Sanctuary

This is Part 3 of a 4-part series on burdens the church often inordinately places on queer people. For previous posts, see: Part 1, Part 2a, and Part 2b.

A few months ago, I got to see the Australian premiere of one of my favourite musicals: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (the musical). Now there’s so much I could say about why I love this narrative and the depth of insights it offers into so many dimensions of the human experience, from exploring the social model of disability, to the relationship of church and state, to critiquing purity culture (quite literally!), but perhaps the most prevalent theme that stood out to me that night was the concept of sanctuary. This theme of sanctuary runs throughout the entire show and carries a number of meanings, including both the Medieval practice of fugitives claiming ‘sanctuary’ in the Catholic church and also the broader meaning of ‘sanctuary’ as a safe space to be protected from the world’s harms.

One of the most unsettling things about the narrative in Hunchback is the dynamic where Frollo—the archdeacon in this church—simultaneously offers a sanctuary for Quasimodo to hide in whilst perpetuating the very harms that Quasimodo needs a refuge from. As a religious leader, Frollo makes himself feel like a morally upright person who extends compassionate ‘protection’ for this outcast, yet he doesn’t lift a finger to dismantle the systems that Quasimodo needs protection from. In fact, in the second song “Sanctuary,” we see Frollo creating the very fear of harm that makes Quasimodo believe he is better off hidden away in a tower, safe from the outside world and eternally dependent on his ‘protector.’ Read for yourself the full text from this song:

Frollo:

The world is cruel

The world is wicked

It’s I alone whom you can trust in this whole city

I am your only friend

I who keep you, feed you, teach you, dress you

I who look upon you without fear

How can I protect you, boy

Unless you always stay in here?

Away in here

Remember what I’ve taught you, Quasimodo

You are deformed

Quasimodo:

I am deformed

Frollo:

And you are ugly

Quasimodo:

And I am ugly

Frollo:

And these are crimes for which

The world shows little pity

You do not comprehend

Quasimodo:

You’re my defender

Frollo:

Out there, they’ll revile you as a monster

Quasimodo:

I am monster

Frollo:

Out there, they will hate and scorn and jeer

Quasimodo:

Only a monster

Frollo:

Why invite their curses and their consternation?

Stay in here

Be faithful to me –

Quasimodo:

I’m faithful

Frollo:

Grateful to me

Quasimodo:

I’m grateful

Frollo:

Do as I say

Obey and stay

Quasimodo:

I’ll stay

Both:

In here

Frollo:

Remember, Quasimodo. This is your sanctuary

Quasimodo:

My sanctuary…


It’s chilling stuff – and all the more so when I realise it’s not limited to a fictional story of the Medieval Catholic church but start noticing similar dynamics at play in evangelical spaces.

3. The church harms vulnerable people when it makes them responsible for their own safety

The church harms already-vulnerable people when it makes them responsible for their own safety, especially when it does this while failing to address the systems of harm injuring them. It’s even worse when these systems of harm have their roots in religious teaching. In the previous song, when Frollo first lays eyes on Quasimodo, he exclaims in horror that this condition is “God’s judgement on you,” a sentiment then picked up by all the townsfolk who dutifully submit to the judgement of their archdeacon. Is it any surprise then, that Quasimodo suffers the dehumanising mistreatment of the village when he leaves the tower? This is religiously-sanctioned discrimination.

On one level, Frollo is right. You are safer in this tower. This is your sanctuary. The world out there is not safe, and your safety depends on you keeping yourself hidden out of view.

But on another level, he’s deeply, deeply wrong. This is no ‘sanctuary.’ He is not creating safety–or if he is, he’s creating ‘safety’ from a harm he also caused. Creating true safety would be repenting of his mistreatment and the impacts of his teaching that this condition is “God’s judgement.” Creating true safety would be holding his congregants to account and dismantling discriminatory systems so that seeking sanctuary in a concealed tower–or closet–was no longer necessary.

Like so much of what I write about here, these dynamics aren’t unique to queer people’s experiences of the church. For example, I grew up in a Christian world dominated by purity culture that made women feel like their bodies were shameful and taught them they were at risk of being objectified or assaulted by men who found those bodies too alluring to resist—so instead of fighting for women’s safety by holding men accountable, Christians put the burden of responsibility [primarily] on women to hide their bodies. Sometimes they’d hide their bodies under multiple layers of loose-fitting clothing or denim skirts, and sometimes their bodies would be hidden away behind closed doors because ‘it’s not safe for women to be out alone at night.’  

The tricky thing with this dynamic is that there is a truth in that statement. It probably wasn’t safe for a young woman to be out alone at night. That’s where the controlling mandates of religious leaders can seem protective and compassionate—in many cases, I think some of those leaders truly did have women’s best interests at heart.

But the problem is the misdirected efforts. This kind of response puts all the burden of responsibility on the person already suffering risk of harm while doing nothing to dismantle the system harming them. And the fact that it is often genuinely well-intentioned protective behaviour makes it harder for the vulnerable person to see the harm it is doing to them. It’s harder to call out leaders for harmful behaviour when you know they’re kind of trying to help. Not all Christian leaders are a Frollo (and those who are will never state their position so explicitly as Frollo conveniently does in this song), yet the problem persists that even well-intentioned protective measures make the vulnerable person internalise the message that who they are as a person carries inherent risk unless they modify their behaviour in the world.

I think back to the very earliest conversations I had with church leaders when I first started coming out. There’s no doubt in my mind that these leaders loved me and had my best interests at heart, and in some cases we’re still very good friends. I am immensely grateful for their support. But as I look back with hindsight now, I’m a little unnerved to see some of the dynamics in those early conversations.

