Last week, noted Calvin College philosopher James K. A. Smith caused a stir on Twitter when he posted a picture of himself wearing a pink “You Are Loved” T-shirt, captioned “At @Calvin Uni, ALL students are welcomed, affirmed, and loved. To our LGBTQ students always, but today especially: #YouAreLoved.” Further context for the pic was provided in comments: Apparently a conservative student group at the college had set up a table on the common lawn that day with a sign reading “LGBTQ is sin. The Bible says. Change my mind.” This galvanized Smith into making his response post, sans context. Taken strictly literally, it doesn’t affirm same-sex acts, merely extends a generic message of “love.” But anyone who has been moderately culturally attentive and followed these sorts of trajectories over the past decade will know where they tend to wind up. I suspect Smith’s trajectory will not surprise in that department. And, if this Change.org petition to penalize the students is any indication, this particular storm is just getting started. The block letters on the shelf over Smith’s shoulder spelling out “Be Nice” are the proverbial cherry on top. To borrow a favorite phrase from Orthodox icon artist and commentator Jonathan Pageau, “Symbolism happens.”
Smith’s post coincidentally comes on the heels of a related, extended storm within the ACNA, a storm I myself wouldn’t have predicted two months ago when the college of bishops put out the Pastoral Statement On Sexuality And Identity that kick-started it all. Motivated by “reports of varied application among ACNA leaders regarding the use of language about sexual identity, especially within provincial events,” the letter was the culmination of a year’s worth of research, drafting, and internal consultation. It is gracious almost to a fault. While it clearly re-affirms the biblically orthodox view on homosexuality, even including an extended careful argument against Christians’ self-identification as “gay,” the letter was cast in a pastoral tone, showed sensitivity to the painful burden of persistent same-sex attraction, and showed a genuine desire to help ACNA members who struggle with it. Who could take issue with that?
Quite a few people, apparently, including people who themselves profess to be on the side of biblical orthodoxy in these matters. Complaining rumbles came to a head on February 22nd with the creation of a website and open letter entitled “Dear Gay Anglicans.” This effort was spearheaded by writer and counselor Pieter Valk (himself gay but celibate), who gathered signatures from a variety of bishops, deacons, and laymen. The letter praised what was “good and true” in the bishops’ initial statement, yet its bid for concessions was clear, not least in its very title. (Valk feigned innocence when this was pointed out on Twitter, disingenuously saying that the letter “never modified ‘Christian’ with the word ‘gay.’”)
The backlash was swift and sharp, particularly from bishops in African provinces who felt that a trust had been broken. In his critical response, Archbishop Foley Beach expressed regret that the letter had gained signatories who may have been unaware of the drafters’ agenda:
A number of clergy signed onto this not really realizing the “in your face” attitude of some of the authors. They saw it as a way to say to the same-sex attracted persons in the ACNA that we love them. Others signed out of angry disagreement with our discouraging the use of any pronoun before Christian, specifically “Gay Christian.” Some were misinformed thinking the authors had been in discussions with Provincial leadership; they were not.
Within two days, Valk had taken the letter off the website of the same name, by request of his bishop. His Twitter explanation elaborates on the short statement people can read when they now visit the site itself. The elaborated explanation places the locus of the complaints exclusively in the African provinces, whose bishops he claims had “misinterpreted” the letter’s intent.
But this, too, has a disingenuous if not patronizing ring to it. As Paige Rogers has rightly noted in her analysis at The Lay Artiste, the African bishops’ dismay is shared by many “children of the divorce” between Episcopalianism and Anglicanism, and indeed by anyone who’s been paying attention to this debate over the years. True, one can detect what looks like a genuine cross-cultural misread in the first paragraph of the Nigerian primate’s statement here, which takes the Pastoral Statement’s rejection of the phrase “gay Christian” as a euphemizing linguistic compromise, rather than an attempt to stand up to such compromise. And yet, the bishop is not wrong to finger the Valk letter as the work of a fifth column. Nor is he wrong to call for Beach and the other Western bishops to clean house accordingly.
Before taking several of the letter’s points in detail, it’s worth lifting the lid on what exactly lies beneath the controversy over its title. To put my own cards on the table, I confess I myself have tended to the view that there can be a certain utility to the phrase “gay Christian,” albeit a limited one. In contexts where a Christian has been living chastely and minding his own business with no axes to grind, I believe it could function as a neutral, purely descriptive linguistic shorthand for him to say “Yes” when asked “Are you gay?” It saves time, and it saves words, and this pleases my economical mind. To that extent, I actually find myself taking a slightly softer line than the bishops’ original statement, which more specifically argues that the ordering of “gay Christian” (versus “Christian who is gay”) elevates the “gay” part to undue identifying prominence. (Not that the argument is stupid. It’s worth chewing on, not just in a church context but in political contexts, as similar dustups arise over what it means to self-identify as a “gay conservative.”)
