IAM at 25: Faith Partnerships (Part 2)

Since our founding in 1995, a central part of IAM’s identity has been working with select denominations, leadership and future clergy in South Africa advocating for the recognition and celebration of LGBTIQ+ people.  In our work with our faith partners over the years, IAM has choosen to engage in dialogue as a primary driver of behavioural change, using the Bible and faith to counter and create meaningful alternatives to harmful religious fundamentalism. In this post (part 2 of 2), we look at the current entry points IAM is engaging with to broaden the discussion with our faith partners, some of the tools that IAM has created and spaces we’ve convened to work with our faith partners, and take a look into what the future holds for LGBTIQ+ advocacy in faith communities.

Finding the entry points for dialogue within our faith partners

Over the past 25 years IAM observed how monolithic views on gender and sexuality are gradually shifting in faith communities through slow dialogue processes. Gratefully, faith communities have been in conversation with Gay and Lesbian people for years.  The sad implication of this dialogue is that transgender, bisexual and intersex people are often excluded.

There is a slow opening in conversations at local congregation levels where workshop participants want to know more about the stories of transgender, bisexual and intersex people. This type of curiosity often leads to either a reaffirmation of exclusionary and discriminatory belief systems or perhaps is the seedbed towards sustainable transformation. These curious individuals, often small in numbers, become our point of contact and information in our work in select denominations. Their behavioural change transforms into preparation and action stages that inform local clergy and congregation about IAM. This will sometimes secure an invitation for a process of gender and sexuality conscientisation to start in a faith community.

At the institutional decision-making level (which depending on a denomination tradition happens every 2 – 4 years) gay and lesbian conversations still dominate the inclusion of the wider queer community. The inability to open the conversation at decision-making levels can be attributed to a variety of reasons.

 

Learning a new language

One of these reasons could be ascribed to language. In IAM’s toolkit, Dialogue for Transformation, the importance of language is highlighted in the dialogue process between conversation partners. Those who hold the most language hold the most power. For this reason, unpacking sex, gender, and sexuality terminologies in workshops enables participants to participate as equals with the same information. This lays the groundwork for the Reading the Bible Together Process, which seeks to enable ordinary and expert readers to read biblical texts that are often used to discriminate against LGBTIQ+ people, in an embodied way. This process is not only aimed at raising awareness of discrimination based on the biblical text. It also aims to empower LGBTIQ+ people to read and interpret texts that affirm their SOGIESC and ignite their faith to contribute to political will and voice within faith communities.

 

Creating liberative spaces for organizing and mobilisation

The Queer and Ally Think Tank of 2015 and 2017 became spaces for LGBTIQ+ people and allies to determine the agenda in the church. Often, LGBTIQ+ people are talked about in church meetings without being allowed to participate in these conversations. In 2015 IAM brought clergy and lay leaders of select denominations together to learn how to work ecumenically through sharing of stories and strategies. In 2017 IAM gathered another group of participants from various denominations to learn from the 2015 Think Tank and continue to build on milestones that were accomplished. Various initiatives developed from these Think Tanks and existing projects were critiqued and further enhanced.

Establishing collaborative projects and to support higher learning institutions like Stellenbosch University, the University of KwaZulu-Natal, College of the Transfiguration, Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary, and the University of Western Cape provide spaces for cross-pollination of ideas and strategies, access to research and theological formation. This in return influences the field of theological research and formation of theological students pertaining to SOGIESC of LGBTIQ+ persons.  What these Think Tanks focused on until now was a theological framework and praxis. In our work at IAM we are realising that theology is one part of the framework. For the foreseeable future various other frameworks like human rights and health will become key in advocacy in faith communities. Examples of the importance of the legal rights framework is evident in IAM’s involvement in supporting Ecclesia De Lange in her legal case against the Methodist Church in Southern Africa and 11 congregants against the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa. Legal cases, some would argue, creates more division in faith communities. However, church decision-making bodies sometimes make errors on procedural grounds with human rights implications and this lays the foundation for a legal matter which could be utilised to build case law in constitutional democracies. From an LGBTIQ+ and ally viewpoint advocacy at times reaches a deadlock that needs to be tested in courtrooms. Paving the way towards a new type of dialogue where process values becomes pivotal for the way forward.

Within these processes dialogue plays a key function between LGBTIQ+ persons, allies, and faith communities. As in The Two Popes, awareness undergoes various stations of behavioural change within this process. This is especially evident when faced with an impasse. Our collective values become the guide and reminds everyone involved to explore multiple strategies. This brings us to a final question.

 

What does the future hold for LGBTIQ+ advocacy in faith communities?

The nature of IAM’s advocacy work is slowly changing through LGBTIQ+ people discovering their voice and agency by claiming their right to freedom of religion and association as stipulated in the constitution of South Africa. Resulting in defiance of historical heteronormative gender and sexual code structures. 

LGBTIQ+ people and allies ask questions to future type of ministries through their embodied presence in faith communities:

  • How do we develop local terminologies of SOGIESC that relates to hearts and minds of faith communities that open doors?
  • What sort of theologies could be developed to be inclusive and affirming of the Sexual Reproductive Health of LGBTIQ+ people?
  • Reimagining inclusive and affirming Pastoral Caregiving and support to persons going through Gender affirming Surgery?
  • Support for Blessing of Queer Marriages in faith spaces?
  • Understanding the unique realities of diverse Families and child-rearing

 

During the past 25 years, IAM developed a unique approach to dialogue that transforms faith communities to become inclusive and affirming towards LGBTIQ+ people. This process, however, is never static – on the contrary, incremental gains are often offset with setbacks as communities grapple with their underpinning belief systems and corresponding structures. Over the next few weeks, we’ll share voices from a number of IAM’s faith partners over the years speaking about their personal and denominational journeys with the SOGIESC of LGBTIQ+ people. In their journey you might find echoes of the journey of the two Popes of the film. They remind us that behavioural change is a slow process, and that it can take many, many attempts to break through discriminatory structures that are part of the identity of faith communities.

This post is part 2 of 2 – read the first part of the post here.