Twenty Minutes with Wesley Hill
By Katelyn Beaty
Author, blogger, and scholar Wesley Hill and I first met at a conference in Chicago in 2010, through the introduction of a mutual friend. Hill was there to speak on the themes of his first book, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. Since then, Hill has completed his Ph.D. at Durham University, accepted a professorship in New Testament studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, and begun Spiritual Friendship, a timely group blog dedicated to offering a positive vision of celibacy for gay and lesbian orthodox Christians. This spring, as we were emailing back and forth about his new column for Christianity Today, we also exchanged a few messages about his work and vocation.
In your first column for Christianity Today, you noted that George Herbert helped guide you into the Anglican tradition. How exactly did that happen?
I was raised Southern Baptist and have been a believing Christian since childhood. But for several years during college and afterward, I felt I was still looking for the right ecclesial home. My first exposure to the Anglican tradition was when I attended a Maundy Thursday service during my freshman year of college. I was simultaneously put off by what felt, at that time, like excessive formality, and attracted to what seemed like a form of worship with integrity, mystery, and depth. Eventually I was confirmed in the Church of England, by then-Bishop of Durham Justin Welby. By that time, I had developed theological reasons for becoming Anglican — reasons that had to do with Anglicanism’s identity as “catholic” and “reformed.” But initially, Anglicanism represented more of a sensibility than a theology. It nurtured in me something I didn’t initially have or want: a taste for beauty in liturgy and church art, and an inclination toward theological reticence and reverence.
What thinkers of the Church, present or past, are you most excited about?
I’m very interested in the work that a celibate lesbian Roman Catholic named Eve Tushnet is doing. Her first book is coming out this fall from Ave Maria Press (Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith). I’ve been reading Eve’s blog for years, and I think she’s one of the sharpest cultural critics around, in addition to being one of our most provocative and helpful Christian voices on the theology of friendship. Along the same lines, I’m so proud of thinkers and writers that Ron Belgau and I have assembled for Spiritual Friendship. People like Melinda Selmys and Joshua Gonnerman and Aaron Taylor — all celibate gay Roman Catholics — are doing some of the most exciting work on sexual ethics, pastoral theology, and cultural criticism that I’m aware of.
I continue to be excited by some of the theologians who got me interested in theology in the first place — Karl Barth, John Webster, and Rowan Williams. (His Being Christian is as lovely an introduction to Christian faith as I’ve ever read.) I was talking with a friend recently about our mutual admiration for Bonhoeffer’s prison letters, and he said that for him the key is Bonhoeffer’s absolute Christ-centeredness coupled with an utter lack of sentimental piety or a world-denying retreat mentality. That pretty much sums up the kind of Christian thinker I’m drawn to. There’s that line from Flannery O’Connor about distrusting the pious language of the faithful, especially when it issues from her mouth, but taking refuge instead in the historic language of the Church’s liturgy and theology, albeit always trying to refresh and reinvigorate that language. I resonate with that, and I look for theologians who embody that ambition.
You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about friendship. What about the topic draws you?
I became interested in the topic because of my concern for the flourishing of gay people in the Church. As someone who is gay, and who holds to the Church’s traditional view — that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman ordered toward the bearing and raising of children — I am committed to celibacy. And I’ve gotten to know many others who are in my shoes, which means that I’ve become interested in how we might learn to practice a healthy and fruitful celibacy.
C.S. Lewis notes that we in the modern world don’t pay nearly as much attention to friendship as we do to romantic love, but Scripture and the Christian tradition challenge us on that point. You can’t read someone like Aelred of Rievaulx or Bonhoeffer and not conclude that friendship is just as honorable, and worthy of time and energy, as marriage and family. Friendship, too, can be a site of sacrifice and devotion, a place where we give and receive genuine love. And for me, that opens up fresh ways of thinking about celibacy. Outside of a monastic context, as someone who lives and works as an ordinary member of an Anglican parish, I am still called, precisely as a celibate man, to make binding commitments and promises to my fellow Christians.
What does friendship reveal about the gospel and redeemed humanity that marriage cannot?
There’s a great line in one of Oliver O’Donovan’s books [Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics (Eerdmans, 1994)], where he’s talking about the future resurrection and kingdom of Christ. He says: “Humanity in the presence of God will know a community in which the fidelity of love which marriage makes possible will be extended beyond the limits of marriage.” In other words, one of the good things about marriage now is that it enables two people to make promises to each other and practice the kind of love that doesn’t give up when the going gets tough. It enables fidelity. But, you can’t practice that kind of faithful love with everyone. You’re bound to your spouse, and you don’t love anyone else with the same kind of fidelity. That’s where things will change in the eschatological kingdom of God. Marriage as we know it will fade away, as Jesus tells us in Matthew 22. But the kind of love that marriage pointed to will be the experience of everyone in God’s new creation. And that, it seems to me, is what friendship reminds us of here and now.
In friendship, we can make promises and pursue intimate fellowship with many people, not just one. And in that sense, friendship provides a foretaste of the universal community we’ll enjoy in God’s kingdom. Roman Catholic writer Ronald Rolheiser says that in friendship the central organ of love is the human heart, not the genitals — which means that friendship is a form of love that’s open to all of us, married or single.
Because of your writing as a gay Christian who is committed to celibacy, it seems you are increasingly asked to chime in on LGBTQ issues in public debate. How does this role sit with you?
In so many ways, I’m grateful that I’ve been given a platform to talk about these matters. What my friends and I are trying to say at Spiritual Friendship — about how the Church has to have a clear “yes” to speak to gay people, not just a “no” — is something I don’t hear a lot of other Christians discussing in depth. So I’m grateful that I’ve been given a chance to articulate that message.
But I would add that I’m wary of being held up as a poster boy for the “traditional” Christian view of marriage and sexual ethics. In the first place, my story is simply one person’s story and shouldn’t be considered the pattern to which a Christian who experiences same-sex attraction must conform. I don’t want to give gay Christians the impression that they all have to speak or behave like me if they want to be faithful to the traditional Christian teaching.
Second, I want to be heard in the Church as someone who poses hard questions for the traditional view of marriage and celibacy. I embrace that teaching (and that’s why I’m celibate), but I also want the freedom to say I’m still working to understand it and see its beauty and rationale and live it in a healthy, life-enhancing way. I have a long way to go. Often I feel I need the Church’s help in understanding the traditional teaching and following it. It’s hard to be put in the role of public defender of that teaching when sometimes what I really need is someone who can defend it for me!
I frequently see photos on social media of you traveling to visit friends. Do you have a favorite place to travel? Anywhere you’ve never been to but that remains on your bucket list?
I spent four years living in England for graduate school at Durham. I was part of a wonderful church in Durham, and I have many dear friends who are still there, including my godson, Samuel, who’s turning 3 this summer. So, as often as I can, I like to travel back to England. And there are still places in the U.K. I’m dying to visit: Iona, George Herbert’s church near Salisbury, Sarah Losh’s church in Cumbria, the beaches in Cornwall, and a lot of other places. I’ve also never been to the Holy Land, and that’s pretty much number one on my bucket list.
Katelyn Beaty is managing editor of Christianity Today.