Reflections on The ACNA Pastoral Statement

Several years ago, when I was on sabbatical in Cambridge, I was asked to speak to a group of conservative clerics in London about research on sexual orientation and identity. I was delighted to learn that Wesley Hill was also speaking. Wes describes himself as a celibate gay Christian and I recall the graciousness with which the clerics received Wes, although they themselves had questions about such a designation.  The spirit of the time together was that they had convened brothers and sisters in Christ to discuss what is often referred to as a traditional Christian sexual ethic and how that ethic intersects with scientific research and the lives of people actually living out that ethic in meaningful ways.

Reading through the recently published Pastoral Statement from the College of Bishops in the Anglican Church in North America on Sexuality and Identity reminded me of this event, perhaps because sections of the statement stand in contrast to some of what I experienced that day.

After the Preamble and Purpose, the statement itself address same-sex relationships, identity and transformation, and identity and language. Let me offer a few thoughts on each of these three sections.

Behavior

This brief section is a re-affirmation of the historical Christian position that marriage is defined as a covenant between a man and a woman before God. This is the conviction that genital sexual intimacy is reserved for that covenantal relationship and outside of that relationship, such behaviors are morally impermissible. This is the position I hold and the position held by celibate gay Christians such as Wes Hill.

Transformation

The emphasis here on transformation—if we mean by that Christ-likeness—is admirable and very much in keeping with how Christians across the globe think about sanctification. The problem is when sanctification is conflated with movement toward heterosexuality. When discussing change, the statement address change in feelings, will, or hope. If we glance back at the Preamble, however, it reads “We know that, according to some careful research, an individual’s attractions may move over time along a spectrum from same-sex attraction to other-sex attraction, or vice versa, in a minority of cases.” The research I am most familiar with is the seven-year longitudinal study that I was co-principal investigator of that was published in Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. Let me offer a couple of thoughts on those findings.

The way I think of that study is that, yes, on average, participants did report a statistically and clinically meaningful shift along a continuum of attraction, which is similar to what the statement says. An average shift suggests more of a shift for some and less (or no shift) for others. In our discussion of the findings, we also noted that the findings may very well reflect primarily change in behavior and identity, while there may also be some underlying change in attractions. This is partly due to the fact that the most significant changes were reported between Time 1 and Time 2, early in the ministry experience (when behavior and identity labels including how a person is encouraged to think of themselves would likely change), and only maintained over the next six years rather than a gradual shift over time, which is what might be expected in underlying change of attraction or orientation.

Language

The final section on identity and language focuses on the use of the phrase “gay Christian” or “celibate gay Christian” to describe oneself.  This section will likely be troubling to and cause grief to many celibate gay Christians. There are many reasons celibate gay Christians have discussed their rationale for this language, and my co-author, Dr. Olya Zaporozhets and I discuss these in Costly Obedience: What We can Learn from the Celibate Gay Christian Community (Zondervan).  These include (1) the simplicity and clarity related to using the common vernacular; (2) a realistic alternative to not reducing their experience to same-sex attraction when they are told to only describe themselves as “same-sex attracted” (as it overlooks personality and other experiences they see as captured better with other terms); (3) to avoid associations with an ex-gay narrative, which they and/or others they know have experienced as problematic for a variety of reasons; (4) to recognize some commonalities with members of the broader LGBTQ+ community; (5) for missional purposes in terms of relating to the broader LGBTQ+ community; and (6) to be a visible presence of someone they would have wanted to know existed in the world when they were younger.  

The authors of the statement seem to be aware of some of these reasons and recognize the potential value in the use of “gay Christian” for temporary missional purposes, for instance, but not “categorically” or as a “default description”. The statement ends by commending for gay Christians the phrase “Christians who experience same-sex attraction.”

I am not particularly invested in the language debate. However, I have researched sexual identity development for many years, and I would not go out of my way to proscribe the use of “gay Christian” or “celibate gay Christian” for those who are navigating sexual identity in light of their Christian faith. I just would not want to add what I think people will experience as an additional burden to those who are already feeling marginalized in the church as they try to live out a traditional Christian sexual ethic. This is a group of people who feels marginalized by the mainstream LGBTQ+ community for their adherence to a traditional Christian sexual ethic, while simultaneously feeling marginalized by conservative Christians who often hold out expectations of transformation to heterosexuality (as often conflated with sanctification), not to mention now wordsmithing in terms of how they should describe their own experiences.

