O Wanderer, Come Home: Notes from the Gay Christian Network Conference

Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come. But many that are first will be last, and [the] last will be first.”

-Mk 10:29-31

These are very scattered notes but let me start with my two strongest impressions from the conference. It was an intense weekend. A large part of that intensity was because GCN created a space where people could be open–sometimes for the first time–about the shame, judgment, rejection, isolation, and suffering they had experienced in places which proclaimed the Gospel of Love. So many people have been told (explicitly) that they aren’t welcome, treated as problems rather than persons. They’ve been disowned, had their trust betrayed and their confidences exposed, been kicked out of their homes and their churches, threatened with expulsion. They’ve listened as preachers proclaimed that people like them were destroying the church, that their desires were uniquely and Satanically destructive, that homosexuality by its nature cut them off from God; that their only hope for a faithful Christian life was to repent of their homosexuality, become straight, and get married. All by Christians who claimed that their actions were the result of their faith in Jesus.

And often this abuse–I know labels can obscure complexity but in this case I think naming the abuse is important–is inflicted on people who are trying to live out the full Christian sexual ethic. The treatment they receive would be unjustifiable even if (and even when) they reject Christian teaching on homosexuality, but what’s sort of amazing is that simply self-identifying as gay or even “struggling with same-sex attraction” will earn you condemnation and shame in many Christian communities. Your shame is treated as a sign of faith; any hints of self-acceptance are treated as rejection of God. It should come as little surprise that many of the people who receive this mistreatment eventually reject (what I believe to be) the Christian sexual ethic, and often reject Christianity entirely.

What’s more surprising is that some people manage to get through this with their love of Jesus Christ and His Church still fervent and humble. My other overwhelming impression from the conference was how loving it was. These were people truly trying to create the Christian family which can love and shelter all those in need. There was so little self-righteousness, so much willingness to lower one’s defenses and do the hardest work of the Gospel, like forgiving one’s enemies. There was no judgment for people no matter where they were on their journey–whether your faith is as bright and confident and American as a shampoo commercial, or as broken and angry and desperate as the Book of Job, GCN was a place where you could be listened to, and loved. Lindsey got time off work to go to the conference by saying, “I have a family reunion this weekend–it’s the same time every year,” and man, I really felt that.

So those are the big things. It was convicting for me because I’ve been so sheltered. My family is progressive. The Catholic Church has lots of big swathes of repressive subculture but also lots of genuinely loving places; and lots of imagination-expanding resources in Her history and tradition. And my own church welcomes gay people (to the extent that a contemporary overextended Catholic cathedral parish can welcome anybody) and fights for us to be welcomed, regardless of our sexual ethics or behavior. My church doesn’t compromise on the teachings but strives to live them out in a spirit of welcome, not judgment. I think the approach I describe here is possible in part because I’ve seen a messy, imperfect version of it lived out. I’ve been so utterly spoiled that I even have a little community of celibate LGBT Christians in my hometown. So GCN was a window into the real world, basically. It’s important to say that communities and priests who are both loving and submissive to the Tradition exist; it’s equally important to note that most gay people have a much harsher experience.

GCN uses this terminology of “Side A” and “Side B.” I don’t love this and I generally don’t use it, though I wish we had some kind of adequate shorthand; but basically Side A = sexually-active gay relationships such as marriage can be blessed by churches and reflect God’s will; Side B = sexual activity is reserved for marriage between a man and a woman, so gay people will either enter mixed-orientation marriages or (more likely) live celibacy. (“Celibacy” is being used really loosely and untraditionally here, to mean, “unmarried and planning/expecting to remain unmarried.” I think we need a word for that even though I know “celibacy” has some additional connotations like calling or vow, which may get in the way of our conversations around gay celibacy.)

To “Side B” Christians, including myself, I’d say, “Keep in mind whenever you speak on sexual ethics and gay people that many of the people most deeply affected by your words have been pretty severely mistreated in the past by people who claimed to represent what you believe. The people at GCN have been hurt by their churches, and often this hurt is ongoing–GCN is their temporary reprieve. When you speak and act, you’re speaking and acting in the context of a deranged, disordered culture which has made an idol of heterosexuality, and sacrificed queer children to that idol.”

And I’d add, “A lot of the stories I heard at the conference were stories of moving from a ‘Side B’ sexual ethic lived out in judgment, condemnation, shame, and despair, to a ‘Side A’ ethic lived out in hope, welcome, and trust. That’s a story of someone becoming more Christian, not less.”

And to “Side A” I’d say, “Look, we’re all in this together. Even from a ‘Side A’ perspective, you shouldn’t be ‘Side A’ because the other alternative is death. Right now so many people feel that they have no options other than rejecting themselves or rejecting their church. ‘Side B’ tries to show that the historic Christian ethic can be lived by gay people without self-hatred or shame. The more people know that, the more they will be able to discern their own sexual ethic from a place of safety. That way those who do become ‘Side A’ will do so because from a score of beautiful options this one seemed the most true–not because they thought their choices were Side A or suicide.”

(That’s a challenge to me as well, of course: I need to step up and bring that option of fruitful celibate life into spaces which are hostile to it.)

OK, I think that’s the heavy stuff. The rest of this post will just be notes.

