cheerful young man from work. I had never even known he was gay. “Don’t let them stop you writing those articles” he said. “When I was 17 I was in Church when they read out one of the missives from Rome denouncing gay people. I was so ashamed that I went home and tried to kill myself. Only my mother found me I would have succeeded.”
[I omitted the following from delivery as a spontaneous decision during my reading of the text as I felt it might be taken as too contentious for this particular context a service of reconciliation and would be more suitable for extended debate which is why I have decided now to include it once more]. We have the present Pope with his very questionable war time background deliberately ignoring the memory of the homosexual prisoners, the men with pink triangles, and standing idly by while the Spanish hierarchy described the gay community and its calls for
equality as “a virus in society”, a bacterial image that sends shudders down the spine of any one who remembers the theories on racial and sexual purity of the late Heinrich Himmler.
I make no apology for saying at that time that I would be loath to take moral instruction from any one who swore a swastika armband while people like myself were being herded into the gas chambers simply for being gay, and who had yet to utter a single word of regret. Moreover during the recent visit of Pope Benedict to the Holy Land the question of his membership of the Hitler Youth was raised by an Israeli journalist. The papal spokesman Monsignor Lombardi absolutely categorically denied it. He said it never happened, never never never, denying it three times like Peter. But it did happen. The Pope was a voluntary member of the Hitler Youth in the latter stages of the war. In order to substantiate my argument I first of all checked the Pope’s biography where he was quoted himself as saying that he had joined in order to obtain special educational privileges that would be of assistance to him in studying for the priesthood. Secondly I got confirmation from the German Embassy that membership of the Hitler Youth although perhaps a good career move was never made mandatory or legally required and finally I have the records of neighbours of the Ratzinger family who expressed surprise at the Ratzinger boys had both joined the Hitler Youth as the young men in their own family were forbidden to do so.
Today in Ireland we have the ludicrous situation that the Christian Churches sought and were granted an exemption from equality legislation. One might well question how is it in the spirit of Christ to do this. One might also ask with reinforced emphasis how is it possible that this derogation permits the Churches to dismiss teachers on the basis of sexual orientation. How is this tolerable in the aftermath of the Ferns Report and the Cloyne Report? This brings in also the issue of bullying. For it is horrific to think that a recent survey demonstrated that 80% of bullying instances in Irish schools contain some homophobic element and in response to this situation 80% of teachers did nothing because they were afraid of coming into conflict with authority under this legislation. Is it not also absurd that the churches with the notable exception of the Unitarian Church refuse to grant a blessing to two persons who love each other simply because they are of the same sex while apparently remaining perfectly happy to bless domestic pets, agricultural implements and bombs.
It seems that there is a great deal of moral confusion out there which is perhaps why
the churches were silent when one 21st century Government - the Government of Iran did take its sexual morality from the Old Testament. There the authorities arrested, beat and interrogated two 17 year old young gay men then hanged them from a crane mounted on the back of a lorry in a public square in one of the provincial cities. These were two beautiful young people with all their life spreading before them and yet were cut off by hatred before they had time to really experience life. They did not even have the comfort of dying as martyrs, they were humiliated, shamed and exterminated without a squeak from the official church.
James Joyce was not much of a church goer, but in his short story “ The Sisters” in “Dubliners” he performs a diagnosis of Ireland’s spiritual ills that is relevant to us
today in confronting homophobia. In the first paragraph three curious words stand out
from the otherwise grey prose “Simony, Paralysis and Gnomon”. In the Irish body
politic of his day and in the Church Simony was the disease, a preoccupation with
nitpicking fundamentalism and an anal addiction to Canon Law. Paralysis was the
presenting symptom, and Gnomon - the capacity to interpret ones experience the antidote, the moral prescription. Sadly the official church, still paralysised by a formal obsession which impedes the spirit has attempted to set limits to that interpretation and in order to retain power has sought over the centuries to target
[Due to the shortage of space the following paragraph was also excluded on the day]. And what of the great problems that the Vatican as a State when it feels like it has not yet learnt to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars and unto Christ the things that are Christ’s. As a result there have been most unedifying alliances between Rome and Islamic fundamentalist elements notably at the Cairo Population Summit. In addition there have been attempts to instruct Roman Catholic legislators on how to vote in matters pertaining to civil rights for gay people. This is quite unacceptable.
vulnerable gay people and to isolate them. But ever since the Anglican Church has brought the debate into the open even in so divisive a way, and since a committee of experts reported to the Vatican in favour of contraception and Pope Paul the VI made the fatal decision to go against his advisors through fear of losing control of the private life of the faithful, the notion has spread that sexual pleasure can be divorced from reproduction and used as part of a language of comforting sharing and loving. Human beings have now been released from the moral equivalent of animal husbandry in which theologians have for centuries sought to mire them. The gay gene is now firmly out of the bottle, and so, while others insincerely prate about a search for truth, let us gay and straight, heterosexual and homosexual, instead take our courage, reach out and grasp the truth for ourselves without fear.
Due to time constraints this section was omitted during the actual service.
Senator David Norris