‘Til Death Do Us Part (and Why That’s About Friendship Too)

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I wrote the cover story for this month’s issue of Christianity Today on—you guessed it!—friendship.

A lot of what I say in the piece grew out of conversations here at SF, and I am truly grateful to you all for reading and thinking with me over the past months about these things. A fuller version will appear in my forthcoming book, but until then, here’s a teaser trailer:

I imagine a future in the church when the call to chastity would no longer sound like a dreary sentence to lifelong loneliness for a gay Christian like me. I imagine Christian communities in which friendships are celebrated and honored—where it’s normal for families to live near or with single people; where it’s expected that celibate gay people would form significant attachments to other single people, families, and pastors; where it’s standard practice for friends to spend holidays together or share vacations; where it’s not out of the ordinary for friends to consider staying put, resisting the allure of constant mobility, for the sake of their friendships. I imagine a church where genuine love isn’t located exclusively or even primarily in marriage, but where marriage and friendship and other bonds of affection are all seen as different forms of the same love we all are called to pursue.

By shifting our practice of friendship to a more committed, honored form of love, we can witness—above all—to a kingdom in which the ties between spiritual siblings are the strongest ties of all. Marriage, Jesus tells us, will be entirely transformed in the future, barely recognizable to those who know it in its present form (Matt. 22:30). Bonds of biology, likewise, are relativized in Jesus’ world (Mark 3:31–35). But the loves that unite Christians to each other across marital, racial, and familial lines are loves that will last. More than that, they are loves that witness that Christ’s love is available to all. Not everyone can be a parent or a spouse, but anyone and everyone can be a friend.

Read the whole thing.

Conference on Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction

The seminary where I teach, Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, is hosting a conference on October 10-11 that I hope many of you will be able to attend. We’re calling it “Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction: Finding Paths to Ministry,” and SF’s own Mark Yarhouse, Melinda Selmys, and Eve Tushnet (along with yours truly) will be featured speakers. Further details are here, the schedule is here, and the registration page is here.

Here’s the way we’re pitching the conference:

How can our churches speak the Good News of Jesus Christ to our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer neighbors? And how can their faith and discipleship be nurtured so that they, in turn, can use their gifts and exercise their ministries in our churches? “Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction” is a conference designed to explore these questions. The historic biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality affirms that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman, requiring fidelity and chastity, while the chaste single state is equally honored and celebrated. Such teaching requires sacrifice and discipline on the part of gay Christians (as it does for all Christians), but it also affirms the blessings and opportunities that gay people bring to the life of faith. “Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction” will provide a forum in which to examine these questions for the sake of Christian witness in our world today.

I really hope many of you will be able to join us! And even if you can’t come, please help spread the word!

UPDATE: There’s also a very similar conference happening at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis a couple of weeks later, October 24-25. Details are here. If you can’t make it to Pittsburgh, join us in St. Louis!

An Impatience with Biblical Exegesis

I want to try to comment on a—what to call it? a trend? a mood?—I’m seeing in the ongoing Christian conversations and debates about same-sex marriage. I’d like to call it an impatience with biblical exegesis, and here’s what I mean by that:

When I go and speak in various venues about Christian faith and sexuality, I hear comments like the following with more and more regularity: “We know that both sides aren’t going to agree about what the Bible says. And we know that both sides already know which are their favorite verses and how they interpret them, so we’re not going to change each other’s minds. But what we can do is share our stories with one another. We can learn to understand each other’s lives better. We can gain more empathy for each other. So let’s focus on that rather than having yet another ‘debate’ about the Bible.”

I want to add quickly that I’m not immune to this mood either! As Robert Gagnon pointed out yesterday about my recent public conversation with Justin Lee in Grand Rapids, I talked very little about my reading of biblical texts and spent much more time “telling my story.” I share the temptation that many others of my generation face to believe that talking about the Bible won’t lead to any resolution and so we’re better off simply trying to understand one another’s hopes and fears and offer support where we can. Where the Bible is too divisive, sharing our Christian stories can be something that unites us.

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You’re Gay and God Loves You

Just one brief comment on the Christian musician Vicky Beeching’s coming out.

I’ve met Vicky once, when she attended my confirmation in the Church of England at St. John’s College, Durham, where I was based at the time. I was touched that she wanted to attend, and I was grateful for her warm friendliness.

Sean Doherty tweeted yesterday morning after the story was published, “Respect to @vickybeeching today – should not be but *is* still hard to come out and praying for you that you are overwhelmed with support.” I think that’s just exactly right, regardless of where your convictions about sexual ethics fall.

