Some Clarifications Regarding Sexual Orientation and Spiritual Friendship

In contemporary Western culture, it’s common to describe oneself as gay, straight, or bi, depending on whether one’s sexual attractions are primarily directed to the same sex, the opposite sex, or both sexes. This way of thinking is so pervasive that it is difficult to avoid either the terminology or the assumptions behind it.

As I have said before, I think that the contrast between carnal and spiritual friendship, as described by Aelred of Rievaulx, ultimately provides a more helpful framework for understanding Christian teaching on same-sex friendship and homosexuality than the framework that categorizes people based on sexual orientation. However, sexual orientation categories are difficult to avoid. It’s not just a matter of words used: it’s also a matter of much deeper assumptions that shape the way people interpret their experience.

School of Athens

In this post, I want to examine these categories more closely. Doing so will, I hope, provide insight into why the writers at Spiritual Friendship have been willing to engage with—and how we have tried to challenge—the categories of sexual orientation and sexual identity in contemporary culture.

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To Celibacy!—Part 2

As I related in a recent post, I made a vow, six years ago, to be celibate. I invited a hundred friends and family together for the ceremony. Friends did a skit about my journey out of the closet, Jesse sang Orphan Girl, Dan sang If it Be Your Will, Debbie preached from Scripture and quoted Jayber Crow, and Dale officiated as I made promises. Afterwards we ate, danced, and testified.

The Closet-1

I’ve wondered if I made too big a deal of it. Did I try to valorize a simple step of obedience that God was asking me to take? Was it an enormous exercise of ego? Was it my inner drama queen coming out? Was it a jealous, “I’m gonna have my wedding day too?”

I’m sure my pride was a motivating factor. But here is the outcome I didn’t expect: on that day I felt overwhelmingly, euphorically, well-loved. I emerged from that day feeling commissioned, blessed, humbled by care, and stuffed full of grace.

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“Chaste, Gay Couples” and the Church

I’ve noticed curiosity recently about the idea of “chaste, gay couples”—couples who accept the Church’s historic teaching on sexuality, yet live together in an exclusive, committed partnership.

Celibate, LGBT, Christian couple Lindsey and Sarah have been blogging for just over a year now at A Queer Calling—an excellent resource that is popular with many people I know (including myself). Eve Tushnet devotes space to talking about “vowed friendships” in her new book Gay and Catholic (I think Tushnet is talking about something slightly different from couplehood—but this point has been lost on some of her critics). And, late last year, the Anchoress hosted a discussion at Patheos entitled, “Homosexuality, Celibacy and Partnership: An Awkward Question,” in which Ben Conroy asks:

If we accept some of the distinctions these writers [at Spiritual Friendship] have made—that to be gay is not reducible to what the catechism calls “deep-seated homosexual tendencies”, that being gay can be a call to particular, unique kinds of virtue, that the modern, Western notion of sexual and romantic partnership has appropriated kinds of love that historically were also found in non-sexual relationships—doesn’t that open up a space for the idea of a committed, lifelong, celibate partnership between two gay people as being a valid vocation, a holy thing, a place where virtue and love might flourish? [emphasis in original]

Two Friends

I can’t possibly hope to answer that question fully now, so what I offer here are two pointers for further conversation about this issue. One is positive, the other cautionary, since I’ve noticed two common reactions to the idea of chaste couplehood—firstly, censorious condemnations from right-wing Christians, but also, over-enthusiasm from some young gay Christians.

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To Celibacy—Part 1

Editor’s Note: When the founders and regular writers at Spiritual Friendship originally got together, we united around the following statement: “God created us male and female, and His plan for sexual intimacy is only properly fulfilled in the union of husband and wife in marriage.” But we also recognize that there are many folks in the church who are still trying to come to grips with traditional Christian sexual ethics and aren’t as certain as we are of what they embrace. Others are pretty sure that we at SF are wrong, and so they are instead upholding what’s come to be called a “Side A” stance (that God blesses monogamous, faithful same-sex sexual partnerships). Those of us who edit and write regularly at SF haven’t changed our views at all, but we do from time to time want to offer a platform to friendly dissenters.

