Saturday, 26 April 2014

Celibacy Pt 2 - An Outdated and Failed Experiment

Easily the most read post on the BGBC Blog has been that which I published on 12 March 2012: Celibacy For Gays – A Deconstruction. It has had, on average, sixty views every month since its publication just over two years ago. It has been read on every continent in the world and in so many different countries that it has surprised even me by the interest it has generated.

In that post, I attempted to spell out the catastrophic consequences of:
1.       Telling a person that despite being gay, they must never ever act on     their sexuality or express it;
2.       Mandating such a rule from authoritative people like clergy and church   leadership;
3.       Declaring that such a rule is what God wants;
4.       Policing that rule with church sanctions;
5.       Declaring that a person who breaks that rule is sinning and rebelling     against God;
6.       Declaring that a person who breaks that rule is contravening nature;
7.       Insisting that such a person repent and return to mandated lifelong       commitment to celibacy no matter the personal cost.

I attempted to spell out that cost, especially to a young gay person; to show what it actually means in the lived experience when a church leader tells a young person they must commit the rest of their lives to sensual and sexual isolation, not because they want to, but because they are told to.

So why the interest in of all things – celibacy? Why after fighting for so many years to declare that being gay is okay and being gay does not exclude a person from being Christian is the traditional church now so powerfully interested in the notion of ensuring that gay people not express their sexuality?

A New Fight


There is a good reason. It would appear to all intents and purposes that the war on gays is over; at least relatively speaking. There are still skirmishes here and there but the shift towards positive attitudes to gay people is unmistakable and unstoppable. It has been so significant and so rapid that it has left many stunned and shocked. There is now widespread acceptance that gay people have always been around, that we are around today and not ashamed anymore and so are out and very public. Gays are now part of the furniture in the developed world and are gradually becoming relatively unremarkable. When a well-known figure or celebrity comes out these days, it’s not such a big deal anymore. “Oh yeah, I always wondered” or “good for him” “good for her” are common responses nowadays. In fact, it goes even further than this. Gay people are now so out and public that we are now active in ensuring that our rights are not trampled upon by traditional bigotries. We have been and continue to be strong and voluble advocates for gay rights and the removal of discriminations. We even want our relationships recognised by our respective societies in the push for the acceptance of marriage for our community.

And as this monumental social change has taken place and taken root, the traditional evangelical church’s view on gay people, which has been the loudest and most strident, has lost purchase with general Western society. People in developed countries are well educated and know at least basically how this whole gay thing works. They know that people don’t just wake up one day and decide to be gay. They know that the gay youth suicide rate is way too high and is a powerfully distressing phenomenon for local communities and nations.

Some statistics from the United States:

      ·        Lesbians are two times more likely to attempt suicide than straight women;
·        Gay men are six times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers;
·        Attempts by gay and lesbian youth account for up to 30% of all completed suicides;
·        Gay teens are 3 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.


People know that these numbers are caused by rejection and self-disgust, the perception in young gay people that they are sick or sinful or unacceptable or filthy because they have been told explicitly by church or family that this is so and that they lack the emotional maturity to be able to handle such devastating declarations about their life. People have gotten the message that it has been society and church that has been sick, not the young gay person. The world is waking up to the reality of the harm of such prejudice. Society has heard the stories about people like Matthew Shepherd and Tyler Clementi losing their lives due to the tumultuous issues around gay sexuality for young people and when there is a real face with a real name on the news, there is empathy and attitudinal shift occurs.

They have either read or heard at least a modicum of science that a gay sexuality is significantly determined by genetic and biologic factors. They know gay people personally. They work with them. Gay people are part of their schools, universities, hospitals, retail centres, their families. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins, friends. Society has moved on.

Yes, there are and always will be pockets of homophobia; always due to fear and ignorance. But on the whole, the churches know that they have lost this war. No longer can they get away telling the world that being gay is a sin, a punishment from God, a rejection of God, a deal-breaker with God, a ticket to burn in hell for eternity. No-body is buying it anymore. Not because society has become godless and profane but because those traditionally taught notions are nonsensical and juvenile and harmful and are seen to be in the public discourse. There is more education out there now. Those attitudes simply do not make sense in a twenty first century world.

So what is the response of the traditional churches?

