In middle school, I realized I was gay and my family left The Episcopal Church. As a celibate Anglican now seeking ordination to the diaconate, I care deeply about how the Anglican Church in North America teaches and embodies God’s wisdom for sexual stewardship. After exploring why the ACNA has a responsibility to offer gay people something better than gay marriage, I suggest five strategies for making our churches places where gay people can thrive in vocational singleness or Christian marriage with someone of the opposite sex.
My parents were married in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Kingsport, TN. I was baptized and confirmed in that church. I spent the first twelve years of my life going to that church. My father served on the vestry in that church. Then the Episcopal Church ordained a bishop persisting in unrepentant same-sex romantic and sexual activity, and my family left.
At the same time, as the loudest voices on different extremes argued about God’s love for gay people, I was slowly becoming aware of my own same-sex attractions, and I was terrified. I was terrified that progressive voices on one extreme would push me to disobey God’s teachings, and I was terrified that traditional voices on another extreme would add to the deep shame I already felt.
The congregations that would become the ACNA endured decades of TEC slowly (or not so slowly) abandoning orthodoxy on many fronts, but sexual ethics served as the breaking point. At least in the eyes of this cradle Anglican, a belief that God had something better to offer gay people than gay marriage was at the very center of the ACNA’s origins. Plus, many perceive the ACNA as the first major group to leave a mainline denomination over gay marriage. For these reasons, fulfilling our commitment to offering gay people a viable path for thriving according to God’s wisdom is central to our credibility. To put it simply, many people have been waiting to see if we meant what we promised or if we just didn’t like gay people.
Here’s the problem: we Anglicans failed to offer something better than gay marriage.
To the extent that it’s possible in a fallen world, if something is true, it must also lead to good and beautiful fruit. If not, people will and should reasonably doubt the truthfulness of that truth. If the ACNA claims God has something better to offer gay people than gay marriage, it is not enough to only argue that gay marriage is less true. We must also offer an alternative that is better and more beautiful in practice—we must be able to point to gay people in our churches following God’s wisdom and thriving.
The true, the good, and the beautiful might not fully and perfectly coincide on this side of eternity, but the Church should not rest until they do. If we offer truth without goodness or beauty, we should not be surprised when those in pain find us unconvincing and doubt our sincerity.
Are ACNA churches teaching what is true about sexual ethics? Absolutely! But is it leading to good and beautiful fruit in the lives of gay people? I rarely find gay Anglicans thriving according to a traditional sexual ethic, but not for lack of trying. Instead, I’ve witnessed bad and ugly fruit in the ACNA that has led many to doubt the truthfulness of our teaching: over-promising change in sexual orientation, speaking of gay people as enemies that only exist outside of our churches, enabling a double-standard on Christian remarriage, and failing to offer meaningful support to those called to vocational singleness for the sake of the kingdom. While I’ve committed myself to celibate singleness for the sake of the kingdom, my parents and pastors have rarely known how to minister to me in conversations about sexual stewardship. Most of my gay Anglican friends have not been able to survive this void of care, instead, they have adopted a progressive sexual ethic or left the faith altogether.
The congregations that would form the ACNA said, “We don’t hate gay people. We just think God has something better to offer. We will show you.“ Then we left the TEC and did nothing. So far, we’ve failed to fulfill our commitment to offering gay people a viable path for thriving according to God’s teachings, leaving many to assume our true motivations for leaving the TEC was our distaste for gay people.
But it’s not too late.
The ACNA can still learn to offer something better to gay people than gay marriage. And in order to offer something better, we don’t have to abandon a traditional sexual ethic or speak about it less. We just need to pair a robust traditional sexual ethic with practical steps to help gay people take hold of the best things God wants to offer. We must do what it takes to become churches where gay people are bearing good and beautiful fruit according to a traditional sexual ethic. There are five powerful steps ACNA churches can take to offer gay people a viable path for thriving according to God’s teachings. But first, let’s explore why the ACNA must offer something better.
Why should Anglicans offer something better than gay marriage? The gospel
I regularly hear pastors remark, “A tiny number of people in my church are gay. Why should I spend disproportionately more time teaching about sexual ethics?” Yes, while studies consistently show that only 3-5% of the population are sexual minorities, when non-Christians are asked why they aren’t interested in Jesus, the same reason always makes the top three: Christians hate gay people. Their perception of Christians’ treatment of gay people is a primary reason many non-Christians refuse the gospel. Therefore, teaching winsomely about sexual stewardship in your church and doing what it takes to help gay people thrive according to God’s teachings will help more than just gay people. Your careful words about sexual ethics and the testimonies of gay people in your churches are acts of evangelism to straight non-Christians.
