Hans Schäufelein, Christ as Good Shepherd from Das Plenarium, 1517 (Gift of Henry G. Friedman, 1961, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

I have been asked to reflect on what it means to be an openly gay priest. To give my testimony, as it were—especially in this parish, which offers so much space for the discernment of what is appropriate, and even urgent, in the life of the church.

It is hard for me to spell this out, but I would bear false witness if I didn’t say that the background to my whole life in this area has been one of lies—and the shape of my adulthood a more or less desperate search to winnow out the truth from the lies. As a child I was taught by my parents the absolute importance of Jesus and of love; and by the politically conservative, Evangelical Protestant world in which I was brought up, that “homosexuality” was diametrically opposed to that. When, in 1969, aged nine, I learned what a “queer” was, and knew that I was one, I found myself thrilled that there was a word for people like me, awful though it was, and at the same time lost and abandoned in a world in which I would never be accepted. I couldn’t imagine knowing the guidance and accompanying compassion of the adults in my life—only their rigidity and probable rejection.

Only decades later did I learn the family context of the world into which that nine-year-old was feeling his way: that Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, one of the involuntary protagonists and heroes of the campaign to legalize homosexuality in England, had been a lifelong friend of my father’s, their having been at schools together throughout their childhoods (this fact was confirmed when Montagu introduced himself to me deliberately and with great warmth at my father’s funeral); that my beloved aunt had once been the lover of Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary who had pushed through the legalization of homosexuality in 1967 against her brother’s (my father’s) own vote in Parliament; and that maybe some part of the rigidity of my father’s Evangelical ideology was a result of his having been abused by his housemaster while at Eton in the early 1940s—a memory he recounted casually, the first time that any of us had learned of it, a few weeks before his death.

However, the child I was in the 1960s knew nothing of this other than that my siblings and I were enlisted in my parents’ campaign against the dangerous, anti-Christian agenda of the 1960s—and that, all unwittingly, I was the enemy within. From that time on I knew that I had to hide this reality about myself so as not to damage others with the evil of my desires. I also worked out that the very best thing I could do, knowing that I would forever be deprived of reward or approval, was to be as good, in all ways possible, as the person I could never be, while aware that I would have to become this person as from nothing, with no support or company. In a nutshell: that I should be in every outward respect as good a follower of Jesus as possible, despite Jesus not wanting me. And this I became, over the following ten years: the perfect Pharisee! With uncanny speed I learned to imitate the “normal” responses of those who had real feelings and real lives, while also being aware that I had no right to anything, and could hold on to nothing as my own, there being no “me” there. Thus, although my achievement would in the end, I knew, be a fake, an artificial construct, I would at least have limited the damage that the love of such an evil person might cause to those around them. I also sensed, already at that age, that I would never grow up to be able to hold down a steady job—unworthiness and instability feeding on each other to produce that radical lack of self-confidence that lurks not infrequently behind a boarding schoolboy’s mask. This has unquestionably marked my priesthood.

As I sensed my “self” dissolve and sink into an endless whirlpool of dissociation, the phrase to which I clung was “I will serve.”

At university, ten years later, I underwent (without any accompaniment, medical or otherwise) what would now be called a psychotic break. And so began my tumbling out of the whole structure of life that had formed me thus far: university, contemporaries, family, and country. It was the closest I’ve come to suicide. As I sensed my “self” dissolve and sink into an endless whirlpool of dissociation, the phrase to which I clung was “I will serve.” I don’t know where the phrase came from, since non serviam had been no part of either my Protestant or classical education.

Meanwhile, and without my understanding it, mercy had been coming upon me slowly. Because, when I was a boy, I had fallen in love with a nine-year-old contemporary at school, without of course having any of the words to describe something so wonderful or so terrifying, I knew that love was something other than the banalities of my religious education. Because this happened so long before puberty, I was always protected from those who later attempted to talk about homosexuality as something primarily to do with sexual acts, rather than with love. I knew it was about love long before I knew that there were such things as sexual acts. That self-same mercy, bubbling quietly through another friendship, was invisible until I was eighteen, when it manifested itself as an urgent need to be received into the Catholic Church. And it has been with me throughout the intervening forty years, trying to persuade a loved “me” into existence.


