A Review of Generous Spaciousness by Wendy VanderWal-Gritter

We feel honored today for the opportunity to review Generous Spaciousness: Responding to Gay Christians in the Church, written by our friend Wendy VanderWal-Gritter. Since listening to her speak at the 2014 Gay Christian Network Conference, both of us have been anxious to get our hands on this book as soon as possible after its publication. On a personal level, we are immensely grateful for the generous spaciousness she has extended to us as we discern our particular queer calling, and are excited to offer our readers a preview of the positive contributions this book makes to the ongoing LGBT Christian conversation. We have spent several hours reading and rereading her work as thoroughly as possible so that way may give our most honest assessment. Along with the positives, we hope also to offer our readers the opportunity for further discussion on points where Generous Spaciousness seems to offer a bit more space for non-celibate LGBT Christians than for their celibate brothers and sisters.

As with the first book review we published, our review of Generous Spaciousness will focus on two primary questions: What does this book have to say to LGBT Christians who are living celibacy or exploring the possibility of celibate vocations? How does this book contribute to conversation about celibacy as a way of life that LGBT Christians might choose?

We think it is important to note that VanderWal-Gritter’s work has been informed by many years of providing pastoral care to Christians asking difficult questions about sexual orientation and gender identity. Her extensive experience shines through brilliantly in Generous Spaciousness. We are confident that LGBT Christians across the spectrum of ideologies on sexual ethics will find this book beneficial in one way or another. Specifically pertaining to celibate LGBT Christians, it has three major strengths:

First, Generous Spaciousness affirms LGBT Christians as part of the Church as opposed to a mission field for the Church to evangelize. We see this contribution as especially significant, but simultaneously we find it troubling that making such a simple statement is still necessary in Christianity as we know it today. This work clearly comes from a place of recognizing the faithfulness and dedication of LGBT Christians, seeing no reason to infer that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity must automatically subdue his or her dedication to Christ. As in the example below, Generous Spaciousness shows profound appreciation for the struggles LGBT Christians have faced in order to remain connected to faith communities and to a personal sense of faith when those communities have failed to support their spiritual development:

“The Barna Group (a Christian research and polling company) found that over 70 percent of gay adults identify some connection with the Christian faith. And 58 percent indicate a personal relationship with Christ that is still important to them. But 42 percent were unchurched, which is significantly higher than heterosexual respondents (28 percent were unchurched). It has been said that the gay community is full of evangelical Christians who have been shown the back door of fellowship by the Church” (pg. 78).

We cannot speak highly enough to the profound empathy that is present throughout this book. Both celibate and non-celibate LGBT Christians will be gladdened to hear such strong advocacy for straight members of Christian faith communities to see people of all sexual orientations and gender identities as part of the Church.

Second, Generous Spaciousness speaks to the value of moving beyond dichotomies when ministering to real people. Most other books we’ve read on questions of how best to include LGBT members within Christian churches focus chiefly on gay marriage, arguing strongly for or against adoption of rituals for the blessing of same-sex unions. We were delighted to see that this book does not put a horse in that race. Instead, it encourages all Christians to move beyond scripts when asking and exploring questions about sexual orientation and gender identity, and especially when encountering young people who are dealing with these issues for the very first time.

Generous Spaciousness rightly calls attention to the fact that young people have already formulated statements about the acceptability of being LGBT and Christian, many believing that one cannot be both and must choose between the two. Further, it suggests more helpful ways of thinking about questions of sexuality and gender identity that move the conversation beyond mandates and towards core issues of Christian discipleship. In Chapter 5, VanderWal-Gritter offers four examples of “life-giving stories that could be part of the thought and heart process of the students in our congregations who are navigating their faith and sexuality:”

* “My family, pastor, and church support me in being honest about my confusion, questions, and experiences of sexual identity.”

* “As a gay person, I have options to explore as I decide how to live my life in congruence with my beliefs and values.”

