Priest unmasked

The Rev. Catherine Healy

The Murray Fellows Initiative, launched to provide mentorship to young LGBTQ adults considering Christian ministry, is launching out of the Church of St. Paul & the Redeemer and accepting applications through June 1.

Participants will be matched with mentors who are similar in vocation. They will meet one-on-one on a monthly basis, with the entire cohort meeting every month for peer support and to listen to guest speakers, who will discuss topics like ordination as a transgender person, the experience of being a queer army chaplain or changing from a very conservative faith tradition to a more accepting one.

The program is named for the Rev. Pauli Murray, who was genderqueer and the first Black woman ordained in the Episcopal Church.

The program is for a year-to-year cohort of six, with in-person retreats at the beginning of the program in September and at the end in May, and is geared towards supporting LGBTQ young adults interested in pursuing Christian ministry.

"That can look like a lot of different things," said the Rev. Catherine Healy, rector of St. Paul & the Redeemer, 4945 S. Dorchester Ave., who will direct the initiative. "It can look like becoming a pastor and pursuing ordained ministry. It can look like having a vocation in the church for music or working with children and youth. But really the goal is to help young adults who may not see a place for themselves in the church, and particularly church leadership, connect with older mentors who have sort of walked the same road."

Healy grew up Catholic in Uptown but felt the call as a teenager. "I have always had a very strong connection to the sacraments and a desire to share them with people and help them find their way towards God," she said.

She did not, however, seriously think about becoming a nun and not consider ordination as a theoretical option as a teen, only conceptualizing leaving Catholicism once she was in college, at secular Swarthmore outside of Philadelphia, where she became an Episcopalian: "It felt like a way to hold onto everything that I had loved and found beautiful and true in the Catholic Church, but I feel like the Episcopal Church is more democratic and allows more people to express the gifts that God has given them."

In the Episcopalian Church, she could become a priest, and be a priest married to a woman. She was also able to hold onto what she had found true in her prior experience of Christianity: the person of Jesus and people's ability to connect to God through sacramental expression, as well as deliberate action in gathering together for worship — all of it in a church that welcomed her for who she is.

"That's sort of what is so important to me about the recognition of queer people's access of marriage and holy orders, is that we believe that those sacramental rites do something, that they are an act of God's meeting humanity," she said. "How can we withhold those moments of interaction with the divine from anyone?"

Having had a mentor who had a life experience like hers would have been meaningful as she was considering ministry, as would have having had queer peers at that time who were asking the same questions as her.

"I think often queer people of faith feel like they don't quite belong in faith communities or the queer community," she said. "Often in faith communities — sometimes especially in progressive faith communities — queer people are treated as a novelty item or sort of a diversity token. They're not necessarily treated as full members of the community with anything universal to say. They're invited to speak about queer issues, but not about human issues. And in queer communities, there is for good reason often so much hostility to any kind of religious expression."

But Healy said that her identity has taught her "that the human experience is much more complicated, deeper and unknowable than we often consider it to be."

"I think the newest generation of queer people has taught us so much about the infinite complexity of gender among human beings in general," she said. "Christian tradition has a long, long tradition of coming right up against the ineffability of God. We know, ultimately, that no language is going to be precise enough to describe the truth of the divine. We know that, and yet we keep trying, and it is so easy for us to pigeonhole God and make God small enough to fit into our understanding, and I see a lot of that around gender and sexuality."

Christendom, of course, has a long and complicated history with gender and sexuality. Genesis includes an account of God crafting binary man and woman, the latter from the former's rib. But Healy said that is one of several stories involving gender in the Bible, which all together paint a much more complicated picture.

In Acts, the first New Testament book after the Gospels, Philip baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch who, as Healy said, "For forces outside himself has this gender identity and expression that is marginalized and demeaned." But the apostle helps him understand the scripture and "that there is a place for him within this new expression of faith in which he has this radical equality to every other person of every other gender."

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes, "In Christ, there is neither male nor female."

"Those distinctions don't matter the way that they may have once," Healy said, "because the differences between us pale in the face of what unites us, which is our allegiance to Jesus Christ. Because our faith, and because the gift of Jesus to us makes us all equal, then it's no longer beneficial for us to engage in these human hierarchies of 'Which gender is the best one? Which genders count?' Those questions don't really matter or make any sense in the light of the message of the New Testament."

Practically all Christian denominations in the United States have been experiencing membership declines for a number of years now. While Healy observed that she is not the first to say this, she said she does not think Christianity is in decline.

"I think the particular American cultural moment of imperial Christendom is declining, and the church finds new expressions in every generation and every culture," she said. "The church a generation from now is not going to look like the one we have now. Probably a lot of the institutions we have built up around American Christianity will fail, but that doesn't mean that Christianity itself will disappear."

She hopes, then, that the Murray Fellows Initiative will raise a generation of "flexible and dynamic leaders" who focus on and are committed to truth in order to weather church building closures. She imagines they might come to see the church as coming to serve the buildings rather than the real mission.

"At St. Paul & the Redeemer, we've been really fortunate to avoid a lot of that divine," Healy said. "I hope that this program will help us share our resources with people who need them and have the power to make an impact on the next generation of the church."

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.