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Queering the Liturgy: Living the Essence of Our Faith

Elizabeth Edman

Elizabeth M. Edman is an Episcopal priest, political strategist, and the author of Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity (Beacon Press, 2016).

Christian liturgy, the living of these stories, the worship of this God—there are few moments when I feel so alive as when I am engaged in that vital space, pulsing with God’s presence. It is up there with really good sex, with fierce anger, with floating effortlessly in the ocean, with being overcome by the surf and pounded mercilessly onto abrasive sand.1

Good liturgy may be innovative or ancient, contemplative or active, repetitive or transitory. But most importantly, whatever the form or format, good liturgy must be alive. Liturgy is supposed to wake us up, not lull us to sleep—physically or spiritually. In my experience, the best liturgy heightens my awareness and helps me see / feel things like I’ve never seen / felt / thought them before. 

So why queer liturgy? What does it help us to do and to be? What does Queering the Liturgy free up, make possible? 

Let’s take a moment to consider what the word queer means. You may be familiar with the idea of queer as verb. Queer theory posits that to queer is to disrupt false binaries. In particular, queer sexuality disrupts the false binary of male and female. This queer approach to binaries has helped me think in a new way about Christian faith, where I see a relentless disruption of false binaries. For example: Was Jesus human or was he divine? Well, we Christians say he was both. After the resurrection, was he alive or had he died? We say both. And when Jesus touched people who were ritually unclean in order to heal them, were his actions sacred or were they profane? Well, both!  

One of the biggest binaries that Jesus challenges his followers to rupture is the one between self and other. You see this all the time in Jesus’ parables, like the story of the Good Samaritan. Paul followed suit. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female;, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). These were the biggest binaries of Paul’s day, and he queered every one of them.

These rupturings—these queerings—are not peripheral to Christianity. Both theologically and ethically, they are the very heart of the Christian movement, which is why I argue that authentic Christianity is and must be queer.2

So let’s be clear: it isn’t important to queer Christian liturgy because it’s a way of showing that the church can be nice to LGBTQ+ folks. It is important because if we Christians aren’t aware of the queerness of our tradition—if we aren’t living into it by bringing it to life in our worship —then we aren’t grasping the most important, challenging, and vivifying aspects of the Christian movement. 

Let’s turn that last sentence around. Rather than focusing on what might be lost by neglecting queerness, let’s focus for a moment on what is gained by embracing queerness and living into it liturgically. Queering the Liturgy creates opportunities to dig into what any liturgy means/offers/makes possible/enacts. Looking at liturgy through a queer lens can freshen our perspective, challenge convention, pose new questions, and breathe new life into worship. 

To explore what I mean, I invite you to take a walk with me through two experiences I have had Queering the Liturgy. One, Glitter+Ash, was an explicit attempt to be liturgically queer. The other came long before Glitter+Ash and was simply an attempt to be real. A community came together to dig deeply into the most significant moments in our liturgical year—the narrative of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection—asking, “What do these events mean for us now?” Because queerness depends so much on honesty and authenticity, let’s start our walk there, in a small church in Hell’s Kitchen on the west side of Manhattan. 

The Passion of Christ in Real Time 

As a young adult fresh out of seminary, I was blessed to find St. Clement’s Episcopal Church. St. Clement’s houses an off-Broadway theater and as a result has long held particular appeal both to theater professionals and to LGBTQ people. When I was there, the theater was always dark during Holy Week. We reserved the space to live as fully as we could into the drama of the last week of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We had a beautiful garden of repose on Maundy Thursday. Congregants would sign up for hourly slots to ensure that someone was in the space keeping vigil throughout the night. 

And so it was that in 1998 I found myself sitting in that lavish garden dreaming about what it would be like if the story we were enacting somehow actually came to life around me. What if soldiers suddenly showed up to arrest Jesus? What if we were sitting around a fire eyeing Peter suspiciously when the cock crowed at sunrise? 

