Redefining Sexual Ethics Redefines Celibacy

Today, we are honored to share a guest post from our friend Alison, another celibate member of the LGBT Christian community. Periodically, we hope to share the stories of other LGBT celibates here because we believe that all stories are valuable and worthy of being told. Each of our guest posters will have different experiences of celibacy, Christianity, sexual ethics, and life in general. That means not everything contained in every guest post will mirror our own thoughts, opinions, theology, and life experience. We believe that diversity is a beautiful part of the divine mystery, and are eager to learn more from others as they graciously share their stories with us. If you are a celibate LGBT Christian and would be interested in sharing your story with us at A Queer Calling, feel free to Contact Us.

A reflection by Alison

I was asked several months ago, “As a lesbian, why are you embracing traditional sexual ethics? Why aren’t you just a becoming a nun in the Episcopal Church?” I spent 2 years trying to be a celibate in the Episcopal church even though I was called to a more traditional denomination. Every time a conflict arose between me and the Episcopal Church, I ended up losing a deeply held notion about ethics, gender, and sexuality, and being pushed more toward Tradition. There has been a major shift in my entire way of thinking in the past few years, and when I look back on the path from there to here, I realize I would have to write volumes of text and reveal embarrassing details to guide just a few people through the same path. My answer to the question will be limited in space, education, and experience. What I can say, even at this point, is that celibacy is not merely the lack of sexual actions I take. Being a celibate person of progressive sexual ethics is totally different than being a celibate person of traditional sexual ethics.

For one thing, progressive sexual ethics tend to look at celibacy as a layover; a time of self-discovery and healing between sexual relationships. When it is not viewed as a casual commitment, celibacy is viewed as a tool. For example, it allows room for career development or charitable work. I do not see celibacy that way. Celibacy doesn’t serve me, it completes me by furthering my worship of God. Being called, for me, is a lot like falling in love. That love is only getting stronger, deeper, and wiser. Traditional celibacy, and all the theology under the surface, has become something to which I want to commit. I want this celibacy to become ingrained on my heart and life.

Traditional celibacy flows from deeper theologies. One root of the traditional sexual ethic sees all human beings as icons, as living images of God, because we are. 1 Genesis tells us that we were created in the image of God, “Male and female He created them.” Christ was born into the world and became fully human while being fully divine. There is something sacred in the physical nature of humanness, even in our fallen state. Our bodies, our sexuality, are also sacred. Editing the sexual ethics handed down to us by the people who walked with and ate with Christ is like editing the Gospel. There are times it should be done (i.e. translation into new languages) but it should be done in unity with the rest of the Church and Tradition. The progressive sexual ethic may contain theology of the body’s sacredness, but it removes the teaching from the surrounding teachings that flow into it. It cuts that particular teaching off from the desert mothers and fathers and other early saints who lived it out, and it ends up contradicting them again and again.

When I was working in scientific research, I remember listening to professors speak about their areas of expertise, and thinking, “There is no replacement for decades of 80-hour-weeks working on something.” No matter how bright you are, no matter what important fragment of knowledge you uncover, you are no match for experience. You are no match for your elders, who have seen and participated in the battles for truth and understanding since before you were born. I am no match for the Church. My ideas matter, but only in the sense that a child must learn to add before she can learn calculus. At the same time, there are false teachings and teachers everywhere. Sometimes you don’t know you’re following a false teacher for too long, and sometimes you never find out. For me, the test is unity. Unity with the past, unity amongst the community, unity with something ineffable, unselfish, and all-loving.

I was recently blessed to read a few texts written by medieval nuns. They seemed to understand the word “virginity” as a goal to aspire to, not just a physical aspect of their bodies, but a grace for which they should fight. I was shocked at how widespread this concept of virginity was. In the religion in which I grew up, that was not the view of virginity. Virginity was state of inaction. If you transgress, you are worthless. They gave symbolic lessons meant to inspire deep disgust for the lack of physical virginity. Yet, for these medieval nuns, many of whom never indulged in physical sexual activity, virginity was something they had not yet achieved. There was no disgust for sexual activity–that was merely a path to holiness they were not following. This teaching is in total agreement with the Tradition of the early Church regarding sexual ethics, but the teachings about virginity in the faith I grew up in are not. If I apply the unity test, a sexual purity lesson comparing one group of human beings (those who have had sex) to chewed-up food fails miserably.

