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.

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.

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.

Saturday Symposium: Celibacy vs. Singleness

Hello to all our readers on this fine Saturday morning. Happy Memorial Day weekend to all our US readers too! We’ve been forgetting to announce that for about two weeks now, A Queer Calling has had its own Facebook page. We’re excited to communicate with you there as well as on Twitter and in the blog comments. And as always, we’re working on getting back to all the emails we’ve received within the past couple of weeks.

Now it’s time for today’s Saturday Symposium question:

How this works: It’s very simple. We ask a multi-part question related to a topic we’ve blogged about during the past week or are considering blogging about in the near future, and you, our readers, share your responses in the comments section. Feel free to be open, reflective, and vulnerable…and to challenge us. But as always, be mindful of the comment policy that ends each of our posts. Usually, we respond fairly quickly to each comment, but in order to give you time to think, come back, add more later if you want, and discuss with other readers, we will wait until after Monday to respond to comments on Saturday Symposium questions.

This week’s Saturday Symposium question: This week’s question comes from one of our followers on Facebook. Amanda, who reads the blog regularly, would like to discuss celibacy vs. singleness this week. We did one post in the past on the question, “Is celibacy the same as singleness?” and in writing this week’s “How to Live a Life of Celibacy While Missing the Point of Vocation,” we remarked that the authors of the piece we were critiquing were conflating celibacy with temporary singleness. You can share your thoughts on those topics and/or think about the following additional celibacy vs. singleness questions: what are some differences between the concepts of celibacy and singleness? Similarities? Why do you think people often conflate the two? Is a person who is living celibacy temporarily cultivating a celibate vocation, even though he/she knows that vocation will not last forever? Other celibacy vs. singleness issues you find interesting?

We look forward to reading your responses. If you’re concerned about having your comment publicly associated with your name, please consider using the Contact Us page to submit your comment. We can post it under a pseudonym (i.e. John says, “your comment”) or summarize your comment in our own words (i.e. One person observed…). Participating in this kind of public dialogue can be risky, and we want to do what we can to protect you even if that means we preserve your anonymity. Have a wonderful weekend!


Sarah and Lindsey

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.


In Which the Woman at the Well Appears in My Dreams (or, When Armchair Spiritual Direction Fails)

A reflection by Sarah


She encountered Christ personally during his ministry. The Gospel of John tells us about his meeting her at the well. During this encounter, Christ gently called her out for sexual sin: living with a man who was not her husband, and having five husbands before. She experienced an immediate conversion upon speaking with Christ and went back to her village to tell everyone about this particular trip to the well.

My patroness, St. Photini, is a familiar figure across all Christian traditions, though most know her simply as the woman at the well. When I was in the process of converting to my current Christian tradition, I felt her pulling me like a magnet. She appeared to me in my dreams, and clearly as I can now see Lindsey on the other side of the living room, I saw St. Photini sitting at the well with her jar waiting for Christ, or perhaps waiting for me. She was beckoning me to draw near. When I made the decision that she would be my saint, I felt as though I was answering an unexpected phone call from a not-so-close-yet-still-friend sort of person from my high school days. She hadn’t even made the short list of saints I’d been considering. As I shared all this with friends and acquaintances who were part of my soon-to-be-new Christian tradition, few were surprised that I had chosen St. Photini. However, I think many would be surprised to learn what did motivate and what did not motivate me to take her as my saint.

At the time I had transitioned from exploring this faith tradition into beginning the formal conversion process, people were full of suggestions as to which saint I should choose as my next patroness. Because keeping my patroness from my previous tradition was not an option, I was at a loss for whom to select. I felt strongly connected to St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Mary Magdalene, and St. Monica, but I didn’t get an especially strong impression that I should choose one in particular. I listened intently as other people offered their thoughts, hoping that in a moment of epiphany I would realize something profound about myself, or about one of these great women of faith. That moment never came, but after about the fourth person I talked to I began to notice a troubling repetition. Everyone seemed stuck on St. Mary of Egypt, who hadn’t even crossed my mind because little in her story seemed relatable to my experience of life. And those who actually asked me which saints I had been considering would stop me mid-list at St. Mary Magdalene, proclaiming triumphantly, “That’s the one for you, Sarah!”

