Yesterday was my friend and housemate Aidan’s first Sunday to serve as the priest at a new parish. I attended the service along with Melanie, Aidan’s wife, and their daughter (my goddaughter) Felicity, sitting in a pew near the front and helping Mel with the fidgety two-year-old.
During the announcements, Aidan introduced himself to the congregation and then pointed to our pew. “This is my family,” he said. He asked Mel and Felicity to stand up and said, “Mel is my wife, and Felicity is my daughter.” And then he indicated that I should stand too. “And this is our friend Wes. We live in Christian community. Wes shares our home and is Felicity’s godfather.”
When I told another friend about what Aidan did, he replied that it was “a public declaration that ‘We all belong together.’” Precisely.
One of the most controversial workshops at last year’s Revoice conference — in the weeks leading up the conference, conservative Christian bloggers and podcasters criticized it mercilessly for what they felt certain it would argue — was titled “Redeeming Queer Culture,” and you can now watch it here on YouTube.
When the workshop began in a small chapel at the church where the conference was held, every seat was taken. (I made sure to get there early so I could sit near the front.) The presenter — a young evangelical named Grant Hartley who talked about the challenges of growing up gay in the rural Midwest — gave a potted history of gay life in America from the 1950s through the plague years. He insisted that traditionalist Christians shouldn’t give up their belief that gay sex is morally forbidden by Scripture, but he was equally certain that gay history and culture was about much more than sex and unbridled lust. Kicked out of homes and churches, gay people created alternative communities and took care of one another, he said, describing institutions like the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in New York and The Body Politic, an alternative newspaper. Whatever else marked gay life in the mid-twentieth century, Grant contended that solidarity in the face of bigotry and mistreatment lay near its heart.
Using the theological category of “common grace,” the general benevolence that God bestows on all peoples and cultures, regardless of whether they are Christian, Grant asked his audience what signposts and foretastes of a yet-unknown saving grace might be present already within queer communities — foretastes which might allow for fruitful dialogue and friendship between LGBTQ folks and those Christians who remain alienated from them. The notion of “chosen family” — long prized by LGBTQ people who have lost, sometimes forcibly, ties with their own biological kin — is, Grant suggested, one such signpost or foretaste. Citing Jesus’ own countercultural redefinition of family (“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother”), Grant asked, “What could happen if we learned from LGBT people about the intricacies and practicalities of chosen family?” And, vice versa, what might happen if LGBT people could see that this most beautiful aspect of their own lives could find elevation and transformation, rather than simple erasure, through Jesus Christ?
Listening to this proposal, I was struck by just how far removed it is from what Revoice’s critics took it to be about. Owen Strachan, director of the Center for Public Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, decried Grant’s workshop (before it even occurred!) with characteristic bluntness: “We cannot now try to sanctify what Scripture presents as ungodly. We cannot marry paganism and Christianity. We cannot think that our fallenness, our depraved condition, is in any way good and praiseworthy.” But that’s a far cry from what Grant was up to in his workshop. Gay sexual sin, like any other sin, will be banished, not salvaged, in God’s eschatological future. But the glimmers of longing for the good, the true, and the beautiful — implanted by God in queer communities, as in every other culture — can be lures that God uses to beckon his wayward children home. Sin can’t be redeemed, but the lives and loves of sinners certainly can be.
After Grant’s session (my favorite I attended at Revoice), I found myself recalling the time from my own evangelical upbringing when my parents read aloud to my siblings and me the now-classic missionary biography Peace Child by Don Richardson. The book tells the story of the Richardson family’s arrival in Dutch New Guinea in 1962 and their subsequent efforts to preach the gospel among the Sawi tribe. While Richardson made progress in learning the tribe’s language and began to try to communicate the Christian message to the Sawi with little initial fruit to show for it, the tribe itself was locked in bitter conflict with neighboring villages, to the point of bloodshed. What eventually led to a truce was a revival of the practice of these tribes’ exchanging children with one another. The gift of a child, quite literally, enacted reconciliation. For Richardson, this represented a breakthrough, a point of contact (as missiologists call it) between an unevangelized culture and the gospel. “The principle we discerned,” writes Richardson, “was that God had already provided for the evangelization of these people by means of redemptive analogies in their own culture,” adding that these analogies served as “stepping-stones, the secret entryway by which the gospel came into the Sawi culture.”