Why? Our kids
There are gay people in Anglican churches right now. And I don’t just mean 30-year-old people like me committed to vocational singleness or the middle-aged couple in a mixed-orientation marriage (an opposite-sex marriage where at least one person experiences same-sex attraction) or the closeted guy hooking up with other men on Saturday nights before church. No, I mean the kids at vacation Bible school. The kids participating in Easter egg hunts. Maybe your child sitting right next to you in the pew. Regardless of your beliefs or actions, there will be gay kids in your churches. People don’t choose who they are attracted to and parents can’t prevent their child from developing same-sex attraction: this particular form of brokenness is equal opportunity. We need to offer something better for their sake. Our failure to do so in the past has been painfully consequential. 86% of gay people grew up in churches. Yet gay teens are 5 times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers, and religious gay teens are 38% more likely to be suicidal than their non-religious gay peers. As a result, 54% of gay people who grew up in churches have left the faith. But what if instead, we prepared gay teens to embrace the burden and the beauty of God’s wisdom, leading to fruitful obedience to Jesus and fullness of life?
Why? Straight people
Gay Christians are the canary in the coal mine. The challenges gay Christians face in our churches are just the first symptoms of a much larger problem: we aren’t teaching anyone in our churches to take seriously what the Bible has to say about intimacy and family. Instead, we preach the tenets of the sexual revolution with Jesus sprinkles on top: we offer romance and codependency with one’s spouse as the solution to loneliness. As a result, pornography, casual Christian dating, sex outside of marriage, ignoring the call to raise children, adultery, and divorce are rampant in our churches, hurting straight people. Teaching what the Bible has to say about abstinent singleness, discernment, vocational singleness, and Christian marriage PLUS taking practical steps to support these in our churches will bless all Christians—straight and gay.
How can the Anglican Church in North America offer something better than gay marriage?
1. Teach every Christian to think theologically about sexual stewardship
We need to explain how God created everyone for intimacy in the context of family. Our churches must teach that God first calls everyone to a period of temporary singleness during which we discern whether we are called to a lifetime vocation of singleness or a lifetime vocation of Christian marriage with someone of the opposite sex. We should teach that every Christian has the same inherent capacity for both vocations and every Christian, gay or straight, should offer the question of vocational singleness or Christian marriage to God.
2. Speak with clarity and charity about LGBT+ topics
Our churches must talk publicly about the cultural questions in the intersection of faith and sexuality. With compassion and theological accuracy, they need to explore the following questions: How does same-sex attraction develop? What part did God play and why? Does same-sex attraction change? How should gay people meet their intimacy needs? How do LGBT+ people fit in God’s story? How is God’s invitation to LGBT+ people good? If we taught about these topics, everyone in your church would know how to love LGBT+ people well and reflect the love of Christ in conversations about sexuality. Plus, gay people in your church who are still in the closet would know what you believe, your love for them, and that it is safe to share their story.
3. Talk to kids before they realize they are gay
Most churches wait until teens share that they are gay to address the topic of homosexuality. But on average, teens wait five years after first recognizing their same-sex attraction to talk to a parent or pastor. That means gay teens spend five years making sense of their sexuality alone, often leading to shame+depression+suicidality, adopting a progressive sexual ethic, or both. Our churches need to talk about the possibility of same-sex attraction in age-appropriate ways across the lifespan. Before a teen realizes he or she experiences same-sex attraction, the teen should hear that gay people don’t choose who they are attracted to, that they have nothing to be ashamed about, that we won’t try to fix them, that we don’t love them any less, and that God has good and beautiful plans for them. In churches where these steps are taken, teens would quickly share with their parents and pastors about their same-sex attractions, inviting parents and pastors to help them learn how to steward their sexuality in God-honoring ways.
4. Provide effective pastoral care to gay people
Our churches must provide effective pastoral care to gay Christians. Pastors and lay leaders need to do what it takes to gain the competency to provide pastoral care to gay people. While licensed counselors still may be included to help address clinical levels of anxiety or depression, these churches should recognize that same-sex attractions are not a mental illness to be cured. Parents and pastors need to help gay people integrate their faith and sexuality in ways that lead to thriving in this life and deep relationships with God and friends.
5. Help those in vocational singleness and mixed-orientation marriages thrive
Our churches need to become places where gay people could thrive in vocational singleness or Christian marriage with reasonable effort. These churches should teach about the theology of vocational singleness in Scripture, celebrate those thriving in vocational singleness, and invite all people—gay or straight—to discern whether God is calling them to vocational singleness or marriage. Most importantly, these churches must be places where those called to vocational singleness can find the same depth of family that married people find, whether that be through intentional Christian communities or helping celibates move in with married people to be a part of their family. Then, these churches need to teach about the possibility of mixed-orientation marriages for gay people, cautioning against getting into these recklessly while highlighting the beauty and brokenness of real stories.
I pray that ACNA churches will look honestly at the destructive results of teaching poorly about sexual ethics (or not teaching about sexual ethics at all) and doing little to make God’s paths viable for gay Christians. I pray that ACNA churches will begin teaching what the Bible has to say about sexuality with charity and clarity. I pray that ACNA churches will do what it takes to help gay Christians thrive according to God’s wisdom. I pray that those who do not yet know Jesus will see the beautifully strange testimonies of gay Christians thriving in our churches according to God’s teachings and that those testimonies will draw those non-Christians closer to Jesus.
In a few words, I pray that we Anglicans make good on our decades-long commitment to offering gay people something better than gay marriage.
Pieter has already partnered with multiple ACNA churches to help them become places where gay people can thrive according to a traditional sexual ethic. Contact Pieter today at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about partnership with your church.