“Let’s go to Plan B. Okay,” they say, “you can be gay. We can’t change you and we’ve learned that the hard way. We know that most people accept you as you are and we know how bad it makes us look that they do and we don’t. We know how bad it makes us look when they offer love and acceptance and we don’t. So, you can be gay. There’s probably nothing we can do to change that anyway. But while you can call yourselves gay and while you can think of yourselves as gay, we demand, because we speak for God and we know that we are about to command is exactly and precisely what God wants, that you NEVER EVER EVER enact any sexual behaviour with someone of your own gender, that you NEVER EVER EVER fall in love with someone of your own gender, that you NEVER EVER EVER touch anyone or be touched by anyone in a sensual and loving way with your own gender and that you obey our command for the REST OF YOUR LIFE. If you disagree and disobey with what we demand as being the judges of you being acceptable or not to God and his church (that’s us), you will be in sin and you will be rejecting God and you will wear in your self the punishment and pain of rejecting God. This is a deal-breaker between you and God and for those of us who are obsessed with this kind of thing, we do not hesitate to tell you that you will burn in hell for eternity for expressing your gay sexuality because that’s what we believe is in store for all unrepentant sinners”.

In other words, NOTHING has changed. All that has happened is that the focus has been shifted from the ontology of being a gay person to the expression of that ontology by living out authentically your true and natural self. The same fundamentalist forces that would have had you rejecting your natural gay self and returning to the closet and possible marrying an opposite sex partner are now clamouring to stop you from being a whole gay person by refusing you the ability to express your sexuality. “You can be gay, but don’t you dare do anything about it. You can be gay, but don’t have sex, don’t fall in love, don’t touch anyone. Just shut up and be gay quietly and some of us might let you stay”. Thus, the call for celibacy for gay people / gay Christians is a misplaced error of judgmental reasoning. In the collective mind of homophobic fundamentalists, the exclusion of sexual expression for gay people is the next best thing to the non-acceptance of gay people. “Plan A didn’t quite work out the way we expected so we will go to Plan B”.

Image via Shutterstock
While it may look like Plan B, when you analyse this position, the belief that being gay is wrong is still there. It is not really an acceptance of our sexuality at all. It is a sleight of hand, a misdirection, a religious illusion that would have young gay people, and older too, deny their identity and once again go back into the religious closet and keep quiet about sexuality once and for all. Why is sexual expression for gay people wrong? Because being gay is wrong. Well, we’re here today to challenge that notion.

This Blog Post


In this blog, I thought it might be time to put down some thoughts why I oppose celibacy for gay Christians and offer the reader some rationale for my position. This blog will perforce be more philosophical in its nature than Part 1, but the interest is clearly there, so I feel the importance of really spelling this out. To do this, the reader will need to understand from where I am launching, both theologically and philosophically, otherwise this whole discussion will not make sense or unnecessary arguments will be made that can easily be clarified if you know how I think first. So to that brief discussion, we go. To make things crystal clear, I have decided to enumerate my position in point form. There is a basic logic and sequence to the points. I will not discuss each point as to how I arrived at that conclusion for space forbids and it is not important in this particular discussion. It is sufficient to read the position statement below to gain an adequate understanding of what I say about celibacy after it.

My Basic Position (relevant to this issue)

