Cover Story

For a liberal theological reading of the Bible

Print edition : January 10, 2014

Reverend Winnie Varghese.

Interview with Reverend Winnie Varghese, rector of St Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery in New York City.

REVEREND WINNIE VARGHESE, the Rector of St Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery in New York City, has been at the forefront of efforts to reach out to the Indian members of the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) community in the United States. As a priest, she believes that a liberal theological reading of the Bible is possible. The underlying message of liberation and compassion towards the marginalised sections of society is foregrounded in the teachings of Jesus Christ. Winnie Varghese is a native Texan with family roots in Kerala and religious roots in the Mar Thoma Church of Kerala. In an email interview to Frontline, she talked about how she had been able to reconcile her religious beliefs with her sexual orientation, her understanding of the impact of the Supreme Court verdict on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code and the ways in which liberal religious voices could be foregrounded in the debate on LGBT rights. Excerpts:

You decided to become a priest at the age of 17. Was there a conflict between your religious beliefs and your sexual orientation? How did you resolve it?

There was a conflict between the teachings of my church and the implications of my sexual orientation, but Christians understand their relationship with God as personal and rely for their primary compass to what is right or wrong by what they feel or know deeply. The life of prayer is designed to develop our capacity to listen for truth or God despite the chattering of society.

Christians, like all religious people, have a complicated history with sexuality. We have references in our sacred text, the Bible, to particular acts that are condemned, but they are alongside other actions that are condemned, that we today see differently. We no longer observe textual prescriptions of the Bible on keeping slaves, wearing jewellery, hair length, dietary restrictions, and so on. Most Christians understand the text to be culturally bound and to point to guidelines for ethical living while containing some perspectives we find archaic today. That act of interpretation is the work of religious people in every generation. We believe God speaks through the text, but the text is not God.

I was 17 at the height of the AIDS [acquired immune deficiency syndrome] crisis and the rise in the visibility of lesbian and gay people in the U.S. as a result of the activism for medical research and the care for people dying of AIDS. One of the results of that movement was that mainstream Christians had to consider what the compassionate approach was to these particular people who were suffering. Our tradition teaches us that God is revealed in the sick, the poor and the imprisoned, and we encounter God in our service to these people.

It was a rich and conflicted time, and the value and depth of same-sex relationships were made visible to the larger culture and the Church.

At that time, the Church began to publicly consider what marriage was for and what defined it as so many marriages were ending in divorce. Companionship and mutuality in marriage became primary, as opposed to obedience, inheritance and tradition. The cumulative effect of the shift in understanding of marriage and the increasing visibility of queer people is that marriage, which would have been a convenient place for lesbian and gay persons to hide their sexual orientation or a socially acceptable cover for other secret relationships, began to be understood as primarily a site for mutually fulfilling relationships.

So, when I was becoming aware of my identity, in another generation it might have meant nothing in my religious community if I married a man. But once mutuality in relationship is introduced, whether that involves a sexual component or not, the requirements for marriage are redefined and sexual orientation becomes an important factor. Christianity values love highly as indicative and illustrative of God’s active engagement in our lives, historically demonstrated between teacher and followers or parent and child—and now love, mutuality and companionship are considered foundational in marriage/partnership.

That created a conflict for me. I wasn’t sure at the time how the societal expectations for relationship/marriage could be reconciled with the requirements of my faith, which for me meant an honesty and integrity about my sexual orientation that I worried would be costly.

I don’t know that I felt the need to resolve this conflict, it was all theoretical to me at the time, but I had been taught that our relationship with the divine is internally understood, and my emerging self-understanding never felt in conflict with my sense of God’s love for God’s creation, including me. My sexual orientation never felt external or influenced by others. I never felt pressured to act on it or not in relationship. The only conflict I felt was that if I were honest about who I knew myself to be, regardless of my relationship status, religious leaders would generate conflict in my life.

Christians are called to live with integrity and to be wary of societal structures or definitions that restrict the thriving of any living thing, so we are hard-wired to be suspicious of things considered “good for society” when they marginalise anyone. We call that “the way of the world or the flesh”, which we believe Jesus came to overturn. Because of that critique built into the Bible and the tradition, we are well-positioned to challenge societal norms.

How did spirituality inform your choices as an activist working for gay rights and forging alliances with other activists?

The Christian faith, through the teachings of Jesus Christ, himself a person on the margins of society of his times, teaches us to appreciate the presence of God among the marginalised and victimised sections of society. As a religious person, many political and social activist groups are suspicious of my motives, and I can respect that considering the history of all dominant religious systems, but my faith leads me to work for the liberation of all persons. I believe it is the message of Jesus through the Gospels.

How was the experience of counselling gay members of the Indian-American community? What were some of the major challenges specific to that sociocultural context?

