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The Gay Science: Learning Eucharistic Theology from Louis Weil

The Rev. Dr. Louis Weil died this past week at the age of 86. Tributes have been pouring into social media platforms from around the country and around the world for a man who was a “pillar of the church,” a “giant in liturgical scholarship,” and an “architect of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.”

Louis was one of my teachers and mentors, a dear friend, and also a gay man.

Louis’ sexual orientation matters for several reasons, not least in this era when LGBT civil rights are once again being contested (most notably in Texas and Florida), but also because the Church will still (in many locations) happily receive the tireless offerings of time, talent, and treasure from her LGBT members as long as we don’t mention the “gay part.”

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and otherwise uncategorized queer people have always populated the Christian Church from the very beginning, but only the scarcest few have been known and named that way prior to the modern period. Naming ourselves, coming out, and being known carries a cost, even today. And for those who grew up when Louis did, the price could have been his vocation and career.

Rather than once again erasing a hard-won identity marker or pretending that being gay didn’t matter or play any role in what someone like Louis Weil offered to the church (which is an incalculable gift), I want to urge all of us who identify in some fashion as “LGBT” and who knew Louis, even only casually or briefly, to start sharing gay stories about him—the painful and the joyous. This matters not only for the integrity of his legacy but also for all the queer kids, clergy, and teachers out there who need to know (and for some of them, as a matter of life and death) that the Communion of Saints is now a bit gayer than it was. I’ll start:

I came out as a gay man while I was a student at Wheaton College (the private Christian one near Chicago) and struggled mightily with how to remain a Christian. I thought becoming an Episcopalian would help (and it did) but not sufficiently to exorcise all my homophobia demons. As Louis confirmed for me years later, homophobia often sends down the toughest roots in gay people themselves; forty years later, there are still more left to yank out of my heart and soul.

I managed to get into the ordination process and start seminary by making a foolish vow—not the first time God has heard one of those. I promised the rector of my sponsoring parish at the time—this was in 1984—that I would remain celibate as a condition for securing his approval to seek ordination.

This whole arrangement felt fraught and tenuous, as foolish vows usually do. I was entirely unsure of how to live or what to think as I told this story to Louis. I sat in one of his enormous wingback chairs in his living room, in a house I would come to know well during my time at Nashotah House Seminary in Wisconsin. Louis was my academic advisor, and our decades-long friendship began right there, in my first week of seminary, as tears trickled down my cheeks.

“I feel called to priesthood,” I mumbled, “but I’m gay. I don’t know how to do this.”

“I don’t either,” Louis said, kindly. “Nobody does. That’s why we need God’s grace—and each other.”

Perhaps only other LGBT people will understand why that simple sentence changed my life. It was one of the very first times I felt completely safe as an out gay man in a church-related context, and the tears turned quickly from a trickle to a flood, washing me with gratitude—or as Louis would say, “drenching me in grace.”

The Chapel at Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary

I cannot begin to list or calculate all that I learned from Louis Weil liturgically and theologically, nor all the rich reasons he illustrated for why Eucharist stands at the very center of Christian faith and practice. To be clear, I don’t mean that Louis taught a “gay Eucharist,” but it does matter that he knew, from the inside out, what a whole-hearted, full-throated, and loving welcome means and why it is mission-critical to whatever the Church wants Eucharist to do and perform.

And that word matters, too—perform. Louis was himself an accomplished musician (at the piano and organ) and was a lover and patron of the performing arts. Without question, that love shaped his convictions about Eucharistic liturgy in ways that in turn shaped generations of clergy in making the Eucharistic Table a place of invitational beauty. Now that I have returned to full-time parish ministry after years of teaching in a seminary (just as Louis had), everything I do at the Table—and which has garnered so much grateful attention in this parish—is thanks entirely to Louis.

One thing more has garnered attention here about my work as the rector of this parish—being gay. Being fully out in the search process for a parish in an LGBT resort town, I honestly didn’t think being gay would matter much here. It does. (And I can see the impish grin on Louis’ face as I write this.)

I’ve been surprised by the resistance from some in this parish to including explicit mention of LGBT people in our congregation’s welcome statement, and by the discomfort (among some) when I fly a rainbow flag on the rectory, and also by the tearful hugs at the local LGBT Pride festival when queer people see our church’s booth—in 2022, even now, making religious support for LGBT people fully visible and explicit still matters; for some it’s life-changing, and for others it’s life-saving.

I am grateful beyond words for all that I learned from Louis Weil, and for all that he offered to the Church that he loved so dearly, which did not always know how to love him back. Now, as I stand at the Eucharistic Table in this parish, week by week, I am reminded of his great exhortation to parish clergy: “keep the main thing the main thing.” And that “main thing” is our Eucharistic worship, which carries a grace powerful enough to welcome all to the feast of God’s love, no exceptions. For the centrality of that foundational insight in our Prayer Book worship, the Episcopal Church can thank Louis Weil.

Louis was also a gay man, openly and proudly.

And that (still) matters.

