John Paul ITO
Handel—Another Gay Anglican?
Was he or wasn't he? The literal answer is no; despite the monument in Westminster Abbey, he wasn't an Anglican, and the word "gay" is problematic when applied to citizens of the 18th century. That's a cop-out, of course; the fuller answer, developed in more detail below, is that while there is no conclusive evidence one way or the other, he may very well have been. But more important than the answer is the question of why—and in what way—we should care.
On the morning of the consecration of Gene Robinson, an openly partnered gay man, as bishop of the Episcopal diocese of New Hampshire, I remember reading a quote in a Charlottesville newspaper from a member of a group of gay Episcopalians, comparing those who opposed the consecration to Nazis. Passions were running high, and I tend to blame the journalist who wanted something catchy for the story more than I blame the person quoted—I trust he thought better of it later. Nonetheless, as a theologically conservative Episcopalian, I felt seriously offended.
The basic pattern is a familiar one. Anyone opposing what might be described as a gay political agenda is in danger of being accused of anti-gay bias. For example, in a post dated February 15, 2007, on the gay-rights website Box Turtle Bulletin (boxturtlebulletin.com), Jim Burroway reports, "Many of my gay and lesbian friends assume that anyone who went to these [ex-gay ministries'] conferences would be filled with incredible hate toward the gay community. When I attended the Love Won Out protests in Palm Springs last fall, I was dismayed to see that the local protest organizers kept pounding on the word 'hate,' declaring Palm Springs a 'hate-free zone' and characterizing everyone associated with Love Won Out as being motivated by 'hate.' "
While it is patently false to assume that any opposition to any aspect of homosexuality must result from bias, that doesn't do anything to diminish the evangelical image problem in this area. And it may possibly mask something more serious than an image problem. It's easy to dismiss someone who assumes that all opposition comes from bias, and it's easy to cite principle in support of opposition. The real question is whether, for any given person, the opposition to social or political goals held by many gay people comes purely from principle or whether it might be amplified by bias. For people who don't have many close relationships with gays and lesbians, this could be a difficult question to answer.
In February 2007, I attended a talk on the campus where I teach by John Corvino, a gay-rights activist who is also a philosophy professor. In general I was very impressed with (and entertained by) his presentation, but I felt that at a few points he had been unfair to theological conservatives, and so I asked him about it during the Q&A. I opened by identifying myself as theologically conservative but politically liberal on gay issues, having no problem with gay marriage and thinking that many of the gay couples I know would (or do) make fine parents, but not feeling that my reading of Scripture would allow me to approve of my rector marrying a same-sex couple. Having placed myself in a sympathetic light through the common ground of politics, I then tried to advocate for some of my more conservative friends who lack that common ground. Corvino had acknowledged that religious opposition didn't necessarily come from bias, and I agreed that it sometimes did, but I argued that his presentation had been unfair at a few points in mischaracterizing the theologically conservative position and implying a greater role for bias than is warranted. John admitted that he had been sloppy in his wording on a few points, and indeed in his DVD version of the lecture, "What's Morally Wrong with Homosexuality," which has since come out, he is consistently fair in dealing with those issues. I don't agree with his discussion of the Bible, but he doesn't take cheap shots, and many of his responses to secular arguments against homosexuality are really excellent.
Our brief exchange led to a conversation at a local coffee shop when he returned to the area soon after, and that led in turn to a dinner invitation when I learned that the poor guy was living out of a hotel room for a week, eating at Applebee's. We'd had pleasant conversations up to that point, but as often happens the presence of my wife Sarah led to a more personal tone, and over cheese before the meal we learned about John's partner, Mark, and about John's relationship with Mark's parents, which was, to his sadness, virtually nonexistent. In saying grace Sarah prayed blessing on John's relationship with Mark, and especially on his relationship with Mark's parents.