Don Richardson’s evangelism perhaps illumines the significance of Grant’s session at Revoice as much as anything. Paralleling Richardson’s life among the Sawi tribe, Revoice attendees like Grant have come to love queer culture and communities. LGBTQ people are “our people,” we feel. Although our renunciation of gay sex may seem strange to most LGBTQ people today, we aren’t thereby deterred from wanting to go on knowing these friends, learning from them, and loving them — and having them love us back. Our goal isn’t somehow to baptize sexual acts we believe to be sinful; on this we submit to what Nate Collins, the founder of Revoice, calls “the Great Tradition.” What we want, instead, is to talk about how the longing for intimacy that every queer person experiences is fulfilled, not simply overcome, when we put our faith in the One who called himself our “friend” (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34; John 15:15). Paradoxically, His love may make us more peculiar — more queer — rather than less.
Conley’s story is in some ways discomfitingly similar to mine. He was the son of a Baptist preacher in Arkansas and realized he was gay sometime during his teenage years. I was the son of the most devout lay Baptists you could imagine, and, also from Arkansas, I knew I was gay from about the age of 13. My own brush with so-called “conversion therapy” was negligible compared to Conley’s, but I did imbibe a lot of its ideas over the radio waves during my adolescence. As I would later write when I was in my mid-twenties:
I remember listening to James Dobson’s Focus on the Family radio broadcast occasionally with my mother as we rode somewhere in the car together. My ears would perk up when the subject of homosexuality came up, which it did often, since this was the mid-’90s, and the “gay rights” movement was gaining steam. Dobson talked a lot about the “causes” of homosexuality — childhood sexual abuse, an emotionally distant father, the absence of affectionate male role models. I remember scrutinizing my past and present experiences. Did I fit these categories? I had never been sexually abused by anyone, let alone my parents. Was I close enough to my dad? I could think of one time I tried to initiate a weekly time of reading Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline with him and praying together, but it flopped. Plus, I never learned to play golf with him, nor did I want to take up deer hunting, as he seemed to hope I would sometimes. Did that mean I was suffering from a lack of paternal intimacy?
Dobson was one of the biggest promoters of the kind of therapeutic approaches depicted harrowingly and powerfully in Boy Erased. He advocated a popularized, lightly Christianized version of the Freudian origin story for same-sex desire. If homosexuality in boys is traceable to the toxic cocktail of an overbearing mother and a distant father, then it stood to reason that it could be treated — or even prevented. (Dobson viewed this as a compassionate, pastoral approach compared to the one that said to gay people, “You’re choosing to be gay, so, just stop it.”)
We don’t attach other modifiers to our Christian faith when the modifier in question originates with sin or natures that are the product of the fall. We should no more endorse “gay Christianity” or “gay identity” than we should alcoholic Christianity, racist Christianity, or slanderous Christianity. We ought not modify our Christian walk with attributes born of fallen desires.
In the first place, it takes no account of the way we “Side B” folks have qualified — again and again and again and… — what “gay” means to us. David himself qualifies it carefully in his book:
The word gay does not necessarily refer to sexual behavior; it can just as easily refer to one’s sexual preference or orientation and say nothing, one way or the other, about how one is choosing to express that orientation. So, whereas “stealing Christian” describes a believer who actively steals as an acted behavior, “gay Christian” may simply refer to one’s orientation and nothing more. This is why I rarely, if ever, use the phrase gay Christian without adding the adjective celibate, meaning committed to a life of chasteness in Christ. To call myself a celibate gay Christian specifies both my sexual orientation and the way I’m choosing to live it out.