In hindsight I can see that the entire exercise was shot through with queerness. First and foremost, it was an attempt to situate ourselves inside the story. In my work with queer folk struggling to overcome hateful religious rhetoric, one of the hardest challenges is dismantling the notion that the authority of Scripture exists outside of them. So many people walk around with the idea that the essential narrative of our faith is “over there,” or “back then”—not living and breathing in us right now. This is something that Jewish liturgy does well, living into vital stories as if they were happening to us: “When we were slaves to Pharaoh in the land of Egypt . . .”3 That night in the garden, I dreamt of a liturgy that would queer the space between those people back then and us trying to live our faith right now. 

A few weeks later I brought this idea to our then-rector, the Rev. Barbara Cawthorne Crafton. She invited me to lunch and introduced me to Ken Arnold, a contemplative writer, editor, and deacon who had just been assigned to St. Clements. Barbara cut to the chase: “Liz has this idea to do some kind of experiential liturgy around the Triduum.4 Ken, I think you would be the perfect partner for her.” And he was. 

I can see now that impulses I’d gleaned from queer community were already at work: imagination, a desire for an immersive experience, the need to find strong partners, and the impulse to share the dream with others and see it come to life in community. What we developed was a twenty-two-hour liturgy running from the evening of Maundy Thursday through 3 p.m. on Good Friday. In addition to the queer impulses listed above, I can see that both the event and the planning process embodied numerous principles that are foundational to queer liturgical planning.

Principle #1: Queerness starts from a place of accountability, which requires soul searching, hard listening, and disciplined truth telling. 

A common criticism about religious embrace of LGBTQ+ people is that affirming denominations have thrown off the teachings of the church for the sake of a contemporary morality that blows with the wind. Queer ethics are not a form of moral relativism. Rather, queerness demands rigorous honesty as you negotiate the challenging terrain between the vagaries of human experience and what you know in your bones to be true. When planning liturgy, it matters to model this principle by allowing Scripture itself to speak truthfully, listening hard to what the text actually says while also listening hard to what is emerging in our souls—our memories, our instincts, our desires, our fears. 

Together, Ken and I organized a multi-week Bible study of the passion narratives in all four Gospels. We started in January, during Epiphany. We took turns leading the sessions, both of us Bible nerds in love with Scripture and deeply committed to responsible readings of the text. In class, we read the stories slowly, with care. We looked at words and phrases, wondering aloud what they might signify, both of us bringing insights we had gleaned from our studies. We invited participants to pay attention to whatever caught their eye. What took us by surprise? What didn’t sit right? What were we hearing that we had never heard that way before? What felt suddenly fresh, real, alive? Those sparks became touchstones for us as Lent arrived and we turned to planning the liturgy itself.

The question that had begun to dominate our conversations was, “What was this long night like for the disciples?” We knew we were not attempting any kind of traditional passion play that simply enacted the story (again, as if the characters onstage were somehow separate from us). We wanted to find a way to immerse ourselves in the story and let it play out around us and in us. Hoping that such immersion would lead to greater understanding not just of these three days but also of core teachings of our faith, we wanted to cultivate access to what James Allison describes so beautifully as “Oh! So that’s what I’ve been involved in!”5

We paid close attention to the movement of plot, including the physical movement of the narrative from place to place. We decided to incorporate physical movement into the liturgy, inviting people to move just as the disciples had. St. Clement’s had long hosted an Agape meal on Maundy Thursday evening. We began there, noting with gratitude that this traditional liturgy was already immersive and experiential, with people reclining at tables and washing one another’s feet. 

Principle #2: Always pay attention to community, and be aware of how your community/ies extend beyond the walls of whatever space you inhabit, be it physical or spiritual. 