Tim OttoTim Otto (MTS, Duke Divinity School), the pastor for teaching and preaching at Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco, is someone who identifies as gay, Christian, and “Side A,” but he’s also celibate. And Tim has remarkably insightful things to say about celibacy—things that we believe our readers would want to hear and think about. So, although we and Tim aren’t in complete agreement, we want to share two recent reflections he’s written on his vow of celibacy with which we are in agreement. We want to share these two posts because we believe they’re compassionate, humane, insightful, and worth pondering. We at SF are grateful for Tim Otto’s friendship, and we commend these posts to you for prayerful consideration. If you are interested in more, you may want to check out his book, Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict over Gay Relationships. You can also follow him on Twitter at @Tim_Otto or on Facebook— Wesley Hill

I made a vow, six years ago, to be celibate. The night before the vow I went with friends to a trendy Tapas bar in San Francisco. Next to us a group of frat guys were making loud, boisterous toasts. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and soon we were lifting our glasses with them. At one point my friend, the mischievous Michael, hoisted his glass and bellowed, “To Celibacy!”

CC by Quinn Dombrowski SA -2.0Everyone lifted their glasses and yelled, “Hear, hear!” and then those at the next table began muttering about what they had heard. “What?” “What did he say?” they asked each other.

Now, six years later I find myself asking, “What?” “What have I done?” It is not that I want to renounce the vow. I made the vow thoughtfully; I took the vow knowing it was the next faithful step for me in following Jesus. But as some of my married friends testify, the cost of a promise only becomes evident in the keeping of it.

I’m grieving the sacrifices it entails. I feel guilty about this. My church relates to Christians in South Sudan and as I write this I know that hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and are living in refugee camps. At its best, knowledge like that helps me keep a sense of perspective on the losses I feel. But I’ve found that if I’m not honest about my perceived losses, I descend into an oppressive, grey cloud. So I will name them and grieve them:

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Bisexuality and the Spiritual Friendship Conversation

Over a year ago, I wrote a post recounting my experience as a bisexually-attracted man. That post was mostly a reflection on my own experience, with some takeaways coming from that. I’ve been thinking for a while about writing a “part two” discussing how this interfaces with questions of the Christian faith and the broader conversation that Spiritual Friendship is contributing to. I recommend reading my first post before this one if you haven’t already.

Given that I do frequently experience attraction, including sexual desire, towards women, marriage is a significant eventual possibility for my life. Although every marriage has its difficulties, I don’t expect that I’d have significant difficulties resulting specifically from being married to a woman. One could describe me as “celibate” on account of the fact that I’m single and sexually abstinent, but my convictions do not point me toward lifelong celibacy as strongly as for others on here. This state in life may well be much more transient for me. So does this mean that the conversation happening on Spiritual Friendship is less relevant to people like me?

I don’t think so. One thing I’ve really appreciated about how Ron and Wes have run Spiritual Friendship is the way they have intentionally cultivated a conversation that is broader than celibacy. Two of our contributors, Kyle Keating and Melinda Selmys, have written about their experiences in marriages to people of the opposite sex. I’ve learned a lot from them, as well as from other people in similar situations, about what healthy marriages can look like when one spouse is a sexual minority.

There is also a great deal I share in common with celibate gay Christians, simply by virtue of being someone who experiences same-sex attraction and has traditional Christian convictions about sexual ethics.

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St. Gregory of Nazianzus: Two bodies, but a single spirit

Today is the feast (at least in the modern Roman calendar) of Sts. Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil the Great. In the West, Basil and Gregory are recognized as Doctors of the Church, while in the East, they are—along with St. John Crysostom—recognized as the Three Holy Hierarchs.

Icon of the Three Holy Hierarchs

Icon of the Three Holy Hierarchs: St. Basil the Great (left), St. John Chrysostom (center) and St Gregory of Nazianzus (right)

Today’s Office of Readings includes this excerpt from one of Gregory’s sermons about his friendship with Basil:

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What Is “Gay”?

Several months ago, I got into a discussion with Wes Hill and Matt Anderson about Wes’s post, Is Being Gay Sanctifiable? At the time, I drafted a post in response to that conversation, but did not have time to polish it for publication. In light of the more recent discussions of language (including Wes’s On Disagreeing About “Homosexuality”: A Thought Experiment and Matt’s Can Christians be gay? An Inquiry), I decided to revise and expand the draft.

I want to reflect on what the word “gay” is about—that is, what experience or set of experiences does it point to? (I also want to ask similar questions about “friendship.”) But before doing so, I want us to think about a very different example: the word “ship.” Consider Eustace Scrubb’s response when he found himself magically transported into Narnia and embarked on the Dawn Treader. He wrote in his diary,

It’s madness to come out into the sea in a rotten little thing like this. Not much bigger than a lifeboat. And, of course, absolutely primitive indoors. No proper saloon, no radio, no bathrooms, no deck-chairs. I was dragged all over it yesterday evening and it would make anyone sick to hear Caspian showing off his funny little toy boat as if it was the Queen Mary. I tried to tell him what real ships are like, but he’s too dense.

