A Christian looks back on Pride: 'I was in hell'

In January 2000, two American Episcopal priests traveled to Singapore to be consecrated as missionary bishops by the Anglican primates of Rwanda and Southeast Asia. The consecration was a reaction to the growing acceptance of homosexuality in the more liberal Episcopal church.

My home parish, St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, exemplified this trend. As a sexually active gay man who aspired to the priesthood, I reasoned that these bishops and I were “enemies.” So I did the Christian thing and prayed for them.

Hell is being driven by one’s desires and fantasies and being told that to deny them is to deny the only joy there is, the joy that defines your whole being.

St. Gregory’s church was big on praying for our enemies; you should have seen us on 9/11.

‘Lord, have mercy’

One Sunday I took my prayers public. I stood vested as a deacon in the morning liturgy and raised my hands upward, mentioning the two bishops by name and asking the congregation to pray that they receive God’s blessing and guidance.

In essence this meant “if they’re wrong, God help them; if they’re right, God advance them,” to which the congregation was meant to respond “Lord, have mercy.”

Before they could, a priest stepped forward to the middle of the room and loudly appended his own prayer to mine: “and for their conversion!”

“Lord, have mercy,” replied the congregation.

In an extended email conversation among the liturgical staff after that event, it became evident that this priest (one of the two rectors of the church) thought my prayer misguided: They were wrong and we were right. No divine “guidance” was necessary.

This priest had just come out himself and had obviously embraced the current gay orthodoxy: These two men wanted to send us all back to the dark ages, and we needed them to be enlightened. We were called to enlighten them.

I was familiar with this view. Five or six years earlier, I’d had a conversation with my boss at the Episcopal Church Center in New York, where I was working as an administrative assistant. He was a gay man (he lived with his clergy “spouse”) whose work brought him into regular contact with older, more traditional members of the church leadership. I asked him how we as gay Christians could make room for those who disagree with us. Shouldn’t we as gay folks be less confrontational about our personal lives, so as to follow St. Paul’s admonition not to scandalize each other?

The answer was a clear “no.” There was no room for “homophobes” in the church. In the words of Barbara Harris, the first female bishop in the Episcopal church, “Let them go.” Or, “Goodbye and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

But I had begun to realize that this view conflicted with my desire to live as an orthodox (small “o”) Christian.

‘You are mad, you are not like us’

My misgivings did not go unnoticed. A few months after the incident, the other rector of our parish asked me point-blank why I wanted to be in communion with those who didn’t want to be in communion with me. And why, for that matter, was I withdrawing from those who did want to be in communion with me?

But to me it was clear that these old friends and familiar faces were the ones rejecting me. Not for my sexuality but rather for the liberal heresy of believing in the Bible and the created order of things, of believing in a bodily crucified and bodily resurrected Christ.

Abba Anthony of Egypt once said: “A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying: ‘You are mad, you are not like us.’”

I was mad in their eyes. They merely wanted to help me be who I was. But the words of Fr. Alexander Schmemann came to mind: “Salvation is not only not identical with help, but is, in fact, opposed to it.”

I managed to stay in the Episcopal Church until Easter 2002. In July of that year I was chrismated into the Orthodox Church.

In August 2004 the Episcopal Church confirmed Gene Robinson as the first openly non-celibate gay man to serve as bishop. He would live in the bishop’s residence with his sexual partner. This only confirmed my decision to walk away. I was far from alone: Hundreds of parishes left the church, eventually leading to schism within the Anglican Communion.

And yet Canon Robinson downplayed the scandal this would cause. He went on CNN and predicted that his election would bring hundreds of people into a church that they now saw as welcoming and inclusive.

I have to admit, part of me could see the appeal of his vision. The chance to attend a rite with one’s lover, to sit there and enjoy the music, to be told God loves you, and to hear a sermon about “green ecology” and “social justice” and “liberal politics” would be a lovely way to spend a Sunday morning, followed by coffee and maybe brunch with friends at some local eatery. We’d all go home and feel much more affirmed.

And what’s wrong with a little affirmation?

‘I was in hell. I know what hell is.’

The same sophisticated, modern thinking that has given us polyamory and unlimited, near-instantaneous access to pornography has also taught us that ancient cultures were horribly backward in their understanding of sex and sexuality.

