Researcher of the Month – February 2021, Mark Rowland

Mark Rowland is a PhD student in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science and a member of the Centre for Religion and Public Life. A Methodist minister, he is researching a queer theology of holiness and grateful to be part-funded by the Methodist Church.

Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now? 

As an undergraduate, I studied Chemical Engineering and my first foray into research was a fourth-year project about solving some complicated equations relating to extracting oxygen from air. However, theology has always interested me – I grew up Christian and was the kind of boy who asked his Sunday School teacher about dinosaurs and the book of Genesis.

While a student, I decided that I would seek to be an ordained Methodist Minister and started training a few years later. I studied the MA programme at the Urban Theology Unit in Sheffield (then validated by Leeds) and started to discover theology and theological research in a range of areas including theological epistemology, liturgy (still one of my significant interests) and theologies of liberation. When my training was complete, I felt I would love to return one day and undertake PhD studies. Ten years or so later, that became a reality when I began my PhD here at Leeds.

Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area? 

I’m researching a queer theology of holiness. I came out as a gay man about 7 years ago and have become increasingly active in work for LGBT+ equality in the Methodist Church, both at local and national levels. One of Methodism’s traditional theological emphases is on holiness, as a calling and possibility for every believer. However, my experience said that often in Christian circles holiness and queerness were either explicitly or implicitly held to be incompatible – you can only be one or the other. To be both didn’t seem to be contemplated, even as our traditional understanding said this is for all.

In beginning to explore queer theology, I found that not many queer theologians said much about holiness either and I was intrigued to see what queerness could reveal about holiness and to discover the holy in the queer. My activism within the church is always part of the background of my work and I hope that my research can help create new ways for queer and LGBT+ people to flourish in Christian and even other religious and faith contexts.

What are you currently, or about to start, working on?

At the moment, I’m looking at John Wesley’s sermon on the Circumcision of the Heart. This is one of his most significant sermons on holiness, in which he argues it is the requirement and benefit of faith for every believer. I’m exploring ways of queering this text and developing queer theology from it: a process of (re)interpreting, (re)constructing and (re)appropriating it. As a gay Methodist, I want to assert that the Wesleyan theological heritage belongs to me (and other queer Methodists) as much as to anyone else. Wesley’s world and our world are quite different but there’s a lot to be found in both the similarities and the differences. I hope the methodological work that comes out of this will also enable me to read other texts for my thesis and offer something to wider queer theological engagement with traditional religious texts.

In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two? 

The interaction between queer and LGBT+ people and religion continues to be a significant issue for religion in public life. Religious teachings and culture have significantly influenced public attitudes towards queer and LGBT+ people. Many Christian denominations are having or recently have had debates, conversations and division on this, including my own Methodist Church, which is set to vote on same sex marriage this summer. The Church of England has recently launched an extensive set of resources called Living in Love and Faith. Even TV is taking up the theme, with an explicitly theological title to the show “It’s a sin.” Controversies continue to arise, for example on teaching about LGBT+ people and relationships in school, and they often have a religious dimension.

It’s often assumed that those who argue for LGBT+ equality in religious communities do so from a secular human rights agenda (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and these concerns are external impositions: the role of public life in religion, perhaps. One of the aims of my research is to show ways that the Christian tradition (in particular Methodism) can speak to this from its own theological resources and hence offer something positive in the public conversation.

February is LGBT+ History Month in the UK and the theme for this year is Body, Mind and Spirit. For Christian and LGBT+ people alike, that’s a powerful theme. I think it’s closely related to holiness and I hope my research can offer something to understanding what it is to flourish as a human person in body, mind and spirit.