Is the Gay Couple at Your Church Having Sex? It’s None of Your Business.

A few months ago, one of our readers forwarded us a link to a short Ancient Faith Radio podcast where Frederica Mathewes-Green, a writer and speaker within the Orthodox Christian tradition, offers her thoughts on pastors and same-sex attraction. It was recorded in 2012, and we haven’t gotten the links to the mp3 and podcast download to work properly. If you’re interested in listening to it before reading the rest of this post, it’s best to click the “play” button on the page itself after you’ve followed our link. Though this podcast isn’t new and isn’t nearly long enough for a full resource review, we wanted to share some of our thoughts on its content and welcome our readers to share their own thoughts in the comments.

We’ll say up front that if you hold a progressive sexual ethic, you will likely disagree with a significant part of this podcast’s content. If you hold some form of traditional sexual ethic, you will likely find yourself agreeing with at least some parts of what Mathewes-Green has to say, but may also find yourself challenged. Regardless, today’s post should not be taken as a blanket endorsement of everything Mathewes-Green has said publicly about LGBT issues.

In this talk, Mathewes-Green offers her opinion on the question, “What is the proper response if I find myself at an Orthodox parish where two people who seem to be a gay couple are accepted, and are even receiving communion?” Part if her response is that what fellow parishioners are or aren’t doing in their private lives “Is really none of your business.” She states that matters such as whether a person is engaging in sexual activity with a same-sex partner should be left between that individual and his or her confessor. She also says that it is appropriate for a parishioner to ask a priest where he stands on sexual ethics issues generally, and to use that information in the process of determining whether to remain at that parish or to continue seeing that priest for confession and other pastoral care needs.

No matter what kind of sexual ethic a person holds, there’s something to learn from this podcast. Prying into the lives of others is not Christian. Accusing another person of wrongdoing on vague suspicion is not how Christ calls us to treat our brothers and sisters. Making assumptions about what someone else is or is not working on in spiritual direction is destructive for both the person making the assumptions and the person on the receiving end. Everyone’s privacy should be respected. These statements apply across the board when it comes to questions of whether someone is committing sin.

One aspect of this podcast that we liked was Mathewes-Green’s reminder that no one can know fully what is happening in another person’s life unless that person shares it, and that person has no obligation to do so when met with rude demands by a fellow parishioner. A common stereotype of conservative churches is that devout members of these communities are obsessed with the sex lives of others. There’s a bit of truth in many stereotypes, and the two of us have experienced more than our share of mistreatment within both our former and current traditions because of assumptions other Christians have made about us. As we’ve written before, our celibacy does little to protect us from hurtful rumors and vindictive actions. But there’s no reason that straight people with traditional sexual ethics have to behave in this way toward LGBT (or suspected LGBT) members of their congregations. Fairly often, we hear it suggested that only in liberal congregations will members take a “none of my business” approach to other people’s private matters. Yet that appears to be Mathewes-Green’s approach, and if you’ve listened to even one minute of the podcast, it should be abundantly clear that she is no liberal.

The other bit we found helpful was Mathewes-Green’s emphasis on the pastor’s role in providing spiritual direction. When we leave questions like, “Who is permitted to commune?” and “Is so-and-so living in a way that’s informed by our Christian tradition?” as private discussions between a parishioner and the pastor, we trust that pastor and God to help all members of the parish sort out complicated issues in the best way possible. We develop even greater trust in our church leaders by making inquiries about where they stand on controversial matters and leaving it to them to apply Christian teaching in individual circumstances. The two of us have found much comfort in knowing that we can ask our own priests questions about where they stand on theological, liturgical, and practical matters. We’ve grown a lot in our own spiritual lives as a result. We’re also grateful that we and others have the freedom to decide who will serve as our spiritual fathers. It seems to us that trusting pastors to do their jobs and seeking guidance elsewhere if we have doubts is healthier than declaring ourselves parish inquisitors and obsessing over why someone isn’t fasting with the rest of us, why a family hasn’t been at church in two months even though we’ve seen them at a baseball game, or why a child doesn’t realize that stomping an anthill in the parish courtyard is poor care for God’s creation. Trusting those charged with providing spiritual guidance to all these folks is not the same as saying, “Anything goes. Let’s all be relativists!”

We wonder, how would conservative Christian traditions respond differently to LGBT members of their faith communities if more people took Mathewes-Green’s approach to the presence of same-sex couples? Would such a shift create space for churches to be more welcoming while not compromising their convictions? How might LGBT members of conservative churches react differently?

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6 thoughts on “Is the Gay Couple at Your Church Having Sex? It’s None of Your Business.

  1. That’s how I’ve always tried to view it, but in my former (Reformed) tradition, a layman in the office of Elder was expected to help exercise “Church discipline.” So I’ve got an idea of the delicacy of the Priest’s task in my current (Orthodox) tradition when trying to guide people, starting where they are now.

    • Yes, we’ve received a good bit of feedback from folks in various traditions that this approach might not work so well in their specific churches.

  2. This is great, but it really depends on spiritual direction actually being a thing that most parishioners are getting, at least semi-regularly. I would say less than 5% of Catholics in Ireland are receiving regular spiritual direction. And that means it’s really hard to avoid either rigorism or laxism when it comes to talking about teachings.

    I mean, sure, we should fix the problem with the lack of spiritual direction. But that’s… going to take awhile. And I’m just not sure what to do in the meantime (not regarding gay couples particularly, more just… everyone!).

    • Hi Ben! Thanks for your comments here.

      We absolutely note your point that many people make a point to receive regular spiritual direction. Frederica Mathewes-Green is speaking in the pastoral contexts of American Orthodoxy where it is reasonable to expect that people do have considerable access to spiritual direction.

      To address your comment more generally, a huge first step would be to proclaim the Gospel readily using cues from the church’s life to present teaching. The Gospels do a solid job at holding together some tensions. The Wedding at Cana provides a fantastic opportunity to discuss how Christ’s presence transforms marriage. Equally, the story of the woman at the well provides an opportunity to talk about people living in irregular situations. Similarly, the story about the woman caught in adultery shines light on the need to allow Christ’s light to examine our own hearts and find a new way of life. Pastors should feel absolutely free to present the full Gospel in every opportunity. One reasons why lectionaries can be so useful is that they can help pastors remember to discuss the necessary variations on Gospel themes.

  3. The relatio, recently published for consideration by the Synod on Marriage and Family, claims we should find value in homosexual orientation- that is, find the good in including homosexual members in our congregations.

    I’d flip that around and ask the question- can you find good in procreative heterosexual lifelong monogamy? Do you value the families you associate with, sinful though they are from a malthusian homosexual standpoint?

    • This is Sarah. I’m more than a little shocked by this question because Lindsey and I communicate *constantly* on this blog that both marriage and celibacy are good, and both help people to manifest the kingdom of God. We also speak consistently to our love for families and how they inspire us in our own vocation. We’re confused as to why anyone would think we see heterosexual lifelong monogamy as a bad thing. What is this “Malthusian homosexual standpoint” of which you speak? We know hundreds of other gay people, and I can only think of 3-4 of them specifically who view heterosexual monogamy as something bad. Where is this assumption coming from–that being gay means not seeing good in traditional families?

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