The first advice I received from the very first person I came out to was a caution: be careful about who else you shared this information with. He shared stories of other same-sex attracted Christians he’d seen who had really suffered for coming out to people they’d thought were trusted friends.

A few years later, and when I was a lot more comfortable being out and taking steps towards leaving the closet entirely, I finally got to meet with another same-sex attracted Christian for the first time (also a ministry leader). He actively cautioned me against coming out of the closet while I was ‘so young’ (I was about 20 at the time) and warned me of the risk of suffering misunderstandings once I started using words and labels to describe myself more openly. My journal entry from that day shows my recollection of that conversation:

“He didn’t make that decision [to come out of the closet] until he was 47, and he warns against public disclosure for young people as change is possible, and labels are confusing if things do turn around. Avoiding labels also helps keep my sexuality distinct and separate from my identity.”

Journal entry 12/08/15

I didn’t realise how many red flags there were until I re-read this journal entry years later.

Both of those ministry leaders had my best interests at heart, and the rest of my journal entries of both these conversations reveal overwhelmingly positive feelings about their personal support of me.

But I can’t shake the feeling that things might have been different if the message I’d internalised in those early days had been ‘do whatever you need to do and know we’ve got your back and we’ll fight to make the church a safe place for you,’ instead of, ‘staying in the closet for as long as possible is probably best for your safety because the world isn’t safe for people like you.

Again, the half-truth makes things complicated. The world—and the church—isn’t a safe place for people like me, and these leaders were right to be concerned for my well-being. But the consistent pattern of putting the burden of safety onto vulnerable queer people to protect themselves—usually by hiding ourselves—is exhausting. I’m exhausted. We’re all exhausted. What I long for is leaders who will face the injustices head-on, who won’t default to the easy solution of queer people staying quietly hidden out of sight, but who have the integrity to do the much harder work of dismantling the forces that threaten our safety in the first place.

I know you won’t be able to actually dismantle these forces yourself. Not yet. But it would be so humanising to see you trying.

This pressure on queer Christians to stay closeted isn’t limited to the explicit advice we receive either. It’s also the message we hear implicitly communicated by more subtle things like when we see language policing shutting down other queer voices that makes silence seem like the safest option for us. It’s realising that the only acceptable ways to tell our stories involve self-loathing our experience as ‘struggling’ with ‘unwanted same-sex attraction’ and that the evangelical church as a whole has no concrete vision for our flourishing beyond ‘unwanted struggling’ or holding out hope that ‘change is possible’ and we might yet find ourselves in a heterosexual marriage. Having no social scripts for Christian flourishing makes silence the easiest option, too.

This is not just about the ‘sanctuary’ of the closet. It’s about the broader pattern of making vulnerable people responsible for their own safety instead of expecting more from the people with power.

This also includes making us responsible for our own pastoral care. I often talk about how seeking support in the church (for all kinds of marginalised experiences, not just queer people) can feel like calling an ambulance, but when the paramedics arrive, they have no idea how to help you. Instead, they keep pestering you with questions: diagnose the problem for us, tell us what you need, what kind of medication do you think will help, are we doing this right, why did you stop talking, we can’t help you if you don’t tell us how to help, why are you so angry now, just lower your voice and ask nicely, we’re just trying to help if you’d only tell us what it is you need.

It’s exhausting.

Sometimes you need to be able to lie back and have someone bandage your wounds without first giving them a seminar in how to meet these specific needs.

It’s why, if you’re a ministry leader, you must not wait to have queer people start coming out to you before you do the training. Read the books, listen to the podcasts, pay the queer ministry leaders to run a seminar for your ministry team before your church needs it, so when the time comes you won’t be putting this burden on a vulnerable person.

And when the time comes and you see that it’s dangerous for a same-sex attracted or queer person to live out loud, think about how you can absorb some of that risk into yourself. What would it look like to be a leader who gives up their own life, their own safety, to protect the vulnerable? Do you need to proclaim the dignity and inclusion of queer people from the pulpit, out loud for everyone to finally hear, and then take on the emotional load of fielding complaints from all the outraged conservative congregants after that sermon? Do you need to stop warning that young adult about the risks of coming out to their family and instead start offering a place for them in your home and in your family if things go badly?

A while back I was facing a very difficult decision: I knew what I felt I should do, but I also knew that if I went ahead with it, it would come with great personal costs.

My pastor–and friend–texted me to check in about how I was feeling and whether I’d made a decision yet. Then he said these words that floored me.

“I hope you know I’ll back you.”

No unsolicited advice that it would be safer to stay quiet (it would have been), no guilt-tripping that if this decision ended up costing me it would be my own fault, and no ‘I told you so’ afterwards.

“You know I’ll back you.”

In those few words, he honoured my agency in that decision and he empowered me in doing what I knew I needed to do. Then he promised to have my back.

It would have been easier–for both of us–for me to stay hidden in the neat, sanitised, familiar ‘sanctuary’… some part of the church where no one has to see or deal with these messy problems.

But sometimes acting with dignity and integrity trumps ‘safety,’ and sometimes the safety of the staying out of sight isn’t really safety anyway. And sometimes stepping out, knowing you have friends who’ll go to bat for you and leaders who take responsibility for addressing unjust systems, makes stepping out feel a little bit safer than staying hidden anyway.


Photo of Notre Dame, Paris, by Sophie Louisnard on Unsplash

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