INTERVIEWS | Kaley Payne
Friday 29 July 2016
Wesley Hill, from Trinity School for Ministry in Pennsylvania, describes himself as “celibate, gay and Christian”. Eternity’s Kaley Payne asked one of her friends who describes himself similarly to contribute to questions for her interview with Hill who is in Australia this month with Ridley College, talking to churches about a pastoral response to same-sex attraction.
When did you realise that you were same-sex attracted, and how did you decide to start telling people about it?
I was in my early teenage years and I remember speaking with friends of mine who were beginning to talk about developing feelings for the opposite sex, and I realised that what they were describing was not happening for me. I was, instead, beginning to feel attractions for my same-sex friends.
And, at the time I was ashamed of that. I was confused by it. And so I decided not to tell anyone and hoped that it would go away.
It was only later – I went to a Christian university – and I was really wanting to grow in my faith in Christ and I realised that if I was hiding a big part of my myself, even from myself, then I probably wasn’t going to be growing very much, and I was going to be fearful and spending too much of my time and energy trying to keep myself hidden.
That was really the beginning of me coming out, realising that I wanted to be a healthy Christian. I knew that if I was harbouring a secret of this sort of magnitude that it would be hard to be healthy. It would be hard to be flourishing. So I decided to come out to one of my trusted professors. And from there I came out to other pastors and to other friends in the church.
What was the reaction like?
Initially, I came out to only a small handful of people. It was people who were mentors and pastors and teachers. It took me a couple of years longer to be able to talk to peers.
I was afraid that the reaction would be, ‘Wes, this means that you’re disqualified from pursuing Christian ministry’, which is what I was feeling called to do. And I was afraid that it would mean that I was somehow a second-class Christian or something like that. The reactions that I got were the opposite of that. They were quite beautiful.
I would describe my coming out experience as really blessed in a lot of ways. I was blessed to talk with people who knew a lot about suffering, who knew a lot about how the Christian life can be complex and it can include things that we wish weren’t true about ourselves, things that we find confusing. But that that didn’t mean that I was somehow doing something wrong in my life of faith.
Should Christians experiencing same-sex attraction be encouraged to ‘come out’ – to name or acknowledge their brokenness?
I think so. I think sometimes Christian communities can be unhealthy and judgmental and if someone were to come out in a community like that there could be quite a significant cost. I usually advise people to be cautious and to know their community before they come out and know that they can trust people. I wouldn’t want to advocate coming out in any and all places. I think you have to watch out for your own safety. But I think, in general, it is better to come out.
Part of the reason I say that is that I think that coming out actually allows you to love people more honestly and more freely. Because when we’re staying in the closet and keeping our attractions hidden, we have to spend so much of our energy and effort trying to maintain that closeted-ness, to maintain our secrecy. And that makes us distance ourselves from people. It makes us hold people at arm’s length. It’s hard to love people when you’re doing that. And it’s hard to allow yourself to be loved when you’re holding people at arm’s length.
I think of verses like in the first letter of John where he describes the Christian life as “walking in the light”. I think that coming out can be one way of walking in the light and saying that I don’t want to be struggling with my questions and wrestling with my sexuality on my own. I want to do it in community and I want to do it with honesty and in company with other Christians.
Can homosexuality’s sexual or genital expression be separated from other expressions of homosexuality that might be redeemed or sanctified?
As I read Scripture, what Scripture focuses on as being outside the bounds of God’s will is genital sexual expression. So, whenever you find Scripture passages talking about homosexuality, I don’t think they’re talking about what we would refer to today as the whole package of sexual orientation. I think that Scripture is focusing on specific acts of sin, specific genital acts, and saying that if you’re in Christ those acts are out of bounds, they’re wrong for you.
But I think there is so much about being gay and so much of the experience of same-sex attraction that is about friendship and connection and intimacy with people of the same-sex. I think that so many of those things can be sanctified. I can offer myself as a sexual being for friendship. I can pursue intimate relationships with other men that are not sexually active but that are still very deep and meaningful. And I don’t stop being gay when I’m in those relationships. I don’t stop being a sexual creature when I’m in those relationships. And in so far as that’s true, there is a kind of way that my same-sex attraction can be, if you like, channelled or directed in a way that is life-giving.
Have you seen examples of how that might work in a Christian context, and also be welcomed?
