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We are pleased to present KLICE Comment.

This month Sean Doherty writes on Same-sex Attraction.

Rev Dr Sean Doherty is an Anglican priest, Tutor in Ethics at St Mellitus College and Associate Minister of St Francis Community Church, Dalgarno Way, and a former KLICE doctoral award holder. He is speaking on this theme at the Theology For All conference, 29 September, Tyndale House, Cambridge. You can follow him on Twitter @swdoherty. He writes here in a personal capacity.


The issue of same-sex attraction and relationships has become one of the defining moral issues of our time. Whilst debate in the church continues fiercely, opinion in favour of same-sex sexual relationships has already carried the day in almost all public discourse, where the traditional Christian position on the matter is now regarded as outdated, intolerant and arbitrary. But two pastoral and theological suggestions might significantly shift the ground.

First, we need to vigorously challenge the rigid, binary 'gay-straight' polarity as a marker of identity. Very few people have any choice with respect to their sexual desires, and in that sense it is undeniable that same-sex desire is a given for nearly everyone who identities as gay. But our culture is highly arbitrary in making this particular sexual desire determinative for someone's very identity, and therefore determinative for matters such as their choice or otherwise of partner. We do not do this for other sexual desires. The concepts of homosexuality and heterosexuality are comparatively recent ones, and it is not obvious from a Christian perspective that they are adequate.

I speak from my own experience. I became a Christian in my late teens, and not long after I came to identify myself as gay. I was determined to be celibate. I was open about my sexuality, and I never experienced homophobic treatment from other Christians. (This has convinced me that it is more than possible to love and accept gay people without approving of same-sex sexual activity, because this was exactly what I experienced.) I was nurtured, given responsibility in ministry, and encouraged towards ordination.

However, I would now say that I had allowed my feelings to define my identity in an unhelpful way. I assumed that my celibate status was permanent and static because of my sexual orientation. But this failed to take into account both the mutable character of human desire, and the dynamic character of God.

Personally, I have never experienced any radical overnight change in my desires and feelings. Rather I have come to believe that my God-given sexual identity is expressed in the tangible fact that I am a man. God created two sexes to relate sexually to one another. Contemporary anthropology tends to over-emphasise human desires and feelings, which leads to orientation and therefore identity being defined by sexual desire. I came to replace this with the Hebrew definition of sexuality, which is much more earthy and bodily: 'male and female he created them.' My sexual identity as a man remained, irrespective of whatever feelings I might have. I came to believe my feelings were relatively superficial compared to my physical identity, and that my sexual orientation should primarily be defined in terms of my physical gender identity, and not in terms of my sexual desires. This position emphasises the bodily integrity of sexual identity as male or female, rather than subordinating these categories to psychological ones. It is not anti-sex, but pro-body.

This decisive change enabled me to be open to marriage. What matters is not to stop experiencing same-sex attraction per se (as in the 'ex-gay' movement) but to be attracted and called to one woman in particular. It doesn't matter in the least whether I am attracted to women or men in general. It matters a great deal whether I am attracted to my wife - although the precise level of sexual desire fluctuates in all marriages over time! So, against the lure of conformity to the 'pattern of this world', I think it is imperative to insist that one's sexual feelings are not a static foundation of identity. We are men and women, created by God in God's image.

Second, we need to model and promote celibacy - whether temporary or lifelong. The traditional Christian teaching on sex partly lacks credibility within some churches because we have idolised marriage and failed to portray lifelong singleness as a place of genuine fulfillment. In our desire to promote and support marriage, many single people have felt left out by churches which run marriage courses and marriage preparation, but often no equivalent groups for single/celibate people, and where marriage seems to be prerequisite for significant responsibility in ministry. Single Christians are therefore caught between a sex-obsessed world which tells them they can't be fulfilled without sex, and a marriage-obsessed church which tells them they can't be fulfilled without marriage. A faithful celibate life therefore appears impossible and undesirable. And yet Christians profess to follow a man who, as far as we know, never married or had sex - a form of life which was far more radical then than it is now. St Paul points out that unmarried Christians can be more wholeheartedly devoted to Christ, and serve him with less distraction, as Paul himself was able to do. He concludes that whilst marriage is good, singleness is better (1 Corinthians 7:6-9, 38). Most churches tend to give the opposite impression. It is right to celebrate and support marriage, of course - so long as we celebrate and support those who are faithfully living a single life to the glory of God just as or even more fervently. Singleness is difficult - it can involve loneliness and frustration. But of course, marriage is difficult too. It is not some utopian solution to loneliness and frustration but also often involves these things too! So let us promote singleness, and also be fully honest about how demanding and difficult marriage really is.

So, I have tried to suggest both that we have strong grounds to profoundly question the assumptions of the prevailing discourse about sexuality in our culture, and that we need to get our own house in order pastorally. Only if we do both of these things will we be able to offer real freedom to those who experience same-sex attraction. But if we do, we can be confident in the joy and reality of that freedom.


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