To our surprise, a couple of weeks later John sent us a copy of a column he wrote about our dinner for his local gay newspaper, and which he later posted online on the Independent Gay Forum (independentgayforum.com, March 22, 2007). He had been particularly touched by Sarah's prayers for him and Mark. This in turn drew a rebuke from Peter LaBarbera with my all-time favorite url: http://americansfortruth.com/news/can-god-bless-a-gay-relationship-conservative-christian-prof-and-wife-lead-gay-activist-john-corvino-astray.html. "The essence of evangelical, Bible-believing outreach to people ('non-believers')," LaBarbera wrote, "is to warn them about the grave consequences of their sin, especially eternal separation from God—and then offer them the substitutionary redemption of Christ, who took the penalty for all sin on the Cross before conquering sin and death by rising again (Easter!)." Now I certainly agree that a gospel that fails to confront sin is no true gospel, and on one point I'd even say that LaBarbera's statement is too soft—surely sin's wrongness is more fundamental than its consequences. But my question here concerns the sequence: "the essence is to warn … and then offer." Do we always need to warn about sin before talking about the love of God? Does this put the most fundamental part first? And is this what Jesus himself modeled?
To press the point further, is it with all sinners that warning must come first, or only with those who commit certain specific sins? I have no idea if Peter LaBarbera is consistent about this, but I do know that a number of Christians aren't—for them, confronting the sinner about his sin seems a much higher priority with some sins than with others. A gay friend from Boston once told me about how leaders of his youth group treated him when he revealed his struggles with same-sex attraction. Though he had not yet acted on any of his desires, the fact of the desires was taken as evidence that he didn't really have a living relationship with God; he was treated lovingly, but as an outsider, and subjected to a variety of measures aimed at removing his same-sex desires. He eventually left the church once all parties had become frustrated with the failure of these efforts, and for a number of years he gave up on faith altogether. At the time we spoke, he had recently started attending a Unitarian church; it seemed like a pale shadow of the kind of worship he had known before, but it was the closest he felt he could come. Although I think this kind of treatment is the exception rather than the rule, stories like this are hardly rare. "Love the sinner, hate the sin" can look like a pious smokescreen if it is perceived that some (heterosexual) sins are not consistently hated nor some (homosexual) sinners consistently loved.
To return to my relationship with John, it seems clear that no gay-rights activist needs to be informed that some Christians find themselves unable to approve of homosexual activity. Nor does this particular gay-rights activist, a former Capuchin postulant, lack information about other aspects of the Christian faith. I do think that God wants to let John and his partner know that he is real and that he loves them, and he allowed Sarah and me (mostly Sarah) to play a small part in this. For Sarah's prayer that evening was just the beginning. Sarah regularly spends time in God's presence with no agenda, allowing God to direct her prayers, and over an extended period of time she felt pulled toward persistent prayer for the relationship between John, Mark, and Mark's parents. She felt God telling her that he wanted to bless them (not in the sense of a seal of approval, but in the sense of displaying goodness and kindness), and she felt called to pray that this would happen. And happen it did. As described in a post from John dated July 12, 2007, over a few short months a relationship blossomed that had been virtually nonexistent for years. I don't think that all of this happened because Sarah prayed. I think it happened because God loves them and wanted to bless them, with Sarah's prayers giving John and Mark the option of seeing the changed relationship as a sign of the love and grace of God. Our friendship is truly a friendship—it's not just a pretext for evangelism. But I'm very glad that God seems to be using Sarah and me to show himself to John.
My primary concern is that the perception and reality of anti-gay bias may, in a variety of ways, be seriously hampering the witness of the church. We face several important questions. To the extent that the perception is false, how we can change it? And to the extent that the perception is true, how can we change ourselves? For that matter, how can we tell the difference—how do we know if we have anti-gay biases?
Before returning to Handel and offering a small piece of an answer, I want to argue that this issue will only become more critical. Where I now live, in a moderately sized city in Wisconsin, I know people who seem to think that societal acceptance of homosexuality is a trend that can be stopped, slowed, or even reversed. Having spent most of the last 20 years in Boston and New York, this seems unimaginable. Young people come to major cities at formative stages in their lives for education and professional development, and wherever they settle they are marked by the cosmopolitan culture of "the city," whichever the referent of the ubiquitous definite article. In an increasingly mobile society, the same trends that have given me two excellent local sources of imported cheese will also make the prevalent attitudes about homosexuality that my children grow up with very different from those I knew as a child. This will, of course, contribute to the image problem—there will be much less cultural space for an evangelicalism perceived as anti-gay than for one perceived as having a more nuanced relationship with issues of homosexuality.
