Hello! I’m cheating here and basically just writing up my notes from the talk I gave at the Trinity School for Ministry conference this past weekend. (All the sessions will be available–some as video, some as podcast–and I’m super looking forward to listening to the sessions I missed, e.g. Melinda Selmys exploring transgender identity through the lens of Flannery O’Connor’s “Temple of the Holy Ghost.”) This topic is obviously especially relevant given the buzz around “gradualism” at the Synod.
I started out by noting a couple things about the story of the rich young man. First of all, the guy is eager–he runs up and kneels before Jesus. He’s supplicating. He asks what he must do to inherit eternal life and Jesus says, “You know the commandments,” and lists some of them, and the guy says yes, right, I’ve done that all my life. So “Jesus, looking at him, loved him,” and after this look of love, told him to sell all he had and give it to the poor. At which point he famously looks dismayed and goes away.
Now the weird, kind of convenient thing here is that the rich young man goes away. We don’t get to see the apostles, or Jesus Himself, dealing day after day with a guy who wants to follow Jesus but believes that he’s been asked to do the impossible, or doesn’t understand the reasoning behind the command and wants to argue about it, or sells some of his stuff but then buys it back in a fit of panic, etc etc. We see the moment the command is given and the moment it’s rejected, but not the long living toward obedience which I think is a more normal experience of Christian discipleship.
So my talk was intended to suggest some principles for shepherding gay people who genuinely want to follow Christ and live as deeply as possible within His Body the Church, but for whatever reason, struggle to accept or live out Christian sexual discipline. It ended up also getting into the different question of people who fully accept that discipline and are living it out about as well as any of us do, but who are nonetheless judged by their parish or community because of their living situation, relationships, or demeanor aka they come across really gay.
First off, my talk was influenced by Calah Alexander’s beautiful essay “The Long Road of Grace and Mercy,” which is essential reading for anyone who wants to have an opinion on “gradualism” and the pastoral care of people in “irregular” relationships. It was also influenced by this post at A Queer Calling, riffing on a Frederica Mathewes-Green podcast on same-sex couples in Orthodox parishes. So ideally you’ll read those links first and then come back here. But uh, I recognize that not everyone lives up to the ideal right away….
My first principle was that obedience flows from trust. This is a complex point because pastors should not encourage parishioners to obey because of personal trust in them, but rather because of trust in God; nonetheless, pastors etc need to be personally trustworthy if they expect anybody to believe what they say about God. A lot of my points below will assume that you have some kind of structure within the church community wherein some people take personal responsibility for guiding others into deeper life with Christ. That can be spiritual direction done by the priest, as often in Catholic and Orthodox churches, or it can be more egalitarian “accountability partnerships,” or relationships modeled on the sponsor-sponsee relationship, where the sponsee eventually learns to sponsor others. In all these relationships pastoral guidance is based on personal knowledge of the situation, and it relies on personal authority earned through trustworthiness.
(Here I note yet again that trust flourishes when straight people are making the sacrifices Christian sexual discipline requires of them.)
This kind of structure, in which specific people within the parish are responsible for shepherding specific other people, is a powerful weapon against gossip and judgment. If somebody comes to you and complains about how Lisa lives with that butch lady, or if Bob’s last name isn’t Darling then why is Jim calling him that at the coffee hour?, and why are they receiving Communion?!, etc etc, you can say, “I’m Lisa’s spiritual director; please trust me to care for her soul.” Subtext: Please buttoutski. “Keep your own side of the street clean.” Gossip and judgment are often more deep-seated and destructive sins than sexual sin anyway.
Spiritual direction in some form should be a normal part of Christian discipleship. But it’s especially necessary for people in unusual situations, who have fewer role models. This spiritual direction shouldn’t assume gay people’s biggest concerns are about sexual sin or sexual ethics; nor should spiritual direction become gender policing. We’re the church of St Francis and St Joan, not Ken and Barbie.When spiritual direction is normal, that can help the parish trust its gay members rather than judging us. Another principle which can reduce the judgment and pressure on gay people is the principle that God does call some people to live in devoted love and care for another unrelated person of the same sex. In other words, I don’t think God calls people to gay marriage, or to a gay sexual relationship, but I absolutely think that many people in gay marriages are responding to a real call from God to love this person, to intertwine their lives and share their burdens. This love should be expressed chastely, I feel like I’ve now said this six times but I get that we’re at a confusing cultural moment and repetition helps to clarify, but the love and the commitment may be a vocation from God. Gay couples have been told that they need to break up–even when they’re raising children together–in order to follow God. That’s heartbreaking. We don’t know how many of these people were ordered away from their true vocation, the love relationship which was intended for their sanctification.
Well-meaning straight Christians often think, “Well, how would I respond to a straight cohabiting couple?”, and try to plug-and-play that response in order to avoid stigmatizing or discriminating against gay people. Calah’s essay suggests to me that there are parallels, but there are also differences which need to be acknowledged. First, moving toward marriage is different from moving toward celibacy, even in a celibate partnership. Celibate partnerships don’t receive the same social status as marriage; they’re pretty much not understood by the vast majority of people, let alone honored or represented in culture. Gay people have often experienced a lot of judgment and cruelty in church, and have received a lot of harmful pastoral guidance, and you’ll need to talk with us before you know the specifics of our experience and therefore know what kind of language we’re likely to misunderstand or react badly to. The lack of support and role models for gay celibate Christians can make the whole situation harder and more confusing and humiliating–and I don’t say that at all to downplay the struggles of cohabiting straight couples!
Over time, practice of Christian life changes people. What once seemed blankly impossible slowly becomes a habit. But remember that old slogan, which I think is something like, “The extremely difficult we can do for you right away. The impossible takes a little longer.” We need to be reminded of urgency, the constant memento mori–it’s later than you think. But when people believe they are being asked to do something impossible, and when they have virtually no role models or guidance, seriously, they are going to need some time and they are going to make some mistakes. Discouraging gossip and judgment doesn’t require compromising on morality; being gentle with people who argue or mess up is living out Christian teaching, not watering it down.
There are boundaries, and degrees of participation in church life. There will be many situations where the best pastoral guidance is that you shouldn’t be receiving Communion just yet. There will be positions, e.g. some teaching or discipling positions, which you shouldn’t hold if you dissent from Church teaching or you are still in a pretty seriously irregular situation you’re trying to sort out. (Although people also do need opportunities to serve, so it’s worth figuring out whether there are other positions which such a person could hold.)
I often return to something a gay evangelical guy told me in an interview for this article. He said, “I think if there’s no homosexual couples going to your church that’s probably a bad sign. You’re probably not having a reputation for actually being Jesus.”
So those are some starting principles. I apologize for the lack of strong organization in this post (like your parish, this post needs some kind of structure…) and I welcome your comments, criticisms, examples, questions, etc etc. Please do read Calah’s thing, especially, it’s immensely moving and I learned a lot from it.