'Just Margaret, just love'

By Sara Shisler
Posted Jun 28, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] I am not a Roman Catholic. I am a cradle Episcopalian. In fact I am an Episcopal priest, who studied theology and ethics at Yale Divinity School, which is how I know Sister Margaret Farley.

Until three weeks ago, most people in secular and even religious circles had not heard of Farley, author of “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics.” Unfortunately, those unfamiliar with Farley’s work will now have a first impression of her that may be colored by the Vatican’s denouncement that said her book “affirms positions that are in direct contradiction with Catholic teaching in the field of sexual morality” and therefore could cause confusion and “grave harm to the faithful.”

Farley has stated herself that she never intended for the book to be “an expression of current official Catholic teaching.” I believe it is in fact often the case that the church’s (Catholic, Protestant or otherwise) “official teaching” on human sexuality has caused grave harm to the faithful. I would argue that Farley’s contributions to the field of Christian sexual ethics have done more to strengthen and ground the spiritual and sexual lives of Christian believers in justice and love than most “official church teaching.”

In her lectures, in her written words, and in very self, Farley embodies justice, compassion, faithful questioning, and love that has put a recognizable face on God for many. I watched her give my female Catholic friends back their faith tradition and I watched them tearfully accept the gift they were not sure they would be able to receive. Her teaching and her care spoke to who I was as a person, a female, bisexual, Christian person, struggling to discern for myself if I could continue to find a home in my own Episcopal/Anglican tradition (still in the midst of our own struggles over gender, race and sexual orientation).

More than once she gave me back my own faith and vocation when I thought it was slipping away. There were times when I did not know if I could accept the massive responsibility that comes with ordained life. There were times when I did not know if I could devote myself to an institution that saw my life as an “issue.” I did not know if I could give my life to a church that is “not of one mind” in terms of how they will allow me to express my call to ministry or if they will allow me to be married in my own house of God.

Farley helped me to see that our Christian tradition is grounded in goodness and justice and she helped me to find a place I could stand on the inside. She showed me that I could be faithful, ask questions, and push boundaries and that there was a place for me at the table. Her scholarship is beyond reproach, but it is her pastor’s heart that spoke to my heart so I could hear, “You are beloved.”

“Just Love” is the culmination of years of work that led Farley to create a framework for how to be in relationships, specifically sexual relationships that are based on “justice in loving and in the actions that flow from that love.” For years the church has been experiencing a widening divide between who we say we are and how we act. We say we are accepting, loving, compassionate followers of a God who came to bring healing and freedom. Then we exclude, reject, harm and oppress. People are not stupid. They see the incongruities. And they have been wounded. The church has wounded so many people. Yet the church keeps wounding, going after its most faithful members because they cannot see beyond their own clutches at power.

I grieve any personal pain that Farley has experienced over this ordeal. But as a clergy friend of mine posted to Facebook the other day, “If Vatican censure of Margaret Farley means that more people will read a book as wise, loving, and powerful as JUST LOVE, then I think the Holy Spirit is at work. More people might just come to realize that there is such a thing as a relevant, reverent Christian sexual ethic.”

I personally am glad that out of this misguided move by men in power who have yet to see the light, more people will come to know Margaret Farley and the powerful witness for justice and love that she is.

— The Rev. Canon Sara Shisler is canon for spiritual formation at the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore, Maryland. She received a Master of Divinity in 2008 and a Master of Sacred Theology with a concentration in Ethics in 2009, both from Yale Divinity School.

Comments (5)

  1. James Shannon says:

    Thank you for reminding us.

  2. Rich Rastetter says:

    Maybe a broad understand of human relationships is in the “Farley” genes. My grandfather had a long history of anti-Catholic Protestantism. In his final years, however. his closest companion was Father Farley, a rotund priest with a happy smile who visited the rural hospital in the community where my grandfather lived to attend to the spiritual needs of all patients, regardless of church affiliation. When my sister married a Catholic, my grandfather insisted that Father Farley participated in the ceremony. You have been blessed to know a Farley.

  3. jm shields says:

    A someone who knew you at St. Mark’s On the Hill, I am very proud of you, Sarah. I think that you are dealing with the “massive responsibility that comes with ordained life” as well as any cleric, and much better than most.

  4. Father Steven A. Scarcia says:

    I believe that Sister Farley is in the best of company with those who have been condemned because their thoughts have not followed the “party catholick.” Having been a priest for almost 40 years, I have come to the conclusion that if the church can’t control something, it inevitably condemns it. Sister Farley being a scholar, a thinker, a teacher, a person in tune with her conscience as well as being a woman of faith, can by those very attributes be a threat to those in authority in her church. The scholars of the Roman church see her words sending the “faithful” the wrong message. Though the sister didn’t write her book with the intention of needing an Imprimatur, it was meant to give an open and honest discussion about morality & sexuality. I remember as a young person, my friends who attended the Roman church used to gather at back of the church, where there was posted a listing of which movies the Roman church thought were fine or were objectionable – it was called the Legion of Decency. In actuality, the movies that the church found “objectionable” were the ones that the kids tried to go see. It was as if the church pointed the kids in the opposite direction of where the church intended. I don’t mean that the Church shouldn’t teach about morality or loving sexuality. I believe its main teaching is about human love and how best, as Christian people, should we love one another. The Church has always been good at condemning, excommunicating, damning & silencing. How about listening to Christ’s words in the Holy Scripture; words of forgiveness, joy, compassion & love instead of how we can best manage & keep the institutional church together & the people submissive to clerical authority & threats. Oh, by the way, I recently heard the rumor that the earth is not the center of the universe – can that be? Don’t let the church authorities learn about it! I heard that Galileo is on the church’s most wanted list too! Blessings Sister Farley!

  5. John Kirk says:

    So I’m walking down the street with Cardinal William “The Terminator” Levada, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (yes, before anyone trips over the hem of their alb in their rush to remind us, the congregation that used to be known as the INQUISITION!) and we pass a bookstore and I says to him, I says, “Your Em, can we stop in here and look around for a book on the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexuality?” and he says to me, he says, “Sure!” So in we goes.

    While there, I hold up a copy of the Kama Sutra and I says to Bill, I says, “How about this?” and Bill says to me, he says, “Well, that’s not really representative of the Church’s teachings on human sexuality.” Then I hold up a copy of “How to Join the Mile High Club: Making the Friendly Skies a Little Friendlier,” and I says to Bill, I says, “How about this?” and Bill says to me, he says, “Well, that’s not really representative of the Church’s teachings on human sexuality.” Then I hold up a copy of “Just Love: A Framework For Christian Sexual Ethics” and I says to Bill, I says, “How about this?” and Bill says to me, he says, “Well, that’s not really representative of the Church’s teachings on human sexuality” and I says to Bill, I says, “But Billy, how CAN that BE? This here book is by a ROMAN CATHOLIC NUN! Won’t people think that a book by a Roman Catholic nun about human sexuality is reflective of the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings on human sexuality? Won’t people be CONFUSED?” and Bill says to me, he says, “Not if we explain that this book isn’t really representative of the Church’s teachings on human sexuality.”

    And that, dear Sara, is all that happened. For those who cared, the Holy See clarified that Sister Farley’s book was not representative of the Church’s teaching on human sexuality. For those who don’t care, well, they don’t care, do they?

    Frankly, given that you’ve managed to ignore both Leo XIII’s “Apostolicae Curae” and Blessed John Paul II’s “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” I find myself puzzled by your indignation.

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