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Queer, a word reclaimed

21 April 2008

It’s used here in a special sense, Hugh Rayment-Pickard finds — not to say odd

Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western body
Gerard Loughlin, editor

Blackwell £24.99 pbk (978-0-631-21608-7)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

ONE OF the distinctive features of modern Christian thought has been the development of micro-theologies to explore the religious experience and perspectives of particular groups: liberation theology, feminist theology, black theology, urban theology, rural theology, lesbian and gay theologies. This volume brings together a collection of distinguished theologians to explore another one: queer theology.

The principal strategy of the book, particularly of its editor, is to claim that Christian orthodoxy has been queer since the very beginning. The term “queer” is used here in a very particular and politicised sense: it refers not only to homosexuality, but to everything that diverges from the “norm”. So queer theology is more than “gay theology”: it is a theology for all the marginalised.

The book makes the case for the queerness of the Trinity, the incarnation, and of Christ. Indeed, it claims that the whole of Christian theology is queer, in the sense of being strange or odd.

It is one thing to make a bold claim, but another to make it stick. While these essays are simulating and provocative reading, I was not convinced that the general notion of “queerness” adds very much to theology. Whether or not something seems normal or queer depends very much upon one’s situation, and the prevailing mores of society. Whether theology is queer is essentially a matter of opinion: you may say it is; I may say otherwise.

The book also takes the queerness of Christianity as an automatic virtue. Many outside the Churches would agree that Christianity is odd, but would not mean it as a compli-ment. And one of the queer things about Christianity has been its repressive attitude to sexuality. Secular gays may well judge the Churches to be queer in the sense of being perverse and destructive. They may argue that the civic emancipation of gay people has come from a normal, secular passion for justice, universal human rights, and social equality.

It is strange that this book pays so little respect to the mainstream secular forces that have been instrumental in shaping the freedoms achieved for oppressed groups over the past 50 years. A book called Queer Theology would not exist were it not for external pressure that has been brought to bear on the Churches.

Some of the contributors can see no desirable alliance between the Enlightenment quest for rights and the Churches’ desire for the Kingdom. Gavin D’Costa describes secular arguments for equal rights as “irrelevant”; Elizabeth Stuart says that “the baptised belong to another world.”

Not all the essays want to place Christian thought in a self-imposed ghetto. James Alison writes impressively about the impact that the secular “gay thing” has had upon the Roman Catholic Church. Jane Shaw’s historical essay shows how, for good and ill, modern science has led the Churches in thinking about gender roles and identities. Kathy Rudi laments the fact that “a huge schism seems to exist between secular queers and religious queers.”

This is an ambitious and challenging collection of essays that will certainly get the reader thinking, but perhaps not always agreeing.

The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is Vicar of St Clement’s, Notting Dale, and St James’s, Norlands, in London.

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