So what about celibate gay bishops?

The Church of England decided this week to allow gay men who are in civil partnerships to become bishops as long as they take an oath of celibacy. The evangelical Anglicans were up in arms about this and there were a lot of spirited comments on the article from people whose caps-lock key appeared to be stuck. It does raise a very interesting question of where the lines are drawn for Christians who are opposed to homosexuality.

Presumably a celibate civil partnership between two gay men would involve a legally-binding lifelong commitment between two people who love each other and might express that love physically without having sex. To oppose this arrangement as sinful means one of two things. You’re either saying that any romantic relationship between two people of the same gender is sinful regardless of whether sex is involved or you’re presuming that the person in the civil partnership is lying about their celibacy. Either way what you’re saying is that gay people have to live alone for the duration of their lives in order to be acceptable to you.

Is it impossible to imagine that two people could love each other and live together but decide for religious reasons not to be sexually intimate? There is a lot of documentation of Christian monks and nuns throughout history who had relationships that were definitely more than platonic even if they weren’t sexual. Many heterosexual marriages become mostly celibate after a period of time even if this isn’t the result of an official decision. It’s not inevitable that two people who love each other romantically and live under the same roof will be unable to resist having sex.

When I spent a year in the Lutheran Volunteer Corps just after college, I lived in a house in DC with four girls and one other guy. Many evangelicals assume that this kind of living arrangement would inevitably result in sexual promiscuity. There was chemistry in the air at certain points. There was some physical affection. But never anything that got close to sex. Because we all knew how dysfunctional our community would become if we went there. In any case, I just don’t think it’s impossible to draw that boundary in a relationship even if it’s a lifelong companion with whom you share a home.

If you believe that homosexuality goes against Christian teaching, would you say then that gay people cannot enjoy a lifelong companionship with another person even if they don’t have sex? If you hold this position, how do you support it? Because you’re going beyond any possible interpretation of scripture that I know about.


32 thoughts on “So what about celibate gay bishops?

  1. Thank you, this is exactly the problem my partner and I are currently facing… Is it biblically alright or not, when refraining from sex. Thanks!

    • I would say that the Biblical opposition to homosexuality is pretty tenuous. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1 rely on translating two obscure Greek words with a 21st century agenda. The strongest passage is Romans 1 where Paul says that he thinks same-sex relations go “against nature,” but even there it’s part of an entirely different rhetorical agenda and it’s not a “Thou shalt not.” Leviticus 18 sets sexual boundaries *for men* that are necessary to preserving the order of a patriarchal society in which women were not seen as having a say in their sexual relations. I think the anti-gay Bible scholars are going to have a lot to answer for when they stand before God. It seems to me like gay people are the scapegoats offered at the idolatrous altar of suburban hetero-normalcy.

  2. A 2007 study by the Barna Group, a Christian research firm, asked 16-29 year olds to choose words and phrases to describe present day Christianity. Among the many choices available to them were positive terms like “offers hope” and “has good values” along with negative terms like “judgmental” and “hypocritical.” Out of it all — good and bad — the most popular choice was “anti-homosexual”. Not only did 91% of the non-Christians describe the church this way, but 80% of the churchgoers did as well.

    Whatever view you might hold on homosexuality, I don’t know of any Christians who want the above to be the primary thing the church is known for. If it is, that suggests that something somewhere has gone horribly wrong. Yet that’s exactly what we’re seeing. Throughout American society and especially among young people, there is a growing discomfort between what is widely perceived as a nasty culture war between gays and Christians, with Christians having fired the first shot. The perception that Christians are decidedly anti-gay has left gay people more hostile to Christianity than ever.

    As Christian parents all across the country are wrestling with the discovery that their children are gay, we have helped make the church an unsafe place for them and their children. Young people today have gay friends who they love. If they view the church as an unsafe place for them, a place more focused on politics than on people, we just might be raising the most anti-Christian generation America has ever seen, a generation that believes they have to choose between being loving and being Christian. 0

    Asbury Seminary’s Ben Witherington notes that, “The church is paying a high price for its ignorance these days.” That’s true. But in homosexual controversies, the church is passing the high cost of its ignorance on to its gay and lesbian children.

    -Alex Haiken

  3. Ok, so let me ask an obvious question that nobody in our over-sexed culture but me would even think to ask:

    If you are celibate what purpose does advertising your ‘orientation’ serve? I mean, isn’t the purpose of advertising that to let people of the target audience know you’re available and interested? So, if celibate, then you have no reason to advertise it. Unless the issue is that your straight and afraid people will think you’re gay because you aren’t dating all the time, in which, despite being celibate, you advertise your heterosexuality to prevent people from thinking you’re a weirdo. This is all theory; I’m philosophizing. But if you were homosexual, let’s just say for the sake of the argument that you are, and you’re celibate, what purpose is there in advertising this other than to cause trouble and be a rebel against God?