Queer ethics demand an awareness not just of one’s own situation, but also of the impact of individual choices on the larger community. Thus, for instance, queer and trans people have historically grappled with the paradox that while coming out as individuals places us at risk, it is in being seen that we establish greater safety for our people. At our best (and we are not always at our best), queer and trans people cultivate awareness and appreciation of the fact that we are an intersectional people, that no one person’s experience tells the entire story, and that making room for a multiplicity of perspectives is the best way to understand what is actually going on. 

From a Christian perspective, the intense focus on Jesus as a singular, unique human can create barriers to this kind of communal awareness. In our planning we worked hard not to separate anyone out, to share roles. There was no single Jesus, no single Peter. We were aware of ourselves as members of a larger church. Thanks to the generosity and liturgical courage of several neighboring parishes, our liturgy followed this path: from the Agape meal at St. Clement’s, we walked the twenty-six blocks to St. Peter’s in Chelsea and seated ourselves in the beautiful garden behind their rectory. There we rested, prayed, chanted, and tried not to fall asleep. 

We grappled openly with fear that our most beloved person/place/community could be savagely ripped from us. We each brought a talisman representing what we treasured most in the world. We were encouraged to hold our talismans and reflect on them. As it grew late, the peace was suddenly shattered by a group rising and forcefully grabbing one of our members, standing in the place of Jesus, and taking them a bit roughly out to the street. Not everyone knew when this would happen. “Whatever talisman you brought, HIDE IT,” we were instructed. “It is not safe. Hide it on your person. Hide it now!” Each of us decided in that moment whether to follow Jesus and the soldiers out to the street, or to flee. 

Those who followed walked another nine blocks south to St. John’s in the Village. St. John’s has a courtyard where we were able to build a fire and sit together warming our hands. We talked. We sang. We wondered aloud what was happening and what was coming. Someone encircled us slowly, singing a cappella Patti Smith’s “Walkin’ Blind” from Dead Man Walking. Twice a spotlight was shone on different Peters among us; twice Peter deflected, denied. We timed the third denial to take place exactly at dawn, and we all rose abruptly to gather our things as fast as we could and get out. 

From there we traveled to General Seminary to participate in a mock trial of Jesus. The first year, this didn’t work as well as we wanted—it was a bit too much “passion play-esque,” so the next year we went instead to a public park and played a modified game of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” that we called “Who Wants to Be Rome?” Following the format of the game show in which contestants are asked increasingly difficult questions, our players were asked questions about crises in the world and/or our adherence to Jesus’ most fundamental teachings (“How many people are incarcerated in New York City right now? How many times per year do you visit someone in prison? Have you ever visited someone in prison?”)6 Upon missing a question, the player was instructed to “Build That Cross!” Together, piece by piece, feeling waves of embarrassment at what we did not know or had not done, we constructed a large cross. Hoisting it up, we enacted the Stations of the Cross en route back to St. Clement’s. Arriving back at our home church at noon, we held a three-hour preaching service in which participants reflected on what we’d experienced. We took out our precious talismans, held them close, and quietly nailed them to the cross. I remember reading Audre Lorde’s “A Litany for Survival.”7 At 3 p.m., we departed in silence. 

Principle #3: Queer liturgy must respect and draw inspiration from lived experience of queer people, elevating queer experience as authoritative. 

We Christians face two big challenges in adopting queer practices. The first is that we will continue to view queer liturgy as merely a gesture of welcome to LGBTQ+ people, a feel-good exercise that tends to be relegated to Pride Month. Something much bigger is at stake. Attaching “queerness” to core Christian concepts like Jesus’ status as God/human or his complex relationship to death/resurrection creates the potential for Christians to perceive something new and different and valuable when they see a queer person. So we don’t queer liturgy to “be nice to queer people.” We queer liturgy because queerness is an essential movement of Christian faith, and the best way to understand how queerness is at work in our faith is by stepping into it deliberately, liturgically. 

The second challenge is that many of us are part of an emerging movement in which we claim an identity as “queer Christians” regardless of our sexual and gender identity. This is a good thing. And I am keenly aware of the danger of misappropriating queerness as an identity marker. As Christians adopt queerness as a theological lens, it matters to underscore that queering by the church must never become merely a theological exercise that ignores the lives of queer people.

