The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, passive homosexuals, practicing homosexuals, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, the verbally abusive and swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God. (I Corinthians (6:9-11).
On September 11, the Synod of the Marthoma Church, a prominent Kerala-based non-Catholic denomination, replaced Euyakim Mar Coorilos as the bishop of its Kunnamkulam-Malabar diocese. In July, Coorilos had become the first Christian bishop to be sued in India for allegedly committing sodomy. The petition was filed by Sam Kutty, 38, a former diocese employee before a judicial magistrate in Pathanamthitta, accusing the bishop of sexually abusing him in 2009 inside a retreat centre run by the diocese. The judicial magistrate has directed the local police to investigate the complaint.
For the Christian church and community at large, which consider even consensual homosexuality a cardinal sin and perversion, the news was blasphemous. The Coorilos incident is the latest in a spate of sex crimes that has surfaced recently involving priests and nuns in Kerala. In 2008, the Pope suspended Bishop John Thattunkal of the Latin Catholic Diocese of Kochi on charges of adopting a 26-year-old woman. That very year, the church dismissed a 45-year-old nun after an MMS clip of her indulging in sex was widely circulated. In 2009, Sister Jesme, a Catholic nun, listed her sexual encounters in a tell-all autobiography. Later that year, CBI arrested two priests and a nun in connection with the murder of a nun-Sister Abhaya-17 years ago inside a convent. In 2011, an autobiography by Shibu Kalaparamban, a priest for 13 years rocked the Syro-Malankara Church, the country’s largest Catholic church. Kalaparamban was suspended from the church (see box).
Interestingly, the bishop’s case comes even as attempts for a dialogue on homosexuality have begun for the first time inside the conservative churches of Kerala where Christians form 19 per cent of the population. The efforts have been set in motion by a homosexual Baptist pastor couple from the US, Stephen R. Parelli and Jose Enrique Ortiz. “On issues of sexuality, Indian churches are as conservative as the most conservative evangelical groups of the US. The curriculum of Bible colleges here is the same as followed by the most fundamentalist groups in the West. Hence the dialogue we began here is no mean achievement. There are priests and nuns with same-sex orientation here too as anywhere else in the world,” says Parelli, executive director of Other Sheep, a Christian ministry that works for sexual minorities.
Parelli, 60, recently visited Kerala and Goa-two states with large Christian populations-along with his gay partner and fellow pastor Ortiz, 45, who is Other Sheep’s coordinator for Asia. “Gays and lesbians exist among the priests and nuns in India too. But they have remained suppressed and silent within the confines of the church which looked at them as sinners,” says Ortiz. According to him, it was colonialism that suppressed the Indian tradition of open-mindedness towards sexuality. He cites what George Nalunnakkal of the Malankara Jacobite Orthodox Church, a prominent Kerala-based church, said: “India’s traditional silence on sexuality is a celebrated myth. In fact, the Indian mind always engaged sexuality in a very open and radical manner. It was the colonisers who brought to India their values, suppressing Indian tradition.” Parelli pointed out that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which deemed same sexintercourse a crime and was struck down by the Delhi High Court in 2009, was drafted by Lord Macaulay in the 19th century.
The gay pastor couple has held many meetings in Kerala and engaged with priests and the laity. They were brought to the state by the Trivandrum Theological Forum (TTF), an ecumenical organisation of Christian laity working for the rights of Dalit Christians, women and sexual minorities. “We believe the church should address the issues of sexual minorities. It should stop turning away from this,” says R.S.Ajith, TTF secretary. “This was the first platform to start a dialogue on the issue within the church,” says Sam L. Sone, TTF president.
The TTF is dominated by members of the Church of South India (CSI), a relatively liberal Protestant church which has, since 1984, allowed women to become pastors. “CSI has been liberal on these issues. It has taken up issues of gender, dalits and landlessness. It has to address the issue of sexual minorities too,” says Father David Joy from csi and a professor at Bangalore’s United Theological College. “It doesn’t mean that the church has to accept homosexuality. It has to besympathetic to their issues and rights rather than see them as sinners,” he says. Father Joy says the Protestant church has been relatively more liberal on such issues than the Catholics. It was the Anglican Church, the mother of all Protestant churches, which for the first time in 2003 ordained an openly gay clergyman-Gene Robinson-as a bishop in New Hampshire, USA. “But it doesn’t mean that even the Anglican church has accepted homosexuality. In fact, his ordination has split the global Anglican church with many churches in Africa breaking away. But it was a landmark in the church’s history,” he says. Incidentally, faced with death threats, Robinson has said he will step down before his term ends in 2015. “If this is the situation of West, it may take at least 50 years for Indian churches to even think of accepting sexual minorities,” says Joy. Though the Catholic church has been the most fundamentalist on gays, change seems to gradually catching up with it too. Father Paul Thelakat, spokesperson of the Syro-Malankara Church, told india today, “Homosexuality is a deviation from natural sex orientation but it has to be treated with love and concern. Those who become homosexuals because of either social circumstances or experiences have to be reoriented and those who are so by nature should not be seen as immoral or less human. But a homosexual marriage is a misnomer and the Catholic church does not accept it.”