    “If you believe that homosexuality goes against Christian teaching, would you say then that gay people cannot enjoy a lifelong companionship with another person even if they don’t have sex? If you hold this position, how do you support it?” Keeping to the discussion at hand, true celibacy is not just making sure to not “go all the way,” but it means not even touching or kissing. If these “bishops” are making out with other dudes but not having sex, they aren’t really celibate. The same goes for straight bishops too. If they’ve got girlfriends and they’re rubbing all on her thighs while they’re watching a movie, that’s not celibacy.

    • Under that definition of celibacy, I commit adultery with about a dozen old ladies every week in the handshake line after church.

      • Again, we really need new categories of thinking about human relationships and how it expresses itself in physical contact. I agree that lustfully motivated behavior that stops short of consummation is not celibacy. Celibacy must mean celibacy of the heart as well as of the body.

        Still, I do think there is certainly a need for human contact and we must find appropriate ways to meet that need — for all our single brothers and sisters, regardless of their sexual orientation. The lack of physical touch has to be one of the loneliest aspects of living life as a single person and yet I wonder how many straight men, who would encourage celibacy for those facing ssa, would also be willing to bear hug a gay brother when this might just be what he needs in his loneliness?

        • But what differentiates lust from affection? To what degree is taboo part of what turns affection into lust? I saw a study somewhere that pornography use is higher among actively religious men than secular ones. Of course there’s probably a lot of factors at play in that.

          • I don’t think I will do that again, that is, wonder about what others are saying about a subject that interests me. I would never have believed there were so many folks out there who would rather interpret the life styles of people they do not know and offer opinions based on theological concepts. No wonder we have gone so far astray.

            Jesus began His ministry by talking to folks on a hill side, addressing the situations that are common to all of them AND are still are around these days. “Follow Me, He said, I will make you fishers of men.” He was speaking their language, not theological concepts, no judgments, …”just follow Me”.

            If only we would, we could do as they did in the early days – “turn the world right side up”. Come now, let’s do it!

          • Please do speak up again and again. Your perspective is important! You’re right to call out our privilege in having an abstract theological conversation that concerns other peoples’ real lives.

  4. There is no such thing as a homosexual. As Sherwood8028 notes, there are some who choose claim that as an identify. Read Bp Whitaker’s essay on how the church should address this issue. Better, read Paul J. Griffiths (Duke) on John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Attempts to address this issue apart from a biblical understanding of the nature of the human person are futile.

    • Exactly. Its impossible to not be attracted to the opposite sex. Ergo, all “homosexuals” are in fact bisexuals: They are attracted to the opposite sex because this is imposed on them by nature, and they are attracted to the same sex by choice.

      • What a load of bull crap, Junly, jwlung. Tell the thousands of Christians weeping into their pillows at night, praying that God will miraculously change attractions they never wanted or chose that “it’s impossible to not be attracted to the opposite sex… they are attracted to the same sex by choice.” Tell the middle-aged woman trapped in a marriage to a man she loves but has never desired, the high school athlete desperately play-acting along with the sexist locker room talk to keep his real inclinations from being perceived, the husband and father of three wearily and dutifully reporting to his weekly “ex-gay” support group the latest ways he has failed to live up to the heterosexual ideal, the college student who has just fallen heartbreakingly in love with one of her female classmates, that “there’s no such thing as a homosexual.” Tell the thousands of teens who have felt driven to take their own lives rather than face the rejection of family, friends, community, and church — many of them without having ever even spoken of or acted on their sexual urges — “find someone of the opposite sex and get married. Otherwise, shut up.” (And way to set up those unsuspecting future spouses for a lifetime of rejection, loneliness, insecurity, guilt, and betrayal, while you’re at it.) If you insist on ignoring the testimonies of these, and expect them to simply “shut up” and meekly conform to your nice, neat, limited theoretical constructs, then you bear the guilt for their tears, their terror, their pain, their blood.

        Matthew 23:4

    • “biblical understanding of the nature of the human person”

      No such thing exists, jwlung. Neither the Bible nor Tradition knows anything about affectional orientation. The Bible points to the roles of men and women in ancient societies. Human sexuality is not addressed in the Bible. The Church Fathers knew nothing about affectional orientation. The seven OEcumenical Councils did not address affectional orientation.

