Sunday 8 May 2016

Heritage Spotlight : The Religious Archives Network

Today’s Heritage Spotlight looks at an online archive, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Religious Archive Network (LGBT-RAN). Its main aim, as given in its mission statement, is to co-ordinate and support “the identification, collection and preservation of personal papers and organisational records from [lgbt] religious movements. To encourage scholarly research and historical study of these important movements for social change.”

What the LGBT-RAN does not do is go into detail about the much-deplored homophobia of various religions over past centuries and concentrates very much on “living testimony” and the development of the present state of lgbt participation in all faiths.

The archives began in 2001 as a project created by the Chicago Theological Seminary. The Seminary was Chicago’s first higher education institution, founded in 1855. It has a long history of openness and acceptance of diversity (it was the first seminary to award an Honorary Doctorate of Divinity to Rev. Martin Luther King jr, in 1957). Since 1991 it has run an lgbt studies programme.

The founder and co-ordinator of LGBT-RAN is Mark Bowman (b.1951) who has been involved in the recognition and acceptance of lgbt religious people within the lgbt and religious communities since 1980. His early work was with Affirmation, the lgbt group within the US United Methodist Church.

The Chicago Theological Seminary put together a team of leading historians and activists in the religious lgbt community to organise the LGBT-RAN, the Chair of the committee being the Seminary’s own Library Director, Rev. Dr. Neil Gerdes. The initial funding for the project came from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, the Riverside Church Sharing Fund, and the United Church of Christ’s Wider Church Ministries.

From 2008 LGBT-RAN has been run by the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at Berkeley, California. Virtually as old as the LGBT-RAN itself, the Center was founded in 2000 at Berkeley’s Pacific School of Religion.

The largest section of LGBT-RAN is the Profiles Gallery. Here are given the biographical information of over 400 members of the lgbt community from recent history and the present, and from many faiths and spiritualities. Not all of them are ordained. The Profiles include people like the writer Christopher Isherwood and the pioneering campaigners Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. Even the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence has a representative in the profiles.

If there’s one criticism I could make about the archive is that it does not contain any profile of people in the religious lgbt community who have shown us the bad side of the coin. There are several Roman Catholic cardinals and priests who have been guilty of sexual abuse in the past hundred years. There’s nothing about them. Their story is as much a part of our own as is that of the pioneers. Similarly with other people who have blackened the name of religion in recent years. LGBT-RAN gives the impression that it is only concerned with the lives of “saints” and not the “sinners”. Unfortunately, LGBT-RAN falls into the common trap among lgbt heritage organisations, including LGBT History Month, of concentrating on how much the lgbt community has been a victim and not enough on how many great achievements in the wider world outside the gay rights movement it has achieved.

Among the many denominations represented in the Profiles Gallery are individuals from all the established faiths (e.g. the Anglican priest Rev. Diarmaid MacCulloch, one of my favourite historians, and Father Mychal Judge, the Catholic priest who was the first recorded victim of 9/11). Founders of lgbt churches are inevitably included (Rev. Troy Perry of the Metropolitan Community Church, and Rev. Robert Mary Clement of the Church of the Beloved Disciple). There are also a good representation of people from the Pagan, Wiccan and New Age spiritualities.

The LGBT-RAN website allows access to its online exhibitions. These include a complete digitised run of an early lgbt religious magazine called “Open Hands”. The exhibition which appeals to my quirky interests is the “Shower of Stoles”. This is a collection of stoles worn by lgbt members of various denominations. Other online exhibitions centre on more traditional heritage topics such as “Towards a Quaker View of Sex” and a history of the world’s largest lgbt synagogue.

So, if you though lgbt religion was only about persecution or the Metropolitan Community Church then a visit to the LGBT-RAN website could open a whole new outlook.

On a very personal note. About an hour before I posted this article my “page views” exceeded 125,000. Many, many thanks to everyone who takes the time to read my blog, and a bigger thank you to everyone who returns. In fact, I give you all a quarter of a million thanks in return!!

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