A Sermon for the Feast of St. Aelred
I was invited to celebrate the eucharist for Integrity USA at the Gay Days event at Disney World this past weekend. It was an honor to do so. Integrity is the LGBTQ ministry of the Episcopal Church. I have been a member for some 25 years now. It is banned in this Diocese of Central Florida where I reside which often confuses homophobia with the tenets of the faith. Hence, though the eucharist could not be held in a parish, that did not stop Integrity whose members simply rented a ball room at the Lake Buena Vista Palace Hotel and Sunday eucharist went on as usual.
As a part of the eucharist, I delivered the following sermon. I offer it for your consideration:
May I speak in the name of G-d who [+] creates, redeems and sustains us. AMEN.
It is no small consolation in this life to have someone you can unite with you in an intimate affection and the embrace of a holy love, someone in whom your spirit can rest, to whom you can pour out your soul, to whose pleasant exchanges, as to soothing songs, you can fly in sorrow… with whose spiritual kisses, as with remedial salves, you may draw out all the weariness of your restless anxieties. A man who can shed tears with you in your worries, be happy with you when things go well, search out with you the answers to your problems, whom with the ties of charity you can lead into the depths of your heart; . . . where the sweetness of the Spirit flows between you, where you so join yourself and cleave to him that soul mingles with soul and two become one.
These are the words of Aelred of Rivaulx whose feast we celebrate this day. The actual day assigned for the celebration of this saint’s memory on our church’s calendar is January 12. But given that this eucharist is celebrated on behalf of Integrity, USA, the LGBTQ ministry of the Episcopal Church, it is proper and fitting that Integrity’s patron saint be celebrated this day by the members of Integrity. I am indebted to the blogsite Sacred Pauses for much of the following.
Aelred seems, at first, an odd choice for our patron. He was a celibate, a monk in the Cistercian order living in Rievaulx, England. He entered the order in 1134 at the age of 24; in 1147 he became abbot of Rievaulx until his death 20 years later. In his Rule of Life for a Recluse, written for an unnamed hermitess, he warns in strident tones about safeguarding her virginity from defilement either with men or with women. He never felt his own sexuality was entirely in his control, either. As novice-master, responsible for the training of impressionable young men, he found it necessary to build a concealed tank in which he could immerse himself in icy waters to bridle his physical passions. Even in his final days, sick and aged, he felt his celibacy was in need of vigilant protection.
But Aelred had a deep appreciation for friendship, and by that is meant the particular love between two individuals. Our tradition teaches us much about universal charity, the love of all humankind. We hear far less about the worthy love between two people, as exemplified by the love between David and Jonathan, Naomi and Ruth, or between Jesus and John, the “beloved disciple.”
Of all the gifts Aelred has given the Church, the one most uniquely his is the joyous affirmation that we move toward God in and through our relationships with other people, not apart from or in spite of them. It is important, too, to remember who those particular individuals were, those whose love taught Aelred of the love of God. Aelred himself speaks of losing his heart to one boy and then another during his school days. He was a man of strong passions, who spoke openly of the men for whom he had deeply romantic attachments. After the death of one monk whom he clearly loved, he wrote:
The only one who would not be astonished to see Aelred living without Simon would be someone who did not know how pleasant it was for us to spend our life on earth together; how great a joy it would have been for us to journey to heaven in each other’s company . . . .Weep, then, not because Simon has been taken up to heaven, but because Aelred has been left on earth, alone.
So how did Aelred become the patron saint of Integrity?
At the 1985 General Convention in Anaheim, CA, at the suggestion of Howard Galley, Integrity/New York, the Standing Liturgical Commission recommended Aelred, along with a number of others, for inclusion in Lesser Feasts and Fasts. When this resolution came before the House of Bishops, one of the bishops arose to inform the house that, according to John Boswell, the eminent gay church historian, Aelred of Rievaulx had been gay--implying this might somehow disqualify his inclusion.
With little discussion the House of Bishops approved the others on the list but sent Aelred back to the commission for further study, a tactic anyone who has ever worked a General Convention on behalf of Integrity causes knows only too well. Amazingly, the Standing Liturgical Commission sent Aelred back to the House of Bishops the next day where, in spite of his being gay, and with the bishops' full knowledge that he was, he was admitted to the calendar.
