The Meaning of “Support”: A Second Response to Maria McDowell

Most of the conversations we engage in involve people who see the world differently than we do in one way or another. Occasionally, the direction conversation takes clues us into the possibility that we and the other party are likely talking past each other; by all appearances we are using the same words in different ways. As we read Maria McDowell’s second response to us, we perceived that Maria might conceive of the term support differently than we do. Therefore, we thought it would be helpful to clarify what we are requesting when we ask for support from others. For those who have not been following along thus far, our post discussing our celibate gay agenda kicked off this discussion. In that post, we stated:

“We fear the possibility that a time may be approaching when celibate LGBT Christians have only two options: 1) attend a church with a liberal sexual ethic where, in many cases, celibacy is frowned upon or misunderstood and celibates are not supported adequately; or, 2) attend a church with a conservative sexual ethic where celibates are expected to deny their sexual orientations or leave.”

We understand why people might be confused by what we mean when we say that celibates need to be supported by their faith communities, and more specifically when we discuss our own struggle to find that for ourselves. We can understand why one might become angry if that person perceived us as asking for support while at the same time withholding the same from him or her.

When a person asks us for our support regarding any life circumstance, we like to take some time to talk with him or her to understand the request. The word “support” can be interpreted in a variety of ways. If a random person holding a clipboard approaches us on the street asking for support, he or she most likely wants us to part with some money or to sign a petition. If a friend calls us at 3 AM crying, he or she asks for our support implicitly by hoping we’ll pick up the phone, listen, and maybe provide some pithy words of wisdom. If a person on Facebook is posting constantly about support for a particular cause, chances are pretty excellent that he or she hopes we’ll take some action to advance that cause. If one of our friends is dealing with major stress amid a seemingly hopeless situation, he or she likely covets our prayers that God would somehow intervene. We all have our own natural filters for determining what a person intends when asking for support. Oftentimes, we hear a person’s request and align our response with the kind of support we could see ourselves desiring in the same situation. All of us who strive to show empathy and compassion can struggle with how to offer the “right” kind of support, especially as we frequently project our own meanings onto the original request.

It’s really hard for non-celibate people to have any idea of how to support an individual trying to live celibacy, especially a non-traditional sort of celibate vocation. We get that. We’ve done our best to be explicit about what kinds of support we find helpful while writing for many different audiences. We have discussed how people with more traditional sexual ethics could support celibate LGBT Christians, both as a category and within the context of our own church family. Our experience has shown us that these people can find  our use of LGBT language to describe ourselves perplexing. We have also discussed how people with modern, liberal sexual ethics could be more supportive of celibates, and challenged our readers to think a bit more carefully about what it means to affirm a person before claiming the label “Affirming.” For the sake of being absolutely clear: when we ask for support as celibate LGBT Christians, we are asking simply to be treated as human beings who are part of a community of believers. We are not asking for pity. We are not asking folks to speak out if we do not receive communion in a particular church for whatever reason. We are not asking people to endorse our way of life explicitly. And we are certainly not asking people to dote on us because of all the ways they imagine our celibate vocations must induce pain and suffering.

As we see it, every person needs support to live a Christian life. The two of us are not special or unique among people. While we feel somewhat flattered when people see us as an authority on celibate partnerships, we constantly stress that we are not experts, and frequently we haven’t the foggiest idea of what God would have us do next. We feel like we are building the plane while flying it, and we do not have all of the answers. We find it surprising that all of a sudden, a handful of readers regard us as authoritative experts who are somehow responsible for everyone else who is discussing (or has discussed in the past) related topics in a similar way as we are. This leaves little room for us to be regular humans trying our best to discern an unusual vocation. It seems that Maria is holding us at least partly responsible for how any person within our Christian tradition has ever responded to LGBT people. Additionally, it seems as though she sees a connection between us and authors calling for shifts in pastoral practice towards a more inclusive “third way” or with a bit more “generous spaciousness.” Perhaps we have read Maria incorrectly on this, and we’re sure she will correct us if we did. Regardless, we do not think it’s reasonable or fair to hold someone who is trying a different approach responsible the shortcomings of anyone else who also happens to be seeking space for a less polarized conversation.

One of the claims we were truly surprised to see from Maria is:

“Sarah and Lindsey have made their personal decision public. It is the public declaration of a private practice that makes their blog such an important contribution, in large part because it transgresses the very neat lines we hope to draw around biological sex, sexual activity, and affinity for the other.”