I recognize that there are some concerns to be discussed in thinking through language and identity. It isn’t as though there are no concerns in this area. It is worthy of prayerful reflection, particularly for ministry to youth, and we should discuss these concerns and be nimble and discerning in our approach with people we are counseling. But I am also concerned about what local pastoral care and shepherding will look like in light of this statement. Will the twenty-four-year-old who sits with a rector who references this document experience pressure to become straight as a reflection of the transformative work of the Spirit in her life? Will she experience shame and discouragement if she does not develop attraction to the opposite sex? Will the rector expect her to use descriptive language and wield this statement in ways she experiences more as a weapon than as a way to graft her into the vine, into Jesus himself, who wants to draw her into a deeper relationship with him?

I don’t know. But I do know that the time I spent in London listening to Wes Hill discuss his own journey of faith in light of his same-sex sexuality was deeply moving. The graciousness of the elderly clerics who were unfamiliar with the language “celibate gay Christian” but nonetheless gracious and hospitable, as well as clearly delighting in fellowship with another believer, was such a source of encouragement to me.

I have listened to many Christian sexual minorities through the years, celibate gay Christians and Christians in mixed orientation marriages, in particular, who will be deeply grieved by some of these conclusions. Some people will experience it as a step backward rather than a step forward in creating a local faith community in which they, too, believe they can thrive.  

A Domain-Based Approach to the Integration of Psychology and Christianity

My friend, Bill Hathaway, and I just completed a book project we began some 10 years ago. We both got caught up with other responsibilities, but we recently returned in earnest to this project, wrapping it up just a few weeks ago. The book is titled The Integration of Psychology and Christianity: A Domain-Based Approach.

Here are the five domains we cover:

  • worldview integration
  • theoretical integration
  • applied integration
  • role integration
  • personal integration

The book is scheduled for publication later this year, and I have to say that after all this time, I am really looking forward to it being available. I’ll post more about it as more information is released, but just wanted to keep it on your radar.

The Beautiful Story

The Church of England Evangelical Council has produced a 30 minute video titled The Beautiful Story. I came across it when a friend sent me this post from Ian Paul about it. Ian does a nice job explaining what he likes about it, which is pretty much what I like about it. Here is the video:

In short, The Church of England Evangelical Council attempts to make the case for what is often referred to as a biblical sexual ethic or a traditional sexual ethic. That is, that genital sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage, which is defined as a covenant between a man and a woman. The video not only makes that case but it also addresses what it means to hold a high view of singleness, which includes a high view of singles who are gay and abide by this same sexual ethic.

I thought it was a well-produced video. I found it engaging and a clear articulation of a traditional sexual ethic. It has a kind of “convicted civility” (Richard Mouw) quality to it that I think many people will be drawn to. Others who disagree with the sexual ethic itself will not be won over, but that is not often the purpose of these kinds of offerings.

In any case, I thought some readers might find it of interest.

Recent Podcasts

Here are a couple of recent podcasts on topics that might be of interest to some readers.

This is the Think Biblically podcast hosted by Sean McDowell and Scott Rae. We discuss my book (with Dr. Zaporozhets), Costly Obedience: What We Can Learn from the Celibate Gay Christian Community (Zondervan).

https://www.biola.edu/blogs/think-biblically/2020/costly-obedience

Here is another podcast, and this one is hosted by Ed Stetzer for Moody Radio. Don’t be fooled by the title; we actually discuss gender identity and transgender experiences rather than sexual identity. If you are interested in gender identity, you might want to check out Emerging Gender Identities: Understanding the Diverse Experiences of Today’s Youth (Brazos).

https://www.moodyradio.org/programs/ed-stetzer-live/2020/10/10.03.20-understanding-sexual-identity/

Forthcoming Book

Brazos coverAs we are finalizing a few details in our book, Emerging Gender Identities, we’ve received a couple of initial endorsements. Thought I’d pass them along. Here is one from Jenell Paris:

Mark Yarhouse and Julia Sadusky unpack one of today’s pressing issues: transgender and emerging gender identities. As Christian psychologists, they integrate Christian insight with accurate scientific knowledge, offering well-informed and up-to-date understandings of a rapidly changing dimension of society. Current political and cultural discourse offers little room for critical engagement, and Yarhouse and Sadusky courageously offer wisdom and advice. They challenge Christians to move beyond getting theology right, even asserting that correct theological knowledge doesn’t always translate into knowing how to minister to persons with nonnormative gender identities. With many examples, they encourage Christians to accompany others, not simply instruct or admonish them from a distance. They invite the reader to renew their encounter with a merciful God, as part of developing ministry that incarnates God’s love. This book will be a gift to pastors, youth pastors, parents, and friends of transgender and gender expansive individuals. I came away with my faith strengthened, more certain that I can entrust my loved ones to Christ and that I can continue to question, learn, and wonder about transgender and gender expansiveness. My only disappointment is that I’ve only read the book once, so far!    – Jenell Paris, professor of sociology and anthropology, Messiah College