I have talked with Indians living in the U.S. and U.S.-born Indians who are gay or lesbian or have family or friends who are gay, lesbian or bisexual about their struggles within their families and communities to both indicate the respect they have for their families and their heritage and live freely as who they are. The challenges are not truly unique, but as a minority community in the U.S., it is a comfort to talk with people who have some shared understanding of the inner conflict we might feel about making choices that are difficult for our families to accept.

Interestingly, I have comparable conversations with Indians in the U.S. who are marrying “out” of their communities or picking “alternative” career paths. There is a sense of family norms defined by the “Indian” tradition, which is not the same as middle-class norms in the U.S. In the U.S., there is more of a sense of families defining their own “norm” from generation to generation, and the role of family members is to love one another and try to understand the differences. That said, I regularly meet with Americans of all kinds who are struggling to be “out” in their families and facing a lot of judgment or rejection in their families. I know inclusion and rejection of LGBT family members is also true in India, but for many of us who are from immigrant families, our sense of what is “traditional” or “Indian” might be more rigid than our peers in India, and there is a perception of pressure to conform to parental values as a cultural or religious pressure to accept or not accept our Indian heritage. That is a particularly painful conversation for many and a reason that many stay closeted, or marry for convenience to meet family expectations.

I also know many Indians for whom being gay, lesbian or bisexual or having family members who are, is not a challenging issue at all. They accept one another easily.

Specifically in the role of counselling, I understand my role as to help counsellees consider all the factors in the decisions they are making or on the issue they are trying to resolve and to provide some perspective on the diversity of teachings our faith offers so that they can find the best way forward for themselves.

As a priest of a church in New York, how are you trying to engage with the more conservative schools of thought in Christianity?

I am a priest in the St Mark’s in-the-Bowery church in New York. Our church is very diverse in every way throughout the U.S. and throughout the world. We do not believe everyone has to agree to worship together. We believe unity is a physical reality—we worship together—more than an intellectual reality—we do not have to agree on all issues.

Interestingly, as more and more gay and lesbian people are open with their loved ones about their lives, we find that there is more acceptance across the country. I think the witness of people living ordinary or extraordinary lives in almost every community in the nation is challenging those who are not interested in the political or academic arguments. As Christians, we are commanded to love one another and not to judge one another.

Even the most conservative Christian would have to agree that those are basic commandments. Everything else follows from them. Unless someone is causing harm, violence and exploitation, we are challenged to examine ourselves when someone’s behaviour causes us to feel judgmental.

Do you see such efforts happening in India? Are there possibilities of engagement between the liberal and conservative religious voices?

I have colleagues [in India] who are leading conversations among religious people. I think it is difficult for Christians to stake a claim in public conversation about moral or ethical values in India. I understand the history that makes this so, but I think it is too simple to dismiss Christians as foreign. It is a convenient tool of the powerful to dismiss an entire category of people for their faith. That said, I think modern, secular India conflates religious with conservative, and although people might make personal devotions or pilgrimages and honour their ancestral practices, a robust intellectual engagement of religious life seems lacking, or I have not encountered it. I assume it has to do with avoiding the conflict or division assumed in a religiously diverse context, but I think it is too bad. It concedes public religious life to thugs and fools and leaves a void where Indian society could offer a uniquely robust intellectual contribution.

What emotional impact will the recent Supreme Court judgment in India re-criminalising homosexuality have on the LGBT community?

I’ve been watching the coverage on social media, and I think when people from Kerala to Manipur are marching in the streets, we have a movement of people not willing to hide anymore, and not scared of being public. I think people are disappointed but also outraged, and this might become a pivotal moment in the LGBT movement in India. I love the “377, Quit India” signs. The inflammatory faux anti-colonial rhetoric used to marginalise Christians or paint any social justice movement as foreign influenced is “outed” by this movement. What could be more foreign than the British penal code?

What strategies do you think liberal voices within religion could adopt, especially in the Indian context, to create an inclusive society sensitive to the needs of sexual minorities?

I suspect, like in the U.S., the Indian Constitution can be read progressively to support the idea of an inclusive society. The LGBT movement, like the Civil Rights movement, is about securing the freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution. It is a challenge for marginalised communities to seek and honour their dignity as equal citizens. In addition, protections in employment, education and other sectors must be built into the law where discrimination has become a social norm. As much as I like to believe religious communities can and should lead movements for social justice, I think the truth is that we lag behind. As society changes, we shift as well. Our norms change to accommodate all kinds of practices that our texts decry as evil, like usury or slavery. Our norms change. For example, the Bible decries usury, but we live in a society that makes loans. The Bible supports slavery, but we believe slavery is unjust. We can read hate or love into our texts.

Media can facilitate liberal voices, and that is useful for public perceptions and to invite those who feel they will not be accepted in a religious community to join.

If you are a religious person, I don’t know of any tradition that can tell you are not practising if you say you are. Religious leaders have the least freedom to speak out on controversial issues; we can be silenced. People who are not ordained or working for religious institutions, as believers in a faith, you can challenge stereotypes that constitute tradition in religious practices. I hope you will.