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Book review: Queer Redemption: How queerness changes everything we thought we knew about Christianity by Charlie Bell

03 May 2024

More history would help an ambitious project, Adrian Thatcher finds

CHARLIE BELL is at his exasperated best when he claims for LGBTIQ people: “We have spent far too long being apologetic, . . . playing with exhausted material and not nearly enough time listening to the reality of queer lives within the church.” Queer people are holy and gifted. The Church needs them badly. It should stop debating whether they might be grudgingly accepted as honorary heterosexuals, and allow queer experiences of God to resonate throughout the Church, bringing renewal to the Church’s understanding of — well, everything: faith, doctrine, ecclesiology, and ethics, especially the doctrine of (heterosexual) marriage.

So far, so good. All this needs to be said. But Christians gay and straight may wonder whether the book gets very far in achieving its aims. The sub-title (. . . everything we thought we knew . . .) signals a vast undertaking. Anglicans have recently neglected the entire topic of doctrinal and moral change and how it comes about. There is little here to address this hiatus. There is much assertion (and repetition) in the book, but little theology or history.

Drawing more on these would provide a firmer place from which Bell’s many just critiques of theological and institutional conservatism in the Church of England could tellingly proceed. Readers may not be surprised, for example, to discover that “radical equality is of God.” But it may be necessary to move beyond assertion to engagement with the history and theology that deny it before moulding both into a more just and compassionate synthesis.

There is a potentially fruitful notion of “Catholic Queering — a commitment to the catholic faith . . . that does not fear for the collapse of that faith if questions are asked of it”. But little more is heard of it. If “queer” stands as a synonym for LGBTIQ, and “queering” Christianity means the activity of reassessing the faith from the many perspectives of queer people, then the enterprise of queering is clear and necessary.

But some of the changes or reorientations that Bell wants, like the primacy of relationship in sexual ethics and marriage (chapter 4), can already be found in (some versions of) the doctrine of the Trinity without queering it at all. If he wants to draw on the labyrinthine and disruptive strands of queer theory and theology, a different book may be needed. Even then, his opponents (everywhere present in the book) are likely to run scared.

Bell is an ally among Christians labouring for a different and inclusive Church in which heterosexual norms do not measure who is to be included. But there may be better ways of arguing for it.

Dr Adrian Thatcher is Honorary Professor of Theology and Religion in the University of Exeter, and Editor of
Modern Believing.

Queer Redemption: How queerness changes everything we thought we knew about Christianity
Charlie Bell
DLT £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.29

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