It is so painfully obvious that the aberration of Judeo-Christian ethics must be stopped that some folks will go so far as to imply that such morals are not part of the faith at all — and were never intended to be included in the “enlightened” teachings of Jesus.

There is, however, another view: In 1956, Eugene Rose, a a 22-year-old gay man living in San Francisco, wrote a letter to a friend, which a 2001 article in Pomona College magazine quotes:

… my mother has discovered, rather illegitimately (I shall tell you of it later) that I am homosexual; if you have not surmised the fact already, it is time you know of it. I have not quite been kicked out of the house, but I probably shall not return after September. My mother was quite hysterical, but my father persuaded her that I am only “sick.” I have agreed to go to my friend’s psychiatrist in S.F., which I was rather interested in doing for other reasons, at parental expense.

I suppose you have also surmised by now that I shall live this summer, and sleep, with a young man I love, and who loves me.

The article goes on to recount Rose’s conversion:

It was Rose’s gay partner in San Francisco who introduced him to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. But while Rose was immersing himself in the mystique of ancient Orthodoxy, his partner, who had written a book about the Church, was losing interest in it. Soon the Church took Rose wholly, and he and his partner split up. A social doctrine adopted by the Council of Bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate last year describes homosexuality as “a sinful injury to human nature” to be “treated by sacraments, prayer, fasting, repentance and the reading of the Holy Scriptures.”

Referring to his young adult years before he became fully involved in the Orthodox Church, Rose once said: “I was in hell. I know what hell is.”

I was in hell. I know what hell is. I stand by those words of the man who became Fr. Seraphim.

This hell is being driven by one’s hormones and believing that to deny them is unhealthy.

Hell is being driven by one’s desires and fantasies and believing that to deny them is to deny the only joy there is, the joy that defines your whole being.

Hell is a fine San Francisco morning standing in one’s bedroom while an orgy takes place in the hallway outside.

Hell is a foggy San Francisco afternoon standing in a room full of men involved in various actions with each other — and somewhere a voice tells you it’s all wrong, but you don’t know what to do.

Hell is a balmy evening on a back porch listening to ten gay men in the middle of the most liberal Episcopal diocese in the country insist that all churches are homophobic and evil.

Hell is being told in a Sunday sermon that Jesus died in 1st-century Judea, that Jesus isn’t alive, that Jesus isn’t coming back, and that he would want you to “follow your bliss” to find the will of God in your life — all of this when you know now that your “bliss” makes you more depressed every time you indulge in it.

Hell is a “Pride Parade” where no one looks at you, where no one returns your compliments, where no one bothers to notice you — on a day when egos are supposed to be full and fluffy, hell is having one’s ego bashed.

Hell is knowing that at this point, someone reading this essay will say “Oh, he’s ugly and bitter, that’s all.”

Hell is watching your friends die for the sake of their own freedom to damn themselves — and hearing them cry, “I didn’t do anything to deserve this. … God is hateful.”

Hell is knowing that there is the slightest possibility that these “Jesus Seminar” folks and these other “new theologians” are wrong. That 2,000+ years of orthodox Christians are right: What if gay sex is evil?

Hell is also standing next to those who end that conversation by saying, “Oh, shut up.”

Hell is being told that all the Gospel is wrong — millennia of your brothers and sisters in the faith were wrong — that Jesus loves you just as you are and no change is required, we’ll just throw out everything that disagrees with that.

Hell is being told that this nihilism and denial of any and all truth are exactly what the church is supposed to be — liberating us from outdated notions of sin and justice.

Hell is finding out that no one really wants “a relationship,” no matter how much they want it blessed or accepted; rather just the ease of sex, the right to demand acceptance of their neighbors, and the ability to collect insurance. They’d also like it to be open, please, not monogamous, with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and weekends free to “play around.” And don’t judge us, please.

Hell is standing in the middle of the most gay-friendly city in the country — perhaps the world — and praying, please God, there must be something more than this.

Or maybe hell is belonging to a church that just pats you on the head and says, “That’s OK, dear.”

Hell welcomes you in from the cold by leaving all the windows and doors wide open and turning off the heat (too great a change can be a shock, you know).

Hell is pretending that “we value every person and support a widely diverse community” means anything other than “we have no more concern for your soul than the local Denny’s.”

By the grace of God, I escaped this hell. In this season of misguided “pride,” my prayer is that those still suffering as I did find their way out as well.

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