The most effective and important way to address both of these challenges is for Christians to continue explicitly to lift up queer experience itself as authoritative. 

The Passion in Real Time drew implicitly on the authority of queer experience. Most of the event took place in Chelsea and Greenwich Village, two of the gayest historical neighborhoods in New York City. Many of the people involved in planning this liturgy were sexually queer. We knew what it was to walk those streets knowing ourselves to be at risk simply for being who we were. We explicitly connected that risk to the experience of the disciples during the terrifying hours from Thursday night to Friday afternoon. The experience of such fear—fear on the streets, fear of exposure, fear that something you love desperately could be taken from you—has always informed, indeed been central to my uptake of the gospel message and of Holy Week specifically. Of course, we now talk openly about the ways that religious authority is itself the greatest threat to queer safety. If I were to do this liturgy again, I would ask that we pay specific attention to the ways that religious denigration blocks queer access to whatever might be spiritually salvific in the passion narrative.

Principle #4: Queer experience is not the only experience that should be authoritative for Christianity, a faith that draws together different kinds of people with particular attention to people who have been marginalized and brutalized, and a faith that itself has brutalized others.

Christianity demands a shift from “you are welcome” to “you have things to teach me about God, about how God works, about my own faith.” This shift does not apply only to queer experience. Black and brown experience, Indigenous experience, the experience of people with disabilities, of people who have fled their homes and arrived in a strange new land seeking asylum, these and so many more iterations of human experience of struggle and hope must inform our understanding of God. Such perspectives are crucial to any authentic read on our faith and represent a fundamental shift from “welcome” to shared power.

The Passion in Real Time worked to tone down anti-Semitism by emphasizing Rome’s role in Jesus’ execution. As Americans, Ken and I wanted us to grapple with the fact that the United States is the greatest military force in the world, and that we are the ones now exerting massive pressure on local governments and political movements for justice the world over. 

If I were to do this liturgy again, I would pay greater attention to the ways that the passion narrative has been weaponized horrifically against Jewish people. The Episcopal Church is one of many that has in recent years been digging into our Holy Week liturgies, Good Friday especially, to rewrite language that implicitly and explicitly villainizes Jews. This is important work. Yet so much more needs to be done to address the anti-Semitism that is baked into central stories of the Christian tradition. 

One of the best ways to cultivate our awareness is to walk around in the stories themselves, liturgically. I would want us not to sidestep quite so neatly the role that religious authority played in Jesus’ execution, while recognizing, crucially, that for Jesus and the disciples, the religious authority involved in these stories is not the religious authority of “the Jews,” that is, “those people over there, who are not us.” No, the events of this week are about us grappling with our own people, with our own religious authority. Christians in the United States and in many parts of the world wield enormous political power. Holy Week is an unparalleled opportunity to explore how we use that power, how our religious leaders collude with political leaders to oppress and brutalize, and the depth to which we are caught up in our own fear about what risks we are and are not willing to take in a terrifyingly unjust world. Drawing on queerness as a liturgical lens can help us do this well, partly because:

Principle #5: Queerness of any kind involves our bodies and depends upon deep wisdom that is embodied, incarnate, physically manifested. 

By embodying our teachings, liturgically, we are better equipped to feel in our bodies whether we are getting it right or wrong. Queer liturgy has the power to beta test all those linguistic efforts to clean up any liturgy that we know to be oppressive, pressing the questions: This is good, but is it enough? Does something still feel amiss? How would my body feel if other kinds of bodies were listening in on what we are saying and doing? Is there still a small voice of discomfort? Whose voice am I not yet hearing? What would it take to heed that voice, to be guided by it, to honor it? 