It will also press the issue internally to a much greater extent than we have yet seen. So far the Christians who fully approve of monogamous homosexual relationships have tended to be theological liberals. Thus in the Episcopal Church, it is possible to frame the current controversy as being first and foremost about the nature of God, salvation, and Scripture, homosexuality being secondary. But this simple identification of Christian proponents of homosexuality with theological liberalism is clearly beginning to change, and this change will only pick up speed. Increasingly, believers both gay and straight who with respect to doctrine and forms of piety would be described as evangelical will accept monogamous homosexual relationships. This is particularly visible among young people—there is clearly more diversity of belief on this issue among college-age Christians than there was 15 years ago, when I was an undergraduate. In time, I expect these divergent beliefs to lead to a divide similar to that between egalitarians and complementarians—but with the numbers less even and the issues more fraught.
Let me be clear that I don't particularly welcome this; personally, I'd rather see a theologically united church that was consistently welcoming and loving to gays and lesbians while holding to the traditionally orthodox view on homosexual activity. But I doubt that's in the cards, at least not as a characterization of evangelicalism across the board. Not all Christians are ready to be welcoming, and not all gays and lesbians are ready to hear a qualified welcome—and with stories out there like that of my friend from Boston, who can blame them? From my perspective, segments of the evangelical church blessing same-sex unions (in the stamp-of-approval sense) is not a positive development, but it's also inevitable; and so it's comforting to know that God routinely works through situations that aren't ideal. In this case, such a church would provide a spiritual home for some people who might not otherwise find one.
Limiting the appeal of such churches won't be easy. As anti-gay bias comes to be viewed more and more negatively, many evangelicals will face a tension between what might loosely be called competing evils. On the one hand will be denigrating ways of perceiving and treating gays and lesbians, and on the other revisionist interpretations of Scripture that find ways around bans on homosexual activity. This is, of course, a false opposition, but as more and more evangelicals come to perceive injustice and hypocrisy in our treatment of gays and lesbians, many of them will conflate the issues. Accepting monogamous homosexuality will seem to them a necessary and natural part of rejecting the church's perceived anti-gay bias. The best thing we can do today to reduce the force of this trend is to subject ourselves to rigorous self-examination, both individual and corporate, seeking to root out both anti-gay bias and ways of expressing ourselves that could easily be mistaken for it. The more we tolerate homophobia, the more evangelicals will be driven toward heterodoxy and heteropraxis.
Finally, back to George Frideric Handel and his story, as told by my old friend Ellen Harris in Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas (Harvard Univ. Press, 2001). Harris' main concern here is with the least known of Handel's works, the chamber cantatas. Written for small (sometimes very small) performing forces, they were composed not for public performance but for gatherings in the homes of aristocratic patrons, at a time when Handel resided in those homes. What Harris shows is that the homoerotic ethos of those aristocratic circles (ranging from certain to strongly possible) was reflected in the words and music of the cantatas. The cantata texts frequently drew on clearly established codes, often going back to classical pastoral traditions, about same-sex desire and activity. In certain cases the music strikingly supports readings in terms of those codes, especially when revisions were made for more public occasions and/or less tolerant times. Harris also gives sensitive readings of silences and gaps, both textual and musical; in some cases they suggest something omitted, while in others they are powerfully expressive on their own. And Harris certainly does her readers a service by introducing them to some wonderful music, deserving to be much better known that it currently is.
If we grant that Handel wrote music with a gay subtext for gay patrons, what about Handel's own sexuality, a question that musicologists have been raising since the early 1990s? Harris is careful not to go beyond the evidence, which is extremely limited. Certainly his confirmed bachelorhood shouldn't be taken as evidence one way or the other, and Handel destroyed almost all of his personal documents. He was adept at politics and skilled at concealment, at one point even apparently serving as an informant to the Elector of Hanover, the future George I, about the court of Queen Anne.