One thing that is striking about church history is that there have been a lot of examples of friends who celebrated their love for one another in public ways. They wrote about their friendship or asked their pastors to pray a public blessing over their friendship. So we have a lot of examples in church history of really rich, deep, intimate friendship that were not romantic, sexual relationships.
I think when we rediscover those models, they provide us some help as we think about what it would mean for someone like me to be in close relationships with other people.
In my own life, this has usually looked like living in community with other peer friends. Right now I share a house with a married couple who are expecting their first child. And I think they view themselves as my family members in a real way and they want to see me live out a life of intimacy in a real way with them. In other words, they look at me and say “Wes, we know that you’re gay. We know that you’re pursuing a life of singleness, because that’s what you think God is calling you to, and we want to be people who draw you out into deeper friendship and commitment with us.”
And I think that kind of thing is what I hope will happen more in the churches.
People who are gay or lesbian can actually find that they are called to a positive way of loving and not just a form of self-denial.
I think that gay and lesbian people probably especially hunger for friendship because the ones who are pursuing lives of chastity don’t have marriage and parenting open to them. But there are married people who’ll feel like they need friendship just as much as I do. And what I’m trying to do in promoting friendship and recovering friendship is relevant to a lot of people in a lot of life situations.
I think that friendship in the church – if we recover it and try to practice it – is something that can benefit all Christians, not just a subset of same-sex attracted Christians.
How do you think communities can ‘recover’ friendship?
I think one thing that I would encourage is for pastors to teach about it. In my context in the States, there are a lot of good sermons preached about the importance of marriage and family and parenting, and a lot fewer preached on the single life, the importance of intentional community and friendship. I encourage pastors to preach a sermon series on famous friendships in the Bible like David and Jonathan or Ruth and Naomi or Paul and Timothy. And just try to give people a vision for what their friendships could be, how they could be deeper and richer.
Another thing that people could do is look for ways to include each other in their meal times. I think if we viewed meal times as opportunities for cultivating friendship, that would be one really practical way forward.
Some Christians believe that they have been truly saved from homosexuality. They might classify themselves as “ex-gay”. What do you think about that?
Sexual desire is on a spectrum. There are some people who are pretty much exclusively attracted to the opposite sex. There are some people who are pretty much exclusively attracted to the same-sex and there are a lot of people who are in-between. And I think that some of the best research that’s coming out today would suggest that a lot of us do experience some fluidity in our sexual desire over the course of our lives. Some of us experience some degree of bi-sexuality.
I don’t want to disbelieve stories that my fellow Christians tell me when they say that they have experienced a decrease or diminishment in their same-sex attraction. I guess what I worry about is when those stories are the only stories we tell and we use those stories to set up an expectation that that would be the case for every gay Christian person who comes to faith – that this can be their experience as well.
I think of myself – I’ve been a Christian most of my life. I’ve been in counselling and I’ve prayed lots of prayers for God to change my sexuality and I haven’t experienced pretty much any change at all. And I think what I’ve come to believe is that that’s not a sign of my failure. That’s not a sign that I’m doing something wrong, necessarily. It’s simply part of the way the Christian faith goes for certain believers.
What types of ministry have been most helpful to you? And what would you recommend for others?
I would say that the main type of ministry that has been helpful to me are the ones that emphasise the need for me to find a positive sense of calling and vocation for my life. I think a lot of Christian ministry to same-sex attracted people lays a lot of emphasis on what we’re being called away from.
In other words, what we’re being called to deny ourselves and say no to. And I think that’s of course important. But to me the more urgent question has become, ‘What is the right way for me to live?’ How should I express my love for others? How should I receive love from others? And ministry that has helped me think through that question, in terms of community, friendship, commitment to a local church, involvement in rich and familial kinds of friendship – that’s what’s been most important to me in recent years. It’s ministry that casts a vision for what my future could be in the church.
There’s a book that a friend of mine has written called Gay and Catholic by Eve Tushnet. It’s not just for Catholics – there’s plenty in there for all Christians. But Eve talks in the book very powerfully about how every single gay or lesbian person who comes to Christ is called to a life of love. Yes, they are called to a life of self-sacrifice, but they are called to a life of rich, meaningful relationships as well. And I would love to see that kind of ministry flourish more in the church.