  1.  God is love;
  2.  God is passionate about the earth and all of its people;
  3.  It is possible (and wonderful), though not essential, to make relationship with God conscious and intentional;
  4.  The first and greatest commandment, as focused on by Jesus is, not to obey God, not to submit to God, not to fear God, not to worship God, but to love God;
  5. The second greatest commandment is to love our fellow human beings (whether we like them or not);
  6.  The Christ came to show us that we are here to become – to become fully human, to become fully self, to become the individual we have the potential to be (he called it abundant living);
  7. Part of the totality of human life is our sexual identity (that we are sexual creatures and find certain stimuli erotic) and within that identity we have a sexual orientation (the direction of ‘love object’ (gender) to which we are attracted physically and emotionally;
  8.  Gay sexuality is a biopsychosocial orientation that is highly biologically and genetically determined (as is heterosexuality);
  9. It is neither wilfully chosen nor wilfully changed;
  10. It is not a sin, it is not a rejection of God;
  11. It is not a sign of demonic oppression nor of psychopathology;
  12. Gay people have been around since the beginning of recorded history and have been identified in every culture on earth;
  13. If God is spoken of as the creator of human life then gay people are as much an outpouring of God’s creative act as are straight people;
  14. God’s work of creation continues today and we are invited, gay and straight, to share in that creative act by bringing peace and justice to the world by compassion and care for our neighbour. As the saying goes, his hands are my hands (Jesus called this the Kingdom of God);
  15. The Bible is not the inerrant word of God but the outcome of the endeavours of tribal people in the ancient world who had very specific and clear agendas in what they wrote. It is more properly thought of as a compilation or library of texts and while it does possess some internal consistency, the texts have been edited out of their original forms literally countless times and must be read with an acknowledgment that there is more than one voice. The books that make up the compilation were decided by a series of church councils of men only and concluded at the Council of Trent in the mid 1500s. To this day, Catholic and non-Catholic wings of the church differ in places as to what is canonical and what is not.
  16. There is much that is inspirational in the texts especially in regard to dealing with God and in dealing with or fellow human beings. The long line of prophetic tradition, in which Jesus stands, ie., loving God and standing with the marginalised, is the closest thing we have to the teachings of Jesus about the nature of God and our place as relational creatures in the world. Thus for me now, the Bible should only be read with this guiding exegetical principle of charity. Where an interpretation shows no charity, it is to be discarded as unhelpful in today’s world;
  17. I do not now regard the Bible as un unstintingly reliable text in all matters and can no longer countenance a ‘face-value’ reading of its many and varied texts. It is not a guideline about race, gender, ethnicity or sexuality. It is a historical fact that the Bible has been used to visit violence and oppression on a number of populations of people causing untold distress. While there is much good in its texts, most notably in the accounts of the life, example, teachings and dealings of Jesus, this good must be teased apart from the voices of oppression and tribalism, the voices of domination and coercion, the voices of false piety and ostentatious religion, the voices that lack charity to the human condition;
  18. I see today that the Spirit also speaks to us in the lived experience of human life, in the lives of others, through the creation, through music, poetry, art and literature, through silence and contemplation;
  19. I am not evangelical. I am not Catholic. Today, I class myself, as stated in the book, in the camp of Progressive Christianity;
  20. I do not hold that believing certain tenets makes anyone a Christian or follower of Jesus. This focus on belief is an appeal to orthodoxy that I now reject. For me now, the Christian life is not about a list of precepts that I have to believe in order to be deemed orthodox. I do not demand anyone believe or think as I do.
  21. It is apparent that Jesus’ greatest enemies were ‘from within,’ ie., the religious leaders of his faith. Though they talked the language of spirituality, their words and deeds were often condemned by Jesus. The same happens today with so many church leaders. St Paul himself says that you can talk up your spiritual credentials all you like, and in a dazzling display of rhetorical flourish ‘you can manifest the tongues of men and of angels and even prophesy’, but if you are not loving, then you are nothing but hot air – an abrasive noisy gong or clanging cymbal; worse than hot air. For me now, I am quite cynical of religion and the mess we have made of the Jesus story (the Gospel) in this world;
  22. Part of the mess is the catastrophic teachings in the early church and in declamatory style from the third century on, that sex is evil, sinful, profane and ungodly, the opposite of spirituality; forever denoted as being associated with sin. The church got hung up about sex and remains hung up about sex;
  23. I do not see the body, sex or desire as in anyway degraded or dirty or filthy or sinful. This does not make sense in a twenty-first century world where we have better understandings of human sexuality, nor is it congruent with incarnational theology that would have us see the God-man Jesus as truly and fully human with his own sexuality and life of erotica (anything less does not make him human);
  24. I do not hold to a model of sin as the breaking of a rule which demands punishment by an authoritarian parent figure. I now hold a model of sin, a word I am happy to dispense with (as it is less than helpful in our telling of the Jesus message), as being an estrangement – from ourselves, from each other and from God. This tripartite model of sin has at its centre the concept of respect, or if you prefer more theological language, charity or love. Respecting oneself, respecting others, respecting God keeps us connected and estrangement disappears. This model is also more consistent with how the science of psychology views the human being and which aspects are, to use a psychological turn of phrase, adaptive and which are maladaptive. I do not see God as a punishing angry parent let alone an easily irritated judge figure and view that model as being juvenile and immature;
  25. Though it can be many things, a sexual act is a connective act first – a sharing between two consenting adults;
  26. Sexual connection for people, when all cultural, social and religious attributes are stripped away, is typically a reaching out for love and connection; a fundamental need in the human psyche;
  27. I do not believe that God wakes up every morning and says, ‘now who is having sex who is not married? Let me at ‘em’!;
  28. While harm can come to people via sexual means, it is always in the context of the estrangement of disrespect (Point 24) and should be avoided and shunned;
  29. The focus on personal sexual morality by the twentieth century church has been a misalignment of what is really important in the Gospel – relationality;
  30. This misalignment has become sadly part of the Judaeo-Christian culture throughout the world so that even ‘secular’ institutions, eg., the media, are ashamed and embarrassed by human sexuality;
  31. I believe now that we need to change. We need to grow up. We need to have a more adult view of human sexuality and abandon altogether the guilt, the shame and the negativity around human sex, its expression, its depiction and the discourse through which we talk about it.


