The LGBT rights movement — so the story goes — has split the Christian churches in two. On one side are the progressives, who believe that Christianity should accept gay people and recognise gay marriage. Lined up against them are the conservatives, who hold fast to the belief that being gay is sinful. It’s not entirely false, that story. There are just a vast number of Christians who don’t fit into it.
Ed Shaw is an evangelical pastor in Bristol and is gay — or, as he puts it, he ‘experiences same-sex attraction’. It’s a less misleading term, he tells me. ‘If I say to people in conversation, “I’m gay,” they tend to presume that I’ll be delighted if they match me up with their gay friend Barry.’ Which isn’t what he’s looking for: ‘I’d love to meet any of their friends, but I don’t want to be match-made with people because I’m not interested in that sort of relationship.’
Shaw is one of the founders of Living Out, a website written by gay people who are also traditionally minded Christians. As he points out, this is quite a large constituency. The ‘horror stories’ about churches rejecting LGBT people dominate media coverage, he says: Living Out exists partly to record more positive experiences.
Shaw’s is one of them. ‘As a pastor,’ he says, ‘I thought being open about my sexuality would be a disqualification for the job, and would mean that people would stop coming to me.’ Instead, they started calling on him more than ever. ‘Because they think, this guy finds life tough, it’s not easy for him, he might be able to help me. I think previously I thought the deal was, try and fake it as a perfect person, and then people will listen to you.’
When Shaw writes in praise of the ‘real elements of beauty’ in gay relationships, or laments how the C of E’s ‘hypocrisy’ has ‘hurt a lot of people’, he sounds like a liberal Anglican. At other times, he sounds like anything but. Sex is ‘not a small issue that we can afford to disagree on’, he says; ‘marriage between a man and a woman, union in difference, sex within that’ is one of the most important ‘pictures of God’s love for us’. The Bible starts with a marriage in Eden and ends with a marriage between Christ and the Church. ‘It’s not just a couple of verses in Leviticus that we need to change,’ Shaw argues: reconstructing marriage would mean ‘ripping out the heart of almost every part of scripture’.
For gay people who believe this, the question remains of how a celibate life can be anything other than a lonely one. It is easy to say that friendships are intimate and fulfilling, too — but that can sound glib, because the modern world neglects friendship to an extent that would have amazed previous centuries.
Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed slept in the same bed and wrote letters of passionate devotion to each other. Michel de Montaigne, who treated erotic love as a rather embarrassing and second-rate experience, wrote at the death of his friend (in John Florio’s translation): ‘We were co--partners in all things… I was so accustomed to be ever two, and so inured to be never single, that methinks I am but half my self.’ Nowadays people rarely talk about their friends like that, only (sometimes) their spouses. Is that a gain?
The cult of romantic love, as the gay liberal Catholic Andrew Sullivan once put it, elevated ‘the longing for union with another being, the sense that such a union resolves the essential quandary of human existence, the belief that only such a union can abate the loneliness that seems to come with being human’. By contrast, Christian churches might have preserved the importance of friendship: for most of history, Christians regarded marriage as inferior to celibacy, and friendship as one of the greatest goods. Instead, Sullivan observes, the churches became ‘our culture’s primary and obsessive propagandists for the marital unit’ and made it synonymous with happiness. This not only leaves out the widowed, the lonely, the young, the unlucky in love and any married people who do not, in fact, discover every possible joy in being coupled-up; it also tells gay people that if they don’t get married they will always be missing something indispensable.
Eve Tushnet, the author of Gay and Catholic, says that when she converted she didn’t know what she was supposed to do. ‘The biggest issue for a gay Catholic,’ she says on the phone from Washington DC, ‘is: “What is my future going to look like?” I guess the other big one is “Why is God doing this, why is this happening in my life?” ’
For Tushnet, the future became clearer when she asked where specifically God was calling her to love — which led to volunteering at a crisis pregnancy centre, and to a deepening of friendship. Tushnet sees this life as an expression of her sexuality, not a denial of it. ‘The desire for same-sex intimacy and love and the recognition of beauty in people of the same sex — these are inherently good things, and in many ways basic human needs.’ Some people find it possible, she says, ‘to take all of that energy and intensity of erotic love and let it flow into a relationship to women or to beauty or to God’. That kind of ‘sublimation’ has always made intuitive sense to her.
‘For other people, that’s not intuitive at all, and if you say “sublimation” they’re like, “Yeah, OK. Or I could just bang my head on a wall 15 times, that would be equally sensible.” And I think for them, often people do end up developing a really deep and beautiful theology of the sacrifice of one’s sexuality.’ Which can help them to ‘view it as something that’s beautiful — that even in the sacrifice you are doing something that is deeply beautiful and honoured by God’.
Tushnet suggests a couple of things which would make life easier for LGBT Christians. First, for people to recognise and affirm the ‘real power’ of their friendships and leave behind the fear that depending on your friends is ‘clingy’ or ‘weird’. Secondly, she wishes the Church would remember its original role as a family for its members: ‘the people who would take care of them when they’re sick, the people who they could share their secrets and their fears and their hopes with, the people who they could make a life with’.
When the Anglican synod meets this month, there will be a lot of talk of how the recognition of gay people’s experiences could change Christian doctrine. What it might do instead, in the long run, is leave the doctrine standing and change everything else.