When I converted to Christianity, I did so in the most progressive denomination available, and I still miss that church family. I still go to funerals and weddings at that church. I still care deeply about their lives, and I still desperately want their approval, just like the disaster of a teenager who walked through their doors so many years ago. That Church was the first place I ever felt loved, that church taught me everything I know about compassion, that Church was where I learned to accept the existence of a loving God. I was sitting in that Church in prayer when I was first called to be a nun. For me, love couldn’t look like, “Just do whatever you want sweetie!” because I was in rough shape. My parents were abusive, and by middle school, I was leaving the house in the morning before they woke up, and coming home after they went to sleep. I was left to raise myself with absolutely minimal interference. Parenting meant providing a place to sleep, shower, and load up on food between days. “Just do whatever,” is neglect, and I was all too familiar with it. The good people of this progressive church knew that too. One time, a man I’ll describe as “my uncle,” chastised me for not wearing my coat on a cold day. It was the first time I was corrected in a loving manner by someone who was not a teacher. My uncle cared that I was cold, he cared about me more than I did, and he did something about it.

Most of the members of this church were from extremely traditional backgrounds, and I have always wondered, if their churches had done a better job of figuring out Christian formation for gay and lesbian people, would they have ever left? I know several of the ex-Roman Catholic nuns and priests would have stayed if they hadn’t been pushed out for merely being gay or lesbian. Many people in this church talked about their attempts to embrace celibacy and being rejected anyway, or because of a slip-up. The ex-gay ministries have poisoned the water of nearly every denomination with conservative sexual ethics, turning this beautiful concept of virginity as a grace of the Holy Spirit into the same legalistic shaming with which I grew up. The religion I grew up in has satanic and pagan leanings. I view any lessons that inspire shame or vanity as profoundly unChristian.

At the same time, I can’t help but see that the impact of “do whatever” theology is very similar. “Do whatever” distracts us from aspiring to the grace of virginity, from unity with the Church and with God, by turning our focus inward. This focus forces us to constantly discipline ourselves, and figure out, “What do I need?” on our own. I am still a child in comparison to the church, She is my mother, and I would never ask Her to neglect me the way my parents did in my teenage years. I expect Her to chastise me lovingly, like my uncle.

I don’t know where this leaves my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who are not called to celibacy yet (sidenote: marital chastity, too, is a path to total chastity, just not yet). All I can say is, even with a lifetime of work, I am going to fall short of chastity as a grace of the Holy Spirit. Even as a celibate, there are elements of the Church who declare that I am a sinner merely because I will not lie about my sexual orientation. Despite many reformed whores among the saints, there are those who see my past transgressions, and desire to block my reception into the Church. The Church has room for improvement, and so do I. Maybe we should look at unity the same way the medieval nuns looked at virginity. It is a grace of the Holy Spirit, one we are working toward and haven’t yet achieved. Like chastity, it’s not a battle I’m willing to give up on.

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Clearing the Air on “When Celibacy Fails”

Approximately two weeks ago, we published a post on the topic When Celibacy Fails. Here at A Queer Calling, we have made many statements about spiritual direction and celibacy in an attempt to say, “It is not enough to tell a person exploring celibacy ‘Just don’t have sex.’ There is much more guidance and support needed in order to walk alongside that person as he/she cultivates a celibate vocation.” We have written about defining celibacy using four characteristic virtues, providing spiritual direction, providing some concrete advice as to how to cultivate a celibate vocation, and suggesting that focusing spiritual directives towards “Strive first for the kingdom of God” can help churches move beyond the celibacy mandate. There is honestly nothing we wish for more than the opportunity to help people in the Church today explore the possibility that celibate vocations can be a life-giving, life-affirming pathways to holiness.

Therefore, we were exceptionally surprised to see another person in the blogosphere quoting a part of the When Celibacy Fails post in order to suggest that we deliberately paint a bleak picture of living a celibate life. We would have responded to the post sooner; however, this blogger did not engage us by commenting on the original post, contacting us privately, linking the full text of our original post in their blog, or even crediting us for our quotes. Rather, we learned about this post through a series of comical events that culminated in some of our friends recognizing that we were quoted. Regular readers will know that we take responding to comments and concerns seriously as we have made a general rule to participate in comment box discussions on the blog and to answer email in a reasonably prompt fashion.

