The English Catholic theologian James Alison has been called one of today's
most lucid and exciting writers on our relationship with the divine. He has lived
and worked in the U.K., the U.S., and South America and is the author of several
books, including Knowing Jesus, The Joy of Being Wrong, and Raising Abel.
Of his most recent, Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and
Gay, Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams said, "The very best theological books
leave you with a feeling that perhaps it's time you became a Christian; this is
emphatically such a book." Writes another reviewer: "These 'fragments' are
bombshells, exploding religious idols and making way for a whole new appreciation
of the place of desire in our life with God."
In February 2005, St. Gregory's Rector Donald Schell and his daughters, Sasha
(a lecturer in history) and Maria (a freelance radio journalist), conducted this
interview with Alison.
Detail of Untitled (Cells), 2004. Digital print, 40" x
DS: Today we have a struggle for moral values, in the Anglican Communion
and in secular life as well. Sexuality appears to be the focus of the struggle. Why
does sexuality -and homosexuality in particular-provoke so much righteous
indignation in so many people here in America, in Britain, and across the
JA: I'm not convinced that it's got to do with sexuality. I think that's
a red herring. Sexuality, as Joan Roughgarden points out [in her writings and in
her article in this issue], is a highly fluid reality. I think the real problem has
to do with talking. And that's what's new and threatening. I suspect that most
people really don't mind what other people do. But when we talk about it, this
starts to create different social spaces. The line for most conservative people is,
"I don't care what you do, but must you say it?"
An example: a couple of years ago, Egyptian security forces arrested 50 gay men
on a disco boat on the Nile. I think the boat was called Queen, appropriately
enough. These guys were charged with some ludicrous crime against Islam by the
supposedly secular Egyptian government-which doesn't have such a crime on its law
books-and they were beaten up and forced to confess. Eventually, after two years
and lots of international protests, they were almost all let go. The whole thing
Now, what you had was a supposedly secular Egyptian government offering bait to
the Islamic fundamentalists. And what really irked the fundamentalists was not what
these people were doing but that they called themselves gay. In other words, there
were people saying, "I am." And that's what was intolerable.
It's no accident: President Mubarak clamping down on the boat could have been
any state governor here in America, wanting to curry favor with the local Jerry
Falwell crowd. There really is no difference.
DS: So would you make that connection between the boat on the Nile and
the lobbying for an anti-gay-marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution? Is it the
JA: If it were not the same thing, you would surely have a significant
body of people insisting that, along with the anti-gay-marriage amendment, there
must be a Constitutional prohibition on divorce and remarriage. It must be obvious
that it's the heterosexual majority that is most likely to cause problems with
marriage, rather than gay people. You would expect that a serious attempt to alter
American society in favor of marriage would surely include an attempt to prohibit
divorce. You have a very high divorce rate. As I understand it, Bible Belt states
tend to have a higher divorce rate than most other states.
It must be obvious that it's the heterosexual majority that is
most likely to cause problems with marriage, rather than gay people. You
would expect that a serious attempt to alter American society in favor of
marriage would surely in-clude an attempt to prohibit divorce.
DS: Thinking about what one says rather than what one does, I'd like to
know your reaction to what happened last year to Jeffrey John. As you know, he was
appointed Anglican bishop of Reading, but because he is gay (though evidently
celibate), there was a huge reaction from evangelicals, and he was forced to
JA: I think that what the evangelicals got right and the liberals didn't
understand is that the appointment of Jeffrey John, an openly gay man, as a bishop
was a de facto change of doctrine.
I think it was desirable, but still, a de facto change of doctrine was sprung on
people as though it were simply a matter of increased honesty. In an earlier case,
a leading Anglican archbishop was forced to make a press announcement to say that
his sexuality was "a gray area." The difference between that world and the world of
Jeffrey John is not about sexual practice; it's about being able to represent who
you are. The notion of "the good" has changed.
The line for most conservative people is, "I don't care what
you do, but must you say it?"
MS: What do you mean by "good" and the notion of goodness?
JA: From the point of view of the constituency of the evangelicals, it
means that someone who was previously considered to be a "bad thing"-not him
personally but what he symbolizes-has now become a normal or a "good thing."
Whereas previously the other guy [the archbishop] had the decency to keep the old
system of goodness alive by agreeing to pretend to be a "bad thing." Now that's a
change of world.
DS: "I'm a sinner; my sexuality is a gray area, I do my best"-that
preserves the other way?
JA: Yes. And which is still the official position, as far as I can see,
of the U.S. military, which is a body that teaches a masculine context. One thing
they don't tolerate in the military is people saying "I am." But this is just the
old rule of how all-male institutions worked until 50 years ago. That's changed;
today you have women serving in the armed forces.
And now in Iraq you get a woman in that most male of activities, the public
sexual humiliation of male prisoners. It just shows the fluidity! When I saw that
picture [of PFC England humiliating male prisoners], I thought of another picture
published at nearly the same time: a lesbian couple coming down the steps of city
hall in Boston with a marriage license. I wanted to put both of those pictures on a
Christmas card and send them to all the bishops in my church, saying, "Which of
these two is Sodom?"