Fundamentalist Reaction


So I will not be arguing my position here based solely on scriptures or on church teaching or tradition. I will be arguing my position based on an overarching understanding that God wants our good and that abundant living is his desire for us. I will be arguing that denial of identity is not a good thing and is in fact life-negating not life-affirming. I will also argue my position based on the science of psychology in which I have some expertise. And I will be arguing my position based on the truth of my own and others’ lived experience and how that plays out across the lifespan of a human being. I am not interested in having scripture wars. I am not interested in fundamentalists telling me that “the Bible says - - - - -.” I am not interested in evaluating my life or my faith up against their criteria. I do not hold their paradigms about life or about God, so there is little value in entering that fray.

But fundamentalist Christians who read this need to know that I listened to your view for almost all of my young adult life. I was a Christian gay man in psychological turmoil because of the church’s teachings about sexuality. I was also a celibate man due to traditional Christian teachings about sexuality and maintained that state for the best part of twenty two years. At the end of that time, I was a significantly diminished person and felt I could no longer go on as things were. It is one thing for you to stand on high and judge and proclaim God’s voice as if you speak for him. It is another to navigate our real life in this world and do so with all the messiness and suffering that is part of human life, whether of faith or no. So do not come to me and tell me that gay Christians should be celibate without trying it yourself. Try one year of enforced involuntary celibacy. Try two years, or five years. How about ten years? Try twenty years of sensual and sexual isolation when you yearn for love. When you’ve lived twenty years of ecclesiastically enforced involuntary celibacy, then come and talk to me about your religious worldview about sexual ethics for my life and gay people in general.  

Celibacy


Celibacy is a pretty counter-intuitive and self-defeating phenomenon if you really think about it. It is the willing denial and impedance of what is probably the most powerful drive within the human being after survival. The drive to be sexual becomes conscious in our early teens. Puberty is a biologically driven milestone where we gain secondary sexual characteristics, in essence, we become physical adults and can reproduce, and where, psychologically, the erotic becomes the focus of much of our internal life and the awareness of sexuality takes centre stage. That milestone, once begun never really goes away in most human beings although it is tempered when older with other matters from the adult world. At puberty we become conscious sexual creatures and that sexual identity begins to assert itself powerfully. It is one of the strongest and most well-understood psycho-biologic changes in the human being.

Adolescence follows where we are in a transition psychologically between childhood and adulthood. Adolescence, which lasts into the early twenties, is typically a time where the erotic life is one of the most salient features of our internal world, whether we are sexually active or not. The age of first sexual activity does seem to have crept down over the last thirty years so that it is not uncommon for teens to have had their first sexual encounter; something I am not a great fan of when they are particularly young. But older adolescents typically begin their life of sexual activity. There are often quite a few partners over the course of a decade and more and more, young people use sex as a means to friendship and intimacy. It is a powerful drive within.

But then celibacy. The willing denial of that drive. For some it is self-imposed. But even there, it is only to conform to a set of usually religious principles that are held strongly by the individual. For others, it is imposed from without; a Catholic religious order, an evangelical edict that gay people are not ever to express their sexuality, a church that frowns publicly on sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage, and even sometimes in cultic situations where a guru imposes celibacy on cult members. It is a frustration or impedance to what the body and mind are powerfully and naturally inclining towards. The river is damned.

