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.
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.
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.
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.