Making God’s House Into a Home: An Interview with Spiritual Friendship’s Wesley Hill

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By Martyn Jones

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I first met Wesley Hill in person on a restaurant plaza below Chicago’s famous “Cloud Gate” in Millennium Park, where he and a couple of mutual friends and I spent the better part of a summer afternoon last year discussing celibacy, theology, literature, and writing. For about two years previous I had been following Wes’s work online. Author of a beautiful book of autobiographical reflections about being a celibate gay Christian, he is also a contributor to a blog called Spiritual Friendship. There, he and other writers and thinkers are working to discern new (and very, very old) possibilities for gay and lesbian Christians who affirm the Church’s traditional teaching on sexual ethics.

Spiritual Friendship is unique in its approach to this terrain. Writers for the site tend to avoid the topic of reparative (or conversion) therapy, which distances them from conservative Christians who uphold it as the best hope for same sex attracted people who wish to join the Church; they also reject liberal theologies that condone homosexuality and same sex marriage, which distances them from liberal Christians and progressives outside the Church.

As the blog’s title implies, one of the guiding concerns is the notion of “spiritual friendship,” whereby many of the goods that are available within marriage—intimacy, camaraderie, companionship, community—are available as well to people who have a calling other than marriage. I got in touch with Wes about a month ago for an email interview about his work and the blog. He agreed, and what follows is a transcript of our email conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

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If you had to summarize the blog’s approach and primary concerns in a sentence, how would you do it?

We’re a fairly diverse bunch who all come at things from slightly different—though often compatible—angles, so I don’t want to speak for the others, but I can tell about my hopes for the blog. Basically, I want the blog to be a place where gay or same-sex attracted (or whatever label you prefer) Christians can come and hear a word of hope for their future. A lot of gay Christians fear that if they embrace the traditional Christian sexual ethic, there’s no real way for them to ward off loneliness and embrace a positive calling. They’ve mostly heard from their churches what they’re not supposed to be doing.

We want to be a blog that talks about what they are summoned to do, positively, and that’s why we’re called “Spiritual Friendship.” We believe friendship is one practice worth exploring in this connection. We want to say to gay Christians, “You are enabled by God to love and be loved. Whatever else sexual abstinence might mean in your life, it cannot simply be equivalent to isolation and loneliness. God is beckoning you into community.”

Do you find that the Christian community at large has a truncated or impoverished understanding of love? How might Spiritual Friendship correct some of our excesses and imbalances?

I worry that the evangelical focus on the nuclear family is out of balance and has neglected to honor the vocation of celibacy. Jesus and the apostle Paul were both single, and Paul says explicitly that he would prefer more people to be single (see 1 Corinthians 7). Because we have invested so much energy in supporting and defending “traditional marriage” (rightly so, I think!), we have failed to imagine ways that such an investment in the nuclear family can become idolatrous.

Jesus had some very counter-cultural things to say about family, and he ended up relativizing its importance (Matthew 12:46-50). What ultimately mattered to him was no longer marriage and the begetting of children; he required absolute loyalty to himself, and for some people this meant renouncing marriage and childbearing for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:12). Because we’ve downplayed those themes in evangelicalism, we haven’t really been motivated to think hard about how to support the celibate vocation and how its witness could enrich—or, to switch the metaphor, be folded into and knit together with—the vocation to marriage.

One of my hopes for the Spiritual Friendship blog is that more married people would be stimulated to think about how their fellow Christians who are single belong with them in their churches and around their tables. And, likewise, I hope that more single people who read us would realize that they can’t live their Christian lives without getting invested in their married friends’ lives. Autonomy, whether one way or another, is anathema to Christians! We all need each other, and our differing vocations are meant to be integrated, not separated.

It seems that the approach of the blog and your work would draw fire from liberal and conservative critics alike. Have you found common themes in the push-back you have received?

Many evangelical conservatives have wanted to believe that gay people can “change” and become straight. For a variety of reasons, this is not our emphasis at the blog (even though many of us recognize that sexual desire and identity can often be a fluid thing, and identity labels can be problematic). Sometimes this has made “the Right” a bit wary of us, I think. And many on the evangelical “Left” have wanted to believe that there’s a strong biblical case to be made for the legitimacy of same-sex marriage, and we don’t agree with that. So sometimes it can feel like I’m in “no man’s land,” caught somewhere between “reparative therapy” (on the Right) and doctrinal “revisionism” (on the Left). That’s a simplification, but it’s not entirely inaccurate.

On the matter of “change,” I’ve tried to reclaim that language and say that for a gay person to embrace the honored Christian vocation of celibacy and pursue the ancient Christian virtues of friendship and hospitality is itself a transformative “change.” Why do we have to reserve the vocabulary of “healing” and “transformation” for one thing? If someone’s sexual orientation doesn’t shift but their whole attitude toward the body of Christ and their ministry in it does shift, surely that deserves to be called “change”? And surely it also deserves to be celebrated, buttressed, strengthened, and nourished by others in the Christian community?