Harris does, however, discuss some references to Handel from his lifetime that could be read as describing him as a homosexual. The most direct of these were clearly insulting him, but an understanding of Handel as a homosexual may well be implied in correspondence that takes a basically positive view of him, wishing him success and according him respect. None of this amounts to proof, but after reading the book and weighing the totality of the evidence it seems to me quite possible that Handel had same-sex desires, with some evidence pointing to his having acted on those desires. So a "gay" Handel (to use the term anachronistically) is far from certain, but it does seem a real possibility. How do we react to this?
This question can provide us with just what we need—a litmus test for detecting anti-gay bias. Handel, the composer of Messiah, is seen by many evangelicals as a member of the family, not just one of us but one of our heroes. Thus a gay Handel might give some of us a sense of what it's like to have a close friend or family member come out of the closet.
I wouldn't think that a degree of sadness in contemplating a gay Handel would betray bias, nor would some degree of "ick factor." But what about vehement anger or refusal to even consider the possibility? What about concluding that a homoerotically inclined Handel couldn't have been a real Christian or that Messiah was somehow invalidated? These reactions, and other similar ones, do strike me as signs of anti-gay bias.
Personally, I do not find my respect for Handel as a Christian diminished by the thought that he may have had same-sex inclinations, or that he may have acted on them. The case for the reality of Handel's faith seems reasonably secure, even though it is, like the case for his homosexuality, rather circumstantial. He did not regularly attend church services through most of his adult years, and his lifelong confession of Lutheranism despite serving Catholic and Anglican patrons could possibly have been directed toward political ends. But his return to piety in old age, as a man of means who had pioneered the transformation of the composer from servant to entrepreneur, could not have resulted from practical or political pressures; the obvious conclusion is that Handel went to church because he wanted to. If the church today does not always succeed in being appropriately loving to gays and lesbians, it is surely doing better than the church in the 18th century, and Harris' account of the persecution of homosexual men in the 1720s should arouse compassion for any devoted Christian of that time who felt strong same-sex desires. If Handel held on to faith despite strong inclinations to abandon it or to conclude that it must surely abandon him, I would be grateful for that—grateful both to God and to Handel.
A Handel who may have been gay may seem somewhat two-dimensional: potentially helpful as a test for sin, but clearly not as transformative as close relationships with actual gay men and lesbians could be—people who, as John Corvino likes to say, have lives, not just lifestyles. But the utility of a possibly gay Handel goes further; he could represent common ground, a bridge to the gay community. When I stood up after John's talk, it was easy for me to build bridges; as a musician and an academic I have many gay friends, and as a left-leaning political moderate I can embrace a number of the political goals shared by many gays and lesbians. But many Christians of good will lack those resources. Embracing the possibility of a Handel who was both Christian and gay is one way to address that lack.
John often laments the failure of his opponents to speak up at his lectures and debates, as audiences appear to be overwhelmingly in his favor, even when he appears with his friend Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family. He regrets lost opportunities for dialogue. On one occasion, described in a post dated November 1, 2007, a woman stood up and said, "I'm a religious conservative, and I appreciate your kindness to Glenn and to us. But I haven't spoken up because I feel a lot of hostility from the audience. I think more of us would show up and speak up if we didn't feel like we would automatically be shouted down." This even though the audience hadn't expressed hostility to the religiously conservative position, only disagreement. I sympathize with this woman. As I acknowledged at the outset, opposition to any aspect of a gay-rights platform is routinely labeled as bias and hate, and professions of love and respect are easily swept away as mere words. I don't think I would have had the guts to stand up if I hadn't had the tools to present myself as basically sympathetic. Evangelicals are deeply in need of a more constructive dialogue with the gay community, and in some contexts being willing to share one of our great heroes, someone we respect and admire while knowing that he may well have been gay, could be a good place to start.
1. Thankfully, he continues, "Folks, I can now state categorically that this is not true and we need to stop saying that …. [T]hose who attend Love Won Out don't go there because of hate. To say otherwise is to commit a terrible slander and we should abolish that kind of language from our discourse."
John Paul Ito teaches music theory in the conservatory at Lawrence University.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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