It’s easy for me now, as someone who writes and speaks publicly and frequently about these matters, to forget how difficult it was at first to talk with anyone about my sexuality. Despite the fact that I had a loving, close-knit family, an especially committed group of friends in high school, and an unusually sensitive, thoughtful youth pastor, it still took me until college to tell someone about my feelings. And even then, I was deathly afraid of what my peers would think.

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One More Post on the “Gay” Bonhoeffer

We’ve been over this ground before—see here and here—and I don’t want to beat a dead horse (especially since my review will be out in September and I’ll be linking to that here too!), but I was really struck by Charles Marsh’s comments from a few days ago on the Dietrich Bonhoeffer/Eberhard Bethge relationship as portrayed in his biography Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

In an interview at Religion and Politics, Marsh was asked this:

I want to switch gears to a more personal aspect of the book. You make the case that Bonhoeffer experienced a kind of romantic love or attraction to his best friend Eberhard. While you write that the relationship remained chaste, the notion that Bonhoeffer might have been gay has received a lot of attention in some quarters. So number one, I wondered, was this finding a surprise to you in your research? And what have you made of reactions to it?

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How to Narrate Complexity

I finally watched Desire of the Everlasting Hills, a recent hour-long film that’s gotten a lot of attention in our circles of late. It tells the stories of three Catholics who, at least at one time, understood themselves to be homosexual but now, in light of their return to the Church… well, you’ll just have to watch it and see how unpredictable and multi-layered their narratives are. As Eve Tushnet has pointed out, these are by no means simple “ex-gay” stories, but nor, I think, are they exactly the sort of stories we often highlight on this blog. I thought I had heard most everything in our little gay Christian world, but this movie surprised me.

One of the things that especially stood out was the way each of the three subjects managed to narrate complexity at each stage of their journey. It’s one thing to tell a “before and after” story, in which confusion is succeeded by order, or vice versa. But this movie includes genuine mystery and complexity in every chapter; a too-tidy, answer-dispensing resolution never arrives.

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Mourning the Loss of My Friend Chris

Here’s a more immediately personal post than I often write.

I’ve just lost one of my best friends, and I thought it would be appropriate to share here at Spiritual Friendship the remembrance I wrote of him. It’s been posted over at Books & Culture, and you can read the whole thing there. For now, an excerpt:

When I stepped off the train in Oxford, Chris was standing there in the station waiting for me, his face breaking into its characteristic goofy grin when I landed on the platform, but he didn’t stay still longer than it took to give me a tight hug. He pivoted as soon as he released my shoulders, grabbed one of my bags, and sped toward the rental car. We were already late for the adventure he had planned. We were going to drive from Oxford to the little village of Wolvey in Warwickshire, roughly 115 kilometers away, to look for a tombstone.

When Chris was growing up in Oregon, his family employed an Englishman named William Alcott Bailey as a part time gardener and handyman. Chris learned the value of hard work, he said, from Bailey. He learned how to work with his hands and see a yard project through to its finish, but, even more, he learned how to take ownership and pride in his work. He learned those things, specifically, from Bailey. And now, in between his other responsibilities in the UK, lecturing and researching for a new edition of one of C. S. Lewis’ books, he wanted to go looking for Bailey’s grave, as a way of paying tribute to someone that, in retrospect, he viewed as essential to the arc of his childhood. He knew Bailey had spent his childhood in Wolvey, but that was about it. Whatever leads he had had petered out there. We’d just have to look for the tombstone, assuming that Bailey would have wanted to be buried where he grew up.

I wish I could capture the simultaneity of Chris’ fiercely serious fixation on this task and his boyish, smiling enthusiasm for being on a quest. It wasn’t unusual for him—that combination of zeal and playfulness is what had made me want to be friends with him from the beginning—but it was what made Chris unique. And I wasn’t the only one who loved him for it, but, nonetheless, I treasured the feeling that this particular glimpse into it was mine. This was a special trip for just the two of us, a way for me to learn more about my friend’s upbringing and to delight in what made him happy.

We never found William Alcott Bailey’s grave. We traipsed around the overgrown C of E parish cemetery, uncovering some Baileys that Chris was convinced were his Bailey’s relations, but as far as we could tell, there was no “William Alcott.” Undeterred, we went to the pub anyway to toast him. At the Blue Pig just down the road—I still remember sitting across from Chris at our table by the window, with the glint of summer evening sun caught in our pint glasses—we hoisted our ales “to William Alcott Bailey and his good memory.” Afterwards, we lit pipes and walked the length of the empty fields behind the pub and talked. The conversation was vigorous, spirited, meandering, as it always was with Chris, with both of us talking over each other at various junctures, stalled only by moments of concentration for an occasional relight.