* “Praise music” is the most Protestant thing I love. (Or second most Protestant after Emily Dickinson, maybe. Johnny Cash used all that Eucharistic imagery so he isn’t as Protestant.) Seriously, I always forget this about myself, but I love that “wave your hands in the air and cry” music. I totally did both those things!

* This is highly speculative, but I wonder whether part of the way that churches can create conditions for honest, self-accepting gay celibacy is by honoring humiliation, sacrifice, submission/surrender, and suffering in other contexts. I suggested this in my “Coming Out Christian” piece. The more kids already understand that their suffering has meaning and that it can be a means of drawing closer to Christ, the less ashamed they will be (I hope) when they begin to realize that they’re going to have to walk a fairly hard and humiliating path. I don’t think this will “work” without an equally-intense focus on creating a welcoming and nonjudgmental church, but I think it’s part of the picture. These days celibacy is humiliating and churches which don’t know how to honor humiliation will find it really hard to honor celibacy.

* Both of the workshops I led were… not as well-organized as I would have liked. If you were there, I apologize, and hope you were able to sort through the tangled mess of spaghetti I threw out there to pluck out a few spiritual meatballs. (…This metaphor could also use some work.)

In both workshops I really wanted to emphasize that we can’t “solve” problems. We can only replace less-Christian problems with more-Christian problems.

And I was interested to see which problems people most wanted to talk about. In the first workshop, “How Can I Love?”, the one people seemed to pick up on most strongly was the problem of failure in one’s vocation. I talked about the weird thing where “failure” is okay as long as it’s a prologue to success–that job-interview thing where they ask you about your failures and you talk about what you learned and how you’re totally better now. What about when you don’t know how to “use” your failures? How can Christians let our failures genuinely draw us closer to Jesus–and let them be failures, rather than demanding that every failure hide some worldly success? What happens if you’re a disciple who dies on Holy Saturday, and never sees the Resurrection in this life?

Also in that workshop I found myself realizing something I’d never fully articulated before. I’ve talked about the ways that being gay has helped me be a less self-centered, unwholesomely-privileged person. It’s made me more aware of what it’s like to have less power than others and therefore, I think, helped me see where others are marginalized or mistreated. It’s easy to get self-congratulatory about that effect but I do think it’s true for a lot of gay people who are privileged in other ways e.g. skin color, wealthy upbringing etc.

But I hadn’t fit celibacy into that picture. I think being celibate has enhanced the attention-to-marginalization thing, because celibacy is so invisible and misunderstood. A lot of the good things being gay did for me spiritually–putting me in touch with a community, to whom I’m responsible, who have had experiences which are invisible or disdained by mainstream culture–have only been strengthened by celibacy.

* Related to that, perhaps, is something Lindsey said in Lindsey and Sarah’s workshop on “Celibacy and the Church” (which was great!). Lindsey suggested that failing to shepherd people in celibate vocations causes social breakdown. Because celibates are (often) free to practice hospitality in a way more radical than most married people or parents, we can serve those most in need. Lindsey asked (paraphrasing), “Do we have so many homeless lgbt teens on the streets because there’s nobody living celibate hospitality who can take them in?”

If we supported celibate vocations more, we’d get more of them. And those celibate people would care for their community–maybe especially for those most overlooked and abandoned. Celibate gay people often have what the evangelicals call “a special heart for” gay communities. We should be the first line of defense for our neediest members. That’s something I need to pray over in my own life. I do more of the thing Lindsey also noted, where celibates have the freedom to support those in difficult marriage or family situations. We’re all in this together.

* Best line of the conference for me was Lindsey noting that “Don’t have sex” is all the pastoral guidance most lgbt Christians receive, and “I can’t lead a full life in the world based on guidance that doesn’t even use a full allotment of tweet!”

* In the celibacy-and-church workshop one audience member noted that pastors can support celibate people by “allowing people to use the language they want to describe themselves.” This is so important because otherwise your real life becomes unspeakable. So much of the Christian life is about speaking: confession, for example, and other forms of prayer. What you can’t say, you can’t consciously, fully offer to God.

* Something which came up in the friendship-as-kinship workshop but which I should have emphasized in the vocations workshop as well is that our ability to love “horizontally” is grounded in the “vertical” love we receive from and give to God. One big weakness of my book is that it doesn’t talk enough about our direct relationship with God, even though that’s the foundation for all our love of others. Christians can love in ways unrecognized by our culture (such as devoted, sacrificial friendship) in part because we trust that God sees and supports us. We draw from the fountain of Living Water when the wellsprings of the surrounding culture have been drained.

* On the last day of the conference I went to Mass at Holy Rosary Church. I went there because one of the other conferencegoers had said they had a communion rail. You guys, I love kneeling for Communion, and I almost never get to do it. Ah, the communion rail is the greatest thing. I know everybody has their own spirituality, but mine really does emphasize submission (I’m sure you’re shocked), and kneeling is such a beautiful way to express that. (I asked, “Can I wear pants?” and received reassurance on that front too so it was really the best of both worlds.)

But what GCN + the readings for the day brought home to me is that submission to Christ should be liberating. “To bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.” Despite all the stuff I write about actual non-metaphorical prisons my spiritual life has way too little emphasis on freedom for captives. GCN brings that freedom to so many people.

See you next year in Houston!

lol I’m choking up again just playing this on YouTube


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