I Was in Hell
Huw Raphael on What It Was Like to Be Affirmed in Homosexuality
Four years ago, Anglican bishops from Singapore and Rwanda consecrated two men as bishops of the newly formed Anglican Mission in America (AMIA). Knowing that they had set themselves up in opposition to folks like my home parish in San Francisco and the more liberal leadership of the Episcopal Church, and knowing that I, a sexually active gay man who wanted to be an Episcopal priest, was on their list of “enemies,” I prayed for them. My parish was big on praying for enemies—as we did on 9/11 and after, and as we often did for such as Fred Phelps, the minister who travels the country to meetings where he holds up signs with messages like “God hates fags.”
One Sunday, as I stood vested in the morning liturgy, I raised my hands upward and mentioned the AMIA bishops and clergy by name and asked the congregation to pray God’s blessing and guidance on them—meaning, “If they’re wrong, God help them; if they’re right, God advance them.” At that point the congregation normally replied, “Lord, have mercy.” Instead, one of the two rectors stepped into the middle of the room and prayed loudly, “And for their conversion!” To which the congregation said, “Lord, have mercy.”
In an extended e-mail conversation among the liturgical staff after that event, it became evident that the priest thought my prayer misguided. They were wrong and we were right. No other view was to be accepted in the liturgy at his parish. He had just “come out” to the parish and believed that these AMIA folks wanted to send us all back to the Dark Ages. We were called to enlighten them.
Five or six years earlier, I had stood talking to my supervisor at the Episcopal Church Center about how we as gay Christians could make room for those who disagreed with us. My boss was also a homosexual man living with his clergy “spouse.” St. Paul says not to scandalize each other, I said, so shouldn’t we side with him and stand down our new morality so as to keep from scandalizing those who held an opposing view? His answer was “No.” There was no room for people like that in the church and it was time to insist they leave.
One more time leap: A few months after my prayer was edited by another homosexual man, I met with the other rector of our parish, who asked me why I wanted to be in communion with those who did not want to be in communion with me—and why I was willing to ignore those who wanted to be in communion with me. The problem, as I saw it, was not that I was rejecting those folks: old friends, comforting faces.
The problem was that they were rejecting me. Not for my sexuality, of course, but rather for the heresy (in their eyes) of trying to believe in the Bible and the created order of things, of believing in a bodily crucified and bodily resurrected Christ: the heresy (in their eyes) of being a mostly (small o) orthodox Christian. As Abba Anthony of Egypt said, “A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying: ‘You are mad, you are not like us.’” I was mad in the eyes of my liberal friends.
Robinson May Be Right
The memories and wounds were reopened last summer when an openly noncelibate gay man was confirmed in his election as a bishop in the Episcopal Church. The bishop now lives with his sexual partner in the bishop’s residence. Just after his election, Canon Robinson (as he then was) went on national TV and said that his election would bring into the church hundreds who now saw that church as welcoming and inclusive.
And, I want to admit, he may be right. The chance to attend a rite with one’s lover, to sit there and enjoy the music, to be told God loves you, and to hear a sermon about “green ecology” and “social justice” and “the inclusive love of God” would be a lovely way to spend a Sunday morning—to be followed by coffee and maybe brunch with friends at some local eatery. We would all go home and feel much better. It would help so much.
There is, however, another view. Salvation, Fr. Alexander Schmemann said, “is not only not identical with help, but is, in fact, opposed to it.” Eugene Rose, a homosexual man living in San Francisco in the 1950s and 1960s, wrote a friend that his mother had discovered
that I am homosexual; if you have not surmised the fact already, it is time you know of it. I have not quite been kicked out of the house, but I probably shall not return after September. My mother was quite hysterical, but my father persuaded her that I am only “sick.” I have agreed to go to my friend’s psychiatrist in S.F., which I was rather interested in doing for other reasons, at parental expense.
I suppose you have also surmised by now that I shall live this summer, and sleep, with a young man I love, and who loves me.