But that’s my view in theory. The problem is that in practice, I struggle to think of a context where I actually have heard the phrase used as a purely neutral descriptor, shorn of ideological baggage. When taken up by writers like Wesley Hill and his colleagues in the so-called Spiritual Friendship movement, it seems to take on a fair amount of said baggage. (Tellingly, Hill has transferred out of the ACNA to the Episcopal church, where he was recently ordained.) In an early reaction to the Pastoral Statement, Hill re-shared a link to an old blog post of his entitled “Weariness,” where he says it shows misplaced priorities for “straight Christians” to tell chaste same-sex attracted believers not to identify as “gay Christians.” Rather, they should ask themselves what is motivating people to identify as such in the first place, and what the church might need to change in order to make them feel more welcome:
If I could wave a magic wand and change just one thing about conservative Christian discourse right now, I would make it a requirement that every straight person telling gay Christians “Don’t call yourself gay” would have to expend (at minimum) an equal amount of energy talking about what they, the straight critics, can do to make it seem less necessary for gay people to so identify.
In other words, “gay” is doing real work here, beyond the merely descriptive. Otherwise, why the angst? Why the emotional attachment? Why the belief that it’s “necessary” to identify as such? The answer is that Hill and his colleagues have always resented the view that same-sex orientation is a tragically burdensome, disordered aberration and nothing more. In their framing, while they still abstain from acting on it, they want to insist it can still have positive aspects, can still confer “gifts.” (As writer Gregg Coles puts it bluntly in this blog, if you gave him a “straight pill,” he wouldn’t take it.) Hill even quotes Karl Barth to the effect that gay relationships can “be redolent of sanctity.” Self-identified Catholic writers in this camp like Eve Tushnet and Aaron Taylor have written at length against the Church’s language of “disorder.” Taylor writes that it provides an opening for “homophobic” hyper-conservatives to play up the implication of mental illness. Once again, it is clear what’s being demanded here. It is not simply compassion, sympathy and understanding. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, privilege.
Nobody denies that the path of chastity is acutely painful and lonely for Christians with same-sex attraction. The heart naturally goes out to the man with a great capacity to love, longing to be a father, longing to be a friend, longing to be used by God as a leader or a mentor, yet in his weakness standing before closed door after closed door. There is no compromise in recognizing this as a tragedy, nor is it a compromise to admit that many will have to manage this cross their whole lives (while not ruling out the benefits therapy might offer, on which I’ll have more to say below). But same-sex attracted Christians are not the only ones who have to manage that sort of cross. There are all manner of people who struggle with all manner of besetting strange desires, compulsions or fetishes. These people’s crosses may be no less heavy, their journeys no less lonely. They too might functionally be forced into unwanted singleness or find certain career paths closed off. But because they lack an aesthetic hook on which to hang their cross, or because they lack the right aura of sin mysticism, their stories aren’t the stuff of which multi-day conferences, book deals, and jargon-filled blog posts are made.
Naturally, this is the sort of thing one is no longer allowed to say aloud. Though, ironically, I might come in for some criticism by readers to my right who object that I paint too sad and hopeless a picture here. I do, in fact, find cause for concern in the thrust and presentation of some reparative therapy programs, particularly insofar as they’ve historically over-promised a “cure.” In hindsight, it seems clear that a lot of pain could have been forestalled if expectations had been appropriately managed, with the sober recognition that while God certainly can give the gift of instant cure, sometimes He leaves the thorn in the flesh. (This applies particularly to the, in my view, quite ill-advised encouragement of gay men to seek mixed-orientation marriage.) However, in fairness, I’ve read about other programs which offer just such healthy expectation-managing, after the fashion of programs like AA which warn people not to view themselves as “ex-alcoholic.” And in general, I’ve seen intentionally chaste men and women alike testify that while their same-sex attractions might not be cured, they have significantly lessened with time.
This should not be controversial, and it is unfortunate that even the bishops’ initial statement had to include an unqualified condemnation of all forms of therapy, particularly as Christians increasingly come under legal fire for offering help to sexually confused young people. (Or even, if you’re in Australia, praying for them.) As I write, Amazon has just released its official explanation for pulling When Harry Became Sally, Ryan T. Anderson’s helpful and compassionate treatment of transgenderism. So the explanation goes, Bezos and Co. “will no longer sell books framing LGBTQ as mental illness.” (This despite the fact that they still carry the DSM-5, which lists gender dysphoria as a mental disorder.)
