FSG: Faith, Sexuality and Gender

On the margins of orthodoxy

Orientation 4 November 2008

I used to think I must be missing some vital part of a normal psychological make-up that would enable me to connect with people at both a deeper emotional level and at the day-to-day level of trivial social interchange. And maybe I do lack this faculty and facility to this day. At a profound level, I remain something of a loner, often preferring to be alone with myself and with God than to enjoy easy companionship and superficial conversation with my fellow men and women.

That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy company, fellowship and lively conversation, and that I wouldn’t find living on my own quite hard at times, if in fact I did so. However, if I think of my future life, and I imagine my current relationship at an end, the images are of myself alone somewhere – maybe England, where I live; Paris, which I love; or Brazil, which I dream about – living a quiet, contemplative life – or at least, returning to solitude from whatever vicissitudes and busi-ness life were to throw me into. Maybe I was born to be a hermit or a contemplative monk in an era when the path to such a life is strewn with obstacles and does not run straight.

Where did it come from, this yen for solitude? And in that solitude, what do I find? I link it back to the experiences of my childhood, when I retreated into my room in a converted loft at the top of our large house – finding solitary solace from an unhappy household: divorced, depressed mum; jealous and occasionally violent elder brother; sister too young and too different to share my woes and reflections.

From that time on, I found greater meaning and comfort in my own thoughts and fancies and company; whereas the world of relationships and family togetherness that should have moulded me seemed harsh, unrewarding and distant. I grew up not gaining my happiness from shared family triumphs and from feeling cherished in a warm, nurturing environment; but from the private ordering of my universe, and my skill and passion for things I couldn’t so easily share with those around me – such as learning numerous foreign languages, for which I indeed had a God-given talent but which also manifested my alienation from a common language of emotion shared with family.

Later on, my experiences of mystery and of the divine also had this character of being intensely personal, and difficult to share and relate to the level of interpersonal relationships and social responsibilities. During my adolescence, I underwent a period of intense openness to the beauty and mystery of the physical world, both man-made and natural. The sheer being and shape of things seemed strange, wonderful and astonishingly beautiful; although at times the objectification of the external world, from which I seemed to abstract all acquired personal and conventional meanings in the attempt to see them as they are in themselves, was in danger of alienating me from any stable sense of self-identity.

Until I encountered God, these experiences stayed with me as shining examples of the highest form of contemplative joy it was possible to attain. But then Christ had to go and top it with his ineffable love and the joy of his presence. And now my solitude is never really isolation and my contemplation finds its true object beyond the objects of my senses. Now I seek solitude not just as a refuge from a world that often seems reluctant to yield up its meaning and its purpose but to seek the company of the One I love.

But is this still an unhealthy flight from a reality with which I should if anything engage with greater determination and sense of purpose now that I’m armed with faith and the mission to bear witness? Am I not still being sollipsistic and even delusional in the joy that my quiet, unspoken dialogues with the Lord bring me?

Who knows? And what purpose may such strengthening, meaningful concourse yet bring me for the fights to come? All I know is that He has helped me, in every sense, to find my orientation, just as he provides direction for my faltering steps.

And where he leads, there will I follow.


Gay Marriage and Adoption: the best possible for children in this less-than-best-possible of worlds 27 March 2008

My gay half-brother recently came out to our mutual father. I was very glad for him, as I think this was a healthy thing to do. Our father took it quite well apparently, claiming that he wasn’t disappointed and even stating his view that no one’s sexuality was ever totally clear-cut. Perhaps at some level, this opinion – which corresponds to Freud’s theories about inherent bisexuality – influenced my own.

On the other hand, my brother’s ‘confession’ to our father again saddened me, as I was reminded that I myself have not come out as bisexual to my family – not even to my brother. This is not (only) out of cowardice – moral or otherwise – but related to the fact that I’m in a long-term straight relationship. I know that my partner, who knows about my sexual ambiguities, would have a great deal of difficulty in coping with me deciding to announce to the world I was bisexual (which, of course, I’m doing here but in an anonymous form), and this might well end our relationship. I honestly don’t think that would be the right thing for us to do at the moment; nor do I think God wants me to do it.

I am concerned, however, that my half-brother’s affirmation of his sexuality appears to have hardened his attitude towards Christianity and the Church. It doesn’t help, perhaps, that he currently lives in Spain, where the positions are so polarised: the Catholic Church strongly backing traditional morals and family values, as well as (far-) right-wing politics, and the socialist party that was recently returned into power pushing through a secularising, liberal agenda. In the government’s last term in office, they legalised gay marriage (civil, not religious, marriage but called marriage nonetheless); and in their new four-year term, they plan to legalise adoption of children by gay couples. My brother would like eventually to get ‘married’ and to have children, potentially through adoption.

In the UK, where I live, gay ‘civil partnerships’ (effectively, gay civil marriage but just avoiding the use of the term ‘marriage’) were introduced about three years ago, I think. Gay adoption was legalised some while back, too; but at the end of 2006, there was a lot of controversy about an Equality Bill – eventually passed into law – that insisted that gay couples be given equal, non-discriminatory treatment by adoption agencies assessing their suitability to become parents. This provoked the Catholic Church into saying they’d have to close their numerous and highly valued adoption agencies, as they would otherwise be forced to take gay potential adopters onto their books, which would go against their religious principles. Subsequently, I believe that some Catholic agencies have indeed closed.