A Queer Calling is openly accessible to the public, yes. We agree with Maria that one of the contributions we are able to make is challenging various categorical boxes. We also agree that our decision to pursue celibacy does not exist in a vacuum: personal decisions of this nature do have an effect on other people. But at the same time, our pursuit of celibacy is not nearly as public as some might think. That we blog about our experience as a celibate LGBT Christian couple does not automatically mean we make a point to discuss either our celibacy or LGBT status within our local parish. Outside the blog, conversations with friends, and confession/spiritual direction, we do not discuss these matters in other areas of our lives. Defining celibacy as vulnerability, radical hospitality, a shared spiritual life, and commitment makes our celibacy visible as a way of life. Yet, even members of our own families were not aware of our celibacy until we began blogging because we never had a significant reason to bring it up. We don’t walk around with the word “celibate” tattooed to our foreheads. Truth be told, before launching A Queer Calling, the only people in our lives who had any idea about our practice of celibacy were our spiritual fathers and close friends.

We’ve saved what we understand as Maria’s core objection for last. Maria writes:

I am also aware and deeply appreciative of Sarah and Lindsey’s hospitality through our personal communications, and am glad that A Queer Calling does all it can to be hospitable in an inhospitable environment. I am 100% sure I would be welcome at their table with them, in their home. I would be delighted to swap stories and enter with them into their daily prayer life. Until that prayer life broadened to include their parish. At that point, the hospitality of their home broadens to include the hospitality of their larger household, their ekklesia. Whether we like it or not, their priest may be required by the rule of his church to include or exclude me based on whether or not I am sexually active. Since I do not know their church or their priest, the invitation to pray with them corporately will inevitable be fraught with anxiety and grief: will I or will I not be allowed to eat with my friends at their ecclesial table?

Maria rightly highlights the existence of church communities that actively exclude LGBT people — both non-celibate and celibate — from partaking of the Eucharist. Lindsey still has poignant memories of the first time Sarah discussed our relationship with the priest at our current parish. The outcome of that conversation was positive, but the experience of it was terrifying. We’ve both had dreadful experiences when seeking pastoral care in the distant and not-so-distant past. At one point, Lindsey was nearly asked to leave a Christian tradition entirely because word got around that Lindsey was planning a spiritual retreat for LGBT Christians. In Sarah’s previous Christian tradition, Sarah was once denied absolution during the sacrament of confession — not because of a sin, but because Sarah had used the word “lesbian.” In many Christian traditions, it’s all too easy for clergy members to become obsessed with homosexuality, ignoring everything else about a person’s lived experience. We are willing to say that if the only kind of a person a priest would exclude from the Eucharistic table is a sexually active LGBT Christian, then that priest has seriously misunderstood the praxis of excommunication. Priests and pastors can act in haste when talking with an LGBT Christian, so we understand why Maria would perhaps be nervous and anxious about having a conversation with our priest.

At the same time, we’re puzzled: how is it our fault or the fault of any member of our parish if our priest were to decide not to commune Maria? That’s completely, 100% out of our control. Deciding who is or is not permitted to commune is not our place as lay people. And quite frankly, we’re glad because that’s not a responsibility we would want to have. We don’t envy the job of our priests in this regard. Every Sunday, our church is full of both communicants and non-communicants. People abstain from communion all of the time for a multiplicity of reasons. We try to do our best to ensure that we are growing towards Christlikeness, and have no interest in ascertaining the exact reasoning of every non-communicant. The question of whether to receive communion or to abstain should invite sobering consideration where, periodically, most everyone will abstain from receiving.

We do understand the pain of not being able to receive communion during a Eucharistic service. We exclude ourselves from Eucharistic tables with some regularity. Our celibacy does not ensure that we are welcome at every Eucharistic table. We are members of a closed communion tradition, and we have chosen to follow our tradition’s wisdom on discerning when and where to receive communion. When we visit churches outside of our tradition, we don’t commune. And we greatly appreciate being offered space to choose not to receive.

Throughout all of these points, a central aspect we noticed as we read Maria’s latest response was her framing the discussion in terms of solidarity. Solidarity is not a word that we invoke much in these conversations because for many people it brings up associations with politically-charged activism, which is not at all how we conceive of our needs for support within a faith community. We’d be interested in hearing Maria’s take on what she means when she discusses solidarity and support. What we mean when we say “support” is being surrounded by other Christians who treat us like people. We want to join our humanity with the humanity of everyone else seeking Christ. All Christians need encouragement to grow towards Christ, and part of existing within an ekklesia necessarily is supporting others in their journeys to unity with God.

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