Here is another endorsement from Stanton Jones: 

We are faced with a dizzying ongoing evolution in cultural understanding of and recommended responses to a kaleidoscope of emerging gender identities. This book offers richly informed and thoughtful Christian analysis of these phenomena, along with compassionate and challenging recommendations for ministry. Yarhouse and Sadusky have the breadth of knowledge and experience to challenge readers to move toward more theologically grounded and pragmatically effective engagement. – Stanton L. Jones, provost and professor emeritus, Wheaton College; coauthor of the God’s Design for Sex family sex-education book series

Rech Inaugural Address

Just before our Spring Break, I delivered the inaugural address for the Dr. Arthur P. Rech and Mrs. Jean May Rech endowed chair. The video has just been made available, which you can view below. The title of the talk is “Sexual Identity, Gender Identity, and Christian Faith: Or, On Being an Evangelical Christian in LGBTQ+ Studies.”

COVID-19 and Our Overseas Adventure

IMG_4599We are back in the U.S. after quite a surreal experience overseas. We departed the U.S. for the Czech Republic on March 5, which was our college’s spring break, and we had two conferences on our schedule. The first was an all-day conference on applied integration on Saturday, March 7. This was for an association of Christians interested in the dialogue between the fields of psychology and theology. We then had most of Sunday off. The second conference started with a meet-and-greet on Sunday night and then was held Monday through Wednesday afternoon, March 9-11.  This was for Christian mental health professionals from Eastern European countries. In any case, this conference also went well, but we were beginning to hear about the corona virus (COVID-19) and some of the concerns about how many conditions were worsening, particularly in Italy.

By the time the conference ended on March 11, some flights appeared to be consolidating due to a decrease in air travel that I assume necessitated some quick maneuvering by the airlines. We had originally set aside a couple of days for site-seeing with the intention of returning on March 14.

So we weren’t sure what to make of the news reports. Different reports seemed to be saying different things. We were alerted on March 12, however, that new measures were being taken and that we needed to return to the U.S. by March 13 at midnight. There was some confusion surrounding early reports, as it was unclear whether we’d be stuck where we were for 30 days if we didn’t return by that date/time. It turned out as U.S. citizens we could return later, but we were strongly encouraged to make changes to our flights.

The problem with making changes to our flights was that there appeared to be no way to do that. We tried by phone multiple times for as little as 1 hour and as much as 90 minutes at a time (on hold). Our call was dropped. We tried online, but pages either weren’t loading or they didn’t have the links they ordinarily would have to make flight changes. It was bizarre. There was no way to change flights. Some of our group went to the airport to change their flights with a real person only to find that they were redirected (by real people) to change flights by phone or internet; they were not going to assist with flight changes at the airport. It was surreal.

We ended up actually trying to enjoy the rest of our stay, content that we had taken every step we could take to change our flights but that we were blocked at every turn. Then, when we were checking in (during that 24-hour window before a flight takes off), which was the morning of March 13, we were given the option of changing our flight for the first time. All of the flights would put us on a waitlist with the exception of one, which had some open seats, which we all quickly snatched up. So we left later that same day for the airport and arrived home later that same night.

planeThat last morning before we departed for the airport was really strange. Prague is normally packed with tourists. This time as we walked around the city, it was just the opposite. Very few people were taking in the sites. Museums had closed, as had other popular tourist sites. Some shops were open with very friendly staff hoping we would stop in and buy a souvenir.

Once we were back in the U.S., we began a 2-week self-isolation per directions from the CDC and the college. The college I work for extended spring break to provide students time to leave campus and faculty members time to move their courses online, so I’ve spent this week in online trainings and just flipping my classes, as well as reaching out to students and my research team to help them adjust to the present circumstances.

The college has done an exception job prepping faculty members, in my opinion. Many of my colleagues have not taught online, so there is a bit of a learning curve.

This is obviously just a small event in a much larger story of this pandemic. This is just a  very challenging time for everyone, and there is a fair amount of free-floating anxiety in the face of uncertainty. This is to be expected. At the same time, we believe that God is providing for us each day, and that there is great encouragement to be found in reflecting in gratitude on God’s many provisions for us. For me, God’s provision included, among other things, the opportunity to be a part of these two conferences, as well as the timely departure and return to the U.S. with my colleagues, so that we could travel home together.

Another provision, of course, is the very technology that enables us to stay connected for the remainder of the semester, so we turn our attention to the work that is in front of us that enables us to do just that.