These are difficult, complex issues; and while on principle, as a Catholic Christian, I feel I should wholeheartedly agree with the Church’s condemnation of gay marriage and adoption, I have to balance such a stand – built on a would-be mature understanding of the profound basis of Christian teaching on sexuality and marriage – with acceptance of and compassion towards the feelings of the people involved, including my own. Do not condemn the wish of gay persons to marry and have children without considering whether I, too, under different circumstances, might not feel I wanted to get married to another man and maybe adopt children with him; do not judge the splinter in the other man’s eye without first removing the plank in my own.

It ultimately comes down to the injunction to put the needs of others ahead of one’s own. The need or wish of gay couples to have children – whether genetically theirs or adopted – can be seen as quite natural; indeed, this is the most commonsense, humane way to view it, despite the fact that the Church might label it as ‘unnatural’. It’s an (almost) universal human attribute to want to have children, or at the very least feel twinges of longing or regret about not having children, at some point in one’s life; being gay, straight or indeed bisexual changes nothing about that. But what one always has to bear in mind is that it’s the children that should come first – not chronologically or causally in this instance, of course, but in our thinking about what ultimately is in the mind of God for his children, as ‘our’ children have lived in his mind for all eternity. Does he want our children to be born of a father and a mother, and to grow up in the love of their father and mother? There can be no doubt, from the perspective of Christian faith, that the answer to this question is ‘yes’.

Put from a more human-centric point of view, this means that children need a father and a mother, rather than the indeed ‘unnatural’ combinations of father and father, or mother and mother. I am reminded of this every time I see my nephew and niece, whose parents have just split up. The little boy and girl are missing their daddy dreadfully, and they undoubtedly transfer onto me, and onto other male family figures and friends, some of the needs for a loving male parent and role model they would otherwise invest in their father. Better, in an ideal world, for children to have loving parents of both genders around them. But then, clearly, we don’t live in such a world, at least not yet; and the love of two new parents of the same sex can in some cases be the best alternative. In a world where so many straight people are so selfish with respect to their children’s needs, maybe it is a God-given blessing, including for children, that some gay people conform their lives to a greater extent to the loving pattern of Christ.

But gay families and gay marriage? We live indeed in a broken world. But before condemning gay people who seek, however imperfectly, to mould their lives around a template of love and commitment that owes much to the inspiration of Christian tradition and teaching, we Christians must consider the flawed patterns of our own lives from the perspective of faith. Let us not judge others for wanting to make life-long commitments to each other and to children if we are not prepared to do the same. And whereas, for a gay person, it might be morally a better thing to renounce adopting children by putting the children’s needs for a father and mother before their own need for children, it is better that those children know the love of a gay household than that they never experience a loving family home as a result of the selfishness or dysfunctionality of their biological parents.

(Originally posted on http://btcp.wordpress.com on 25 March 2008.)


40 Years On: Two Generations Paying For the Sins Of the Fathers

I have an adopted mixed-race sister, born in 1968. It’s only just occurred to me that this makes her not just a ‘love child’ but a child of the 60s’ ‘love revolution’. Apparently, her genetic parents were lively, interesting young people in swinging London; no doubt swept along to some extent by the wave of idealism and ‘free love’ of those heady times. Not a parentage to be ashamed of, in many ways.

But in other ways, my sister’s history, and indeed that of my whole family, speaks of the destructive long-term impact of the break down of traditional sexual morality and family life that set in on a mass scale as a result of the sixties sexual revolution. Two years on from 1968, and my parents were separating as a result of my father’s affair with another creative young person immersed in London life: an out-of-work actress temping at my father’s office. This separation, and the divorce that followed it, was an enormously traumatic event for my mother, my siblings (adopted sister plus genetically related brother) and me. We carried the scars of it for many, many years afterwards. Our subsequent relationships have all been rather fragile and have involved unhappy break ups like that between my father and mother; and my own sexual and emotional development was profoundly stunted and distorted by it. It took me decades – literally – longer than it should have done for me to disentangle my confusion and guilt about my sexual orientation and gender identity; and maybe the mixed nature of these, which I now accept (bisexual and androgynous respectively), was intensified more than it would have been if I’d grown up in a happy home with a father I could look up to.

My personal history is of course replicated throughout our society, where now almost as many marriages end up in divorce as don’t, and there are many lonely, unhappy children out there, bearing the brunt of unstable parental relationships and neglect. It’s not an entirely negative picture, however. Different kinds of family unit have developed, including happy second marriages with children from both previous relationships; and many children with only one significant parent in their lives are of course hugely loved and valued.

But an enduring cultural legacy of 1968 and all that is a continuing selfish individualism and irresponsibility that many people bring to their sexual relationships: thinking only about their own gratification and about ‘what’s in it for me’, rather than the long-term consequences of unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, and broken hearts and homes. So many people, it seems, are no longer prepared or able to accept difficulty, renunciation and sacrifice as an integral and enriching part of loving relationships, where it is often necessary to place the needs of others and the long-term good ahead of the promptings and desires of the ego and of now. And in many cases, that is because those people lack a knowledge of the greatest good, and the greatest love (that of God himself), in whom all sacrifice is consummated and all suffering – so transitory in the perspective of eternity – is made good.

Those of us – and there are many – who’ve been unlucky in our human loves (as have our children after us, in many instances) but blessed to encounter something of the ineffable love of Christ must therefore offer our struggles and heartaches for those who put their own wishes, dreams and pleasures first, and yet do not know true love and peace: not that of 1968 but of eternity.

(Originally posted on http://btcp.wordpress.com on 18 March 2008.)