Sadly, the rhetorical tactics behind such legal and cultural pressure are also present in the language of documents like the “Dear Gay Anglicans” letter, or Bishop Todd Hunter’s individual response to the statement, which hung gay suicides around the church’s neck and demanded a commensurate level of corporate contrition. This sort of emotional blackmail, where disturbed souls are enabled in threatening their own lives at people, should not be allowed to stand in any context, least of all in the church. The letter also subtly and neatly twists the following passage from the original statement about counseling children and teenagers:
We know that, according to some careful research, an individual’s attractions may move over time along a spectrum from same-sex attraction to other-sex attraction, or vice versa, in a minority of cases. Therefore, a common cultural perception that some types of sexual attractions are always innate and permanent can, we believe, lead to unnecessary confusion and pain for some, especially children and teenagers.
This is completely true, wise and sound. But now notice the obfuscating sleight of hand in the letter’s alleged “affirmation” of this passage:
We affirm the Provincial Statement’s call to lead conversation about God’s love and wisdom for same-sex attracted people across the lifespan so children and teenagers feel safe to share early with parents and pastors.
This rather smacks of a dare: We’re sure you would never make a child or teenager feel unsafe if he were to tell you he was born gay. Would you? That wouldn’t be very pastoral, would it? Hans Boersma puts the answer succinctly and well here, when he says that in such circumstances, “it is not pastoral to keep nodding.”
There’s another kind of dare in a different passage which chastises the church for holding gay people to a “higher standard” of sexual morality than straight people in the areas of “vocational singleness, procreation, divorce, and remarriage.” Even if we bracket the (important) debate over whether some sins are worse than others, this is disingenuous in a couple of ways. For one, there is the usual blurring of specifics on the myriad circumstances that can lie behind (and, depending on context, justify) specific cases of divorce and remarriage. For another, there is the implication that Anglicans must either go full Catholic and condemn all forms of contraception outright, or else keep quiet about homosexuality and natural law. I personally can respect someone who consistently argues against both as an actual matter of Catholic principle, even though it’s not my own view. I’m less impressed when the contraception issue is used as a political wedge, as it clearly is here.
The letter closes, “We pray God would give us the courage to fulfill these commitments so that gay Anglicans thrive according to God’s wisdom in our churches and lead us with their preaching, prayer, and song.” Here is another elephant in the room: the plain fact, blithely rejected out of hand here, that same-sex attraction in and of itself can and should be a legitimate disqualifier for certain roles in the church body. In fairness, this is something even people in more conservative circles might hesitate to say in so many words, because there remains a desire to avoid “discrimination” based on temptation alone. Yet a moment’s common-sense reflection should bring to mind multiple considerations of basic privacy and physical/emotional intimacy that apply even to the most chaste Christian who struggles with homosexual compulsions. Consider youth leadership contexts such as camp retreats, where leaders and students of the same gender might be sharing temporarily limited living quarters. Or consider any intense mentoring relationship that requires men in a pastoral role to spend long, private hours ministering to a boy’s most intimate spiritual and emotional needs. Bluntly, it is non-optional for a man in such a position to be not only sexually moral, but sexually healthy. Writing here as an Anglican, I needn’t draw the by now sickeningly familiar applications to the Catholic church. I’ll leave that to my Catholic readers. (Though there are, of course, plenty of good faithful Catholic men whose work will always go unsung while the perverts get the press. For example, this Catholic deacon’s account of an urban ministry he founded for male prostitutes in Chicago. Needless to say, the fact that he himself was a securely straight man was essential for him to nurture and care properly for these damaged boys.)
A closing word is perhaps in order about my own research in this area: I have read more than my share of gay history, literature, journalism and social studies. I have absorbed testimonies and life stories across the full spectrum from out and proud heathens, to “Side A” Christians, to “Side B” Christians, to “Side X” or “ex-gay” Christians, to whatever Milo Yiannopoulos is (he appears to be at least presenting “Side X” for the moment). I have sat with and shed tears over eyewitness reportage from some of the vilest and darkest corners of the gay world, including the worlds of gay pornography and gay prostitution. And I can say with confidence that I have rarely felt a stronger presence of the demonic. I have rarely felt a stronger sense of Satan’s power to prey on the vulnerable, to corrupt the innocent, to reduce bright image-bearing souls to so much withered grass before the scythe.
Blush and wince over the Nigerian primate’s strong words if you like. Criticize where there might be room for legitimate criticism. But what he smells, I have smelled too. And the Apostle Paul’s words to the Galatians which he quotes, I likewise commend to the reader: “Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth? This persuasion cometh not of him that calleth you. A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump. I have confidence in you through the Lord, that ye will be none otherwise minded: but he that troubleth you shall bear his judgment, whosoever he be.”