Unlike the Passion in Real Time, Glitter+Ash8 was an explicit attempt to explore queerness in one of the most powerful liturgies of the Christian year: Ash Wednesday. Realizing that Christians “come out” visibly on Ash Wednesday, I wondered how people might come out as “visibly Queer + visibly Christian.” I have written in other places about the origin and impact of Glitter+Ash.9 In short: my girlfriend at the time suggested mixing glitter into the ash being imposed on participating congregants’ foreheads. I wrote a short prayer service for the ritual. In New York, we launched the event at the Stonewall National Monument in Greenwich Village. Standing for an hour or more at the Christopher Street subway stop, we offered glitter ashes a la “ashes to go.” A small pamphlet explained the liturgy, and we made sure people understood what they were receiving before we imposed glitter ashes. Only one person declined them that morning. We worked hard to communicate the serious theology undergirding the ritual.10

The effort was not well served by the very article that brought international attention to it.11 I will never forget my horror in reading the lede: “Lighten up, Ash Wednesday.” Thankfully, many Christian communities across the world embraced the call for a powerful, queer-positive Christian witness; and many of these communities took seriously the theological complexity—the liturgical queerness—of mixing glitter and ash. But for many Christians, that one spurious sentence defined the entire movement. Many nominally LGBTQ-friendly Christians dismissed Glitter+Ash as shallow, superficial, and blasphemous. 

As I look back on how the event played out in its first year, 2017, I am struck more than ever by a final queer principle that was at work before our very eyes, yet that somehow in the moment did not make its way to consciousness: 

Principle #6: Queer liturgy must scandalize. 

The Christian gospel is inherently scandalous, and our liturgies should make that scandal visible, palpable. The Christian narrative depends on the proclamation of ideas that challenge, unsettle, and disturb: God comes to Earth as a defenseless baby; the people who are most despised are the ones we have the most to learn from; salvation required Jesus and his followers—including perhaps us—to engage in courageous truth-telling and community building that put him on a path to shame, torture, and death. There is nothing easy or intuitive about any of these statements. Yet over the course of two millennia, these ideas have been simultaneously normalized, sanitized, and worst of all, used in the service of imperial power. It is nearly impossible in the twenty-first century to comprehend the depth with which the essential Christian narrative is designed to shock us, to wake us up, and in shocking and awakening us, inspire us to co-create entirely new ways of living together. 

On this score, Glitter+Ash both succeeded and failed. The liturgy was certainly an invitation to gaze upon Christian scandal. I myself was at first shocked and yes, scandalized at the idea of mixing glitter into the ash. It took me a while to come around. But I think I let myself slide out of the discomfort too quickly. I wish we had explored it more thoughtfully. Scandal is very difficult to sit with for any length of time, especially if you are the one wearing it on your forehead. Scandal is simply too infused with shame to be comfortable. You have to be able to adopt the queer-on-steroids perspective of a drag queen throwing her shade, “You need me to be a scandal for your impoverished world view? Well, honey [snap], so be it.” 

In terms of manifesting scandal, Glitter+Ash succeeded. There was fierce backlash among people who were horrified at the thought of sullying ashes with glitter. Those who were scandalized were exactly the people who most needed to be scandalized: progressive mainline Christians who would have considered themselves exemplars of LGBTQ inclusion. No doubt the scandal continues to succeed in places where the liturgy is still practiced. But it also failed, for the same reason that Christianity often fails to sustain its inherent, unspoken scandalousness: it was too easy for people to roll their eyes with liturgical propriety and disdain for the new and different. The event, to my knowledge, was entirely ignored by conservative Christians and by the Catholic church. I say that the backlash was “fierce,” but in fact my mainline kin largely expressed themselves in cutting comments whispered sotto voce behind the backs of us organizers. I recall only one Episcopal priest, a lesbian offended by the gesture, who came to me directly to question what on earth we were doing. Bereft of a clear “theology of scandal,” it was simply too easy to dismiss Glitter+Ash, and thus to ignore it. 