Now what makes that story particularly interesting is the identity of the adamantly opposed bishop. His name was The Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong. Yes, that Bishop Spong, the Bishop Spong who would very soon thereafter come to a crushing recognition – that he had been wrong on gays and lesbians and that his opposition had harmed some of the most vulnerable members of the Body of Christ. Thereafter, Spong would make it his mission to dismantle the structures of discrimination which have prevented LGBTQ people from being ordained and from being married. Anyone who has been familiar with church politics in the past three decades knows how indebted Integrity is to Jack Spong.
I’m not coming back until they say they’re sorry….
When I was pondering my vocation to the priesthood years ago, I told a friend of mine that I was thinking about becoming a priest. His face clouded over and he looked away from me when he said, “The church has hurt me deeply. And I will never go back to the church until they admit they were wrong and tell me they are sorry.” Some 21 years later, I’ve never forgotten those words. And I have come to realize that my friend was right.
What Integrity is asking the Episcopal Church to do, along with our brothers and sisters in virtually every religious tradition around the world today, is very difficult. We are asking the church to do exactly what my friend said they must do - recognize that its teaching has been wrong and admit that it has harmed many children of G-d in the process. In the words of the confession we will use today, it means being able and willing to admit that “We have denied your goodness in each other, in ourselves, and in the world you have created.”
But that is only the first step. It also means, in the words of the Confession, that we must “repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.” Having lived through the painful process of desegregation in Central Florida in the 1960s, I know only too well how difficult it can be to admit that you were wrong, that your understandings, words and behavior have been harmful to others and to realize that you had no choice but to repent, to change your mind, change directions, change your life if you were to live a life of intellectual honesty and integrity. The cognitive dissonance that arises from such a realization is painful and incredibly disorienting. When one realizes that one of their basic ways of making sense of the world is no longer tenable, everything one knows about the world comes up for grabs.
Jack Spong provides a living example that such cognitive dissonance can be survived and can become the catalyst for repentance and new life. It has been one of my great privileges in life to know Jack Spong. And one of the most encouraging things I have ever heard him say was that the outcome of our long struggle for gay and lesbian equality has not been in doubt for some time now, only the time table for the goal of full inclusion.
The long arc of justice is getting closer
The road from here to that goal will no doubt be full of bumps and setbacks. But I have come to believe that the long arc of justice toward which Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed is coming closer and closer to reality for all of the children of G-d. Indeed, I find myself in the surprising position of believing I may actually see the dismantlement of LGBTQ discrimination in the wider society, perhaps even within my church, during my lifetime. For that I am grateful. My gratitude extends to people like Paul Woodrum, a founding father of Integrity whose eloquent collect we prayed this morning, people like Jack Spong, who found a way to admit he was wrong, say he was sorry, and whose theological depth and political determination has nudged the church ever closer to its date with the apology for which my friend awaits.
But it also extends to people like you whose hard work, sacrifice and endless hope provide the energy for the machinery of justice needed to achieve our final goal. And so I thank you for the opportunity to speak to you this day and for the even more rare opportunity to exercise my priestly ministry in a diocese where openly gay priests are forbidden to do so. I pray that G-d will bless you in your life journeys. And I pray that we may all be constantly aware of G-d’s presence with us – as close as the very breath that we breathe – as we continue our struggle for justice in our nation, our world and in our church.
I close with the words of our collect for the Feast Day of St. Aelred:
Pour into our hearts, O God, your Spirit's gift of love, that we, clasping each the other's hand, may share the joy of friendship, human and divine, and with your servant, Aelred, draw all to your community of love. We ask in the name of Jesus, our brother, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and forever. AMEN.
• Rev. Paul Woodrum, “How St. Aelred Became the Patron of Integrity”
• Sacred Pauses, Meditation and Prayers for Life’s Spiritual Highs website, found at http://sacredpauses.com/saint-aelred-the-patron-saint-of-integrity/ accessed June 5, 2011 quoting Aelred Squire, Aelred of Rievaulx (1981) and Raymond Maher, “Friendship,” Sermon delivered to Integrity/New York ( Jan. 14, 1988.)
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++