Rose’s lover introduced him to Orthodoxy (he joined the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia). An online biographer wrote,
But while Rose was immersing himself in the mystique of ancient Orthodoxy, his partner, who had written a book about the Church, was losing interest in it. Soon the Church took Rose wholly, and he and his partner split up.
A social doctrine adopted by the Council of Bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate last year describes homosexuality as “a sinful injury to human nature” to be “treated by sacraments, prayer, fasting, repentance and the reading of the Holy Scriptures.” Referring to his young adult years before he became fully involved in the Orthodox Church, Rose once said: “I was in hell. I know what hell is.”
Eugene became, as an Orthodox monk, Fr. Seraphim Rose. He fell asleep in the Lord in 1983 and is regarded by many as a holy man and by some as a saint. I had always identified with his journey. Finding out he dealt with some of the same issues that struck my life caused me to take him as a guide.
I was in Hell. I know what Hell is.
This Is Hell
I stand by those words of Fr. Seraphim. This Hell is being driven by one’s hormones and knowing that to deny them is “unhealthy.” Hell is being driven by one’s desires and fantasies and knowing that to deny them is to deny the only joy there is, the joy that defines your whole being.
Hell is a fine San Francisco morning standing trapped in your bedroom while an orgy takes place in the hallway outside. Hell is a foggy San Francisco afternoon standing in a room full of men involved in various actions with each other—and somewhere a voice tells you it’s all wrong, but you don’t know what to do. Hell is a balmy San Francisco evening on a back porch listening to ten homosexual men in the middle of the most liberal Episcopal diocese in the country insist that all churches are homophobic and evil.
Hell is being told in a Sunday sermon that Jesus died in first-century Judea, that Jesus isn’t alive, that Jesus isn’t coming back, and that he would want you to “follow your bliss” to find the will of God in your life—all of this when you know now that your “bliss” makes you more depressed every time you indulge in it. Hell is knowing that the same biblical scholarship that allows for your own sexual antics also allows for clergy who deny the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection.
Hell is a “Pride Parade” where no one looks at you, where no one returns your compliments, where no one bothers to notice you—on a day when egos are supposed to be full and fluffy, Hell is having one’s ego bashed. Hell is knowing that at this point, someone reading this essay will say, “Oh, he’s ugly and bitter, that’s all.”
Hell is watching your friends die for the sake of their own freedom to damn themselves—and hearing them cry, “I didn’t do anything to deserve this . . . God is hateful.”
Hell is knowing that there is the slightest possibility that the Jesus Seminar folks and other “new theologians” are wrong and that 2,000 years of orthodox Christians are right: that homosexual sex might be evil. Hell is standing next to those who end a conversation about this question by saying, “Oh, shut up.” Hell is being told that all the gospel is wrong—that two millennia of your brothers and sisters in the faith were wrong—and that Jesus loves you just as you are and does not ask you to change, that modern Christianity will just throw out everything that disagrees with this picture of Jesus. Hell is being told that this nihilism and denial of any and all truth is exactly what church is supposed to be—liberating us from the dark past of sin and law and guilt.
Hell is finding out that no one really wants “a relationship” no matter how much they want it blessed or accepted; rather, that they want easier sex, the right to demand acceptance from their neighbors, and the ability to collect a partner’s insurance payments. Hell is knowing that they would also like the blessed relationship to be open, not monogamous, with a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and weekends free to play around. And don’t judge us, please.
In from the Cold
Hell is standing in the middle of the most gay-friendly city in the country—perhaps the world—and knowing that, please God, there must be something more than this. Hell is belonging to a church that just pats you on the head and says, “That’s okay, dear.”
Hell welcomes you in from the cold . . . by leaving all the windows and doors wide open and turning off the heat (too great a change can be a shock, you know). It requires no change. It asks for no shift in vision. “We value every person and support a widely diverse community” means “We have no standards,” means “We offer nothing you do not already have,” that there is no difference between church and Denny’s.
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