I’ve just finished reading Jeff Chu’s new book Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, and I highly recommend it. Besides being well-written and engaging (I could hardly put it down), it’s also very illuminating. The book is a balanced, fair-minded collection of snapshots of virtually every corner of the (Protestant) Christian discussion of LGBTQ matters. If someone wanted to get a sense for how American Protestants treat their gay and lesbian neighbors, this is the book I would give them first. It covers Westboro Baptist, The Episcopal Church, and everything in between.
Jeff, the author, is gay, and I found it especially interesting when, near the end of the book, he reflects a bit on what kind of church he himself is drawn to. First, he says this about a parish of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) that he visited in Nevada:
One of the wonderful things about the Metropolitan Community Church is that it has always focused on those (many) people whom the broader church alienates. Pastor William explains it beautifully when he describes his approach to those who have been alienated by the community of faith. “You give them constant doses of the truth, the truth that is based in love that is unconditional,” he says. “You love them until they can hear that they are lovable. You love them until they know nobody else can define who they are. You love them until they can process their pain without reliving their pain.” The MCC home page affirms this, boldly proclaiming: “Empowerment.” “Hope.” “Bridges that liberate and unite voices of sacred defiance.”
Yet this plan never mentions God. While the denomination has clear roots in Christianity and most MCC congregations are more overtly Christian than the San Francisco one, faith does not seem to be its unifying element—sexuality does. Perhaps it has become more a network of community centers, where gays and lesbians can gather and talk about the things of the spirit and the soul, whatever religious system they may subscribe to. Which is nice, but for me, it’s not church. And while I don’t want alienation or exclusion when I’m in the pews, I’m also not there to celebrate other people. I thought the whole point was to celebrate God.
Jeff contrasts his experience at the MCC congregation with his visit to Highlands Church in Denver, which he describes as trying to balance “an evangelical bent with full embrace of gays and lesbians without being a totally gay church.”
The name Highlands strikes me as particularly apt given an accusation often directed at more liberal churches: that they go for lowest-common-denominator, people-pleasing theology, something that [the pastors] Mark [Tidd] and Jenny [Morgan] have strived to avoid. “This church is deeply Christo-centric,” Jenny says. “What I mean by that is that the foundation of this church is the person, the work, and the teaching of Jesus Christ. His death. His resurrection. The belief that he is coming back. That he was and is God.”
I challenge her on this point, because nearly everyone says that they focus on Christ; it’s just that they differ on what this means and what this demands…. But what’s compelling is their argument that they are not trying to build a community of convenience.
Reading Jeff’s reflections here caused me to ponder again how many of us young gay Christians are looking not only for love and acceptance but also for truth (not that love and truth are ever finally separable).
I was recently with a group of gay Catholics (none of whom dissent from Church teaching), and one of the things that deeply impressed me was how, because of their acceptance of their Church’s doctrine, they weren’t expending much energy in trying to figure out what they ought to believe about sex and marriage. Their question wasn’t, “What must Christianity say about homosexuality?” but rather, “Given what Christianity does say, how can we live into that teaching in a way that’s life-giving, humanizing, loving, etc.?” Their focus was on how to make the celibate life beautiful. One of them asked me (in so many words) if it was hard to be gay and celibate in the Anglican Communion, where sexual ethics are hotly debated at the moment and there is no consensus. “Surely that must make your life harder, not easier,” he said. And reading Jeff’s account of his visit to Highlands, I thought again about this conversation I had and how many of us—including Jeff and me, it seems, in our very different ways—are looking for some clear convictions in our churches within which we can flourish. (I happen to belong to a parish of the Anglican Church in North America where I do receive clear guidance on sexual ethics, as well as pastoral care, but my Catholic friend is of course right that my Communion is fractured over just this issue at present.)
Which brings me to my main disappointment with what Jeff has written. There’s a chapter in his book on celibacy, and it follows the story of Kevin, a man in his fifties who is a Christian, gay, and celibate. Near the end of that chapter, Jeff writes:
Before I met Kevin, I thought of celibacy as an extended period of inaction that follows a choice, albeit a monumental one. If you could describe it as an act, it would be one of rejection, of pushing away sex and intimacy. There were certainly moments during my time with Kevin where I felt what I think is one of the worst, most condescending, most damnably judgmental human emotions: pity. But I came away from St. Paul [Minnesota, where Kevin lives] humbled. I realized that, if anything, Kevin’s lifestyle was not one choice but an active and constant series of them: the choice to resist his desire for companionship and closeness with men; the choice to set aside his perceived physical wants in favor of his perceived spiritual needs; the choice to sacrifice his earthly happiness for the eternal joy that he is convinced has been promised to him by his God. To him, celibacy hasn’t been an act of fencing himself off; rather, it has been one of opening up, of embracing the sanctuary that he believes his Lord provides.
On the one hand, I appreciate the unflinching honesty of this. Celibacy is often profoundly difficult, and those of us who adhere to the traditional Christian sexual ethic do ourselves no favors if we try to downplay the ascesis it demands of gay Christians. Jeff’s book manages to portray Kevin’s celibacy realistically, I think, and that is a good thing. But by closing his chapter with a description of Kevin’s celibacy as “the choice to resist his desire for companionship” and as “the choice to sacrifice his earthly happiness”—well, I think readers will be left to conclude that this is the primary experience of celibate gay Christians and that celibacy could never be as companionable and joyful as it must be to defeat isolation.
And I don’t have an argument to the contrary. I want to be careful not to place the blame squarely on Kevin (or Jeff) here, since part of the difficulty of practicing celibacy in our time is that we (Protestants, at least) inhabit church cultures that don’t imagine ways for celibate people to belong in the way we easily imagine married people belonging. I can say, however, that I want to live a celibate life that is full of friendship, loving service, and joy and that, in some measure, I am finding such a life with the help of the communities and parishes to which I’ve belonged and currently belong. And I can point to some other friends of mine who also want to live just that kind of life and are also finding that it is possible.
But they (we!) continue to need inspiration and encouragement. As Sarah Coakley has said, quoting St. Gregory of Nyssa,
[W]e cannot believe it unless we see it lived. [Gregory] writes, “Any theory divorced from living examples… is like an unbreathing statue.” And there, perhaps, lies the true challenge for us today: the counter-cultural production—not of film-stars, sports heroes or faithless royal families—but of erotic “saints” to inspire us.
May God give us such saints. And may God give them the courage to come out and talk honestly about their experiences of celibacy, and may God gives our churches the grace to support them as they do so.
(Cross-posted at Spiritual Friendship)