For Eustace, “ship” referred to a modern ocean modern liner like the Queen Mary; while for the Narnians, “ship” meant a small sailing vessel like the Dawn Treader. The word is the same, and certain key elements of the concept are the same, but what the word is about is different.

MV Coho in Victoria Harbour. Photo by Steve Voght via Wikimedia Commons.

MV Coho in Victoria Harbour. Photo by Steve Voght via Wikimedia Commons.

When, as a boy, I read Luke’s description of the Apostle Paul’s journey on a “ship” (in Acts 20-21), I imagined him getting on board something like the MV Coho (above), which I rode several times a year from Port Angeles to Victoria and back again. When I got a little older and realized that Paul had been on a sailing ship, my mental imagery tended to be drawn from the ships of the Age of Discovery, because that was the kind of sailing ship I most frequently encountered in my non-Biblical reading.

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On the Expectation of Change

A recent World Magazine article centers on the hiring of Julie Rodgers at Wheaton College. Julie is a self-described celibate gay Christian who works as an associated in the chaplain’s office at the college. I consider Julie a friend, and I am an alumni of Wheaton (’98) and I have served as an adjunct professor there for the past decade. I also blog occasionally at Spiritual Friendship which is mentioned in the article.

Julie RodgersI was surprised to see my research cited in the article about the hiring of Julie. The way the argument was set up was to express concern for Wheaton as the flagship evangelical college hiring a staff member who is known to be gay and who actually uses the word “gay” as an adjective to describe herself to others. Julie had spent about 10 years in Exodus International attempting to change her sexual orientation, and I have spoken with Julie on several occasions about this. She is gracious and positive about her own personal experience with the Exodus member ministries she participated in. However, speaking graciously about involvement in a ministry and declaring that it made her straight are two different things. She, like many other people who have attempted to change, did not experience a dramatic shift in her attractions as a result of ministry.

In my view, the article would serve the Body of Christ better if it were about this reality.

I am co-author of the study cited in the World magazine article about Julie and Wheaton. That study was published in book form in 2007 and then again as a peer-reviewed journal article in 2011, after six years of attempted change. If I were to summarize my view of the findings, I would put it this way: While on average people reported a modest shift along a continuum of attraction, most people did not experience as much of a shift as they would have liked, particularly as people entering ministry envision change as a 180-degree shift from gay to straight.

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What’s Next for Love and Marriage?

I published a column in Notre Dame’s Observer today. The Observer has had some debate over marriage in recent weeks, and I thought I would give some thoughts from a gay Catholic perspective:

The first dozen times I came out I cried. For many of my friends, it was the first time they had seen me cry. Ever. A high school friend once told me that I had two emotions: happy, and more happy. She was wrong. I felt a lot of things, but I had to hide them.

Before coming out, many LGBT kids worry that all love is conditional: conditional upon a secret, conditional upon an unmanifested condition, conditional upon being normal. Reading Tyrel London’s viewpoint, “Overcoming Hate” brought back memories of my undergraduate years. Almost no one knew. I suffered. At one point, an evaluator through health services said I may be suffering from major depression, PTSD, social phobia and agoraphobia. The screening urged me to contact a mental health professional. I started looking at graduation requirements at other universities. A semester abroad eventually gave me an escape from Notre Dame without having to answer awkward questions.

The semester away helped me to finally share my secret. Coming out was painful for me. It was painful, not because I was rejected, but because I was accepted. When you spend so much time fearing rejection, acceptance is something that cuts deep into you. It hurts to be loved in the places you’ve been ashamed of. I found acceptance, and I started to accept myself. But even after receiving acceptance from my friends and family, many questions were unanswered. How do I move forward? What does it mean to be gay and Catholic? How do I love?

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The Fruit of Traditional Teaching

Photo by MarkusHagenlocher via Wikimedia CommonsOne of the most common ways to argue against the traditional sexual ethic is to cite all the negative consequences that are said to flow directly from it. For example, people point to the high rates of depression and suicide among sexual minorities who grow up within conservative religious communities, and they also remind us that even those who don’t face the most severe mental health consequences still often deal with isolation, fear, shame, and stigma.

The basic argument is this: if we are to judge teachings by their fruit, then we can judge the traditional view of sexual ethics as wrong and immoral.

A common knee-jerk reaction I see from some conservatives is a denial of the problems. I’ve heard several people argue that these claims are just smokescreens for people who want to justify immoral behavior.

I don’t know if I can put this strongly enough: the problems cited are very real, and to deny their existence is to be extraordinarily calloused and unloving. I’ve even experienced some of them, like the fear and shame, myself. And I’ve heard enough stories to know that even the more serious ones like suicidal ideation are shockingly common.

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