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.
It’s all well and good to say that friendship is a vital tool that one needs in order to progress with long-term celibacy. I think, however, it needs to be mentioned that friendship isn’t exactly something that one can engineer for oneself. Friendships with other people just happen. It’s exceedingly lucky that the author of this post has found friends who are willing to sustain him in his celibacy. But, that doesn’t always happen either. In my case, the only friends I had to stick around, are precisely the gay men and women who would not think to encourage me in celibacy. Everyone else is either anonymous or distant. In fact, I’m never more alone than when I go to church (this is not for lack of trying; I’ve got involved in the parish’s religious education, went on several retreats, organized bake sales, but in the end, when the “project” is over with, people separate into their own cliques and go their separate ways). The temptation is to say that such friendships are nice if you can get them, but they don’t happen often and you’d best be prepared to go it alone since celibacy will be required of you whether you have a friend to help you or not.
I think that’s a fair assessment of the atmosphere many, if not most, gay/ssa Christians who are trying to be celibate will encounter in churches that hold to a traditional sexual ethic.
“In fact, I’m never more alone than when I go to church (this is not for lack of trying; I’ve got involved in the parish’s religious education, went on several retreats, organized bake sales, but in the end, when the “project” is over with, people separate into their own cliques and go their separate ways). The temptation is to say that such friendships are nice if you can get them, but they don’t happen often…”
I think this is a fair assessment of the atmosphere many *people* will encounter in churches. I am a straight married woman, attending a church that professes to be committed to community, and my husband and I both long for the kind of friendships Wes describes. But please let me hasten to say: I readily agree that gay/ssa Christians who are trying to be celibate bear the brunt of this tendency.
Let me also hasten to say: I don’t think it’s a reason for Christians, gay or straight, to stop trying to build beautiful, committed friendships. I have experienced friendships like that, and they truly changed my life. I have also experienced the catastrophic failure of those friendships, and that changed my life too.
I don’t at all regret the years I spent building those friendships, and I would do it again. I’m just more aware of the brokenness now. I don’t really have any answers for that. I just kind of wish you guys could all come hang out at our house. You’d be so welcome.
I agree. Once I came out as gay, my Christian friends slowly cut me off. Few of these friends pushed me away immediately. But over the course of months, they all steadily excised me from their lives. The only friends who stayed with me were my non-Christian friends. In fact, I can’t identify a single non-Christian friend who treats me any differently today than before I came out. In fact, several have noted that my coming out helped them have a more complete picture of me and helped them understand me better. In contrast, every last one of my Christian friends has distanced himself or herself from me. If I were living in sin, I could understand this. But when I’m not, I fend it hard to understand.
Therefore, I hesitate to give too much credence to the gay celibate Christian narrative. Living out that narrative requires one to be plugged into a Christian social network capable of providing genuine friendship without regard to sexual orientation. In my experience, it’s fairly difficult to find such churches or such Christians.
In many ways, I fear that the church’s engagement in the Culture Wars has changed the church in such a way that it’s difficult for many Christians not to identify gay people as an enemy. Being a gay person in an evangelical church probably feels something like being a Japanese-American farmer in California in 1942. No matter how much you profess your fidelity, the fog of war makes it hard for people to trust you. I get it.
As for me, I generally just listen to Tim Keller sermons instead of going to church. Attending church has simply become too isolating and too disheartening. Like it or not, most evangelicals can no longer distinguish between the Gospel and the moralistic principles of the family-values movement. And there are a number of leaders, such as those connected with CBMW, who seem intent on preserving the confusion. So, I’m not sure that hay Christians are left with too many decent options. I have no objection to the celibate gay Christian narrative if one is sufficiently fortunate to be surrounded by strong Christian friends whose brotherhood prevents that path from devolving into narcissistic navel-gazing. But most of us are not so fortunate.
I don’t believe that same-sex marriage is the solution to the problem. Nor do I see it as an ideal to which gay people should aspire. Even so, what do we do when our churches effectively excommunicate us without even the benefit of a charge or the pretense of a trial? What do we do when our Christian friends come to treat us as though such a judgment had been issued against us? I do think that it makes sense to explore the possibility of vowed friendships. And, for the time being, it’s likely that those may well look a lot like same-sex marriages without the sex. And, for that reason, it will be difficult, if not almost impossible, to receive affirmation of such friendships in most evangelical churches. But I think it’s something worth exploring and worth examining. I think we should also explore the practicalities of how to meet and connect.
I also wonder whether moving isn’t good advice sometimes. I currently live in Chicago, where people still follow a fairly conventional life script. When I date women here, I find that the conversations go nowhere. If I mention that I’m queer, it’s over. But I’ve been traveling to San Diego a lot for work this year. In San Diego (La Jolla), I feel like I connect pretty well with women. I’ve mentioned that I was queer a few times, and they weren’t phased. It makes me think that there may be more flexibility for finding a workable script in some places rather than in others. It may be worth it simply to move to the Coast.
This breaks my heart. Personally, I affirm the sanctity and the beauty of relationships formed by gay people; so in one of way, I see suffering like you’ve descibed as unjust. And I believe that, in large measure, the isolation you articulate is the natural result of the traditional teaching (which is, as evangelical theologian and ethicist David Gushee recently described it, the teaching of contempt for gay people).
That said, the Church is horrible at being family to single people (and I include myself in that judgement). That’s especially true for single people over the age of thirty-five. That’s where I have agreement with Wes Hill. This vision he’s painting, while not reality, is within the realm of the possible. But that means that married couples need to live into our responsibility for the community that supports us in our marriages. The problem is that the single person can only do so much to forge these familial relationships.
Wishing you peace and blessings,
Thanks for the response.
I definitely think that Wes’s model falls within the realm of the plausible. But finding such connections is no easy task. A few years ago, Peter Leithart wrote a great piece in First Things entitled “Intrusive Third Parties” that looks at the third-party orientation of traditional (pre-1880) marriage. But, as Leithart notes, that model of marriage has largely been rejected, even by evangelicals.
In many ways, I fear that the church has morphed into something a fertility cult, where singles and married couples without kids are systematically ostracized and neglected.
Evan’s comment should be a post.
I feel you. I’ve had some non-Christian friends get excited when I come out to them. All of my coming out to Christians, though, hasn’t been bad, thank God! I wish yours were more like that.
Also, I have come out to the pastor and his wife at Near West Vineyard in Chicago, and they both were supportive and hold to a traditional sexual ethic. You should check them out!
No one said much negative to me to my face, although some of my discussions with my pastor were tense. Further, because I was single and didn’t have kids, many of those relationships had started to wane a bit anyway. They just slowly cut me out of their lives.
I don’t mean to imply that this was necessarily because of bigotry. I talked to one couple about their having pushed me away as a friend. They responded that they just didn’t know how to support me. They felt torn between how our church would want them to support me and their gut feelings. Namely, they knew the church would want them to support my living a celibate life or entering into a mixed-orientation marriage, but they had personal reservations about the merits of those options.
Sadly this has also been my experience to date irksome. All of my closest friends are straight and atheist. I love them but this creates a real problem for me in that there is no one with whom I can share my faith and my struggle. I have been attending a church for nearly two years now and have formed no real friendships there. I am currently weighing the pros and cons of attending another parish and starting over.
Very nice article. I must say that you are starting to change my perspective. And I agree that friendship should be deep, intimate, familial, and sacrificial.
Part of my struggle is sharing with people I am already close to, have strong family like relationship with, but worry the friendships will change if i fully disclose that aspect.