Thinking Anew: Growing up gay in a Christian household
The face of the church has become for most people, particularly for young adults, the face of intolerance
‘It breaks the heart that the message most clearly heard is that it is only those whose faces fit, for whatever reason, who can find a safe place at God’s holy table.’ Photograph: iStock
We had some guest speakers at our church some months back: a mother (fellow curate) and her daughter who is lesbian. The daughter shared her story about growing up in a Christian household in which she never heard anything positive about being gay. Her mum had no notion of her daughter’s inner turmoil around her emerging sexuality and recalls saying, at the dinner table: “I have nothing against gay people but it’s just not God’s best”.
Imagine hearing yourself referred to (on a good day) as “not God’s best”? Imagine this being spoken over you by your beloved mother whom you know adores you, who loves God with her whole heart, who has no idea of the deadly effect her cheerful words are having? Imagine hearing this kind of thing again and again from those you love and trust the most?
Many (perhaps most) LGBTQ+ people have never heard anything good from the church about who they are. Worse than that, even, they are told that they are loved. “We love the sinner and hate the sin” trips blithely off the tongue. But where does this leave a person? In a kind of psychic annihilation, a double-bind; worse in some ways than frankly being hated and rejected, freed to shake the dust off one’s feet and move on. In the words of theologian James Alison, “The experience of many gay people is that the Church, in one way or another, kills us.”
Imagine the very fact that you exist means you are a problem to be solved, a threat to the very unity of the church you love? Another response often offered to gay Christians is that if you are Christian that’s fine (all welcome!) but you are called to be celibate. After all, aren’t all Christians called to be celibate unless married? I think the confusion between celibacy and chastity (an unfashionable Christian virtue which holds an important place in the common life of the church) has been disastrous for many people.
Both celibacy and chastity are an affirmation of the goodness of sex, but celibacy is a calling, a special gift given just to some. It is an intentional renunciation of the joy of marriage and the right place of sex within this in order to sublimate this God-given impulse into a profounder service of God’s people.
Celibacy is therefore a celebration as well as a renunciation of the regular heart-longing of most people for a soul mate, a life-partner, that tender provision from God who said at the very beginning “It is not good for a person to be alone”.
But celibacy cannot be imposed. When a gay person is told that their desires are so disordered that they may never be fulfilled with another person (regardless of how loving, faithful and covenantal that relationship may be) that is not celibacy, neither is it chastity. It is, rather, a recipe for self-loathing, a primal dissonance. It can wreak havoc with a person’s internal integrity, their ability to form healthy relationships in general. Celibacy is about the preciousness – not the shamefulness and wrongness – of sex.
Chastity, in the absence of a life-partner, is quite different. It, too, may be a tall order, but it incorporates an openness to the possibility of intimate, faithful, covenant love, the kind which incarnates the faithfulness of God’s own love for his church. It protects in a person the image of God’s goodness; faith, hope and love can continue to flow.
The church has so much to offer in terms of the honourable ordering of love and sex. We understand and celebrate the generosity and freedom of commitment. Yet the face of the church has become for most people, particularly for young adults, the face of intolerance. It breaks the heart that the message most clearly heard is that it is only those whose faces fit, for whatever reason, who can find a safe place at God’s holy table.