By Amber D. Noel

The recent decision by Archbishop Foley Beach and the ACNA to officially discourage (or disallow) the phrase “gay Christian” distressed me deeply. I think this should especially distress someone like me, a Global North Anglican with a traditional view of Christian marriage and sexuality, whose confirmation and formation as an Anglican came mostly through the ACNA. The idea behind the decision is, very basically, that a Christian cannot also be “gay,” because this word carries other loaded cultural and identity connotations, and “human identity lies not in sexual orientation…but in union with Christ,” and so a Christian who might otherwise identify as gay should instead call himself or herself “a Christian with same-sex attraction.” This new “Pastoral Statement” stems, in part, from the ACNA’s expressed desire to be more faithful to the gospel, to align less with prevailing Global North secular culture, and, it seems, to align more deeply with particular Global South Anglican bishops on this matter.

Though the moratorium on “gay Christian” as a description of identity may not have had a violent or obnoxious intent, its effect has been to ostracize and penalize the celibate gay Christians among them, who are, or were very recently, in their ranks as leaders and colleagues.

Besides the power dynamics at play in some of this decision’s effects, here are five reasons why, in the Global North at least, this is bunk. We need to be able to say “gay Christian.” Here’s why “Christian with same-sex attraction” won’t cut it (and yes, these reasons are “pastoral,” but not as code for “theologically wimpy”).

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There are times we need to distinguish between experiences of same-sex attraction and a sustained, unchanging orientation of sexual desire.

This is critical for spiritual direction, pastoral care, and, in my opinion, discipling youth, whose experiences, desires, and hormones tend to be even more intense and unpredictable than the average human’s.

Let’s say you have a young woman who has sexual feelings in the presence of a female friend. Or let’s say she has one too many drinks at a party and kisses another girl. She comes to you, pastor, youth pastor, counselor. She tells you the story. And let’s say, furthermore, that she believes that same-sex sexual acts are a sin, and she’s worried. Her questions for you are not only going to be about particular acts, or particular “experiences of desire” — they are going to be related to who she is. How is she supposed to think of herself now? And where does she belong?

Of course, as the ACNA points out, you make a distinction. You make sure she knows where her core identity lies: in Christ. And where does she belong? In the Church. Fair enough, but do we not have other, actual, meaningful identities that help us to understand ourselves and shape our discipleship? Do we counsel Christians to ignore, sideline, or talk-around these identities?

Once, in college, I sat terrified before a counselor at my conservative Christian school to confess that I felt moments of sexual attraction to a female friend. He was very wise, that counselor. “Let’s imagine,” he said, “you go home for Thanksgiving break. You sit your family down, and you say, ‘Mom, Dad, I’m a lesbian.’ What do you think of that?” Hearing it put this way, as an orientation, rather than a set of intermittent (yet, in moments, powerful) feelings, clarified things instantly for me. I had had this experience. But I wasn’t gay. I wanted to be with men. That was clear to me. But this experience also happened to me. For me, there was no closet to come out of. I simply needed to process the experience (which was one of the best counseling seasons of my life). If, however, “lesbian” or “gay” had rung true to me in any way, our conversations would have taken an appropriately different direction.

By whatever constellation of desire, loneliness, stress, intimacy, alcohol, fun, energy, youthful experimentation, sin, and the attractions of handsome, beautiful, witty, vibrant people, there are times that humans may viscerally feel the sexual attractiveness of someone of the same sex and yet not be gay. (Conversely, someone may be gay and, at moments, feel the sexual attractions of someone of the opposite sex.) And in contexts of discipleship, counseling etc., people with these questions may need to hear the difference between “I have had certain feelings/experiences at such and such a time” and “I am gay” to break up mystery or fear, to discern their particular situation, and so to shape their sexual discipleship going forward.

“Same-sex attraction” was an accurate description of my experience, but only and especially because it is distinct from an orientation. If we either flatten the distinction between those experiences, or can only speak in euphemisms, we lose an important tool of discernment and discipleship.

Gay people know something by experience that most heterosexuals do not.

And this is what they know: that their persistent, unchanged experience of same-sex attraction is a defining enough part of their own self-knowledge (not because they imagined or made it that way, but because it is that way) to constitute, for all practical purposes, an identity, no matter their view on traditional Christian sexual ethics, no matter how they vote. It’s not the first or most defining identity for a Christian, but it’s an identity nonetheless.

