Wesley Hill is convinced that taking a road less traveled doesn’t have to be a lonely journey.
Hill, a professor at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa., and a small corps of other writers around the country have churned out a small library of books and blog posts united in a single premise.
They believe gay Christians can and should affirm their sexual orientation – but should also commit to celibacy.
The stance runs counter to the growing American majority that supports legalized same-sex marriage among Americans, including religious progressives, as the U.S. Supreme Court weighs a landmark case on whether to legalize it nationwide.
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But it also challenges many of Hill’s fellow Christian conservatives who still oppose any affirmation of being gay, even in celibacy.
“I sometimes joke that my life would be easier if I were a more straightforwardly ex-gay approach or a more straightforwardly same-sex marriage approach,” said Hill.
Hill, an associate professor of biblical studies, remains convinced of the traditional Christian interpretation of Scripture that limits valid sexual expression to marriage between a man and a woman. He said he has known from his early teens, when he recognized an innate attraction to other men, that such a marriage was never going to be for him.
He said Christians – not just gay celibates, but everyone from isolated young mothers to mobile professionals in strange new cities – would do well to recover their own forgotten religion’s traditions of deep, committed friendships from centuries past.
“I want celibacy to be something that can be joyful for me and for others,” he said. “I don’t want it to be a sentence of loneliness.”
Hill is a neatly dressed 33-year-old with a smile as wide as his scholarly glasses, but his expression turns serious when he talks about the struggles involved.
“Another part of me wants to be brutally honest about all the challenges that come about and really face those and be willing to ask the hard questions,” he said.
In his writings – including his new book, “Spiritual Friendship,” and his earlier “Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality” – he details the loneliness and tears that have accompanied his journey. He’s seen close friendships fade when one or the other moves away, and he has found that even platonic friendships can be occasions for misunderstanding and heartbreak.
Works by Hill and others in the gay-and-celibate movement are beginning to get notice. Christianity Today, the flagship journal of American evangelicalism, named him last year as one of “33 under 33” – young leaders shaping the future of evangelicalism.
The gay-and-celibate model is getting a hearing even as some prominent opponents of homosexuality are increasingly abandoning another approach – the “ex-gay” movement, based on the idea that gays could become straight through some combination of counseling and spiritual discipline. The American Psychiatric Association and some former proponents have repudiated the approach.
Hill said he never underwent such a process and that it has resulted in suffering for many. “The Christian tradition as we read it has never promised that kind of categorical change,” he said.
But the gay-celibacy approach also has critics.
“To substitute friendship in place of same-gender loving partnership or marriage is to say there still is an element of sin in being homosexual or same-gender-loving,” said the Rev. Shanea Leonard, pastor of the city’s Judah Fellowship Christian Church.
“If someone chooses to be celibate or chooses to not marry because they feel God has called them to that, that’s one thing,” said the Rev. Leonard. “But to choose that based on sexual orientation is to deny the gift of sexuality that God has given us, and I don’t think that’s a part of God’s plan. When I read the sacred texts and read Scripture through the loving lens of Jesus Christ, I don’t see a condemnation of same-gender loving relationships. What I see over and over again is the reoccurring theme of love.”
And some evangelical conservatives oppose the affirmation of a gay orientation even without sexual activity.
“When one feels himself desiring a sexual relationship with a person of the same sex, the only appropriate response is repentance from sin,” wrote Denny Burk, a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., in a response to Hill’s writings.
For Hill, though, “what we in the modern world have labeled the phenomenon of being gay has a lot of different components” beyond sexual desire. It also informs choices of friends and tastes in everything from books to movies. “If I were a priest and had a gay person in my congregation, I would want to know what in this person’s experience can be baptized and celebrated and used as a gift,” he said.
In “Spiritual Friendship,” Hill draws on scholars who have rediscovered a tradition that lasted from medieval to 19th century Europe – in which two men or two women vowed lifelong friendship in formal, liturgical ceremonies.
Historians debate whether at least some of these pairs had sex, but the rite had a different intent – to formalize an enduring, emotional and practical commitment that often literally endured to the grave, with adjacent tombs marked by a common symbol.
Hill said he and others at SpiritualFriendship.org – a collective blog site for about a dozen contributors – are not calling for a wholesale revival of these medieval rites.
“We’re trying to do a kind of retrieval project,” he said. “We’re trying to take some of the Christian practices of the past and say they can be reimagined in a modern culture.”
Hill and others in the gay-and-celibate movement, such as the Catholic writer Eve Tushnet, say they can’t separate their understanding of the Gospel from the traditional church understanding of sexuality.
For Tushnet, of Washington, D.C., “I essentially fell in love with the Catholic Church and realized I really needed the Eucharist,” the sacrament of bread and wine that Catholics recognize as the body and blood of Jesus.
“I was so certain I could trust the church’s authority,” including its teaching on sexuality, said Tushnet, author of “Gay and Catholic.”
Hill’s pastor, the Rev. Jonathan Millard, rector of the city’s Anglican Church of the Ascension, said Hill’s call for deeper, more spiritual friendship resonates beyond same-sex issues.
“It’s amazing to me how many people are lonely, whether they’re married, single, in a relationship,” he said.
Hill said he has heard from mothers of young children who feel deeply isolated. “Even married people are frustrated by the culture of mobility,” with friends left behind as people cross the continent for new jobs.
But even across distances, people can make an effort at enduring friendships, Hill said. A married couple he befriended asked him to stand as godparent at the baptism of their child. “I don’t live near them, but that was significant for both of us to say we think of one another in this category of spiritual kin.”