The question of LGBT people in the Church is often framed as a “culture war” issue with two definitive sides. On one side, “progressive” groups advocate for greater acceptance of gay marriage and allowing for sexually active LGBT people to serve at all levels of Church leadership. On the other side, “conservative” groups exhort LGBT people to grow in holiness by resisting all manner of sexual sin, bearing their sexual orientations (and gender dysphoria) as a cross, and struggling to conform to normative expectations of the cisgender, heterosexual majority. Both sides are quick to pronounce their side “right” and the other side “wrong.” Needless to say, we find that the “culture war” approach does little more than wound a lot of LGBT Christians (and their allies) in the crossfire.
Here at A Queer Calling, we have tried to advocate for a different approach that moves beyond right and wrong. We focus on how LGBT people likely have queer callings that need to be actively discerned in the light of Christ. For us, the dominant question is “Where do we see good fruit sprouting as God guides and directs individual LGBT Christians?” We recognize that LGBT people are people above all other descriptors. We believe that God, who is rich in mercy, always wants all people to grow in holiness but does not ask people to address each and every issue in their lives at the same time.
The culture wars have a profoundly negative effect when they dichotomize spiritual direction. Mention your LGB status to a person strongly aligned with the “progressive” camp and he or she just may offer to officiate your wedding. Oh, you’re transgender? No problem, let’s connect you with the nearest trans-friendly physician to help you get started with gender confirmation therapies. Breathe a word about your LGBT status amid “conservative” groups and you’ll likely be issued a celibacy mandate and be cautioned against identifying with your sin. We’d contend that none of these automatic responses adequately conveys the nuances found in authentic spiritual direction where spiritual directors help individuals grow towards Christ in ways that are appropriate for particular people’s unique circumstances.
When time in spiritual direction becomes engulfed by questions of rightness and wrongness, little room is left for discussing, “What is God asking of me at this time in my life? At the present moment, what is God calling me to do or change so that I might draw closer to Him?” This can create a false sense that gay people need the strictest of guidance regarding sexual morality and straight people do not. In reality, virtually every Christian will grapple with questions of sexuality at one time or another. For bisexual Christians, this approach can oversimplify experiencing attraction to both sexes: “Just marry someone of the opposite sex, because heterosexual, married sex is right and gay sex is wrong.” Concerns related to sexual orientation may be conflated with uncertainty about gender identity, and vice versa. Focusing solely on which sexual activities are right and wrong can be painfully alienating to Christians with gender identity questions. Especially in conservative Christian circles, any kind of gender identity question can be viewed as a cause of forbidden same-sex sexual desire. Beliefs about the rightness or wrongness of gay sex do little to help, guide, or comfort a person who is coping with gender dysphoria.
Regularly, we have experienced pressure to make a public declaration either that “Gay sex is a sin” or that “Gay sex is not a sin.” It has been suggested more than once by readers that because we have chosen not to make such a statement, we are, at best, unable to make up our minds about our convictions, or at worst, secretive about them for some sinister purpose. Such theories about our motives leave us wondering why reaching a theologically correct belief about the rightness or wrongness of same-sex sexual activity has become the endpoint for discussion about LGBT issues in many Christian traditions. Often in Christian communities, one’s willingness to offer an apologetic for either a liberal or conservative sexual ethic becomes the litmus test for one’s faithfulness. We find that exceptionally problematic, so we ask: what might it look like to move beyond right and wrong, and into a space where the central concern is helping our brothers and sisters to grow in Christ-likeness? How might the discussion be different if we focused on vocations rather than mandates?
At times, we have caught a glimpse of what this kind of approach might look like. We have been blessed by spiritual directors who can see and affirm our willingness to do our best to live our entire lives fully informed by Christ and our Christian tradition. They understand that we are human and entirely fallible, and when we fall in any way they are ready to give us wise counsel that takes into account our desire to live as Christ calls us. Their recognizing that Christ-likeness is a goal for all Christians has leveled the proverbial playing field and helped us see that every person who seeks Christ needs help along the journey. We find ourselves growing in compassion towards people who would otherwise easily anger, frustrate, or disappoint us. Our spiritual directors have been able to see how Christ has used our relationship to help one another grow in holiness and trust that our primary spiritual struggles are not sexual. Both of us have had spiritual directors in the past who have constantly exhorted us to focus our entire spiritual energies on reigning in our sexual appetites, a focus that is not only inappropriate for our specific circumstances but is significantly alienating. Keeping Christ at the absolute center of spiritual direction creates a space for the Holy Spirit to exhort us to holy living while also giving us time to grow towards Christ. As one prayer from our tradition reminds us, we pray for the grace to “make a good beginning” because our earthly days barely make a dent when viewed against eternity.
We find it critical to speak about the need to offer all LGBT Christians authentic spiritual direction because the vast majority of LGBT Christians have exceptionally limited access to compassionate spiritual directors. While we are absolutely grateful to be able to receive authentic spiritual direction at this time, we are all too aware that our present situation is completely contingent on our current mash-up of local church community, spiritual directors, geography, and even the political climate within our Christian tradition. As evidenced by Maria McDowell’s reflection entitled “Fragile Repentances,” many LGBT Christians find themselves dependent on pastoral whim and on a few friends willing to vouch for their faithfulness. Our vocation to celibacy does not render us immune to the effects of poor spiritual direction. Many past spiritual directors have discounted our experience by stating singleness is the only appropriate form of celibacy for LGBT Christians. From our perspective, several other demographics (teenagers, divorced, widows, single, married) present in the Church do not have to worry as much as being judged by their spiritual directors as “good” or “bad” based on their behavioral track records.
One main function of a spiritual director is to be present as a human who can prayerfully carry the burdens of another person to God. We pray constantly that spiritual directors would realize the profoundly damaging effect that constant clangs of “RIGHT” and “WRONG” can have on a person. Beyond right and wrong, we find ourselves in a place where we can appreciate one another’s humanity, where all vocations are fragile, and where everyone must be nurtured with love.
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