I’m listening to an interesting debate between Steve Chalke (a British pastor who is well-known for his liberal approach to sexuality issues and other things) and Sean Doherty, a teaching pastor at Bible College St Mellitus. Doherty described himself as gay, and when at university he was open about this with his Christian friends. Yet he said that he has never received homophobia or criticism from the church or other Christians. However he did get criticism from outside the church. Why? Because he’d decided to be celibate.
I find this fascinating. Sean comes from an evangelical background, but it’s a similar story to a Catholic guy, Steve Gershom (not his real name). Gershom also said he’s never experienced negativity for being gay in church: but he has experienced negativity outside the church for being celibate. He said:
“Where are all these bigoted Catholics I keep hearing about? When I told my family a year ago, not one of them responded with anything but love and understanding. Nobody acted like I had a disease. Nobody started treating me differently or looking at me funny. The same is true of every one of the Catholic friends that I’ve told. They love me for who I am.
“Actually, the only time I get shock or disgust or disbelief, the only time I’ve noticed people treating me differently after I tell them, is when I tell someone who supports the gay lifestyle. Celibacy?! You must be some kind of freak.”
Yes, we hear some horrible stories from other people who are gay: negativity, and being thrown out of church, and even terrible stories about teenagers being thrown out of their homes. But the experience of Doherty and Gershom suggest that this is not the whole picture. Vicky Beeching, a worship leader who recently came out, received a lot of criticism (she, unlike Gershom and Doherty, doesn’t seem to be aspiring to celibacy), but she also received an overwhelming amount of support and encouragement from Christians, certainly on twitter.
So, it’s not that someone who is gay is immediately ostracised by churches, at least in the UK. Even in conservative circles, gay people can experience inclusion, love and acceptance. This has to be the right way, whatever your theological stance on the matter is.
But what about our culture’s distaste for celibacy? Why should people who choose not to have sex, be ostracised, mocked and criticised? For the most part, our culture appears to have learned the lesson of welcoming and including people who identify as gay, though there are exceptions. Yet it is still not very good at including and accepting other people who are different to them: whether that’s because they are celibate, they believe in God or many other things that are not fashionable at the moment. We desperately need to learn, and encourage others, to accept and love other people whoever they are and whatever is fashionable. The culture might decide that one group is OK (at the moment that’s gay people) and that another is not (at the moment that’s celibate people). The church has to be different: we have to love everyone. Many times we fail: but that’s got to be our goal.
(To hear similar stories to these two men, you can look at the ‘Living Out’ website, or that of Peter Ould.