Now of course, when one does this, such action is not without consequences. In thinking of the involuntary celibate as I am in this post, there follows an experience of forever wanting but never having, a yearning for touch but never experiencing, a powerful drive to sexual expression but never permitted, a deep need to be loved by another human being but forever unmet.

Make no mistake. There is a price to pay for celibacy no matter that it is self-imposed or imposed by the necessity of conforming to an external rule. Loneliness, isolation, despair. Depression, anxiety, obsession. Instability, skewed relationships, eccentricity that excludes.

I can think of no more exquisite torture for a young person in the glowing candescence of their sexual flourishing than to impose upon them, against their will, against their desire, against every fibre of their being, a life-long obligation to sexual and sensual isolation; in reality, an involuntary, externally prescribed, mandated and enforced domination over their lives of celibacy spoken over them with the voice of God by respected authority figures and the disobedience over which bringing sin and rejection by the church.


Religious Origins


So why? Why do this to oneself? Why place one’s life into a tumult willingly? First, most young people who do this do not understand what they are getting themselves into when they make such a decision. They do not understand the power of loneliness as it has not yet taken root at the depths of their soul. They only need to hear the voices of some of our elderly who talk about the depths of their loneliness to take another look at their decision and maybe run in the opposite direction. Life is too short for celibacy and the loneliness that it brings, the oldies will tell them unhesitatingly.

Sex and The Sacred


Secondly, there is a reason why young people would choose this. They have been told that should they wish to serve God, they must remain celibate until they marry on pain of sin. They are told that if they are gay, they must NEVER EVER express their sexuality and deny it for the rest of their lives on pain of sin. Young Catholic people who feel they have a vocation to the priesthood or religious life must effectively renounce their sexuality and all expression of it and become mandated ‘eunuchs’ for life if they want to ‘join up.’

My close friend who was a Franciscan monk, not yet taken final vows, finally abandoned his ‘call’ due to the relentless and unflinching set of desires within him to express himself sexually; in his case as a gay man. Another friend, a former Jesuit novice, also abandoned his vocation to the priesthood after the Jesuits told him that his burgeoning gay sexuality was unacceptable. In the order in which I was involved in the 1970s, the Redemptorists, many of the priests left the order in the late 70s and 80s either to marry or go off and be gay. Their life of imposed celibacy and the attendant psychological distress was no longer to be borne. Almost all of the Catholic religious orders have experienced the same thing; members of the various congregations abandoning their vows to go off and marry or be gay, leaving behind an aging remnant who live in vast houses and who must wonder what on earth has happened. Diocesan Catholic priests who live alone in their presbyteries in the local parishes report that the loneliness of their life and ministry can be utterly crippling and not a few of them end in skewed clandestine relationships and depressed or leave altogether. In the developed world, most young Catholics who would otherwise contemplate a life of ministry will not do so due to the mandated vow of celibacy; hence the shortage of priests across the Western world.

But of course, the celibate priesthood was not there in the beginning. It was imposed by Rome in the twelfth century and has been a curse ever since. While it is true that some men have been able to navigate its murky waters, most male clergy have struggled endlessly with celibacy because of natural and ineradicable human desire, the yearning for someone close or special, skin hunger – the desire for human touch, and the power of libido, the drive to be sexual. Women religious too have had their struggles and this is now becoming more and more talked about. Today, there is a world-wide conversation in the Catholic Church as to the possibilities of relaxing or abandoning mandate celibacy.

Clerical Child Abuse


In the present day, the Catholic Church, like a few others, is engulfed in a firestorm of its own making: the clerical sexual abuse of children and the cover-up of that abuse by bishops and church leadership. No continent or country has been exempted from this disaster. And it IS a disaster of unprecedented proportions in so many ways. While there is widespread denial from church authorities that celibacy has anything to do with it, I cannot accept that conclusion.

Mandated involuntary celibacy, especially over the course of an adult lifetime, has severe negative consequences as I outlined above. Some of these can be a skewed sense of sexuality and substantially impaired relational dynamics. Opportunistic abuse by men who are severely sexually wounded or immature or dysfunctional has occurred probably more frequently than outright diagnosable paedophilic abuse. I see this as being systemic and not just a few bad apples in that the formation to the Catholic priesthood especially in years gone by has seen immature pre-pubescent or pubescent youth plucked out of their homes and lives and catapulted into the myopic life of the church and away from normal growth, maturation and relational processes, starting in the seminary and followed by enforced celibate life in ministry, being told what to do by bishops or religious superiors; in many ways, a wholly de-sexualised and de-individuated life. Saturated in the existence of the church from a tender age, it is no wonder we have had generations of priests who were juvenile in their approach to sexuality, the body and desire, frightened by it yet drawn toward it, some of whom acted out their dysfunctionality on defenceless kids. 

