Monday, 16 May 2011

Times: Thou shalt arise and be gay

Sunday, May 15, 2011, by Mark-Anthony Falzon

I don’t know Pastor Gordon John Manché. Indeed I had never heard of him or his River of Love Christian Fellowship before last week’s ruckus over his ‘gay conversion’ sessions. The idea apparently is to straighten out homosexuals by applying a cocktail of psychotherapy and evangelical revelation. As one might expect, hardly the favourite ritual of gay rights groups.

I can completely understand why the idea of ‘conversion’ should rub many people the wrong way. I too feel a strong distaste, to put it mildly, for anyone who implies that there is anything wrong about being gay. Add to that a short fuse for charlatanism, especially when it preys on difficult circumstances.

Even so, the attempt to picket Manché’s church was misguided at best. Quite apart from the ‘no such thing as bad publicity’ argument (which in any case cannot reasonably be applied to reform-minded activism), there are three reasons why I think Manché should be left to his transformative devices.

It’s ironic that gay rights activists of all people should have tried to stop him. That’s because gay rights movements and ideas are predicated on two basic principles. The first is freedom, in this case the freedom to live one’s sexual orientation to the full and without having to hide it.

The same applies, or should, to religious belief and practice. Whether or not Manché’s teachings are sound – and I think most of us would agree they aren’t – the matter is that people have a right to believe them. Fact is that Manché’s congregation, and that includes the ‘converts’, attend the Fellowship of their own free will.

The second point has to do directly with freedom of sexual choice. Just as there should be no one prescriptive and privileged form of sexuality (that’s the gay rights argument and one I passionately believe in), there are also many ways of living one’s homosexuality.

For some it seems, and this presumably includes the ‘converts’, religion and orientation come together in an act of spiritual and physical transformation.

Healthy choice? Probably not, but one could say the same of ascetic abstinence, hairshirts and whips, and Gandhi’s experiments with celibacy among a host of examples. It doesn’t matter if priests and nuns, say, might be better off without their celibacy. What matters is that it’s their choice and that people should be free to live their sexuality as they deem useful, for religious reasons if need be.

My third reason, and this is where it gets a tad complicated, has to do with equality. One of the main targets of gay rights groups is what they call ‘heteronormativity’. Put simply this means that heterosexuality is deemed the social norm (and therefore formalised through marriage laws and so on) and homosexuality as a departure from it.

I’m fully with the reformers on this one. Which is why this column, for whatever it’s worth, has consistently argued that marriage should be extended to gay couples and called by its proper name rather than ‘civil partnership’ or some such de-normalising term.

Thing is, normativity also applies to religion. We see this in Malta with Jehovah’s Witnesses, ‘Moonies’ (the Unification Church), Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and so on, all of which tend to be laughed off as barmy and prone to tomfoolery like refusing blood transfusions and converting gays. Catholicism, on the other hand, is the norm. Even if one renounces its teachings, one must do so seriously at all time.

I beg to differ. The relation between religion and rationality is a tricky one and I won’t go into it. But we can probably agree that the point of any religion (and I happen to see much value there) is that it encourages believers to experience life differently. In other words, to consign simplistic ‘rationality’ arguments to the dustbin. This is what Dawkins, Hitchens and Co., for all their intelligence, fail to understand.

The point is not that all religions are barmy, but that all religions are what they are. This includes Catholicism and whatever ‘normalised’ religions obtain in particular contexts.

I get quite vicious when, say, ‘new’ Catholics shrug off Angelik Caruana as a lunatic and mountebank. (I may have done that myself and now I realise I was very wrong.) ‘New’ and ‘old’ Catholics say equally barmy – or equally useful – things, just that the former are normalised and the latter aren’t.

Gay rights groups of all people ought to be sensitive to this process. They might pause to consider why Manché is bashed and Archbishop Paul Cremona is reasoned with. For if, as Heine put it, burning books ultimately leads to burning people, a society which privileges religions will also privilege sexualities.

I mean, Manché’s is hardly the main river of love when it comes to equality. In fact I’d say it’s more like a minor tributary. Catholicism, for example, systematically and institutionally marginalises women (isn’t it curious that not a single nun seems to have a public opinion on divorce?).

It is also not terribly nice to practising gays (as opposed to sexually repressed ones, presumably), although nowadays it generously limits their suffering to posthumous eternity.

I’m not saying the Catholic Church should be forced to change its teachings on women and gays, certainly not after having just argued for religious freedom. The point is that some religions get away with it, or at least get away with a civilised ‘debate’, while others don’t.

Manché is not in the business of drafting the laws of the land or setting the Matsec syllabus. If his alchemy is that all gays are but impure heteros, so be it.

I might add that his followers are hardly the only ones who choose to spend their Sunday mornings watching wondrous transmutations. It’s a choice I quite respect and would never think of picketing.

[Click on the hyperlink above to view the comments on the relevant website.]

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