The blogger who quoted us contrasts his writing with ours saying:

One reason I write is to inspire young people to not focus on the dreary picture most self-proclaimed “gay” Christians seem to paint of their lives and experiences, nor to focus on how difficult this particular cross is, compared to others. Rather, I write with the hope of inspiring them to pursue the great and noble cause of chastity for the sake of their love of God, and love of neighbor, and love of the world. And indeed, love of themselves!

We honestly wonder how this blogger arrived at the conclusion that we paint a dreary picture of our lives and experiences as celibate, LGBT Christians. We’re actually much more accustomed to people telling us that we take so much joy in our celibacy that our story is unrealistic. We do understand that Matilda might not be everyone’s favorite part of a New York City adventure. Not everyone will appreciate our adventures in going to church with a camel. Some people think lentil soup is disgusting and should be anathematized. And we are certainly unique amongst our celibate, LGBT, Christian friends in that Sarah (and Lindsey, by extension) has a pistol-packing grandmother who would thwack someone with her oxygen tank before letting that person harm either of us. We know we’re not exactly the same as many other celibate LGBT Christians, even insofar as we have decided to do life together rather than as singles. But of all of the criticisms we expected to receive of our blog, the idea that someone would conceive of our portrayal of celibacy as bleak never would have occurred to us in a million years.

To say a bit more, we wrote our initial piece on When Celibacy Fails because we do know a significant number of people who have struggled profoundly with embracing a celibate vocation. Some of these people hold in the fight and receive varying degrees of support in their efforts. Others have all but given up on celibacy and denounce it as the most oppressive invention of the Christian tradition. In walking alongside people across the spectrum, we’ve noted that it seems LGBT folk encounter spiritual directors who impose a celibacy mandate — if you ever have gay sex, then you’re certain to go to hell — and end the conversation there.

In writing When Celibacy Fails, we had hoped to open a conversation about the need to provide guidance towards a Christian vocation that aligns with a particular person’s state in life. We find ourselves talking differently to teenagers than we do to retirees and everyone at varying stages in between who sends us a contact email. Because people have so many different experiences and at so many different life stages, it doesn’t make sense to us that we should say, as the other blogger does:

I grant that the Church can do better–but it can do better in all things. It can do better ministering to single mothers, it can do better ministering to those who went through divorce, it can do better feeding the homeless, and it can do better with teenaged kids with same sex attraction, like I was so long ago, feeling lost in Church. (Cue the sad violins, please. Who HASN’T felt lost in the Church at some point in their lives? It seems it’s nearly a necessary part of the journey of faith for everyone to feel lost at some point in their lives.)

This sentiment ignores the problem entirely. Specifically, the problem is helping people discern a celibate vocation especially at times when the road is rocky. Yes, the road is going to be rocky; there’s nothing about following Christ that suggests for an instant that the road is going to be smooth. We think that the lived expression of the Church today does a lot to help people who are married through the rocky places of the marital vocation, acknowledging that some of our readers might be very quick to provide counter-examples as to how they have felt ignored or dismissed when seeking counsel for various marital issues. Stating that celibacy can be challenging, and more challenging to some than others, is not the same as whining, and is not the same as saying that LGBT people face a more pathetic lot in life than all other members of the Church.

As a final point of commentary, we find it interesting that this blogger decided to title his critique of our post: “My Cross Isn’t Greater Than Yours, or, Enough With the Whining!” despite the fact that we have made it abundantly clear in multiple posts that the two of us do not consider celibacy a cross to bear. We can acknowledge that other LGBT Christians may experience celibacy as a cross while maintaining that we experience great joy in our celibate vocation.

We very much regret that this blogger did not choose to open up a real dialogue with us. We further regret that another author has misrepresented the point of our post When Celibacy Fails because this blogger chose neither to link our post nor to credit us as the authors of the quotes he selected. Had we known about either of these pieces sooner, we would have responded in a more timely manner. We do our best here at A Queer Calling to practice hospitality. As a part of that hospitality, we always try to alert an author whenever we are integrating any of his or her material to give credit where credit is due. Equally, we will respond to anyone interested in integrating our material as soon as we become aware of the other person’s efforts.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.