Chris later said that trip to Wolvey cemented our friendship. I inwardly beamed whenever I heard him tell the story—as I did many times in the intervening years—to others.

Chris was for many years the director of The Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College and he was for the past year professor of theology at the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He died last Thursday evening, July 10. He was an exemplary scholar, teacher, mentor, and friend to many. But more than that, he was a Christian who believed in the hope of the resurrection. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

On the Need for Gay Christian Role Models

Samuel Ernest is a young blogger whom I haven’t yet had the privilege of meeting, but we’ve corresponded a bit, and I regularly read his sensitive, thoughtful posts with interest. His latest, about his decision to enter The Episcopal Church, was particularly striking. Here’s a portion that stood out to me:

In the 1970’s, when AIDS first began killing off a generation of gay men, my parish provided free burials to anyone claimed by the disease. Gay people go to my church. They are regular attenders—people who have been practicing Christians since before I was born. They are also leaders. One hard part about being gay in [the] denomination [I grew up in] that doesn’t really talk about homosexuality is the difficulty I had in finding role models—people who have wrestled with the questions I’m asking and who can provide insight and wisdom about how to live faithfully while holding those questions. Without such mentors it feels like you always need to be a trailblazer, which might sound exciting sometimes but really is just pretty exhausting and lonely.

Another difficulty I used to have, which I mentioned earlier, was getting stuck dwelling on things like the uncertainty of not knowing how people would treat me if they knew that I was gay (which only increased after I came out on this blog), trying not to say or do anything that might draw negative attention to myself, the persistent thoughts that—wrong though I knew them to be—kept popping up: that I’m different and obtrusive, that I need to retreat. At St. Paul’s I haven’t been so focused on myself and my sexuality because I know that no matter where I end up—in a relationship, with a family, called to celibacy, or just plain single—my church will be there to support me and celebrate life with me. And likewise, I will support the Church I love, not as a trailblazer, but as a servant, whether that be as a layperson, musician, member of the vestry, deacon, or priest.

I’m struck by many things about this, but mainly it prompts me to ask what would have to happen for churches who uphold the historic position on marriage and sexuality (marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman, and sexual abstinence is called for among those outside that covenant) to be places where the appearance of gay role models was normal. My experience was similar to Samuel’s insofar as my church growing up scarcely admitted the existence of gay people, let alone talked about the various possibilities for their sanctified witness among us.

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Spreading the “Spiritual Friendship” News

And one more thing, before I stop blogging for a couple of weeks of vacation!

Here is a conversation I had recently with Katelyn Beaty, published in The Living Church, about (among other things) the Spiritual Friendship blog.

Please do check it out. Here’s an excerpt:

I became interested in the topic [of friendship] because of my concern for the flourishing of gay people in the Church. As someone who is gay, and who holds to the Church’s traditional view — that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman ordered toward the bearing and raising of children — I am committed to celibacy. And I’ve gotten to know many others who are in my shoes, which means that I’ve become interested in how we might learn to practice a healthy and fruitful celibacy.

C.S. Lewis notes that we in the modern world don’t pay nearly as much attention to friendship as we do to romantic love, but Scripture and the Christian tradition challenge us on that point. You can’t read someone like Aelred of Rievaulx or Bonhoeffer and not conclude that friendship is just as honorable, and worthy of time and energy, as marriage and family. Friendship, too, can be a site of sacrifice and devotion, a place where we give and receive genuine love. And for me, that opens up fresh ways of thinking about celibacy. Outside of a monastic context, as someone who lives and works as an ordinary member of an Anglican parish, I am still called, precisely as a celibate man, to make binding commitments and promises to my fellow Christians.

You can click through and read the whole thing here.

Reading Sarah Coakley

One of the most significant books I’ve read recently (or just anytime, period) that has to do with gay Christian whatnot is Sarah Coakley’s new God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’. You can read a very short version of some of its main lines of argument here, and, if you’re interested, you can read my take on the book over at First Things for low price of $1.99 (or why not subscribe?)!

Joshua Gonnerman has already mentioned Coakley’s project here at SF, but I wanted to mention it one more time and draw your attention to a new review of it from Beth Felker Jones. I mention this because I think Felker Jones’ critique of Coakley’s book is especially relevant for the conversations we’re having here at SF.

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