After hearing the names of these two saints repeated one after the other for weeks, I finally asked someone, “Why do you think so many people are advising that I take either St. Mary of Egypt or St. Mary Magdalene as my patroness?”

Seemingly puzzled by my lack of insight, he replied, “Because they’re both women who repented of serious sin.”

Having spent years reading and learning about the lives of the saints, I pressed further, “That’s true for many holy men and women the Church recognizes. What’s so special about St. Mary of Egypt and St. Mary Magdalene in that regard?”

He took a moment to stare at his shoes. Then, in a muted tone he spoke, “They repented and overcame their passions. They asked God to rid them of lustful desires…something like what you’re doing with celibacy.”

I walked away from this interaction without saying much more. Many people in Christian traditions feel qualified to offer armchair spiritual direction to others who identify as LGBT, and this advice tends to focus on helping LGBT people overcome sexual temptation. Most of these folks genuinely mean well and may even think they are complimenting a celibate LGBT person by comparing him or her to saints who once struggled with lust. Others might think they are performing a work of mercy by offering unsolicited warnings to LGBT Christians about inappropriate sexual behavior. But intentions notwithstanding, frequently these bits of guidance do more to induce feelings of shame than to help in any real way. In my experience, they give Christians and non-Christians alike a reason to believe that, “Don’t have sex!” is the only bit of wisdom and “love” the Church is willing to offer LGBT people.

Of all things I wish straight people within my Christian tradition knew about LGBT people, the fact that we aren’t just loose cannons full of insatiable sexual desire tops the list. Some weeks at my own parish when I hear bombastic claims at coffee hour about how gay people are “sexually perverting and destroying everything that’s good about America,” I ache for the opportunity to share that one’s sexual orientation is not an indicator of political views, level of sexual activity, or morality in general. I want to help people understand that for LGBT Christians, identifying with one or more of those letters does not necessarily have anything to do with what’s happening between the bedsheets—rather, it involves how one relates to others, to the world, and even to God.

I question the appropriateness of assuming that an LGBT person struggles primarily—or at all—with sexual temptation. To be sure, living up to the examples set by any of the saints is an extraordinary challenge, and having a deep sense of connectedness with these holy men and women is a great privilege. But this doesn’t change the fact that I find it painful (not to mention unhelpful) to receive counsel again and again that the best role model for taming with my own passions is a woman who was once so licentious that she wouldn’t even accept payment for prostitution.

Eventually when I did decide upon St. Photini as my patroness, the well-meaning folks who had been giving me feedback reacted positively. I think it’s likely that many who affirmed my selection felt comfortable knowing that I had chosen a saint who had repented of sexual sin. In the weeks leading up to my reception, I heard a lot of, “Ah, yes, St. Photini…the woman at the well who lived with a man she had not married, and had married five men before him.” What I didn’t hear much about was the incredible life she lived as an evangelist—the very reason I had begun to feel drawn to her after she had appeared in my dreams. My straight brothers and sisters did not have much to say about how she was baptized “the enlightened one” by the apostles, converted seven members of her family, and led all of them in spreading the good news of Christ. No one mentioned that she preached and led many others to know Christ, spat in Emperor Nero’s face when he asked her to renounce her faith, and died a martyr after being thrown down a well.

Everyone seemed glad for my awareness of St. Photini’s life pre-conversion and experience of repentance, but to this day, only two other people in my Christian tradition have ever asked me, “Why did you choose her?” I’m still learning the full answer to that question—I believe that in many cases, the saints call out to us rather than the other way around. But I hope the next time somebody inquires, it will open the door for a long, meaningful conversation about something other than lustful desires.

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.

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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