by Savitri Hensman, community worker, author of “Sexuality, Struggle and Saintliness” and LGBTI+ equality activist
The Most Revd Michael Curry is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. In 2018, watched by many millions across the world, he preached at the wedding of Harry Windsor and Meghan Markle. Dolly Parton is a talented, bestselling country and bluegrass singer and songwriter. She is also an actor and founded a non-profit organisation.
No-one would mistake one for the other.
He is black, she is white with a trademark blonde wig. Both are American and both are Christians committed to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) inclusion. Also, both have recently prompted numerous people in various countries to think afresh about marriage and love.
Two weddings and a lot of love. Storytelling is often a feature of Dolly Parton’s music. She takes this a step further in a new Netflix series, ‘Heartstrings’, with episodes based on several of her most memorable songs. At the beginning of ‘Two Doors Down’, the second episode, she describes how those she toured with included people of ‘different colours, gay, lesbian, transgender and all different faiths. But it didn’t matter, as long as we all loved each other and got along,…What it all comes down to is love is love, in road families and real families.’
In this funny, moving drama which she worked on with screenwriter Mark B Perry, she focuses on how a mother plans an elaborate wedding for her daughter which goes wildly awry. Gay and trans family members do not easily fit into her narrow view of how the world should be; there again, few of those gathered are quite as they seem. As the big moment approaches, numerous closets tumble open and various secrets are revealed – with an accident or two thrown into the mix!
This proved strong stuff for some of her more ‘conservative’ fans and a number walked out of a preview in the deep South, although others stayed. The episode works dramatically by keeping viewers guessing what will happen next whilst also providing some characters to whom they can easily relate. These, naturally, will be different for different audience members.
Yet whether or not immediately sympathetic, none of the bride’s family are mere caricatures. And those watching may, by the end, find their perspective broadened (I must admit I did). Change can happen when connections are made and others see, in another’s story, something which resonates with their own story or when they glimpse some shared values.
Whilst religion does not play a major part in the drama in any obvious sense, such themes as kindness, faithfulness, truth and forgiveness will be familiar to all Bible-readers. So will the motif of a party where neighbours are invited to set aside their hurt, rejoice with others and find healing and love again.
The real-life wedding in 2018 thankfully went far more smoothly.
In the years preceding this wedding, Bishop Michael had taken a fair amount of flak on behalf of his Church, based mainly in the USA, because of its stance on justice for all, including for LGBT people. As many will know, the Anglican Communion has many senior clergy who are not just non-affirming but who are actually openly hostile to the LGBT community. In dealing with these leaders he had been both gracious and firm, which we know reflects his own beliefs and approach.
His memorable sermon started with a theme set out in the Song of Songs, centred on passionate love. ‘There’s a certain sense in which, when you are loved, and you know it, when someone cares for you, and you know it, when you love and you show it – it actually feels right. There’s something right about it,’ he said. ‘Ultimately, the source of love is God himself: the source of all of our lives.’
This goes beyond the love of a couple for each other. ‘Christ’s ‘way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives, and it can change this world.’ It lights a fire that can feed the hungry, end war and lead to ‘a new heaven, a new earth, a new world, a new human family.’
Not everyone liked the style of his sermon. Others disagreed with his theology, which was focused on God’s realm on earth where all are valued. Yet his words touched and inspired many – non-Christians included. The high-profile occasion made it harder to marginalise his church’s attempts, however imperfectly, to put these ideals into practice.
Changing hearts, minds and practice
It is a huge challenge to transform Church communities, institutions and the wider world into a place where LGBT+ people (and everyone else) feel fully valued. There is a risk of feeling as if nothing we do makes much difference, instead of celebrating what has been achieved and building on these foundations.
Alternatively, we may each assume that the approach we tend to take, which plays to our strengths or works in the settings with which we are familiar, is best.
The prophetic tradition is important – for there are times when the powerful and privileged need to be jolted out of complacency. Yet even in the Hebrew Bible, prophets often switched back and forth between diplomacy and fiery rhetoric to try to shift society towards holiness and justice. Both there and in the New Testament, poetry and stories tap into the imagination of readers and listeners, calling into question who is an ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’.
While safe places to vent indignation and frustration are needed, so too are spaces to share different opinions on how common goals might be achieved. Whilst it is helpful for those seeking change to question, indeed challenge, one another it is also important to listen to answers and value what people do, as well as noting what they do not do.
Dolly Parton and Michael Curry would not be as effective as they currently are if each had tried to work for LGBT inclusion using the other’s methods.
Few of us communicate as skilfully as either of these two giants but perhaps all can learn something from them, including the value of prayerfulness. Using our varying gifts and opportunities for influence, we can share the Divine invitation to set aside prejudice, break down barriers and, even amidst sorrow and uncertainty, join in celebrating love.