An indictment on the church, its protocols, its history and its recent behaviour in its attempt to minimise its responsibility and its clear failure. Celibacy, while not the sole cause of the clerical sexual abuse scandal, must share some responsibility for causing the greatest and most damaging scandal to hit the Christian church in the modern era: the repugnant sexual abuse by trusted ‘men of God’ to little kids who are less powerful than they.

Church Attitudes to the Body


But why has the church been such an advocate of a de-sexualised clergy and an opponent of any sexual behaviour for anyone outside of heterosexual marriage? I think there are three reasons:
  • History;
  • Control;
  • Fear.


History


From the earliest times, the Christian church has frowned on the body and associated it with the sins of the flesh. It has taught and reiterated that human sexuality as evoked through desire, arousal and touch is to be manipulated or corralled into one and only one specific form: heterosexual marriage. It has eschewed the body, it has denigrated sex as being the opposite of the sacred, that it is earthy and dirty while God is heavenly and transcendent and beatific. The contradistinction has been pounded into the ears of believers for centuries. I took some time in Being Gay Being Christian to talk about two of the early church saints, Augustine and Jerome, both of whom had gargantuan sexual hang-ups, but of whom both had principle parts to play in shaping and guiding the early church in its attitudes to sex and the body. Augustine negativised sex and the body and women to almost incomprehensible lengths [Google some of his sayings], while Jerome was so uncomfortable with sex, and probably his own gay sexuality, that he couldn’t even countenance the apostles having sex with their own wives.

St Paul himself also seems to have had hang-ups if the accounts are to be believed. He felt the body, specifically here the genitals, were “unseemly” or “parts that are unpresentable” (1 Cor 12: 23), something we do not hold to today. In my teaching at the University, I regularly teach 3rd year medical students to avoid all such embarrassment and shame language whether articulated or on facial expression or body language with their patients who might have sexual issues. The last thing we want is to treat the body, something that every human being possesses, with Pauline unseemlyness.
It seems that, if he could have his way, his basic position was no sex at all, but that concessions would be allowed due to, what he calls, sexual immorality, or what I might call, desire. “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1 Cor 7: 1). That’s his foundation statement. It’s good for a guy not to have sex. That’s where he starts. In verse 5, he sets sexual activity up against prayer; the old sex is earthy and a bit nasty but prayer is transcendent and beautiful. “Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer.” It’s as if he feels we can’t have sex with our spouses AND be prayerful. Finally in verse 7, Paul announces his greatest wish, a return to his fundamental position in verse 1. “I wish that all of you were as I am.” Paul really wanted them all to be celibate - like him. Given that he more than likely expected Christ’s return within his own lifetime, he was probably not too concerned by the notion of the human race dying out should every adult become celibate.

When I read Paul in relation to the body, to sex, to marriage, to desire, I always get the impression I am reading someone who is immature and na├»ve, someone uncomfortable with sex, someone probably uncomfortable with his own sexuality and body. He would rather people didn’t marry but says that “it’s better to marry than burn with passion” (v9), whereas in today’s world, we would be more comfortable with the idea of burning with passion, with the notion of being horny or being aroused or really wanting to have sex. For us, there is not the association with it of being a rejection of God; a sin. Paul’s own neuroses about sex undoubtedly influenced the church fathers and subsequent leaders as they fashioned the early church and that, refined in the middle ages by celibate monk-scholars so that we have become the beneficiaries of a skewed and harmful view of human sexuality that urgently needs correction.

Control


When you control someone’s sexuality, in effect, you control their life. When you have the power to say who can have sex with whom, what kind of sex is acceptable, when it is acceptable to have sex, who can marry whom, who can have children, who cannot, or whether using contraception is acceptable, you are wielding immense social power. The Christian Church has been able to associate all these factors with the notion of orthodox belief which shamefully has had the otherworldly focus of who gets to go to heaven and who doesn’t. Even worse, who has to go to the other place. Sex has been historically conjoined with who is a good person, a Christian, and who is a bad person, an unbeliever. Now that is power. They can control what people will be permitted to do, on pain of losing their eternal salvation, by declaring the tenets of the faith and the religious and even eternal sanctions against those who disobey. This keeps people coming to church, giving the church their loyalty, their time, their energy, their strength, their tithes and offerings and keeping the whole show running.