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Don’t Drop the “T” — Put it First

Childhood friends teased me for “playing with dolls” rather than “playing army.” High school football players called me a “woman” when I auditioned for concert choir. A friend from my church youth group once told me that the “least I could do is sit like a man.” He said this when I crossed my legs by folding my right knee over my left knee rather than resting my ankle there.

All of that happened before I came out – either to myself or to others – as a gay man. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not separate and distinct; they are deeply intertwined. Indeed, at the root of “homophobia” is a thinly veiled misogyny, or more pointedly, a profound gender panic over the erosion of male privilege.

Every gay man should already know this, if not from direct personal experience, then surely from witnessing the treatment of women in our patriarchal society. Sadly yet also understandably, some gay men are among the most sexist.  I say “understandably” not to excuse misogynistic postures but to appreciate the depth of patriarchal formation that shapes everyone, even (especially?) gay men, who have been told relentlessly to “act like a man,” or “butch it up” in public, or who puzzle over “straight acting” in personal ads.

Gay Rights Next BattlegroundThe consequences of all this have become more apparent and dire with the increasing visibility of those who identify as transgender. The recent arc traced from former Olympic decathlete Caitlin Jenner’s gender transition to the defeat of a Houston anti-discrimination ordinance has now generated an open letter from some (anonymous) “gay/bisexual men and women” urging us all to “drop the T” from that ubiquitous LGBT acronym. This, they argue, is crucial as “trans ideology” erodes the “rights of women, gay men and children.”

To appreciate just how misguided and even dangerous this letter is, we need to review some ancient history here, both civic and religious, which is far from over and past. That history continues to haunt this present moment in ways we cannot afford to overlook.

Historically, and speaking frankly, sex has most frequently been understood as an act of penetration – a body party of one person is inserted in the body part of another. Gender is mostly irrelevant in these ancient views. Whether it concerns a vagina, an anus, or a mouth, penetration marks what counts as “sex.”

Not just coincidentally, “penetration” also describes conquest, battlefront victory, and more generally how one dominates a weaker party. That’s the point. To “be a man” and to “be a warrior” have been synonymous for most of human history. It’s not just lust that leads conquering armies to rape everything in sight in the ancient world; indeed, it’s not about lust at all but power and dominance – or I suppose we should say the lust for the power to dominate.rome_rape

For the ancient societies that produced biblical texts, both “good sex” and “good worship” exhibited these dynamics of dominance and submission. As biblical scholar Stephen D. Moore succinctly puts it, sex in the ancient Mediterranean world was basically “eroticized inequality.”

Keep those ancient historical markers in mind and consider these more recent ones:

  • Christian men in the 19th century worried about the “feminization” of Christianity and tried to create a more manly and “muscular” depiction of Jesus.
  • The term “homosexuality” itself was coined by 19th century medical researchers to describe “inverted” men, men who acted as if their genitalia and emotional lives turned inward — just like women.
  • Prior to World War II in the U.S., only the “submissive” partner in male same-sex sexual acts was considered “homosexual,” because he was “acting like the woman.”
  • Emasculating African American men (treating them like women) has been a constant tool of white supremacy, from plantation slavery to anti-miscegenation laws and contemporary police brutality.
  • Joking about the supposedly tiny genitals of Asian men belongs to a larger project of feminizing them for racist purposes.
  • The Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq involved U.S. soldiers (both male and female) humiliating Iraqi prisoners with sex acts, basically making them submissive, “like women.”
  • After Gene Robinson’s election as bishop of New Hampshire, conservative religious objections exhibited a significant shift in rhetorical strategy and moved away from the story of Sodom’s destruction, and toward the supposed “gender complementarity” of human beings in the biblical creation accounts.
  • For decades, street violence and bullying has focused not on loving relationships but gender nonconformity, on “femmie fags” and “bull dykes” and even more on the transgender among us.
  • More than a few contemporary Christian men have now returned to the anxieties of their 19th century forebears and are deeply concerned once again about the “feminization” of Christianity and turning Jesus into a “sissy.”

Drop the “T”?

Far from it! It’s actually high time we put the “T” first in our social analysis, political activism, and theological reflection. Perhaps then all us (especially white men) would understand better what biblical theological Walter Wink called “the domination system.” That system – just as pervasive in our civic and religious institutions today as it was in the first century society of the Gospel writers – creates hierarchies of value and sustains them with violence, the very system Jesus sought to dismantle.

Drop the “T”?

No way. Not when so much of our distress — from racism and colonialism to militarism and ecological disaster — is fueled by the deeply entrenched denigration of all things feminine. Not when so many gay men think that “marriage equality” protects them from the patriarchal-industrial complex that no amount of “straight acting” will blunt. Not when white, affluent gay men have never paused to consider what their civil rights have to do with working class women of color.

Drop the “T”?

That’s a great idea if you want people to focus on trivialities (like who uses public bathrooms) rather than the urgent task of dismantling the systems that place men over women, white over black, straight over gay, and humans over all other animals and their ecosystems.

Drop the “T”?

Absolutely not. To the contrary, the peculiar faith of Christians would urge us to put the “T” first for a world of peace and justice in which everyone can thrive and flourish.

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