The recent decision by Archbishop Foley Beach and the ACNA to officially discourage (or disallow) the phrase “gay Christian” distressed me deeply. I think this should especially distress someone like me, a Global North Anglican with a traditional view of Christian marriage and sexuality, whose confirmation and formation as an Anglican came mostly through the ACNA. The idea behind the decision is, very basically, that a Christian cannot also be “gay,” because this word carries other loaded cultural and identity connotations, and “human identity lies not in sexual orientation…but in union with Christ,” and so a Christian who might otherwise identify as gay should instead call himself or herself “a Christian with same-sex attraction.” This new “Pastoral Statement” stems, in part, from the ACNA’s expressed desire to be more faithful to the gospel, to align less with prevailing Global North secular culture, and, it seems, to align more deeply with particular Global South Anglican bishops on this matter.
Though the moratorium on “gay Christian” as a description of identity may not have had a violent or obnoxious intent, its effect has been to ostracize and penalize the celibate gay Christians among them, who are, or were very recently, in their ranks as leaders and colleagues.
Besides the power dynamics at play in some of this decision’s effects, here are five reasons why, in the Global North at least, this is bunk. We need to be able to say “gay Christian.” Here’s why “Christian with same-sex attraction” won’t cut it (and yes, these reasons are “pastoral,” but not as code for “theologically wimpy”).
There are times we need to distinguish between experiences of same-sex attraction and a sustained, unchanging orientation of sexual desire.
This is critical for spiritual direction, pastoral care, and, in my opinion, discipling youth, whose experiences, desires, and hormones tend to be even more intense and unpredictable than the average human’s.
Let’s say you have a young woman who has sexual feelings in the presence of a female friend. Or let’s say she has one too many drinks at a party and kisses another girl. She comes to you, pastor, youth pastor, counselor. She tells you the story. And let’s say, furthermore, that she believes that same-sex sexual acts are a sin, and she’s worried. Her questions for you are not only going to be about particular acts, or particular “experiences of desire” — they are going to be related to who she is. How is she supposed to think of herself now? And where does she belong?
Of course, as the ACNA points out, you make a distinction. You make sure she knows where her core identity lies: in Christ. And where does she belong? In the Church. Fair enough, but do we not have other, actual, meaningful identities that help us to understand ourselves and shape our discipleship? Do we counsel Christians to ignore, sideline, or talk-around these identities?
Once, in college, I sat terrified before a counselor at my conservative Christian school to confess that I felt moments of sexual attraction to a female friend. He was very wise, that counselor. “Let’s imagine,” he said, “you go home for Thanksgiving break. You sit your family down, and you say, ‘Mom, Dad, I’m a lesbian.’ What do you think of that?” Hearing it put this way, as an orientation, rather than a set of intermittent (yet, in moments, powerful) feelings, clarified things instantly for me. I had had this experience. But I wasn’t gay. I wanted to be with men. That was clear to me. But this experience also happened to me. For me, there was no closet to come out of. I simply needed to process the experience (which was one of the best counseling seasons of my life). If, however, “lesbian” or “gay” had rung true to me in any way, our conversations would have taken an appropriately different direction.
By whatever constellation of desire, loneliness, stress, intimacy, alcohol, fun, energy, youthful experimentation, sin, and the attractions of handsome, beautiful, witty, vibrant people, there are times that humans may viscerally feel the sexual attractiveness of someone of the same sex and yet not be gay. (Conversely, someone may be gay and, at moments, feel the sexual attractions of someone of the opposite sex.) And in contexts of discipleship, counseling etc., people with these questions may need to hear the difference between “I have had certain feelings/experiences at such and such a time” and “I am gay” to break up mystery or fear, to discern their particular situation, and so to shape their sexual discipleship going forward.
“Same-sex attraction” was an accurate description of my experience, but only and especially because it is distinct from an orientation. If we either flatten the distinction between those experiences, or can only speak in euphemisms, we lose an important tool of discernment and discipleship.
Gay people know something by experience that most heterosexuals do not.
And this is what they know: that their persistent, unchanged experience of same-sex attraction is a defining enough part of their own self-knowledge (not because they imagined or made it that way, but because it is that way) to constitute, for all practical purposes, an identity, no matter their view on traditional Christian sexual ethics, no matter how they vote. It’s not the first or most defining identity for a Christian, but it’s an identity nonetheless.
This is not exactly like, but it may be something like, if I asked a Black Christian to re-identify as a “Christian whose experience is that of African or African-influenced culture or of a culture of African descent.” Then of course we’d have to determine “to what extent do they have this experience?”, etc. etc. And for some reason, it’s me, a white person, making all these determinations. The identity “Black” is secular, I might argue; it’s not theologically meaningful.
This is a nauseating prospect.
The funny thing is, the replacement of a three-letter word with a much more complicated phrase is the kind of linguistic eggshell-walking the right tends to identify as a problem of the left: creating a culture of fear around language — mandating we always say a mouthful to avoid saying any simpler or clearer words that may possibly be offensive. This is something to think about.
We can’t forbid “gay Christian” if we’re going to be a comprehensible witness to Christian sexuality in many if not most Global North contexts.
Since the inception of the Church, Christians have learned, over and over again, that language, and ways of saying things, are in service of mission. The gospel goes native and transforms what it touches. Missionaries who only try to import their own ideas “from the outside,” as it were, lose effectiveness and credibility, doing a lot of damage along the way.