* “I know that people in my family and church will love me and welcome me in the future–even if we have differences in our perspectives and ideas about homosexuality.”

* “I can be open to whatever God will do in my life and be confident that I will have the opportunity to love and be loved” (pg. 89)

As we read this section of the book, it struck us that each of these life-giving stories could be just as relevant for a person considering celibacy as for a person considering a non-celibate way of life. LGBT Christians who ultimately decide to commit to celibacy could benefit from more supportive parents, pastors, and communities amidst confusion along the road to that decision. Those leaning towards celibacy may also find comfort in knowing that there are multiple options for celibate vocations, including monasticism, celibate partnership, lay secular institutes, and life as a celibate single person. It is also true that celibates and non-celibates alike often encounter differences in perspective with their families and churches regarding homosexuality. A committed celibate who finds a label like “gay” or “transgender” meaningful might belong to a family and church where most people believe that one should not even use a sexual orientation or gender identity label, or alternatively might be part of a family or church where others take a more progressive stance on sexual ethics. In either case, knowing that one is loved despite this difference can be meaningful. It can be greatly comforting for a person considering celibacy to be able to trust that God will lead him or her toward loving relationships with other people. Though many readers will probably see the four items on VanderWal-Gritter’s list primarily as affirmations of non-celibate vocational pathways, we were impressed to see that these and many other pointers offered in this book are also relevant for LGBT Christians who have chosen or may eventually choose celibacy.

Third, Generous Spaciousness articulates a vision for “staying alive to hopefulness” that is inclusive of LGBT Christians who intend to pursue celibacy. Acknowledging one’s sexual orientation and gender identity can be a difficult process to navigate, especially at the outset of the journey. We’ve read a lot of tips for people trying to come out that focus on an end goal of celebrating one’s LGBT identity and engaging in various kinds of sexual relationships. Generous Spaciousness offers three concrete pathways that guide people towards Christ first and foremost: release of grief, reception of beauty, and cultivation of a positive vision for the future. Surprisingly, these pathways are not explicitly linked to sexual orientation or gender identity, but rather center on trying to find a vocation when one realizes oneself to be a minority. Generous Spaciousness encourages LGBT Christians to see the hopefulness of wider creation while at the same time seeking beauty within their experiences of being in a gender and/or sexual minority, noting that being LGBT should be viewed holistically:

“A gay person’s sense of sexuality ought to be viewed through the same robust lens of holistic sexuality. Connecting our relational image bearing to our sexuality invites us to consider creativity, humor, communion, and the like as expressions of our sexuality. All of these aspects of our personhood are connected to the reality that we are sexual beings” (pg. 115).

By challenging its readers to see sexuality as fundamentally about human connectedness, Generous Spaciousness offers strong guidance as to how an LGBT person might go about integrating his or her sexuality into a broader sense of self.

For all its strengths, Generous Spaciousness does have two significant weaknesses in its ability to help churches support LGBT Christians who are celibate or who are exploring celibacy. The book tries exceptionally hard to be inclusive of the experiences of all LGBT Christians. However, it seems that in detailing the evolution of ministry at New Direction from being an Exodus International member ministry for people with “unwanted same-sex attraction” to embodying a posture aligned with generous spaciousness for LGBT Christians to come to differing conclusions, the book extends a much stronger overture to LGBT Christians already in or exploring the possibility of sexually active same-sex relationships.

The first weakness is that Generous Spaciousness seems to assume celibate LGBT Christians do not need stronger affirmation of their vocations from the Church, and that the Church’s real challenge is in supporting non-celibate LGBT Christians. This might come as a surprising critique, especially given that New Direction has received praise for its ministry towards celibate LGBT Christians. Nevertheless, the book provides two exceptionally poignant examples that leave us wondering how much support celibate LGBT Christians can receive within a church community that employs a generous spaciousness approach.