Over a lunch last summer, a new friend and I discovered that we had a mutual friend in David Bennett, a current doctoral student at Oxford and a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. I have known David for a few years as a thoughtful writer and a delightfully larger-than-life personality. He has written powerfully about his conversion from atheism — he worked as a non-religious gay activist in his native Australia before migrating to the UK — to Christianity. And, as someone who accepts the historic Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality, David has also written movingly about his calling to a life of celibacy and the way he tries to live out that calling in community.
As we swapped anecdotes about David, my new friend paused and said, “At heart, David is an evangelist.” I immediately nodded. Although David is many things (a catholic reader, a charismatic “prayer warrior,” an enthusiastic host and friend-maker), he is, above all, someone who loves those who don’t (yet) love Jesus. He is, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, a herald of the good news. He wants you to know that Jesus has invaded his life — and can transform yours too.
Imagine a gay comedian like Stephen Fry writing a conversion memoir like C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy or Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy, and you’ll have some idea of the laughter and the tears that await you in these exuberant, aching, Jesus-obsessed pages. David Bennett has found that, far from eliminating his love for men, Christ’s call to take up his cross and follow the path of celibacy has led him deeper into love. David’s story of embracing that call is disarming, captivating, and — most of all — hope-giving.
I mean that endorsement, and I hope it might entice you to pick up the book.
And congratulations to you, David, on your pub day!
In a line that’s become a kind of mantra among Revoice attendees and presenters, the celibate lesbian Catholic writer Eve Tushnet has said: “[Y]ou can’t have a vocation of not-gay-marrying and not-having-sex. You can’t have a vocation of No.” What Revoice offers—and, please God, will go on offering for years to come—is a way of thinking Christianly about homosexuality and other non-straight sexual orientations that moves beyond enumerating the sins we’re called to renounce. Revoice is trying to pose the deeper question: To which forms of love and friendship and service are we called to say yes?
In the mornings lately I’ve been reading through the book of Exodus with the help of Fr. Thomas Joseph White’s commentary, and today I came to his discussion of the Sixth Commandment. In the course of discussing its ramifications, White says this:
Homosexuality refers to sexual relations between men or between women who are attracted to members of the same sex. Homosexual acts are closed to the transmission of human life and do not originate from a genuine biological and affective complementarity. They cannot participate, therefore, in the basic goods proper to married love. For that reason, the Bible treats them as intrinsically disordered sexual acts. They are unchaste and contrary to the natural law.
The Torah does not ignore the fact that there are many human beings who experience a predominant or exclusive attraction to members of the same sex. Quite frequently people with strong homosexual inclinations do not choose their condition and experience it as a trial. Scripture affirms unequivocally that each human being is created in the image of God and possesses and intrinsic dignity, such that he or she is due respect, affability, and love. This is no less true for people who commit or who are tempted to commit homosexual acts. With regard to the weaknesses that befall human beings in the domain of human sexuality, it is best to recall the saying: “For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom. 11:32). Human beings are frequently morally frail in matters of sexuality and should be looked upon in the light of God’s complete truth, which implies his compassion and mercy.
This strikes me as a succinct and lucid statement of what Christians have traditionally believed about homosexuality. But I was struck afresh, this morning, by the double emphasis here.
In the first place, yes, same-sex sex acts are inherently (not circumstantially) immoral (i.e., in the classic language, “intrinsically disordered”), and that is part of what Christians are given to say in the world. But we are always also called to say another thing, and that is this: The people who perform those acts, or who want to, are fearfully and wonderfully made. They are beloved of God, and they should be loved, honored, and and sheltered by all of us who name the name of Christ too. The problem, though, is that so many of us downplay or omit one or the other of these two truths when we speak about homosexuality.
There’s an apocryphal Luther quote that goes like this:
If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the Word of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Him.
Conservative Christians are fond of using this quote to insist that we must stand up for the truth of the historic Christian sexual ethic even as it is being attacked in contemporary Western cultures, and that to fail to do so is to fail to be orthodox, faithful, biblical. And, in a mainline Protestant church like the one I belong to, I feel the force of this. These days it can seem easy to preach Christ in every way but the way that He challenges progressive sexual mores. It can feel like taking the easy road to harp on Fr. White’s second paragraph in the excerpt above rather than the first.