And here let me explain what I do not mean about scandal: I do not mean that queer liturgy must provoke simply for the sake of provocation. I suspect that’s a common source of resistance to queer liturgy: fear that we’ll wander into a land of over-the-top queer performance art never to be seen again. 

Good queer liturgy may be comforting and sometimes must be comforting. Sometimes it must be intentionally provocative, and that’s not just okay but important. Queer liturgy, for instance, is perhaps uniquely positioned to question the degree to which specific liturgical practices have become idols, not just gesturing to God but revered as if the gesture was God. But always, always, careful thought must be given to the question, “How can people enter this space and reside here for a time?” If our liturgy is to challenge conventional notions about “the way things are supposed to be,” we must ask, “How can we endure whatever shame arises in this moment of scandal, process that shame, and come out in a new place?” Precisely because liturgy is fundamentally about stepping into the presence of the sacred, it always matters to ask, “Where is the hope? How are we connecting to God, with others, and how is this space accomplishing or thwarting those connections?” 

If I were to revisit Glitter+Ash, or for others who are still enacting the ritual, that’s an area that might bear some specific ongoing attention: using the liturgy not just to celebrate the joy and wonder of queer people, but also to sit with the shame of scandal. Perhaps in doing so, we really might touch the miraculous paradox of shame and joy, of captivity and freedom, that exists in the very marrow of the Christian tradition. 

So, coming all the way back to the questions we started with—“Why does any of this matter? What does queer liturgy help us to do and to be?”—I offer you a final note. 

At almost every speaking event I’ve done since the summer of 2020, someone has unmuted themselves to ask this question, “My church [diocese/presbytery/fill in the blank] has been open and affirming for years. What is crystal clear is that it is not enough. What should we be doing now?” It is exactly the right question, and there is no one size fits all answer. For any Christian community, the first step is to engage the question—to press it, explore it, walk around in it. For those communities brave enough to step boldly, I truly believe that Queering the Liturgy can help us find our way forward. Liturgy itself has a power to inspire and awaken like nothing else. Done well, queer liturgy invites us to dive deeply into an authentic read of Scripture and of the Christian tradition. Requiring that we look within our souls while cultivating an awareness of other perspectives, queerness demands accountability both of our individual selves and our communities. Making room for our bodies to move and to speak will free up wisdom that otherwise might go unheard and unheeded. And with specific, explicit attention to scandal, queer liturgy has vast potential to reveal what is most surprising, challenging, and vivifying in the faith that Jesus has invited us into, intrepidly, wearing our desire and courage on our sleeves, bringing all the queer love we can to a world that needs it desperately. 


1. Elizabeth Edman, Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016), 6.

2. Edman, Queer Virtue, 3.

3. During a Passover Seder, the story of the Exodus is told as if the events had happened to the people around the table. Passover liturgies, or Haggadot, are endlessly adaptable (see, focusing on an array of Jewish experiences including The Stonewall Seder for queer Jews. 

4. Triduum means literally “three days” and refers to the sacred time that falls between Thursday of Holy Week and Easter Sunday.

5. James Alison, Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-In (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd Ltd, 2006), 64.

6. I wrote the questions myself and today am struck by the privilege and obliviousness in my assumption that people in our group would never have been caught up in the carceral system. Different perspectives really do make for liturgy that is truer, more honest.

7. Audre Lorde, The Black Unicorn: Poems (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1978).

8. I will always be grateful to Parity, a Presbyterian-born organization, which immediately embraced this idea and came on board as organizational partner. Deep thanks especially to Marian Edmonds-Allen, Parity’s executive director, who continues to make Glitter+Ash resources available to any community that wants them. 

9. Elizabeth Edman, “The Price of Glitter,” Beacon Broadside: A Project of Beacon Press,
June 16, 2017,

10. Elizabeth Edman, “It’s a Black Smudge,” Queer Virtue,

11. Kimberly Winston, “‘Glitter Ash Wednesday’ Sparkles for LGBTQ Christians,” Religion News Service, February 14, 2017,


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