'I complicate the picture a bit'

As an out lesbian priest of the St Mark's Church in-the-Bowery in New York, Winnie Varghese -- a Keralite by descent, and American by birth -- encountered many reactions on a visit to India, from both, English and Indian clergy. Looking the other way while a social injustice is being done isn't up this queer activist-priest's alley, though

Winnie Varghese is the 39 year-old priest in charge of the St Mark's Church in-the-Bowery, an Episcopal church that is the oldest site of continuous religious practice in New York. It is also renowned for having supported a vibrant arts and cultural life in the city -- Khalil Gibran was appointed a member of the St Mark's arts committee in 1919; the rock and roll band Patti Smith group was founded after the musician took part in a St Mark's Poetry Project in 1971.

Winnie Varghese is an out lesbian, an Episcopal priest who recently
completed her 12th year of ordination, a Keralite by descent, and
American by birth. She lives in New York with her partner and their
two children. Pic/ Atul Kamble

Varghese, an out lesbian, was in India to attend a first-of-its-kind meeting of members of the Church of North India, the diocese of Derby in England, and the diocese of New York -- to which she belongs -- that was conducted in an effort to understand the specific cultural, political and social issues that affect each diocese.

An eight-member team of each diocese had week-long meetings in New York City and Derby, before they visited Mumbai and Bengaluru. "This model is being tested as a new approach to facing topics on which we hold different positions in different parts of the communion," explains Varghese. In her free time, Varghese also met members of the Indian queer community.

Excerpts from an interview:

As a lesbian Episcopal priest of Indian descent in New York, how do you square it all out -- homosexuality, race, Christianity, gender?

My parents belong to extremely orthodox sects of Christianity -- my father is Mar Thoma and my mother, a Jacobite from Kerala. But I was raised in the US in a very liberal Christian family, as my parents, who were young adults right after Independence, grew up with an understanding of Christianity that was framed by the many Independence movements of the 20th century. The Bible is organised around the story of the Exodus, which is that God saves God's people from slavery in Egypt, and we learn that God is on the side of the oppressed. In fact, the theme throughout the Bible, whether the Old Testament, or the New, is that of God redeeming people, not because they are good, or doing the right thing, but because they are marginalised.
I was raised in an atmosphere where the idea of faith was that you are made in the image of God, which is very much about the dignity of the individual. It's where a lot of modern human rights language comes from.
What about the notion that homosexuality is a sin?
In the Levitical Code in the Bible, there are many acts that are prohibited, like wearing fabrics of two kinds in one garment or eating shellfish. These may seem absurd to modern people, but these were specific things that communities did to distinguish themselves from other communities, but which most Christians do not follow now. So it's not difficult to take the Levitical Code -- where a sexual moral code is discussed -- and say that that's from another time and another culture. The Code, for instance, says things like, if your child talks back at you, stone her. We don't observe those practices now.

If we look at the Bible's overarching themes, the most consistent one that runs through the text is a preferential option for the marginalised and the need to offer them justice, which is what people of a sexual minority need today, as they are marginalised and denied justice legally, and in terms of human rights.
You realised you were a lesbian when you were a teenager. Did you have to overcome any internal conflict when you came out to yourself?
When I came out to myself as being gay, I wasn't in a relationship, or attracted to anyone. It felt like I understood something about myself and was, for the first time, completely aware of myself. I didn't feel like I needed to do anything about it, though. I spoke to a friend, and my school chaplain, both of whom were very supportive.

At around the same time, I remember feeling called to a religious life. I was reading a text on the Hebrew women in the Bible, and I had this moment of 'getting it' -- the Bible was a text, which is not just read for moral lessons, but to get to the truth of our contemporary times.

I realised that if I understood the Bible in the context in which it was written, it becomes a living text engaging issues that relate to our lives. I landed up on the ordination track, even though I set out to be an academician. I was always open about my sexuality and was surprised to be accepted for ordination. I recently completed the 12th anniversary of my ordination.

As an Episcopal priest, you are allowed to marry and have a family. But legally, same-sex marriages are a big contention.
Same-sex marriages were made legal in New York last July. However, although I have a partner, I am not married because we're waiting to understand the legal implications. Marriage is governed by the state in USA, which means that I can be married in New York, but I'm not married in the eyes of the federal government. So when I'm filling out a Visa application to come to India, do I put that I'm married to a woman? Also, what would it mean to be married in one state in the US and not in another?

However, the Bishop wants us to be married, which feels unbelievably scandalous to people in the church in India, and in England.

In the communion you attended, you came from an extremely liberal perspective. What reception did you receive? Shut doors, or people willing to listen?
An eight-person team from the Church of North India, the diocese of Derby in England, and the diocese of New York met for the first time to understand each others' context. I was happy I was invited to be part of this, as I 'complicate' the story a little bit. I'm a woman from Kerala, living with a same sex partner, as a priest in New York.

In our first few discussions, I encountered a lot of stereotyping of homosexuals, and no one believed I was one. I would want to talk about it, and they would change the subject. However, some members of our group were very open-minded. Some of the Indian clergy said that they have never heard about homosexuality, which I find hard to believe.

A few told me that even if they accept it, their parish wouldn't. To that I said, 'It's enough if you accept it. Just knowing that you are there, will make a huge difference.' One of their fears may possibly be that there's a risk of being accused that homosexuality is a construct of the West. That's what they say about Christianity as well. So if they don't root themselves in what they think of as Indian culture, then they make themselves an easy target for violence.

Who have you met in the course of your trip?
In Mumbai, we paid a visit to the Humsafar Trust office. I also met the members of Umang, a centre for lesbian, transgender and bisexual women, and was impressed with the political engagement and relative ease with which people live in these cities.

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