Up Near the Spigot

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As I was reading what Warhorn was saying about the Revoice conference in St. Louis (a critique in four parts), I noticed that Wesley Hill was one of the main speakers. I also noticed that he had a new book out, called Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian, which I promptly obtained. This was because the promotional stuff surrounding the conference seemed pretty bad, but as I noticed that the book was blurbed by men like Alan Jacobs and Peter Leithart, I thought I should get it and take a look.

Here is the basic idea as presented in the book. For those Christians who are romantically or erotically attracted to members of the same sex, but who are committed to celibacy, the solution to their desire for intimacy is to be found in deep, lasting, oath-bound friendship. Kind of like marriage, but different.  Should we, perhaps, “consider friendship more along the lines of how we think of marriage?” (Loc. 129). What he proposes “should be understood along the lines of a vowed or committed relationship, much like a marriage or a kinship bond” (Loc. 184). Not marriage, no sex in it, but kind of like an ecclesiastical version of civil unions.

The book is, by turns, sad, terrible, staggeringly naïve, and sets before the church the absolute monarch of bad ideas. I am sure I will be writing more about this proposed “move” as our lost generation continues to make interesting discoveries, but I wanted to say three things initially. I will be brief here, but the topic really does demand a more detailed treatment.

First, I do feel awkward talking about Wesley Hill’s inner life and motivations, but he kind of laid it all out on the table, and in print too. I hope he won’t take it as an intrusion if I respond here to what he is saying. I do applaud his commitment to refrain from overt sexual sin, which is not a trifle, and I do want to be charitable in challenging him. But it is apparent in what he has written that the kink in his hose is a lot closer to the house, up near the spigot. In other words, he knows that certain activities “downstream” from where he is now would be sinful activities. But he appears to believe that some of the drivers of these desires, “upstream” from him, are noble, virtuous, and on no account to be repented and surrendered—when they are actually the font of his temptations. In short, this is a textbook case of the sinfulness of effeminacy—even if, especially if, the “virtues” of effeminacy are for some reason prized in the evangelical wing of the church. Another way of saying this is that Hill can get respect and honor from ostensibly conservative Christians for indulging the early manifestations of his problem. This is because—in a sense to be developed later—the evangelical church is as gay as Wesley Hill is.

Second, this kind of thinking will necessarily soften our statement of what the Scriptures teach on this subject, and the way the Scriptures teach it. When Hill reviews the scriptural reasons for believing that he must remain celibate, he uses very soft formulations. He comes down on the right side of the line, but his description of the line is limp and flaccid. The emphases that follow are mine. God’s yes to marriage “also seemed to disclose” a corresponding no to sexual intimacy anywhere else (Loc. 426). Throughout all the Bible, this yes from God “appeared to entail” (Loc. 430) a prohibition of any deviation from it. This scriptural “focus on” gender differentiation, as opposed to elements like exploitation or excessive desire (Loc. 433), helped to explain Paul’s denunciation of same-sex erotic behavior.

And third, related to the first point, all issues related to sex and culture are connected to one another. Everything hangs together. Nothing can be arbitrarily separated. The whole sexual world will either continue to unravel the way the world, flesh and devil want it to, or it will continue to be knit together the way the Holy Spirit wants it to. Everything comes apart, or everything comes together. This includes issues as disparate as women’s ordination and abortion on demand.

Early in the book, Hill is describing a ritual on the eve of his confirmation in the Church of England. A group of his friends spent an evening together, and they closed with a time of reflection and prayer. His priest then said that each of them would be anointed with oil—“she explained” (Loc. 214). Each person had to say one word (Hill’s word would be friendship), and then the priest would pray for that person in terms of it. Hill was reluctant, but overcame it because he “loved this priest, and if she said it, it must be worth doing” (Loc. 218). He was going to have to say goodbye to “this priest, whom I’d slowly come to love” (Loc. 226). In the ritual, “she made the sign of the cross on my palms” (Loc. 231). “I knew she was fond of me, and I liked the protective, mothering way she placed her hand on my head, the way her eyes were kind and gentle” (Loc. 234).

Apart from provoking me to channel my inner Puritan, on multiple levels—actually, if this is the time for frankness, my inner Puritan is not very inner—this reveals the interrelated nature of all of these problems. The choice is a simple, binary choice. Either we will obey God on everything sexual—sex roles, sex definitions, sex and fruitfulness, sex and family, sex and culture, sex and the ministry—or we will set ourselves up as competent to pick and choose in accordance with our own whims and wishes. But that way lies madness.

A final exhortation to Wesley Hill. If you continue to travel the road you are on, when you get to the end of it, you will most assuredly not obtain what you are looking for.