And yet “the world” that “Luther” mentions in that quote is not always the world of progressive secularism/liberalism. Sometimes “the world” attacks the truth of Christ on the second point that Fr. White mentions — by tempting Christians to demean, disdain, ignore, overburden, or otherwise harm LGBTQ people. “The world” and “the devil” can manifest themselves in so-called “progressivism,” yes—and they can manifest themselves just as easily whenever a Christian heaps shame on LGBTQ people (“There’s something more askew in your life than there is in that of heterosexuals,” is what a pastor once told me), or offers a quick solution to their complex dilemmas (“Just get married!” is literally the advice I saw from a conservative Christian last week, as if I haven’t ever considered that possibility), or caricatures their sex lives (“Gay culture is inherently promiscuous”), or damages their faith (“If you want healing from same-sex attraction, it is available, and you have only to say yes,” I have been promised by Christians numerous times), or in any number of other ways attacks their dignity. If you are in a so-called conservative church and you are loudly proclaiming the truth about homosexuality at every point but at the point where that truth insists on the worth and lovability of LGBTQ people — if you are binding up heavy burdens on them and not lifting a finger to help (cf. Matthew 23:4) — then you are not proclaiming Christian truth, no matter how much you may seize the high ground and claim otherwise.
Christian truth is a many-splendored thing, and we can fail to let its facets gleam in characteristically “progressive” ways as well as in “conservative” ones.
Ignoring the standard U.S. wedding magazine checklist, filled with inconceivable items like second lingerie fittings, my then-fiancée Johanna made a simple checklist: food, decorations, music, readers, a priest. Next to every item, she wrote the names of our friends.
I balked at putting our friends to work, but for Johanna, it wasn’t even a question. “That’s the best part. They actually get to spend time with the bride and groom during the preparations. You might only get five minutes with them at the actual wedding. Besides,” she added, “I helped out at all their weddings.”
When she set up shop at her grandmother’s house a few days before the wedding, several of her friends joined her. A law student who had previously studied cooking began to bake the desserts and cake. A couple arrived with their baby tucked in their backseat alongside a PA system, dance-floor lights, and a keg of homebrew. They were joined by more Swedes, and soon there were more than a dozen family members and friends working side-by-side. We made decorations and prepared the food, pausing for a meal or to go swimming in the sea before continuing with the preparations. Even the Americans got in on the act: our friend Rachel arrived, all the way from Seattle, bearing the programs and nameplates that she’d designed and printed, and her husband came with the suit I was borrowing from him. The day before the wedding, a dozen or so people—Americans and Swedes—helped decorate the church reception hall from mid-afternoon until well into the night. Admittedly, there were moments I wished we’d had the money to pay someone else to set up, but the work provided a sense of quiet meaning and care that’s hard to find at a bar or a restaurant. For our friends, the work provided the opportunity to make their love manifest.
I was lucky enough to be a guest at this wedding, arriving with two other American friends in time to help set up the reception hall and mingle with the other guests while doing so. One of them brought me a beer and pulled his chair close to mine so we could chat and get to know one another while he kept an eye on his baby son asleep in a carrier on the lawn. The way David describes the atmosphere in his essay is precisely how it was: the mood was laidback, the conversation was meandering, and the occasion wasn’t “about” anything other than being together.
And for David, one of the most significant things about these Swedish customs is that it provides something in short supply in the States: “a public notion of friendship.”
What occasions do Americans have to tell friends that we love them for who they are and to acknowledge that love publicly? Our culture allows us ample opportunities to make friends, but it affords very few opportunities to mark that friendship. And even when we have those opportunities, we often squander them.
At least among American men, declarations of love between friends are frowned upon, if not verboten. If we do express our mutual love, we frame it in irony and wit, employing terms like “bromance.” But when you cannot directly say “I love you”—privately or publicly—your capacity to love your friends becomes diminished, and friendships are reduced to what Aristotle calls “friendships of pleasure.”
