Monthly Archives: June 2011

St Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles

There is much that is paradoxical in the figure of Paul. In his dual persona as Saul / Paul, he is renowned as both a one-time feared persecutor of Christians, and as the greatest of all the early missionaries, who spread the word far beyond it s original geographic compounds, and author of by far the most influential Christian texts outside the Gospels themselves. In the same way, as the author of the most infamous New Testament clobber texts, he is widely regarded as strongly condemning homoerotic relationships – and yet  Paul Halsall lists him in his Calendar of LGBT Saints:

There is considerable debate over those anti-gay “proof -texts”, but whatever the conclusions, there is much, as Anglican Bishop of Newark John Spong has pointed out, which leads one to suspect Paul might have been “queer” in some way. The fact he was never married, unusual for a Jew of his time, his companionship with a series of younger men, especially St. Timothy, his mention of an unnamed “thorn in the flesh”. and, possibly, his disdain for some types of exploitative homosexual relationship in his period, all raise questions, questions which cannot be answered it must be admitted, about his sexuality.
What are we to make of this?

First, let us dismiss the idea that Paul’s writing is anti-gay: it isn’t, and further, much of his message is precisely the opposite, arguing for full inclusion of all. For a counter to the standard view of Paul as anti-gay, anti-sex, see Reidulf Molvaer, Sex & St. Paul the Realist

St. Paul was, in many ways, an ascetic and happy to be so, but he refused to make asceticism a general model or ideal for Christians – most people cannot live by such principles, especially in the area of sex. In the seventh chapter of his first letter to Corinth, he rejects any appeal for his support of sexual abstinence as ethically superior to active sexual relations. He sets limits, but does not limit legitimate sexual relations to marriage. In his day, it was commonly believed that homosexual practice, more easily than heterosexual relations, could bring people into harmony with the unchangeable nature of God. This Paul strongly rejects in the first chapter of his letter to Rome. Otherwise he does not write about “natural” homosexuality. In fact, it is a logical inference from the principles he sets forth in his letter to Corinth that loving, lasting homosexual relations are ethically as valid as heterosexual relations. Dr. Molvaer maintains that insight into contemporary ideologies can be a help to understanding what the New Testament says about these matters. Today, as in the early Church, extraneous influences in these areas can easily distort genuine Christian moral concerns as they are stated by Christ and St. Paul.

Then, consider his person. Astonishingly little is known for certain of Paul the man, but Bishop Spong is not the only one to have suggested that Paul may have had some close same-sex relationships  of his own. Gay Catholic blogger Jeremiah Bartram (Gospel for Gays), who recently spent time on a pilgrimage “in the footsteps of St Paul” has reflected deeply on the life and writign of Paul, and concluded that on balance, the suggestion is sound (“Gay Paul“).

In the absence of hard evidence, personally I am happy to leave this discussion to others with greater scholarship and expertise behind them. My interest in the queer saints is in the lessons they hold for us today, and here I think there is one clear message, which lies in the best known story of al about Paul, his conversion on the road to Damascus. This has entered language as a “Damascene Conversion”, and therein lies hope. For if Saul, the renowned persecutor of Christians, could undergo such a complete change of heart and become instead active as the most famous proselytizer,  so too is there hope for the religion -based persecutors of sexual minorities today. Not only is there hope, but there is already abundant evidence from the very many Christians in the modern world who have experienced just such Damascene conversions, going from direct, outright condemnation of same sex relationships, to actively advocating full inclusion in church.   These changes of heart, usually coming after intensive study of Scripture and extensive discussions with gay and lesbian church members, have already been responsible for changes of policy in several denominations, and a more welcoming atmosphere in many local congregations. This process will continue.

For those Catholics who like to pray to the saints, you can freely include St Paul in you prayers. This is not because he was queer (although he may have been), but because his own conversion experience provides a useful model for all those modern day conversions that we need among the bigots who use religion as a cloak for prejudice and discrimination.

