Changing Course, or Changing Tone? Recent Shifts in Pastoral Responses to LGBT Christians

The news cycle has a funny way of repeating itself. We first had the idea for a post on this topic several months ago when many Evangelical Christians were grappling with the implications of generous spaciousness and perhaps offering a “Third Way” when providing pastoral care for LGBT people. This morning we awoke to news regarding the midterm report from the Synod on Marriage and Family in the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Herald has called the document a “pastoral earthquake,” suggesting that there is a great deal of anxiety among the faithful about whether spiritual directors are changing course in one way or another.

On our blog, we focus many of our comments on these issues on LGBT people who are living celibacy or interested in exploring the possibilities of celibate vocations. Our experience is that we have discerned calls to celibacy. We also affirm the experiences of LGBT people who choose celibacy out of obedience to their Christian traditions.

When a person is trying to live a celibate vocation, often he or she cannot find any kind of meaningful support for this way of life. Many Christians present marriage as the de facto vocation for all people. Finding books that positively and practically discuss friendship, singleness, and celibacy can be impossible in most Christian bookstores. We’re aware that many LGBT Christians who are trying to live celibate vocations feel like they need to go it alone or figure out this vocation with a general sense of “spiritual” support attained by participating in the spiritual life of the Church. We can empathize with our friends who wonder if churches just starting to celebrate same-sex marriages will have any interest in continuing to support LGBT people who want to explore celibacy.

Celibate LGBT Christians have been through the wringer when it comes to finding spiritual directors. Some people counsel us (broadly, not the two of us specifically) to give up our celibate vocations, to stop denying ourselves sexual experiences, and to explore the possibility of sexually active same-sex relationships. Other people counsel us to give up all LGBT language and avoid any other actions that straight, cisgender Christians might consider scandalous. It’s difficult for us to find trustworthy spiritual directors. So many pastors default to using auto-scripts, especially around topics of sexuality and vocation. The search for a helpful, compassionate, and rigorous spiritual director often feels like a quest for a diamond in the rough.

It’s hard to think of other places outside the Church where the divide between “rigorous spiritual direction” and being an absolutely insensitive jerk is so thin. Speaking candidly, we know that there congregations we’d never visit because the pastor has made it abundantly clear that he is incapable of seeing anything good in an LGBT person. It’s amazing how many people assert that being LGBT is synonymous with having sex outside of marriage. As with many misunderstandings, it seems there’s a break-down in communication.

Relative to everything we’ve stated, people across gamut of Christian traditions — Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox — are anxious about how their pastors might change their approaches to LGBT issues in the near future and long-term. People wonder, will their pastors follow trends of affirming, celebrating, and even advocating for same-sex marriage? Will their pastors make it clear that every person should find his or her identity exclusively in Christ and that any identification with words like “gay” must be avoided at all costs? Will the pastors take approaches of refusing to engage in any of the controversies?

When spiritual directors shift course, or simply shift tone, it’s worth considering what approaches they are moving away from and what approaches they are moving toward. There’s a troubling tendency among conservative Christians to assert that any change is going to have its inevitable end in moral relativism and/or spiritual death. In reality, many Christians change tone on these issues because repentance is part and parcel of the Christian life. If pastors do not consistently wrestle with how they approach tough pastoral questions, then they are not doing their duty as pastors. Tough pastoral questions are considered tough because a pastor walks away wondering, “Did I really do the right thing there? What would I do if I encountered a similar situation in the future? How did I consider the unique circumstances of this situation?” We’re confident that any pastor reading this entry could reflect back on times where he or she truly wanted an opportunity for a do-over.

Our situation as a celibate LGBT Christian couple is certainly uncommon. We’ve been so grateful to meet pastors who can affirm our desires to grow into the fullness of faith in Christ. However, when we consider the moves for more space in some traditions, we can’t help but be afraid of reactionary impulses within our own Christian tradition. We wonder if we constantly push our priest to his very limits, especially as our pastoral care needs get more complicated with Sarah’s health problems. We do our best to talk to our parish priest, to pray with him and for him, and to consider his counsel carefully even if we end up pushing back on some of it. Additionally, we both seek direction from our individual confessors. Amid the screeching of the culture war, we can’t help but feel like we and our priests walk on a razor’s edge.

Recognizing that razor’s edge, we think that many people confuse changing course with changing tone. Churches can teach on Christian maturity, vocations, sexuality, and relationships without sounding like drill sergeants or dictators. Pastors have options to help people grow towards Christian maturity that do not involve threatening to shun them at every possible opportunity or treating them as though their very presence is a liability to the community. It’s possible to talk with LGBT people rather than simply talking at us. As we sit back and read the midterm report of the Synod for Marriage and the Family, we can’t help but hope that maybe as a result of these conversations among bishops, celibate LGBT Christians who are part of the Catholic tradition will have an easier time finding compassionate spiritual directors. We wonder what things might look like if everyone encountered a church community that is capable of seeing the gifts they bring rather than assuming they are only present to create controversy.

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4 thoughts on “Changing Course, or Changing Tone? Recent Shifts in Pastoral Responses to LGBT Christians

  1. The problem isn’t changing course to advocate for same sex marriage. The problem is 80 years of utterly failing to advocate for heterosexual monogamous lifelong commitment.

    If it wasn’t for contraception and no fault divorce, abortion and gay marriage would be MUCH less of an issue. It is very much trying to take the speck out of the eye of our brothers, while leaving the beam with iron spikes in our own.

    • It’s true that churches have failed in many ways to catechize engaged and married couples on the lifelong commitment aspect of marriage. It’s also true that since society no longer sees marriage as a lifelong commitment, that attitude affects Christians as well.

  2. “It’s amazing how many people assert that being LGBT is synonymous with having sex outside of marriage.”
    I once tried in debate to distinguish homosexual orientation from homosexual acts. “What do you think it *means* to be gay?’ my gay opponent asked as if I was from another planet. Maybe he was just posturing to put me on the defensive, but there you go, straight from a gay horse’s mouth: being gay means having gay sex.
    I do think much of our terminology is equivocal. I wish we had a more nuanced and precise vocabulary so people who feel besieged from either side would be less apt to be misunderstood when they speak. You can’t prevent bad faith misrepresentations, but we could minimize good faith misunderstandings.

    • There’s a difference between a good faith misunderstanding and an attempt by a straight person to argue with a gay person that being gay means having sex. The first is totally understandable and we try to be patient and explain that different people understand sexual orientation in different ways, but the vast majority of gay Christians we know see being gay as about sexual orientation rather than sexual activity. This is true even for most sexually active gay Christians. But we’ve been in a number of situations where straight people who think they know more about us than we do have tried to convince us that if we’re gay, we must be having sex, and if we aren’t having sex we can’t possibly be gay.

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