Cyncial? You betcha. This control over the human body has been wielded by good men and bad over the centuries over that most basic of our needs: our need to sexually connect. We still see the Catholic Church today forbidding the use of contraception and declaring the use of it to be a sin. And of course, we have seen the hypocrites too. Think of former televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker ostentatiously prancing around a stage declaring what God wants for all of us, while surreptitiously both were betraying their wives’ trust and having extra-marital sexual encounters and affairs. Celibacy can control people. It is linked especially today to the unmarried and to the whole gay population. It is still linked with spirituality and is a controlling mechanism to get people to conform to a particular point of view.

Fear


From what I have said of the church above and elsewhere, it is apparent that the church has had a long entrenched history of the fear of sex and the body and desire: erophobia. It has never been comfortable with sex. It does not know how to deal with it. Celibate priests have often never really been wholly trusted by sexually active men and seen to be somehow lesser or inadequate or effeminate. Priests themselves have had a dreadful history up to the mid twentieth century of talking about sex in such a derogatory and denigrating way. Some of the ‘marriage counselling’ that celibate priests have given out to sexually active married people would be laughable if it were not so tragic. Historically, with an all-male celibate priesthood, there has been a long mistrust and lack of comprehension of women and their sexuality. The church has never understood women and still does not today. Misogyny has always been a part of the Christian church. A gay man was always thought to be effeminate and thus more womanly and to be repudiated. The fear and distrust of the body and its church enforced association with sin has done a great disservice to humanity in general; a position that sorely needs correction.

Celibacy and the Gay Person


I take as my premise that the Bible does not speak about gay sexuality as we know and understand it today. I have spelled this out in the book and elsewhere on this blog and in interviews in no uncertain terms. The Bible does talk about homogenital activity and does so in only a few places but its various texts do not address the modern concept of sexual orientation. The Bible has nothing to say about how I should live my gay life. It does have plenty to say about how I should relate to God and how I should treat other people, but it comes up short as guide book on how to live a healthy and authentic gay life. Given that I now believe that our purpose in this life, at least at one level, is to become, then I see that my becoming the best I can be, the most I can be with my particular temperament, my particular personality, my particular intelligence, my particular giftings and aptitudes, my particular interests, is in a sense, my mission in life. It is to enter into the ‘mostness’ of my own humanity. But as a Christian person, I also want to assist the ‘realm of God’ as Jesus spoke of it, in spreading peace and justice to my part of the world with especial care taken for the marginalised, for ‘the least of these.’ Now part of my ‘becoming’ in my own humanity is my personal journey in sexuality. It is not the same journey that straight people go through; it is quite different.

On pages 68 and 69 of Being Gay Being Christian, I discuss the formation of gay identity and use the Cass model to discuss the various stages that most gay people typically traverse more or less. This is a great example of becoming if ever there were one. A vast change where I learn to accept myself, like myself, and begin to slough off the shame of being gay personally and publicly. It is a process. My deepest emotions are accessed over that time. I get in touch with the need to love and be loved. I engage the need to touch and be touched. And of course this is in a same gender context, the normalcy and goodness of fit in such experiences expressing themselves strongly as I begin to feel at home. Enforced involuntary celibacy, after such a journey to self, would be a massive insult to sexual and emotional health; a boulder blocking the highway of a healthy sexual self. We are left to wend our way through this for ourselves and within the confines of our own consciences. Estrangement by disrespect, either to self, to another or to God, is to be avoided.