This is not exactly like, but it may be something like, if I asked a Black Christian to re-identify as a “Christian whose experience is that of African or African-influenced culture or of a culture of African descent.” Then of course we’d have to determine “to what extent do they have this experience?”, etc. etc. And for some reason, it’s me, a white person, making all these determinations. The identity “Black” is secular, I might argue; it’s not theologically meaningful.

This is a nauseating prospect.

The funny thing is, the replacement of a three-letter word with a much more complicated phrase is the kind of linguistic eggshell-walking the right tends to identify as a problem of the left: creating a culture of fear around language — mandating we always say a mouthful to avoid saying any simpler or clearer words that may possibly be offensive. This is something to think about.

We can’t forbid “gay Christian” if we’re going to be a comprehensible witness to Christian sexuality in many if not most Global North contexts.

Since the inception of the Church, Christians have learned, over and over again, that language, and ways of saying things, are in service of mission. The gospel goes native and transforms what it touches. Missionaries who only try to import their own ideas “from the outside,” as it were, lose effectiveness and credibility, doing a lot of damage along the way.

I understand the problems with church and “relevance.” “Relevant” activates my gag reflex. Christian language is not an endlessly-manipulable vehicle for disembodied truth. And even perfectly contextualized witness can still get you martyred.

What I mean by mission-ready language involves four points:

  1. What we have to say (the God-revealed gospel) doesn’t change.
  2.  There are certain very clear, very effective phrases and images that have stood the test of time and space that God has given us to use in understanding and preaching this gospel — that is, the good news of his character and human relations to him — for example: kings and shepherds, sons and fathers, blood and trees, water and light, bread and salt, spirit and flesh.
  3. Even among the most sacred, most useful language we’ve been given, we’ve had problems. For example, in some cultural contexts, where there are no sheep, perhaps even no goats, and thus no shepherds, how would you teach Psalm 23, or Jesus’ Good Shepherd discourses? Among the Maasai, might you say (might you need to say) “I am the Good Cattle Herd”? Or do you teach what a sheep is? Or a combination of both? In other cultures, where there’s no wine, or no bread unless you import it, how does a missionary help a community discern a fully contextualized celebration of the Lord’s Supper?
  4. Language is given to serve us, not us to serve language, even in witness to God’s truth. If a bishop in Nigeria cannot use the phrase “gay Christian” in any helpful or edifying way whatsoever, then, perhaps, so be it. It may very well invite spiritual or physical danger to those who use it. (Then again, it might be liberating, even gospel work, to have an African Anglican bishop at the forefront of decriminalizing homosexuality!) To a certain extent, we have to trust leaders to know their sheep. But, to flip this, if there were a place in which it would be edifying, useful, or otherwise instructive to teach about Jesus as healer by calling him the Good Witch Doctor or Good Shaman because there is no other translation in the local language(s) that will do for the role of a healer, then, perhaps, so be it. We pray that church leaders, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, may know their sheep. But Jesus as the Good Witch Doctor or Shaman will very likely not be edifying, useful, or otherwise instructive in Wichita, Kansas or Portland, Oregon. In fact, it could very well be dangerous. So be it!

This is not to say anything goes, but it seems very problematic for Christians in radically different cultural and missionary contexts to demand the same rules for language. I need to be able to speak in a way that means something to my non-Christian neighbors. Then, as Christian wisdom, sanctity, purity of life, and the Holy Spirit’s power infuse our conversation and relationship, and as the language I use gets mixed in with particularly Christian, theological language (salvation, sin, grace, repentance, and so forth), evangelism happens: truly paradigm-shifting, dividing-wall-breaking, missional, and yet native evangelism. This will not happen if I can’t use words that are meaningful to my neighbors, gay or straight or however they otherwise self-identify. 

When you’re discipling a mature adult, you’ve got to treat them that way.

If you’re in a discipling relationship in which someone already identifies as gay, or if you’re ministering in a cultural context in which “gay” is already long established as a shorthand for a set of experiences that really do tell you something about a person, whether or not you agree with their self-identification, whether or not they’re living in a sexually holy way, it doesn’t seem to me that it will do any good to wrestle over semantics. It may even prove a stumbling block. It may even make you look unnecessarily silly, pedantic, or hopelessly out of touch. It will almost surely sound facile or dilettantish to a gay adult to ask them to call themselves solely “Christian with same-sex attraction” when they crossed the “gay” bridge long ago, perhaps through much prayerful struggle.

People still coming to grips with their orientation may, for a season, just need a safe space, even if you don’t agree with them.