DS: What's the religious dimension on this?
JA: I don't think there's a separate thing called "religion" in that
sense. Any form of identity politics is always going to tend towards the religious,
ultimately. There's never going to be a clear distinction. It's worth remembering
that the central icon of Christianity-the only viable image of God we have-is a
crucified criminal. It is not a comforting icon for a law-and-order religion.
It is scarcely surprising that some people want there to be very clear things
which make them right and other people wrong-things that make a clear difference
between "us" and "them." Among some heterosexuals I think there has been a
displacement of the real difficulty about being a man and a woman together onto
people who-provided we don't know them personally-are "ruining everything."
Study 5, 2002. Collage on paper, 2" x 2".
(Both from the "Edge of Space" series.)
DS: And now we are seeing a newer discourse and a new norm emerge. How
much of this de facto change has been the result of gay rights activists within and
outside of the church?
JA: It's not as though it's been an outbreak of courage on the part of
lots of individual queers. It seems to me to that the capacity of gay males to
start to consider ourselves normal is the direct result of women having started to
become equals or comparative equals within previously all-male groups. So the way
the male group holds itself together doesn't work anymore.
You could imagine men sitting in a club in the 19th century saying,
"What's-his-name here: an exciting fellow; not the marrying type." That was a world
in which blind eyes would be turned. Maybe certain things would happen: you tipped
off the new serving boy to be a little careful when he was around So-and-so.
Everything was managed discreetly; you avoided scandal. If there really were a
scandal you would give the chap a revolver and say, "Go and do the right thing."
Not that long ago, in the 1930s, when King George V was told about somebody who was
gay, he said, "I thought people like that shot themselves!"
Now women come into the midst of all-male societies, and they're simply not
bothered by the same things. Donald, in your lifetime the Episcopal Church started
having female clergy members, and they don't mind who's gay. They must have found
sometimes that it's easier to get on with fellow clergy who are gay.
The more worked up people get about something, the sillier the
rhetoric gets. And they're forced back into reality. Just think how the whole
debate has moved towards some sort of concession in many areas, that of
course you need civil rights and perhaps even domestic partnership.
SS: So is this about men performing masculinity in front of women, who aren't
actually that bothered by this performance?
JA: Curiously, I think that part of the difficulty is men's shame at not
knowing how to perform masculinity, once the rules of the game are over. That is a
real insecurity, because no one really knows what it is to be a man anymore. You
could be a man when there was such a thing as "queers," and you weren't one. But
now there's such a thing as "gay," and whether you are or aren't, it means that
being a man is more of a risky enterprise, and there aren't clear ground rules.
Males have far less of a fixed identity than females, isn't that true? Our
comparative biological uselessness makes it much more difficult for us to work out
who we are and what we're supposed to do. Paternity is not a biological thing to
the same degree that motherhood is.
DS: Women are shifting their place in the culture, and that is driving
this debate about sexual roles. I have thought that we've spent the last 2,000
years trying to figure how to live out St. Paul's words: "In Christ there is
neither slave nor freed, Jew nor Greek, male nor female." They're all terms about
JA: If my memory serves me, in that list of dualities the crucial duality
is not phrased "male nor female" but "male and female." That is even more radical.
It's saying, "no longer a world divided between two."
DS: Is it a vain fantasy for a theologian or a clergyman to look and say,
"St. Paul is telling us that the coming of Christ is going to turn our world
upside-down," and that we are living out the consequences of that message
JA: We have no resolution. All attempts at resolution are failed
sacrifices, attempted by people who know they shouldn't, because the one true
sacrifice has already happened. So all attempts to resolve things into a neat
"good" or "bad" are always going to be undone. This is both terrifying and a key to
our freedom. It's what I call "navigating wrath."
What you would expect to happen as each taboo goes down is for the next thing to
surf past and hit you on the head. That's the picture that Paul gives: of people
escaping from wrath, quite literally. But the wrath became an anthropological
phenomenon: the wrath of people who wanted a world in which the good was the good
and the bad was the bad.
DS: One thing I notice is that public discourse about this conflict is
framed largely in terms of two camps: people who claim they care about moral values
and people who are-as the press frames them-tolerant and blasť. What difference
does this make?
JA: The more worked up people get about something, the sillier the
rhetoric gets. And they're forced back into reality. You can see that. Just think
how the whole debate in this country has moved towards some sort of concession in
many areas, that of course you need civil rights and perhaps even domestic
partnerships-just so long as it isn't "marriage."
But how are we going to give a soft landing to those people still living in the
old reality? How are we going to let them off the hook? That's the key to all these
things. And that's what I've spent some time thinking about in my own [Roman
Catholic] church. I think many of my own church authorities know perfectly well
that they've lost this argument in the long term. We need a line of reasoning so
they can not feel humiliated, and can take part in the discussion. That means
moving forward to a position of extreme spaciousness, saying, "I don't know whether
I'm getting this right or wrong, but I know that it's bigger than me. I don't
particularly mind losing, but let's see what we can do."