I understand the problems with church and “relevance.” “Relevant” activates my gag reflex. Christian language is not an endlessly-manipulable vehicle for disembodied truth. And even perfectly contextualized witness can still get you martyred.
What I mean by mission-ready language involves four points:
- What we have to say (the God-revealed gospel) doesn’t change.
- There are certain very clear, very effective phrases and images that have stood the test of time and space that God has given us to use in understanding and preaching this gospel — that is, the good news of his character and human relations to him — for example: kings and shepherds, sons and fathers, blood and trees, water and light, bread and salt, spirit and flesh.
- Even among the most sacred, most useful language we’ve been given, we’ve had problems. For example, in some cultural contexts, where there are no sheep, perhaps even no goats, and thus no shepherds, how would you teach Psalm 23, or Jesus’ Good Shepherd discourses? Among the Maasai, might you say (might you need to say) “I am the Good Cattle Herd”? Or do you teach what a sheep is? Or a combination of both? In other cultures, where there’s no wine, or no bread unless you import it, how does a missionary help a community discern a fully contextualized celebration of the Lord’s Supper?
- Language is given to serve us, not us to serve language, even in witness to God’s truth. If a bishop in Nigeria cannot use the phrase “gay Christian” in any helpful or edifying way whatsoever, then, perhaps, so be it. It may very well invite spiritual or physical danger to those who use it. (Then again, it might be liberating, even gospel work, to have an African Anglican bishop at the forefront of decriminalizing homosexuality!) To a certain extent, we have to trust leaders to know their sheep. But, to flip this, if there were a place in which it would be edifying, useful, or otherwise instructive to teach about Jesus as healer by calling him the Good Witch Doctor or Good Shaman because there is no other translation in the local language(s) that will do for the role of a healer, then, perhaps, so be it. We pray that church leaders, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, may know their sheep. But Jesus as the Good Witch Doctor or Shaman will very likely not be edifying, useful, or otherwise instructive in Wichita, Kansas or Portland, Oregon. In fact, it could very well be dangerous. So be it!
This is not to say anything goes, but it seems very problematic for Christians in radically different cultural and missionary contexts to demand the same rules for language. I need to be able to speak in a way that means something to my non-Christian neighbors. Then, as Christian wisdom, sanctity, purity of life, and the Holy Spirit’s power infuse our conversation and relationship, and as the language I use gets mixed in with particularly Christian, theological language (salvation, sin, grace, repentance, and so forth), evangelism happens: truly paradigm-shifting, dividing-wall-breaking, missional, and yet native evangelism. This will not happen if I can’t use words that are meaningful to my neighbors, gay or straight or however they otherwise self-identify.
When you’re discipling a mature adult, you’ve got to treat them that way.
If you’re in a discipling relationship in which someone already identifies as gay, or if you’re ministering in a cultural context in which “gay” is already long established as a shorthand for a set of experiences that really do tell you something about a person, whether or not you agree with their self-identification, whether or not they’re living in a sexually holy way, it doesn’t seem to me that it will do any good to wrestle over semantics. It may even prove a stumbling block. It may even make you look unnecessarily silly, pedantic, or hopelessly out of touch. It will almost surely sound facile or dilettantish to a gay adult to ask them to call themselves solely “Christian with same-sex attraction” when they crossed the “gay” bridge long ago, perhaps through much prayerful struggle.
People still coming to grips with their orientation may, for a season, just need a safe space, even if you don’t agree with them.
When coming to terms with orientation, or in the later, often grueling process of “coming out,” people need to be able to express their process, decisions, and identities in an intelligible way, to themselves and others. This may mean using language you prefer. It may not. Proper pastoral and theological guidance can happen in a range of intensity and contexts, but even if you do not approve of the word “gay” to describe a Christian, it won’t work to call out the language police; this may cause those you’re pastoring to avoid speaking full truths (vital to the cure of souls) because they sense their experience will be corrected or minimized. Besides all this, people need to be messy, especially in difficult times — especially if what they’re experiencing has been repressed or been held as a secret.
My point here is not meant to give the ACNA statement any ground. Neither is my point to persuade you that there’s never anything incompatible between Christian identity and a gay orientation. But I do hope to speak directly to those who are uncomfortable with the phrase “gay Christian,” and to demonstrate that, even if you have reservations, holding the space for people to identify as gay is important and wise.
Now, for a Christian to say “I’m gay” could be jumping the gun, sometimes with serious consequences, depending on, perhaps, how young or mature the person is and what the person decides to do about it. So it might be helpful in some instances to pause for a while at the threshold, to ask the question: “Might I be gay? What do these feelings and experiences add up to for me right now? Is there a way I can live without labeling myself for a whole hot minute?” As a former youth pastor, I would encourage young people especially that it’s worth waiting to see what their experiences add up to, as well as what God will do in their lives, before applying a word to themselves that can shape so powerfully their discipleship, their relationship to themselves, their friendships, and their experience of community. This is another reason why distinguishing “attraction” from “identity” can be so important.
In short: the discernment that pastoral discipleship requires itself requires words that make sense to the people you’re talking to and make sense of the situation they’re in.
Finally, if patience is required as a pastoral/theological leader in the area of sexuality, identity, experience, and discipleship, remember too that it will be required not least from the people you are leading.
Amber D. Noel is associate editor of the Living Church and associate director of the Living Church Institute.