Megan Robertson is a PhD student in the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice at the University of the Western Cape, in Cape Town, South Africa. As part of the collaboration with the Leeds Centre for Religion and Public Life, she recently visited Leeds and presented her research about the experiences of queer clergy in the Methodist Church in Southern Africa.
Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?
My experiences as a woman of colour in majority white educational spaces in a seemingly post-apartheid South Africa motivated me to focus my Master’s research on students’ experiences of residences at Stellenbosch University. After my Master’s degree I was disillusioned by academia and bought into the idea that dismantling social injustices and researching them were two separate tasks. Naively I thought that really “doing something” meant working in the NGO sector – which I did for three years in Cape Town. I soon realised that the binary between activism (or “doing something”) and academia was a false and unhelpful one. I therefore sought out a place where I could combine the two while pursuing my research interests in religion, gender and sexuality. This eventually led me to registering for my PhD and working in the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice.
Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?
Being raised Methodist shaped a considerable part of my identity and worldview. The congregation which I grew up in not only shaped my belief systems but perhaps more significantly it was a place to which I felt I belonged. As a teenager and young adult I became more involved in the broader provincial and national structures of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA), and I often experienced these spaces as patriarchal, racially segregated and hierarchical. I was also deeply involved in the Church at the time when Ecclesia De Lange, a Methodist minister, was excommunicated from the Church for declaring her intention to marry her same-sex partner. Therefore, for me, the Church and religion became both a place of significant belonging as well as a space for a great deal of injustice. These experiences led me to question how others negotiate these competing experiences. I was particularly interested in the experiences of queer clergy who are both deeply entrenched in the institution and simultaneously excluded by it. The politics, scholarship and commitment of my supervisors Prof Sarojini Nadar and Dr Johnathan Jodamus has also continued to motivate my interest in the broader field of religion, gender and sexuality.
What are you currently, or about to start, working on?
My most important project at the moment is completing my PhD which I aim to submit in November this year. In my research I explore the lived experiences of queer clergy in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. I am interested in how lived experiences intersect with institutional cultures. In addition I am preparing a manuscript for the Routledge Handbook on Religion, Gender and Society as well as co-authoring a paper on critical pedagogy in the area of gender, ethics and sexuality. I am also the Associate Editor for the African Journal of Gender and Religion and we are currently working on the December 2019 special edition of the journal which will focus on Religion, Gender and Media in Africa.
In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two?
In South Africa anti-queer attitudes are propped up by religious moral claims and with discourses about queer sexualities as un-African and as secular Western import. Therefore, in a national context where religion infused with discourses of tradition and culture are used as the backdrop against which many declare their opposition to non-conforming sexual orientations and gender identities, the church becomes an important institution in framing and transforming this debate. My research focuses particularly on the MCSA as it is statistically the largest mainline Protestant denomination in South Africa and holds significant positions of power and influence on national interdenominational and political platforms, not least of all because it is the ‘church of Mandela.’ The MCSA therefore holds significant influence on the larger church’s moral, public and political transformation agenda. Further, by using the lens of lived religion (which I argue is a queer lens), my research explores how studying the everyday and ordinary experiences of clergy within denominations disrupts scholarly trends in the field of religion and sexuality which either characterises institutional religion as singularly oppressive or homogenises queer Christians as inherently subversive. In my research I challenge these representations and explore a more nuanced understanding of the role of institutionalised religion and religious authorities by empirically researching the everyday lives of clergy, both inside and outside of the assumed sacred boundaries of the institution.