Back in the 1960s however, the word I had absorbed from the world as it was then, concerning such huge, abyssal love and the dream of sharing it with another boy forever, was: “impossible.” And it is dealing with this terrible double bind—love and its impossibility, with that impossibility apparently sanctioned by God—that has formed so much of what I have found myself attempting to do and teach, as a man and as a priest, ever since. I have come to understand that when Jesus said “nothing is impossible for God” he was not pointing out that God can do superlatively difficult things (as though “difficult” were a useful term relating to God), but that for God, our double binds, impossibilities-in-desire, are nothing. That the very reverse of impossibility is a definitional aspect of who God is.

Why share with you as testimony these shards of bygone years? First, because I don’t think they are unique. Nor, secondly, do I think we will advance much in enfleshed imagining of families and their different future forms without working through the lived experience of just such unwanted believers. This experience has been until recently in the Western world, as it still is in many other parts of the world, that of having found ourselves pre-cast as the unwitting enemy of everything that we were taught was good and true by parents, teachers, church, and wider society. We have been lied to by those representing God to us. Lied to about ourselves and lied to about God. And we have ourselves become those liars. So much so that there has been no way to reconcile love with the Gospel except through the extraordinarily delicate work of learning to separate out where we are ourselves liars, like all humans; where we are being lied to; and where Another is trying to breathe truth and life into us. 

Furthermore, the language, feelings, and experiences associated with living through this reality have been, and are still for many people, of quite remarkable violence. Terror, panic, hell, demonization, abomination, perdition, inability to trust feelings, inability to tell the truth or to trust adults with the truth. An astounding range of the sensed resonances of these words has often been lived through without help by the time a young person is of voting age. And the consequences of having lived through them, if the young person does indeed live through them, may well be with that person long after they have accepted the perfectly banal truth that their sexual orientation is a non-pathological minority variant in the human condition, and that everything they went through was the terrifying remnant of an archaic, expulsion-fueled idea of the sacred that is not of God.

So, lies and violence in the heart of family and church life. That’s where my testimony begins. For whatever reason of God’s own, I have received the formal commission to live this reality as a priest. As far as I can tell, this has meant allowing the terrified façade of a person that I was so skillfully building to be dismantled by love and mercy as these have come into my life, almost invariably through apparently inappropriate means. And in this way to live out in my own person the redemption of that world of lies, of violence, and desire so as to become in some way a sign that Jesus’ priesthood is still very much alive and well.

I have also learned that failure is one of grace’s preferred building sites.

I have of course failed to become that sign in so many ways as to make the claim laughable. But I have also learned that failure is one of grace’s preferred building sites. When I read Jesus’ words about the Good Shepherd, I know that in the task for which I have been commissioned, the wolf from which, as a hireling, I am most tempted to run away is the mortal violence and hatred that fleck from the teeth of the vehemently righteous in any culture—a violence unleashed whenever there is a suggestion that maybe after all LGBT people are loved just as we are, and that our flourishing takes the path of learning to humanize our love starting from where we are. Of course, one of the places where this hatred and this violence have a favored embassy on earth is the Catholic clerical closet.

So, for me, learning to “feed my sheep” involves not running away from the wolf. Running the risk of being killed by it, losing legitimacy, good standing, employability at its claws, yes; but also sidestepping its too-obvious charges, never baiting it to grab too cheap a shot of rebel righteousness. Rather, gradually facing it down so that it loses transcendence, its wiles and deceptions ever better understood, and in that way, finding myself brought to life as a genuine shepherd, a son of God. Not the hireling I feared it was my lot to be.

I hope that in this way I am learning enough to be able to share some of the immeasurable privilege of my thirty years or so of priesthood with my sisters and brothers. We who are creating what Armistead Maupin terms our logical, rather than our biological, families. Sometimes there is overlap between the two, and sometimes not. But now, as the world of “impossibility” wanes, even we are empowered to recognize one like us and cry “here at last is flesh of my flesh, and bone of my bone!” It is better to be dead than to pretend otherwise. The cross-strewn nature of the route has made it possible for us to know that it is the Spirit of truth crying out in us when we make that cry, that resilient love has been fine-tested, and improbable families are already giving glory to God, for whom to create is to dare true being.

James Alison is a Catholic priest, theologian, and author. His primary work has been in reimagining basic Christianity following the thought of René Girard. This text is adapted from a talk he gave at The Church of St. Francis Xavier in New York, June 2019, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising.

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Published in the June 2020 issue: View Contents
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