When coming to terms with orientation, or in the later, often grueling process of “coming out,” people need to be able to express their process, decisions, and identities in an intelligible way, to themselves and others. This may mean using language you prefer. It may not. Proper pastoral and theological guidance can happen in a range of intensity and contexts, but even if you do not approve of the word “gay” to describe a Christian, it won’t work to call out the language police; this may cause those you’re pastoring to avoid speaking full truths (vital to the cure of souls) because they sense their experience will be corrected or minimized. Besides all this, people need to be messy, especially in difficult times — especially if what they’re experiencing has been repressed or been held as a secret.

My point here is not meant to give the ACNA statement any ground. Neither is my point to persuade you that there’s never anything incompatible between Christian identity and a gay orientation. But I do hope to speak directly to those who are uncomfortable with the phrase “gay Christian,” and to demonstrate that, even if you have reservations, holding the space for people to identify as gay is important and wise.

Now, for a Christian to say “I’m gay” could be jumping the gun, sometimes with serious consequences, depending on, perhaps, how young or mature the person is and what the person decides to do about it. So it might be helpful in some instances to pause for a while at the threshold, to ask the question: “Might I be gay? What do these feelings and experiences add up to for me right now? Is there a way I can live without labeling myself for a whole hot minute?” As a former youth pastor, I would encourage young people especially that it’s worth waiting to see what their experiences add up to, as well as what God will do in their lives, before applying a word to themselves that can shape so powerfully their discipleship, their relationship to themselves, their friendships, and their experience of community. This is another reason why distinguishing “attraction” from “identity” can be so important.

In short: the discernment that pastoral discipleship requires itself requires words that make sense to the people you’re talking to and make sense of the situation they’re in.

Finally, if patience is required as a pastoral/theological leader in the area of sexuality, identity, experience, and discipleship, remember too that it will be required not least from the people you are leading.

Amber D. Noel is associate editor of the Living Church and associate director of the Living Church Institute.

About The Author

Amber D. Noel is associate editor of The Living Church and associate director of the Living Church Institute.

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C R SEITZ

Certainly passionate. As “a Global North Anglican with a traditional view of Christian marriage and sexuality” what is your response to the vast preponderance of “Gay Christians” who have demanded Christian marriage (and have gotten that on terms acceptable to them in TEC)? Is that in error? Your model would appear to make this inevitable and acceptable. Or have I missed something?

Amber Noel

Hello, Chris. So glad for your comment. Yes — I take a traditional Christian view of marriage and sexuality, which precludes same-sex sexual relationships and Christian marriage between same-sex couples. I don’t see that what I present here makes the allowance or blessing of same-sex Christian marriages inevitable, but perhaps you can help me see how you saw it this way. Part of the ongoing distinction being made in these conversations is, of course, between a gay identity and same-sex sexual relationships. Can you be faithful in the latter (i.e. faithful, in fact, to what the ACNA Pastor Statement lays… Read more »

C R SEITZ

Thank you. I was just wondering what the “Gay Christians” you say you “need” would make of your essay? Most of those I know would find it patronizing or just plain wrong (re: marriage). What comes through more clearly is your distaste for a position articulated by this particular Anglican entity. I suppose if it were clearer that the “Gay Christian” movement you want to support had its own quite distinct identity, one could read it another way. The photo just shows a “get over it” banner without any such distinctions. I looked at it and thought, “get over it”… Read more »

Amber Noel

Dear Chris, thank you. I think you’re rightly pointing to a couple of things, and I think both points could have been easily clarified by using a different title and photo. As to the photo: I also thought the photo was an interesting choice, and somewhat opposite to my main point — but maybe it will pull in more readers in the long run. Hopefully, the essay will do more good work to clarify my position than the photo combined with the somewhat provacative title did to provoke questions. As to “needing gay Christians”: While we certainly do need one… Read more »

C R SEITZ

Thank you for responding. I know that ‘creating more interest’ can drive publications which need that to press ahead. ‘Drawing a few more readers,’ ‘pulling them in’ equally. But I suppose my point went to that reality as well: how about the “needed Gay Christians” in TEC 1) who have already made up their mind, and 2) have achieved what they wanted. They can be drawn in, one supposes, and then read, smile and move on. They don’t need to be needed. So, who is being drawn in and edified? Which is also why I raised the question about the… Read more »

Amber Noel

Thanks again, Chris. I admit I don’t think I can tackle all of what you’ve said here. But I’ll just say again that my main point is about the phrase “gay Christian” — the phrase is what we need. That’s the main point of the essay. The word “gay” is meaningful and useful in a Global North context (and may yet be in Global South contexts), and it needs to be allowed, for the sake of not dismissing the witness of the celibate gay Christians among us, and for other pastoral reasons. My argument is against those who would increase… Read more »

C R SEITZ

“My argument is against those who would increase the number and sophistication of the shibboleths we need to consider others legitimate Christians and fellow servants of the gospel.”

