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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5 thoughts on “Redefining Sexual Ethics Redefines Celibacy

  1. I liked your writing Alison. I have a question though. Do you think it’s a bad thing if a person believes gay sex is okay but is celibate anyway?

    • Good question!

      I am in no position to tell someone that they’re being “bad” because of their current understanding of a religious issue- my own understanding is very limited. I have just barely, *just barely,* scratched the surface of the rich Tradition of sexual ethics in Christianity. I know that celibacy is awesome, sacred, and good. I’ve started to catch glimpses of something deeper in it, this concept of “working toward virginity” and I know that’s connected to marriage but I don’t know to what extent. That’s enough knowledge to write about why I’m committing to celibacy in my Traditional Church and not to celibacy in the Episcopal Church (which has different roots, or at least a less clear connection to the roots I’m describing). Unfortunately, it’s not enough knowledge to advise others on all the ins and outs of sexual ethics, where Christians should stand on certain sexual acts, ect.

      **** I highly recommend that you ask your clergy (or the clergy of your local Traditional parish) about this.

  2. Pingback: Linkage: Sex and Celibacy Edition | Orthogals

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