And on the matter of changing the Church’s traditional understanding of sexual ethics, the way I’ve tried to respond is by posing a question: How much of our drive toward doctrinal revisionism is a result of people realizing that the current evangelical climate is not supportive of celibacy?

I suspect that a big motivation for people in embracing a more “affirming” stance is simple compassion. They look around at an evangelical world in which a gay person embracing celibacy would, in fact, equal isolation and loneliness for that person. And they say, there’s no way we can ask that of someone. It’s too hard. But what if we changed the conversation and rather than asking how to change church teaching, we instead asked how to alter the bad situation that makes that teaching look implausible? That’s a very inadequate answer—I’d have to flesh it out much more for it to be persuasive—but that gives you some idea of how I’d respond.

On the other side, have you found there to be imbalances in the positive response to SF and your work? Do you think there might also be those who are looking for you to provide too much, a kind of practical-theological silver bullet for addressing issues related to sexual identity and Church practice/teaching? 

One of the temptations I face in my own writing is the temptation to speak too positively—or, perhaps better, too naively and glowingly—about things like “hospitality,” “community,” and “parish life.” The reality “on the ground,” as it were, is often more complicated than I sometimes portray it in my writing.

For instance, I sometimes write nostalgically about my church in England, which I still have very positive feelings about, and how that church practiced hospitality, but then I remember that that remarkable (and it was truly remarkable) hospitality never solved my own loneliness issues. So here was a church that was, in large measure, practicing what I preach in my posts at Spiritual Friendship, but it certainly wasn’t a magic bullet solution for the problems and questions faced by at least one gay Christian.

And that needs to be a caution to me—to remember that no matter how much the church changes its current practice to become a more welcoming place for gay, celibate people (and single people of all kinds), it won’t remove all the pain and frustration that just seems to be part and parcel of being Christian, same-sex attracted, and celibate. This life is a “vale of tears”—for all of us, married or single, gay or straight—and we won’t ever be able to eradicate that.

It seems as though celibacy has become an almost invisible vocation within the evangelical Protestant wing of the Church.

Does celibacy “fit” in the way the evangelical church constitutes itself and approaches community, ministry, and teaching? What sorts of changes in approach to these things on the part of both church leaders and evangelicals generally do you think might make celibacy a more viable option for Christians who feel called to that vocation? 

Here I’d like to recommend a book by Christine Colón and Bonnie Field, called Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must Be Reinvented in Today’s Church. It’s a book written for evangelicals, and it addresses these very questions in depth.

But here, for now, I’ll just say that I’d like to see all kinds of things change in our churches: I’d like more teaching from our pulpits and classrooms about the why and how of celibacy (lots of biblical material to draw from here, especially 1 Corinthians 7). I’d like to see single people integrated into all levels of ministry, from committees and task forces to pastoral teams and vestries and Sunday School teachers. I’d like to see every after-church meal (whether in the fellowship hall or in members’ homes) include an odd number of chairs. I’d love to see singles feeling free to invite married people over for lunch or dinner without being afraid of getting head-patting comments about how nice it is that a single person knows how to cook!

Conversely, I’d like to see married couples with children thinking of it as normal to have single friends go on vacation with them and share in their devotional life. I have a single friend who’s currently grappling with some disheartening medical news; I would love to see him exhibiting confidence that, whatever state he ends up in, his church family will care for him until the end if need be. (Right now he doesn’t have that confidence about his church, and it’s exacerbating his fear and loneliness.)

What might you say to a Christian who says, “Plenty of people are married to people they are not attracted to; marriage is about far more than sexual attraction and needs, and remains a good option for gay Christians”?

Would you consider a mixed-orientation marriage scenario a viable option alongside celibacy for gay Christians who affirm a traditional sexual ethic?

I don’t want to say too much here, other than to recommend that people check out our posts at Spiritual Friendship by Kyle Keating and Melinda Selmys, both of whom are queer or same-sex attracted and married to spouses of the opposite sex. One of the reasons I think people are nervous about recommending this is that for many gay people in the past, getting married was a way of trying to repress, ignore, or hide their sexuality. That isn’t true for Kyle or Melinda, and so what they’re doing seems very different than what many folks are (understandably and rightly) worried about.

Many single people would tell you that the deepest burden of singleness is not sexual abstinence but relational loneliness. Insofar as a mixed-orientation marriage may leave you sexually frustrated in some ways, it is a difficult way to go. But insofar as it puts you in a covenantal relationship with someone whom you’ve pledged to love and be loved by, it can be, I’m sure, a great means of grace. But I’m way out of my depth here.

I have found the sorts of conversation happening in the orbit of Spiritual Friendship to be deeply encouraging and thought-provoking, and this in spite of my being removed from the animating center of the conversation.

My hunch is that this resonance has to do with your work addressing issues beyond those you and other writers for Spiritual Friendship have taken on—specifically, I think that it is relevant to the loneliness and alienation that seem to naturally stem from the conditions of modern life.

