I’m speaking at Revoice, a conference in St Louis next month aimed at “supporting, encouraging and empowering LGBT+ Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.” This seems like a good chance to yap a bit about what I see as my main projects w/r/t gay and same-sex attracted people in the churches. The conference has proved controversial and I’ll gesture at oblique replies to some of that controversy, but I don’t want to focus on it and this isn’t a point-by-point reply to critics. (Which I couldn’t offer anyway, as I speak only for myself and expect to disagree with or be totally baffled by at least some of what I hear at the conference.) This got stupid long, sorry!!!–should be over in the next post.
I wrote Gay and Catholic (buy my book y’all) because I hadn’t found any book which suggested that the most pressing question for gay people who accept the Christian sexual ethic was not, “How can I avoid sexual sin?” but, “How can I give and receive love?” I wanted to focus our attention on that question, and offer several–not just one–paths forward. So the book talks about forms of love which are available to people who are unlikely to marry and are not called to religious life: intentional community; service to those in need; extended family; and friendships which become forms of kinship. I do know gay people in mixed-orientation marriages, and in religious life, but I didn’t think I understood those experiences well enough to address them responsibly. I wanted to write about art and about mystical prayer, but those chapters weren’t very good, tbh; I still think these are beautiful ways gay people can pour out our lives in love.
I wanted, above all, to say: There is a future for you in the Church which is not isolated, silent, and shamed, but rich in love and fruitfulness. Whereas almost all the advice and theology I’d heard up until that point had two components: 1) Here’s what you can’t do; and 2) Have you tried being straight? Have better desires!
Obviously, all these paths–intentional community, service, devoted friendship–are open to people of any sexual orientation. Gay Christians have an especially urgent need for forms of love and kinship other than marriage, but renewing or building these forms would be good for everyone in the Church. I’ve written here about how recovering devoted friendship can strengthen marriages and families; here, I reviewed a pocket “catechism” on family life from the Philadelphia Archdiocese which explains how the different vocations/forms of love build one another up to form the community of the parish; here, I interviewed people of several sexual orientations on their experiences of nonmarital forms of kinship. I’ve been so heartened by the people who come up to me when I speak to say, “I’m not gay, but I also have longed for the kind of life-shaping friendships you talk about [or, I’ve experienced that kind of friendship].”
I write and speak about friendship the most for two reasons. One, as I say in the book, is that it has probably shaped my own life the most. I’ve known my best friend for twenty years now. She was (is!) a major part of my recovery from alcoholism, and so I don’t really think it’s exaggerating to say she helped save my life.
The other is that I had an experience which many other gay people have had–many gay people, and some straight. I learned about the Scriptural and historical practices of devoted same-sex friendship. I saw the linked gravestones raised in tribute to pairs of friends. I read the promises friends would make: to share their home and their finances, to care for the friend’s children, to have Masses said for the soul of whichever friend died first. The beauty of these monuments and promises took my breath away.
I began to see the places where same-sex love appears in Scripture: the covenant of David and Jonathan; the moment when Jesus on the Cross gives His Mother into the care of His beloved disciple John, and vice versa, and so makes John a part of the Holy Family. I began to notice people like my Great-Aunt Florence, who moved in with my grandmother after my grandfather died, because they were best friends. After my grandmother herself passed on, her daughters (my aunts) continued to look after Florence, because her friendship with my grandmother made her a part of our family.
A home is made of time. Time spent in service to the people in your home is what makes it your home. This service–the years of repentance and forgiveness, seeing their worst private selves and showing them yours, and still loving one another and shaping your lives around one another–is a path of sanctification. To realize that same-sex love can be devoted, intimate, lifelong, utterly surrendered to God, obedient, beautiful, and sweet–this is a revelation. I’ve seen it dawn on gay Christians who have tried to be obedient all their lives and yet have never considered that there might be anything in their longings for same-sex intimacy and love other than shame. It’s like watching hope unfold its blossoms.
Again, many straight people are called to live in these beautiful forms of same-sex love, whether alongside their marriages or as unmarried people; and many gay people aren’t called, or won’t find someone who will live in devoted friendship with them, and must find other ways to pour out their lives in love. Even some sympathetic readers, like Elizabeth Bruenig, have seemed to think my book proposes same-sex friendship as a “solution” for gay people in the Church, a kind of special gay vocation. (I think this is not so much because I wasn’t clear, though doubtless I could have been clearer, but because we have so totally lost the vocabulary for friendship-as-kinship that we can only imagine same-sex love as “gay marriage lite.”) What I am instead suggesting is that strengthening our friendships, recognizing friendship as a form of love as rich and real as sexual love, and reviving historical Christian practices of same-sex friendship will be very good for straight people–but urgently needed and potentially life-saving for gay people.
Not all gay people will be interested in same-sex love expressed in friendship, or mystical prayer, or service. Not all gay people are interested in anything! But many of us have found that these models of lifelong love resonate with the deep longings of our hearts.
Next: should gay people love men, women, or neither: a straight people’s argument; “gay” as community & construct; Pride and shame. PART TWO lol I ran out of room for the community thing so never mind.