A behaviour that on one side of a religious divide is considered acceptable and healthy and on the other side of that divide is considered sinful and rejecting of God obviously has a sense of neutrality about it. It is obviously not the behaviour in and of itself that is the most important thing here ethically. A little like eating meat if you were Catholic pre-Vatican II (1960s). You could eat meat any day, but on Friday you were expected not to eat meat. A religious meaning was imposed on it. Eating meat itself was neutral. The religious imposition made it sinful on Fridays. Sex is similar. It is an intimate act of connection. Without the religious imposition, which is how most of society now views it, it can be an act of intimacy, exploration or friendly connection. It is not viewed in terms of sin and rejection of God. With the religious imposition, outside of heterosexual marriage it is a sin and a rejection of God’s way. Same act. Different meanings. I would argue in today’s world where churches just accept that there are few virgins walking down aisles and even fewer virginal grooms waiting for them at the front of the church, that the rule or the religious imposition should also not be the most important thing. Far more, it should be the respect for the self within personal conscience. Denying the identity is not respecting and looking after yourself. Acting like a eunuch when you are not one is not respecting yourself. Torturing yourself is not respecting yourself. Loving someone is a precious gift. It is a fundamental need to love and to be loved. Most human beings desire someone special in their lives. We often try various relationships before we settle on someone. Most people do, and many of them are Christians who go to church. During that time, we learn so much about ourselves, about the other person, about how relationships do and don’t work. It is good material. It is participating in the adult world.

Gay people need to be able to do this too like our straight brothers and sisters already do. And we need to be able to do this in a way that is healthy and respectful and that does not have Bible verse hand grenades thrown at us from the sidelines as though any straight fundamentalist could possibly understand our journey or where we are coming from. For most human beings, perhaps a time of exploration in the early twenties, most human beings associate sex with love. Loving relationships that are fulfilling and meet so many needs are integral to the stability of a healthy adult life. It is frankly nonsensical in today’s world to state that because I am gay AND happen to be a follower of Jesus that I have to deny part of my identity for the rest of my life; and to do so when I don’t actually believe God is demanding that of me at all.

I am created a gay person. A healthy and respectful expression of my sexuality is not only to be permitted but encouraged. No analogy suffices but it’s like saying you can be a singer but you cannot sing. Then in what way am I a singer? You can be a psychologist, but you can never act as one. Then in what way am I a psychologist? You can be a dancer, but you must never dance. Then in what way am I a dancer? How can I be something when I cannot express its beingness? And please don’t come back at me and say, ‘you can be a murderer, but you will never murder anyone again,’ or some such. That analogy falls down in that a murderer is obviously an ethically abhorrent referent where as a gay sexuality like a straight sexuality or a singer, psychologist or dancer are all ethically neutral referents.

I can only see involuntary enforced celibacy on gay Christian people as being immoral and unjust. Such an enforcement or teaching is harmful to people and loads the vulnerable with an unparalleled psychological burden. It destines loving people to loneliness, sexual and sensual isolation and is unnecessary when weighed up against competing notions of stable psychology, the avoidance of psychopathology like depression, a fair go at achieving happiness in life, the necessity of Biblical context, historical church erophobia, the illogic of ontology not being able to express itself and the lack of humanity and compassion inherent in imposed celibacy.

If you are gay or LGBT and a follower of Jesus, then you have a right, some might even say a duty, to become, although the Spirit of God will never coerce, only ever invite. You have been created a gay person and you have as much of the favour and love of God as any straight person. You are meant to grow, to develop into the you you can be. Abundant life, Jesus called it. Your faith does not exclude you from being gay nor does it exclude you from expressing your sexuality, part of your identity. Your faith does not exclude you from loving. It doesn’t make a lot of sense that God would create you as being a gay person and then torture you by forbidding you to act on it. Unlike strict evangelicals, I hold exactly the same view for straight people. Our human life is both wonderful and challenging. As mammals, we are designed to be social animals. We are gregarious to greater and lesser degrees. We need other human beings around us to function well. Most of us need a special someone eventually to hold that place of greatest intimacy and companionship. Gay people need that special someone too. 

Celibacy is an outdated idea and a failed experiment set up by ancient men who had very skewed ideas about human sexuality. It is time we discarded it and stopped altogether associating sex, the body and desire with sin and rejection of God. It is not. It is part of who we are. It is part of what makes us human. 


Don’t let yourself be coerced into committing your life this way. I cannot for the life of me understand how such isolation and denial of identity would be pleasing to a loving God, unless he's a sadist. And if you have already committed your life to celibacy, I challenge you to re-think. Your life of sexual and sensual isolation does not make you any more holy, any more acceptable to God, any more open to God. Time for a re-think.

This is my position. I offer it not to tell you how to live, what to do or what not to do, but for your consideration and prayerful contemplation.



Pax et Amor - Stuart