At the end of Chapter 6, VanderWal-Gritter tells the story of a woman who experiences same-sex attraction but is committed to celibacy. This woman was attending a diverse church with many gay couples. The presence of gay couples “made it harder for her to stay true to her convictions. She spoke to her pastor, and he wisely suggested that she meet with one of the lesbian couples” (pg. 106). The woman committed to celibacy could affirm the authentic Christian faith of the lesbian couple, “but as she twisted the wedding ring on her hand–a symbol that God, her bridegroom, would provide for her needs–she was able to say that God had enlarged her heart” (pg. 107). At no point in this story do we hear about how another person offered the celibate woman a sense of generous spaciousness to discern her vocation in community; indeed, it seems that her pastor’s counsel was more for her to give generous spaciousness than to receive support. VanderWal-Gritter appears to support this counsel, thus overlooking the challenges faced by a person committed to a celibate vocation in a sea of people who are married or strongly exploring the possibility of marriage.

Chapter 12 explores the question of how to provide LGBT Christians with opportunities to lead and serve local congregations that frequently have firm expectations of people in leadership and pastors who struggle to communicate in a sensitive manner. VanderWal-Gritter highlights the example of a married LGBT couple looking for a church and emailing churches in an effort to discern how welcome they would be as a family. As a couple ourselves, we appreciated the presence of this example because we are all too aware of how congregations can ostracize LGBT people in their midst. While this is a great example and is important for churches to consider, it comes on the heels of twelve chapters worth of anecdotes, very few featuring a clearly identified celibate LGBT Christian struggling to be welcomed and affirmed in his or her faith community. We are familiar with the broader LGBT Christian community enough to infer that more of these stories than the obvious ones likely feature celibate people. However, since the vocational status of celibate LGBT Christians is often left unstated, Generous Spaciousness unwittingly suggests that a celibate LGBT Christian doesn’t need as much space as a non-celibate for discerning his or her distinctive vocation because he or she likely has a more traditional sexual ethic.

The second weakness is that Generous Spaciousness discusses all forms of committed relationships among LGBT Christians as though they are basically the same regardless of whether they are sexual. Throughout the book, VanderWal-Gritter uses many descriptors for relationships between LGBT people such as “same-sex relationships,” “consummated partnerships,” and “covenanted gay relationships.” Frequently, she employs these terms interchangeably in a way that suggests they apply to sexually active relationships. In the few instances where this book shows openness to the question of whether LGBT people could be in celibate relationships, the uniqueness of this type of relationship seems hidden:

“It is important to remember that love is love. And love is of God. There is much love to be given and received within the context of companionship or friendships, whether or not these relationships take on an exclusive or primary role in a person’s life and whether or not they are consummated sexually” (pg. 101).

We’ve devoted a lot of space here at A Queer Calling to discussing the uniqueness of the celibate vocation lived in partnership. For many celibate LGBT Christians, it is a difficult process to discern what celibacy can look like within a shifting landscape of vocations, and this is certainly true for others we know who are pursuing celibate relationships. At times while reading Generous Spaciousness, we felt as though we were being lumped together with LGBT couples who do not feel called to celibacy, as though the only difference between a celibate partnership and a non-celibate partnership is the absence of sex. Consider the following quote: “When we read accounts of gay, celibate Christians, deeply committed to the self-denial such commitment entails, and stories of gay Christians who are affirming of gay relationships, it can cause a great deal of confusion. Inevitably, we may find ourselves asking, ‘Who is really committed to Christ?'” (pg. 105). With these categorical divisions posed, we are left scratching our heads and wondering where we fit into the mix.

On the whole, we are grateful for Generous Spaciousness: Responding to Gay Christians in the Church. Wendy VanderWal-Gritter presents a compelling case for why generous spaciousness is needed in the first place and provides insights as to how this approach can open up life-giving vocational pathways for LGBT Christians. She offers a solid starting set of ideas for how LGBT Christians inclined towards celibacy could find strength as they grow into mature vocations. However, celibate LGBT Christians themselves need a generous spaciousness within the Church to receive support in these vocations, and we did not see those needs fully recognized within this book.

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