      As far as the Bible is concerned, humanity is so closely related to God as a newborn is attached by the umbilical cord. We may not question if God does or doesn’t know that God creates people who are affectionally oriented to the same sex. It is a universal truth that this is so. Under God we are supposed to live in the world as it is, as God creates. God creates– as far as ethical monotheists are concerned– people who are affectionally oriented to the same sex. This may ot be denied under God.

  5. My convictions lead me to oppose the acceptance of same-sex unions, celibate or no, (although I do not condemn an individual as intrinsically “sinful” for experiencing ssa) because the issue is one of defining the realities of sex and marriage, not companionship. For me the question is whether or not the same-sex union is attempting to act like a marriage? Is it attempting to achieve the thing that marriage does that other deep relationships cannot–namely, sex? If it is not, then why pursue it? Is because we have no other mechanisms to express same-sex community like the monastic traditions of the past?

    I also struggle with this “solution” because it seems to misunderstand the nature of same-sex unions; the very word “union” intimates an exclusivity of relationship that is consummated (and generally only necessary) in context of a sexual relationship. If a same-sex union is celibate, doesn’t it simply become a formalized version of being bffs? (I do not mean to be abrasive but I’m not sure I understand the need for exclusivity if sex is not involved. How would you “cheat” in such a relationship–by being too “friendly” with someone else?) If you remove a core element of what constitutes an exclusive relationship, what grounds do you have to place boundaries on that relationship? (I recognize that sex can be absent from heterosexual marriages but the difference it that it is absent by necessity not by choice–i.e. it is not avoided because of moral or ethical concerns.)

    All that to say that this “solution” is somewhat philosophically and theologically problematic–I would tend to say you either have to embrace same-sex unions as the legitimate equivalent to marriage in toto, or you have to oppose them and offer alternative familial contexts that allow people to enjoy and participate in the full-scope of human community.

    • “You have to oppose them and *offer* alternative familial contexts that allow people to enjoy and participate in the full-scope of human community.” So who’s doing the offering?

      • No one seems to be offering this kind of paradigm–that’s what’s so tragic about this whole “debate.” Very real lives are involved and so few people have the capacity to separate the legitimate need for companionship and community from a sexual expression of ssa. I don’t like the false paradigm that marriage (or the equivalent there of in same-sex unions) is the only way to achieve fulfilling human experience–this thinking relegates anyone who is single, gay or otherwise, to a lifetime of second class status.

        In a weird way, i think that an over-emphasis on heterosexual union may have actually paved the way for the fight to achieve same-sex unions. When marriage became central to the Church’s gospel, we lost our capacity to think of fulfilling relationships outside of a marital context. So that today, when people experience ssa, they long for a counterpart to what they have been told is the highest human relationship–marriage. And when it is denied, they rightly feel excluded and discriminated against. Because we have elevated marriage so much, we have lost a whole category of thinking about how a person could remain celibate and still experience the fullness of human existence.The truth is that none of us are entitled to marriage–we are called to it and while I’m not Catholic, I do appreciate a theology that sanctifies both the call to marriage and the call to celibacy as equally valid and equally fulfilling.

        • You’re absolutely right. There is an idolatry of marriage in our culture. If Jesus and Paul were alive today and they tried to be single celibate pastors in evangelical churches, people would make presumptions about their sexuality and find a reason to call their celibacy immoral. Of course, I also think the idolatry of marriage is part of the reason why homosexuality is such a fetish for the evangelical church. For me, every aspect of holiness has to do with the two sides of the Great Commandment: am I worshiping God in spirit and truth and am I showing perfect hospitality to my neighbor? Regardless of the particulars, that’s the framework in which we should be talking about all holiness and sin, rather than taking the pro- and anti- issue-based approach that the world has defined for us. When we abuse sexuality, the sin is that we are worshiping creation instead of our creator which impoverishes our ability to enjoy God and corrupts our perspective on the universe by making it revolve around the temple of our physical urges.

  6. Sure. But the Discipline allows for a gay clergy to be in some kind of celibate companionship with another gay person?

  7. As you know, the UMC Discipline describes exactly this arrangement,at least with regard to elders. I think bishops, too, but I’m not nearly as familiar with those parts of the book. The same goes for non-married heterosexuals. I don’t have any idea how seriously such things are actually enforced, but this gets to the core issue – the UMC position is about actions and behavior not attraction or orientation. This is why I have a hard time when either side in the conversation speaks of “homosexuality” as being against biblical teaching and does not talk about specific behaviors.