Rev. Phebe Ann Coffin Hannaford, Pioneering “Lesbian” Minister

b. May 6, 1829
d. June 2, 1921

Gay and lesbian clergy have been around for a long time – right from the start of ordained ministry (barring some quibbles over terminology: the words “gay” and “lesbian” do not apply directly to the earliest years). Even in modern times, there are numerous reports of openly gay or lesbian clergy going back a lot further than I had recognised. Among many who are described as the “first” in one or other specific field, the earliest clear example I have come across (so far) is Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford, who was raised a Quaker,where she was accustomed to full participation by women,  was briefly a Baptist, and finally ordained in the Universalist church in 1968, claiming to have been the first woman of any denomination ordained in New England.  She was also plainly and openly “lesbian”, many years before the term or concept was widely recognized.

Phebe Ann Coffin was born into a Quaker family in Siasconset, on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, the only child of the merchant and shipowner George W. Coffin and his wife Phebe Ann (Barnard) Coffin. Both were Quakers and direct descendants of the island’s first white settlers, Tristram Coffin and Peter Folger.
Phebe lived amidst women who bore the responsibilities of daily life as the whaling men were at sea. These two influences made Phebe an extraordinarily independent woman. She was educated in public and private schools on the island, tutored in mathematics and Latin and her talents were encouraged at home. She was a formidable scholar and active reformer: she wrote the first biography of Lincoln to be published after his death, and was active in both the abolitionist and women’s movements.
She spoke openly of her desire to be a Quaker preacher. She took the pledge at the early age of 8 and at age 18 was chaplain and treasurer of the Daughters of Temperance and Deputy Grand Worthy Chief Templar in the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts.
She taught school on Cape Cod and in Nantucket until her marriage in 1849 to Dr. Joseph H. Hanaford, a homeopathic physician and school teacher. She joined her husband’s Baptist church. Their son, Howard, was born in 1841 and their daughter, Florence, in 1854.
Living in Beverly during the Civil War, her commitment as an abolitionist led her to relinquish her Quaker pacifism. As her marriage was failing she supported and educated her children with her writing. Her contact with Universalist women opened up a world of activism for the rights of women. In 1868 she was ordained a minister in the Universalist church. From 1874, she was pastor to a congregation in New Jersey, but after her initial three year term, controversy arose over her reappointment which she did not get.
The controversy was nominally over her involvement in the “women’s issue” (ie, the suffragette movement), but in reality it was her relationship with coworker Ellen Miles, which had begun in 1870. Newspaper clippings preserved in Hanaford’s scrapbook reported that the disgruntlement among congregation members was, in fact, over Hanaford’s liaison with Miles, whom the papers called the ‘minister’s wife.’ Hanaford, it seems, was not simply asked to cease her women’s rights activities, but more specifically, to ‘dismiss’ Miss Miles… their letters testify to a deep and abiding affection. The two remained life-long companions, separated after forty-four years together only by Miles’s death in 1914.
After her failure to be reappointed in New Jersey, she attempted to set up a new congregation of her own. However, when her dissident New Jersey congregation applied for formal recognition and was rejected by the General Universalist Convention in 1878, Hanaford had no settled pulpit, and for years she conducted lecturing and preaching tours across New England and the Middle Atlantic and Western states. Deprived of formal ministry, she created a successful independent ministry of her own – ultimately achieving high honour in the early twentieth century , when she was asked to officiate at the at the funeral services for two leading women’s rights activists of the nineteenth century: the feminist philosopher Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the woman-suffrage organizer Susan B. Anthony. The two friends, who had shared a life of labor, died within four years of each other, and Hanaford had known them both well.
After Ellen’s death Phebe lived with her granddaughter in Basom, New York where she was isolated from the activities she enjoyed. Both her children predeceased her. She voted in the New York election but not in the federal election of 1920. The family moved to Rochester, New York where she died alone in her bedroom. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Orleans, New York next to her daughter Florence Hanaford Warner.
There is a great deal in the story of this remarkable woman for us to reflect on and learn from. The story of her extraordinary achievement as a woman in defying and transcending gender boundaries as an impressive scholar and pioneer female ordained minister is remarkable in itself. Thereafter, after commencing a new life committed to a woman, she was confronted by a demand from her congregation to give up her partner and conform, or to face the loss of her ministry.  Courageously, she chose commitment and truth over expedience, and paid the price. She persevered independently for decades, forging an independent ministry where she was unable to work within the formal structures – and ultimately achieved honour and recognition for it.
Rev Hanaford deserves to be better remembered and celebrated.

Source:

A Paper Trail: Piecing Together the Life of Phebe Hanaford

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