By contrast, at David and Johanna’s wedding, the multiple-hours-long reception provided an opportunity for friend after friend to offer toasts, publicly celebrating and declaring their love for the bride and groom.
Longtime readers of this blog will know that this is one of my hobbyhorses: We need more ways to honor and celebrate our friends! On finishing David’s essay about his Swedish wedding, I found myself thinking about the times, after my speaking gigs, when I’ve been asked for thoughts about how we might begin to do that—how we might learn to more easily and readily declare in public our love for our friends. From now on, I may just send them a link to David’s piece and say, “Start here. Look for ways to do things like this.”
Sometimes it really does seem that Providence arranges remarkable and helpful convergences.
This week, just after I’d read these hope-giving lines from Eve Tushnet’s reflections on her role in the whole “gay Catholic” conversation and the upcoming Revoice conference —
We’re constantly being told that same-sex sexual desire is disordered, which I accept, as I accept all that is taught by Holy Mother Church. But when people (or ducks) try to tell you how to order your desires, they always try to get you to keep the expression of desire the same, but change the object. This is the “become straight” option, if “option” is the word I want. There is another way for desire to become ordered: same object, different expression. People who long for same-sex love and intimacy should maybe be encouraged to learn how to do that, since it is good, and holy, and beautiful.
— I happened to get an email from a friend that pointed me to a letter written by the great Evangelical Anglican preacher Charles Simeon (1759-1836) to his friend Mary Elliott. This letter, it seemed to me, dovetailed beautifully with Eve’s blog post. Here is an excerpt from the letter, written the year before Simeon’s death:
In your letter of this morning you express a fear that you may love your dear Mother or a friend too much; and I am anxious to correct that idea without loss of time; first, because it is a source of disquiet to the conscience, and next because it is an error which almost universally prevails in the Church of God. That we may show our love improperly I readily grant; but that we can love one another too much I utterly deny, provided only it be in subserviency to the love of God. I think I have explained to you that word fervently (‘see that ye love one another with a pure Heart’): its precise meaning is intensely. No two words in any two languages more exactly agree than ‘intensely’ does with the original. If then our love be with a pure heart, this alone were sufficient to establish the point. . . .
Christianity does not encourage apathy; it is to regulate, not to eradicate, our affections. It admits of their full operation, but tempers them as to their measure and sanctifies them to the Lord. I have often been comforted by knowing that Lazarus and his sisters were peculiarly beloved of their Lord, and that John was an object of His more than ordinary attachment; and from hence you will see that, if I have written this for your instruction, I have had an eye also to my own vindication, if I should appear to err in the discharge of the most delightful of all duties.
If you’ve never been told by your fellow Christians that the personal object of your desire—not just what you might want to do sinfully with that person, but rather the personal object him- or herself—is wrong for you to have, period, then this might not resonate with you as much as it does with me. But for those of us who have been told that, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways—for those of us who have been told that the way to godliness is by removing ourselves altogether from the kinds of friendships in which we might be tempted—it comes as healing balm when you’re told instead, “Christianity… is to regulate, not to eradicate, our affections.”
It’s not a sin for men to love men, or women to love women. On the contrary.
For a long time, partly at our friend Eve Tushnet’s suggestion, I’ve wanted to try to write about how and why I’ve formed such deep and lasting friendships with married couples. This is, I gather, somewhat unusual for people like me who are both gay and celibate. Strange or not, though, it’s been one of the most significant parts of my efforts to embrace life and health in celibacy. So here’s my best effort (so I think) to try to tell that story.
I do want to say here what I probably should have said more clearly in the essay itself: this is not the story of Gay Christian Celibacy, capital-g, capital-c, capital-c, and if this doesn’t match what you feel or know, I certainly don’t think that indicates any failure or deficiency on your part.
This is just my story — or a slice of my story. But I’m offering it in the hope that it can inspire at least some of us to be more forthcoming about the pains and joys unique to our specific stories of going through life without spouses of our own.
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