    • “As you know, the UMC Discipline describes exactly this arrangement,at least with regard to elders.” I.e. a gay ordained elder can have a living arrangement with another gay guy without raising questions if they’re committed to celibacy?

      • I was only commenting on the CoE policy. The Book of Discipline, of course, cannot control what kinds of questions people ask about any clergy member.

  8. r for a couple of reasons.
    Unless to we restrict “being with” to the category of romantic relationships, then it’s not immediately clear that they have to be “alone” for the rest of their lives. There are, as you point out, various options for group living that could be explored. Certainly a greater awareness in the Christian community for the inclusion of single and celibate members in broader family groups needs to be developed, along the monastic line should also be explored. the whole “acceptable to you” writes any principled objection off as the mere personal preference of these heartless opponents to the mental health and welfare of all gay persons. It’s not like they might be concerned with holiness, truth, biblical standards, God’s word, etc.

    I get the concern. Something needs to be done in order to make sure our gay brothers and sisters don’t have to walk through life alone, but the concerns of all involved with this awkward decision are not merely an issue of whether or not gay people will conform to the personal preferences of conservatives.

    • Thank you for this perspective. I too think there is something fundamentally flawed in the paradigms we have constructed that demand that sex be the legitimizing factor of human companionship. Having sex is not the ultimate expression of love, but we have made it that and by doing so, we have lost so much of the breadth and depth of our own humanity; and by extension, our ability to live in loving communion with each other at very deep, committed levels without viewing each other as objects to be owned.

      • In other words, its our culture’s idolization of sex that even produces homosexuality to begin with. If you preach that “A man’s life does consists in the abundance of sex which he has” then the result of that preaching is fornication, adultery, homosexuality, beastiality, and every form of sexual deviancy that’s ever been devised. The problem is that the church is impotent to combat this message which is preached all day long by the idiot box, and the reason for that impotence is obviously (in large part) the doctrine of justification by faith alone which brings with it the idea that the traditional morality of the Bible doesn’t matter anyway so why even waste our time combating the message of the idiot box.

  9. Perhaps I should start with the fact that I am not gay, but I am 83+ years of age and have known many gay people in my life, including a short tenure as a Pastor in a gay community.

    But I vividly recall the day when they were not called gays, they were called “queer” and as a loyal church attender, many of those words were uttered by my brothers and sisters in the faith and occasionally, by members of the clergy (in confidence, of course). Then came the glorious day when I came to realize that Christ actually died for me sins and all I needed to do was repent of my past and move into the future hand in hand and heart to heart with my Lord.

    With that I realized that since He had died for the sins of all and dropped any thought that we ought to defame people by cursing their choice of life styles. What freedom there is in living by the standards set forth by our Lord.

    That ought to apply to all levels – especially those we call Bishops, or even Cardinals. In my definition, hypocrisy was to have ended at Calvary.

    As Christians in the new year, 2013, we need to acknowledge the fact that many are turning their backs on the faith of their families and there is one essential reason. As a people, we have lost our interest in loving one another even though, by loving one another our Lord knows that we are His disciples.

    So we have a choice – continue with these frivelous debates or prove to ourselves and the world that we are, in fact, His disciples.

    • Nice reframe! As a transgender Christian who has likewise learned not to judge my gay brothers and sisters, I love your comment!

    • “As Christians in the new year, 2013, we need to acknowledge the fact that many are turning their backs on the faith of their families and there is one essential reason. As a people, we have lost our interest in loving one another even though, by loving one another our Lord knows that we are His disciples.”

      So why has this problem only cropped up since 1980? I mean, nearly 2000 years of Christian history are behind us, and only since 1980 are people leaving their family church because they want to be gay and the family church won’t let ’em. (Oh my! How horrible!)

      One of the obvious reasons, I suppose, is that despite how in the gospels Jesus only says “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of things which he possess” people of past generations had enough brains to understand that the same statement applies to sexuality: “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of sex he has” and “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of sexual partners he has” — but since the 1960s when the idiotic Vitenam war introduced the drug culture to us, and everyone started frying their brains, people have lost the mental capacity to make that connection. And so, even so-called “Christian” ministers are too ignorant to know that “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of sex which he has”!!! If you want to have sex, find someone of the opposite sex and get married. Otherwise, shut up.

      • Faithful LGBTQ Christians are finding their voice and their allies, like me, an ordained and serving minister of Word and Sacrament, who are faithful heterosexual Christians, who actually understand something of human affectional orientation (not to mention the history of same sex relationships throughout European history over the last 1500+ years), are not going to “shut up”, junly.

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