Last week I was in Sydney, Australia (or “Oz,” as they abbreviate/pronounce it!) to give a series of talks. I spoke at two day conferences hosted by Liberty Christian Ministries. I also spoke at Moore Theological College (and some enterprising student wrote up a nice summary of what I said!), as well as St. Barnabas’ Anglican Church and a few other places. (There’s a video here, if you want to see the kinds of things I discussed.) It was a wonderful, refreshing trip—one of the highlights of my entire (relatively short, admittedly) career of public speaking on matters gay and Christian!—and I wanted to talk about a few of the things that stood out to me.
What I think I’ll remember most are two conversations I had with two different small groups of people, not more than 20 or so, after the two day conferences finished. When I was done speaking, I hung out in an upstairs Sunday School classroom at the church where the conference had been held and just chatted with whomever stuck around.
Because these sessions weren’t officially part of the conferences, people felt freer, I think, to raise more troubling, challenging questions. Several people wanted to talk about rejection and hurts they’d received when they came out in their churches. One man said flatly, “Church isn’t a safe place for gay people.” And he said this with one of the ministers of his church sitting right beside him, which I thought was amazing—courageous of both of them, actually. Even more wonderfully, the minister didn’t jump to his church’s defense. He just listened. (How good it would be to have this kind of conversation regularly, I thought afterwards: one where gay people could describe their actual experiences in Christian congregations while the ordained leaders of those churches listen and ponder and don’t offer any quick fixes.)
Others wanted to ask very specific questions about celibacy. What is it like to live long-term with unfulfilled sexual desire? What are the physiological, psychological, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of such abstinence? Is there any research that’s been done on the viability of celibacy for gay Christians? How do you avoid, or deal with, patterns of chronic lust? What books and resources are there to help with these questions? (I mentioned titles by the psychologist Richard Sipe, Benedict Groeschel, and Henri Nouwen. I also mentioned John Piper’s ANTHEM strategy for battling lustful fantasies, as well as the sort of stuff Joshua Gonnerman has written about so helpfully here.)
Still others wanted to ask about what committed or even vowed friendship might look like for celibate gay Christians, as well as for those who aren’t gay. What distinguishes such friendships from marriage? (This started us talking about procreation, among other things.) What stigma might conservative churches attach to such friendships? What potential temptations might come with such relationships? (To which I’d want to add, what potential temptations might come if gay Christians don’t find such friendships?) I talked about Sarah and Lindsey’s blog, A Queer Calling. I also talked about my own current experience of a very sustaining friendship with a married couple—an experience I describe in a little more depth in my new book (which will be out next month!). The husband in that couple, Aidan, was actually there in the room. He came with me on the trip to Sydney, and it was so helpful for the group to hear his perspective, too, after I said, “This is how I, personally, am finding celibacy a pathway of love at the moment. I’m finding it to be so, in large part, through my friendship with Aidan and his wife Melanie.” Aidan was able to say how it looks from his and Mel’s side of things—what their commitment to me feels like, not just my commitment to them.
At one point during the second session, the pastor of the church who had been standing quietly near the back spoke up. “Wes,” he interjected, and everyone turned around to look at him, “it strikes me that what you’re describing is something my parents lived out.” He went on to tell a story (and here, of course, I’m paraphrasing from memory): “There was a single woman who lived next door to them for many years. Over time, they grew closer and closer. Eventually, they simply said out loud what was happening—namely, that she had become a part of the family. They even typed up a certificate that declared her permanent a part of their family, and they hung it on the wall. When the opportunity came for them to move away to a different town, they ended up choosing to stay because of their friendship with their neighbor. That friendship had become so significant to them (she had become like an aunt to us kids), and they knew also that their single friend had come to rely on them for her daily companionship, that they decided they couldn’t leave her. And so they stayed.”
I imagine my face was split into the widest possible grin in that moment. What this pastor was describing is exactly the sort of thing I’m trying to promote in the church. The kind of friendship that is deep, intimate, familial, and sacrificial.
Later that day, after returning to my hotel, I checked my email and saw that the pastor had sent me a photo of the certificate his parents had made for their friend. It read:
May it be known that
having been a dear friend
to the undersigned for a decade,
is this day proclaimed an
of the [Name] Family
entitling her to all the rights
and privileges of such membership.
The time between when that certificate was signed and framed and when that single friend died was fourteen years. To hear the pastor describe it, those were some of the most significant years of his parents and that friend’s lives.
The idea of that certificate lingered like an afterimage in my imagination as we left the church that afternoon, and I suspect it did for many of the rest of the attendees too. I keep hoping for the day when stories like that will seem less remarkable, less unusual. But in the meantime, I’m just glad they’re happening.