Is this a fair characterization? It sounds more angry than careful in summary and in intent. I’m also not sure I understand it.

C R SEITZ

Let me try again. You do not like language preferred by ACNA. It distresses you. Just now you speak of a “shibboleth.” But surely ACNA and anybody will make decisions about this and other matters. I do not belong to ACNA and I don’t have to, to hold this view. (Arguably, it might even helpfully distinguish someone like Wesley Hill, who you mention. He can say he isn’t in ACNA and does not hold to their view). At the same time, TEC has ruled against the BCP being taken as defining marriage along traditional lines and has disciplined a Bishop… Read more »

Paul Zahl

I wonder about the length of this entirely sincere and well-intentioned piece. For me, it’s just a little too long to take in.

Amber Noel

It’s wonderful to hear from you, Paul. That may be a fair critique. I may get a chance at some point to rework it into a pithier piece. If you have any thoughts on it as it stands, of course I’d always welcome them.

Scott Watson

This is an excellent and helpful piece – theologically well-formed, biblically faithful, and addressing well the concerns of many traditionally minded Anglicans. All the things that Archbishop Foley’s and the ACNA’s “pastoral” response were not.

Benjamin Guyer

This essay does a really good job raising the question about how Christians negotiate the relationship between the many identities that define human (and not just Christian) experience. We are born into contexts defined, at least in part, by a range of vocabularies (sexual in this case, but also racial, political, etc.). Those vocabularies do as much if not more to shape us, than we do to shape those vocabularies. The fact of the matter is that Christians generally don’t have a helpful way of thinking about this sort of thing. Every church claims to foreground faith above all else,… Read more »

Ben, You are on an extremely important point. We often think and say that technology is “neutral,” language being a tool we use to the point we don’t see it as such. The reason the cliché “For the man who has a hammer, every problem is a nail” is so powerful is because it is true. The language you “have” makes a difference in how you go about problem solving. Ultrarational people tend to resist this idea, claiming their use of language is not so tethered, but you have only to look at other threads on this post to see… Read more »

Benjamin Guyer

Thanks, Charlie!

Thank you for your witness and your candor, amiga. You give your words extra power by sharing your vulnerability.

Steven Griffin

Your provocative mini-essay on the task of translation deserves a seminar. The claim that we need to be able to say “gay Anglicans” is evidently a modest one, i.e. it’s only in a certain context that the term is necessary. And there’s the problem, I think. ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ are not strictly geographical, now that (e.g.) the Global South includes the ACNA, or the Global North has its own GS networks within it. What you give us with one hand (the need to translate particular Christian language so that it transforms from within a given culture) you take… Read more »

Amber Noel

Thanks, Steven. I hope I’m not dismissing the interpreter in principle — at least, that’s not my intent. Good point about Global North and South not having strict geographic boundaries; though it could also be said that those in the Global North who would align, theologically for instance, with the Global South, don’t cease to be Global Northerners unless or until they actually move their citizenship elsewhere. It may even be a mark of Global Northern privilege to choose when and how to align with the Global South (just spitballing here). Not to get too far off topic. “So be… Read more »

Amber Noel

Also, a seminar would be awesome! : )

Francis (Frank) C. Gray

Thank you for this clear and well written piece, and for your generous responses to the letters of response. Those of us who exercise spiritual leadership sometimes make boneheaded decisions, and your article well addressed this. I agree that the left often makes the same errors by bending language in service to minorities while imposing grammatical awkwardness on the rest. Gender pronouns come to mind in the most recent trend.
I look forward to reading more of your offerings in the future.
Francis C. Gray

Bruce Atkinson

Rationality for eliminating “gay Christian” from our ecclesiastic vocabulary: 1. Homosexual behavior is sin. No exceptions can be found in Holy Writ. Genesis 1:27 – defines the image of God as male and female together. Genesis 18-19 – Sodom and Gomorrah, which as Jude 1:7 indicates is not just about hospitality. Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, and Deuteronomy 23:18— where it is a capital crime along with bestiality. And in the New Testament we have Matthew 19:4-6 where Jesus defines marriage as man and woman. And especially we have clear NT confirmation in Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10,… Read more »

[…] issue at hand is the nature of the identity being avowed. For example, Amber Noel makes a strong case that “gay Christian” is a helpful pastoral category, not for identifying an embracing of sin, but of a real besetting […]