Could I be justified in interpreting Spiritual Friendship as, in part, a work of recovery that is useful to the modern western Church in a general way for addressing underlying issues related to the Church’s uneasy adaptation to a culture that atomizes and isolates its members?

I think so, yes. I think much of what we publish at Spiritual Friendship is putting its finger on aspects of contemporary life that we all find painful. Loneliness is a problem for us, whether we’re married or single. There’s the basic human condition of loneliness, which is true for any and all generations, but then there are the particular conditions of life in contemporary Western societies that lead to a more specific sort of loneliness. Insofar as Spiritual Friendship is talking about the latter sort of loneliness, I think we’re talking about something that we all feel to one degree or another.

One of our occasional contributors, Chris Roberts, likes to say that there is “solidarity among the different ways of being chaste.” He’s thinking of how he, as a married Roman Catholic, has to practice sexual disciplines in his marriage if he wants to be faithful to Catholic teaching, and how that puts him in solidarity with me, a celibate person, who’s pursuing a non-identical but related form of sexual discipline in my single life. Likewise, I think we could say that there is a solidarity among the different ways of being lonely. And when I talk about my form of celibate gay loneliness, it connects me with you and others who are experiencing a related but not identical form of loneliness as you try to live out your Christian faith in the conditions of modernity.

This past Thanksgiving, I finally got around to reading Washed and Waiting, your excellent book of reflections on Christian faithfulness, identity, and homosexuality. It’s a rich book that I think is capable of generating empathy for Christians who are at grips daily with their faith and sexual identity among those to whom these concerns seem distant and alien. But I do find that the book carries a somber tone for many of its pages, and it seems to resolve somewhere between resigned acceptance and hope. How do you look back on the book from your current vantage point? If you could write a new epilogue or forward, what might you say about it? 

I wrote that book when I was in my mid-twenties. Like a lot of people that age, I was wrestling with strong emotions and grappling with deep hopes and fears about the future. My greatest fear was waking up one day in my 60s or 70s, in an apartment by myself, having lived a deeply isolated adult life, without family and people with whom I could make a “home.” Much of that angst has subsided now that I’m in my early 30s, so if I were rewriting Washed and Waiting today, I’d be tempted to write more of an “It gets better” message for young gay Christians.

But part of me is glad that I don’t have the opportunity to rewrite it, because I think there’s value in recording those moments of pain and anguish. People have told me the book idealizes marriage—that marriage, in real life, is far less glamorous and fulfilling than my twenty-something self portrayed it in the book—and I’m sure that’s true. But, again, part of me is glad I wrote the way I did because I think one of the things the book does is show the evangelical church some of the consequences of an idolatry of marriage. I hope the book shows the church how hard it can be for a young gay person to hear all the evangelical praise of marriage and family and then, sadly, realize that if they’re going to be faithful to what the evangelical church asks of them in their sexual lives, they can’t have that.

Now, let me hasten to add that I want to say now to young gay Christians that they (we!) can find a home, we can find a family, in the church. We can love and be loved. But part of our challenge on the way to doing so is learning to reject the false promises of “home” and “family” to solve all of our fears of loneliness.

Do you have any recommendations for Christians who are interested in better understanding and appreciating the work that you and the Spiritual Friendship community are doing? Books, people, films, music? 

Read Eve Tushnet’s blog at Patheos. She’s amazing, and is the inspiration for a lot of the thinking and writing I’m doing these days.  Read Alan Bray’s historical study The Friend to learn about “vowed siblinghood” in 1,000 years of English history; that book has the potential to expand the ecclesial imagination. Read Aelred of Rievaulx himself; his dialogue On Spiritual Friendship, from the twelfth century, is still relevant and is of course our source for our blog title. Read Wallace Stegner’s novel Crossing to Safety to see a beautiful portrayal of a decades-long friendship between two married couples, and read Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home to see what intimacy between two women friends could look like. There are other names I could mention—C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, Henri Nouwen, Tom Stoppard—but I think I’ll stop there!

Any parting words for readers of Christ and Pop Culture?

The main thing I want to try to communicate is this: We have to resist equating celibacy with loneliness. I wrote an essay once about being gay, Christian, and lonely, and a blogger picked it up and said, basically, “I was in the same boat once when I was a young man. And then love broke in….” Notice the dichotomy: single and lonely, or partnered and able to experience love.

But what if those aren’t our only choices? What if that’s a false dichotomy? What if, instead, celibacy could be seen as an occasion for love? What if choosing sexual abstinence doesn’t automatically equate to choosing isolation and repression? What if joining a parish community as a single person could be seen as a choice for close-knit familial bonds? Those are the questions I want us all to be thinking about.

Martyn Jones is a Chicago-area writer with abiding interests in phenomenology, reformed theology, and contemporary fiction. Since graduating from Wheaton College in 2010, he has worked for Apple, written for Groupon, and received his M.A. in philosophy from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. You can follow him on Twitter.

Feature illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.