When Celibacy Conflicts With Faithfulness

Most young clergywomen are familiar with the predictable conversation that takes place when people encounter us for the first time in the wild. Scrunching up their face in puzzlement at my clergy collar, the woman cutting my hair, or the man ringing up my groceries will almost inevitably ask, “So can you get married?”

In earlier years my answer always came easily, “Of course I can get married! No, I’m not a nun.” In more recent times, however, I have found the answer does not come as readily. “Technically…” has become my cryptic reply.

Having come out as Queer clergy a few months ago, I have been wrestling with what that word “technically” means to me. It means that I can get married – technically – but not in a way that would be life-giving for me, since the only marriage that my denomination condones – technically – would be if I were to marry a man. In a few days in St. Louis, many people that know and love me will have the ability to vote on whether that technicality will change. What a strange circumstance, that there are people that I have lived with and worked with that will be able with the push of a button to decide something so important to me. Some of them plan to vote to set me free, and some of them plan to vote to end my career by requiring me to reject who I am to continue in it. Emotionally, and practically, it is a strange power for people I love to have over me, like holding the keys to a medieval chastity belt.

A heavy weight has sat on my chest every time I try to write about this. Since coming out, I have observed that some who know me would like to make this reality easier for themselves by choosing to think of me as “not like those other Queer people” or somehow better than my Queer family because I’m not in a relationship, and am therefore not “practicing.” It seems easier to tell themselves and others that I am the one choosing celibacy, than it is to talk to me about it and understand how I feel. 

While it is uncomfortable for me to talk about this as well, I do not want to be used as an easy out by anyone either. I need to speak my truth and my reality.

So, let us be accurate. I am celibate. This does not mean I have a call to celibacy. This does not mean I have the “gift of celibacy.” If someone tells you that, then it means they have not loved me enough to talk to me about it. This is simply my reality. I am celibate. Full stop. And I wish I wasn’t.

It bears noting that it has been a difficult year for women who grew up in the purity culture. Joshua Harris expressing his remorse over his book – that was treated as evangelical doctrine – does not lessen the trauma it caused. 

It has also been a difficult month for women with vows of celibacy. The Pope expressing his remorse that nuns have been being used as sex slaves by some priests and Bishops does not lessen the trauma caused by those who feel betrayed by their vows and their institution. 

It will be a difficult week for queer clergy ordained in the United Methodist Church. The expressions of sympathy from church leadership will not lesson the trauma that is about to be caused as the intimate aspects of our lives will be casual discussion for our global colleagues, as they are discussed right in front of us as though we are not in the room.

Here I sit. Occupying all three of these realities. This is no coincidence. 

How heavy the task of finding the words to say about my own life, when for others it is so easy to speak of us. It is so easy to assume things about Queer clergy. The word Queer somehow makes people think they have permission to assign all kinds of assumptions onto you that they would feel shame ridden to have cross their mind about their heterosexual colleagues. Somehow logic does not prevail, and they assign judgment to the object of their imagination rather than to their own imagination itself.  How comfortable sits the man with power and hubris, speaking with ease about things which he will never experience, know or understand. 

This vow of celibacy, shared by those nuns, their abusive priests, and I, was imposed upon us for the purpose of institutional preservation, then camouflaged successfully over the centuries and decades by a rationalization built upon a false equivalency between being called to the priesthood and being called to celibacy. 

Let us break this down. 

Somehow the church survived the first 1000 years of its history without this connection between celibacy and the priesthood. Yes, it certainly appeared here and there, and now and then, but never as a comprehensive and compulsory requirement. It was not until the First Lateran Council in 1123 A.D., in a selective and non-ecumenical gathering, that celibacy was decreed as a comprehensive commitment for priests, rather than the occasional and geographical ways it had sprouted up from time to time. The church, frustrated with fighting over inheritances with the children of priests, was eager to rid itself of the complications and costs that accompanied a priest who had wives and children. Thus, it was decreed in Canon 7:

We absolutely forbid priests, deacons or subdeacons to live with concubines and wives, and to cohabit with other women, except those whom the council of Nicaea permitted to dwell with them solely on account of necessity, namely a mother, sister, paternal or maternal aunt, or other such persons, about whom no suspicion could justly arise

The fact that protecting the finances of the church was the crisis of the moment was further emphasized in the next line, Canon 8 of the First Lateran Council, which stated that laypeople, regardless of “how religious they may be,” may not carry out church business because they may “arrogate to himself the disposition or donation.” In other words, the church feared laypeople getting their hands on those tithes and offerings, just as they feared the families of priests getting their hands on church resources in Canon 7. 

Therefore, we found ourselves a thousand years into the history of the church, compelling all people who were called to devote their lives to God, to also devote their lives to celibacy. We placed upon them the requirement to suppress something that was good, godly, and beautiful about themselves, in order to be permitted to answer their call to serve the church. 

This requirement of celibacy for the priesthood did not come from God, however, and was not rooted in scripture. It was a decision made by man. Requiring something so huge from people as the price for “letting them answer their call” did great damage to the relationship between God and those called to serve God. It created a false barrier in the communication between God and those God called. It required them to give up something that God had not called them to give up, but that the church needed them to give up for financial reasons.

This is abuse. Abuse of the trust that people place in the church. 

In time this became evident to some. The many traditions that arose as a result of the Reformation permitted their priests to marry. Vows and expectations shifted, and with time the priesthood in these other traditions even came to include women as well as men. 

The latest chapter of this came in 1983, when I was only three months old. At that time, my own tradition, the United Methodist Church was concerned for their institutional preservation, as the Roman Catholic Church had been at the First Lateran Council. 

As Bishop Jack Tuell would later give testimony:

“It’s February 1983, a little over 20 years ago.  I am meeting in an airport in Albuquerque with two other United Methodist bishops and an executive of the Division of Ordained  Ministry out of Nashville. We are doing preliminary work on legislation for the 1984 General Conference. Our subject matter was ordained ministry. We worked on many aspects of the subject. But a particular concern being raised was: “How do we screen out homosexual persons from becoming ordained ministers?”   

I proposed a seven-word addition to the list of things to which candidates for ministry must commit: “Fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.”…
Now why did we do that?  You would think that on as important a matter as that we might look to Wesley’s guidelines of discernment: that is, scripture, tradition, experience and reason.  But I’m here to tell you that we did not look at the scriptures; we never mentioned tradition; we did not refer to experience, and reason.  It was almost absent from our discussion. Instead of those four classic words guiding our conversation, we were unconsciously guided by two other words: institutional protection.”

In other words, men in my denomination made the choice, for the purposes of institutional protection, to avoid the whole “gay conversation” by taking advantage of the law of the land, and the fact that it was not legal for gay folks to get married. By inserting a phrase “celibacy in singleness” into the ordination vows, they could ensure that those who could not legally be married would have to remain lifelong celibates, in order for the church to avoid an authentic engagement with them and a loving conversation about their thoughts, experiences, identities, and realities. 

I was born and baptized into a church that did not include that in the vow. Yet, 28 years later, it would be a vow that I would take when I answered my call to ordination. At the time, I believed the vow to be a part of the history of the church, I did not know it had been inserted in my lifetime. At the time, I had not embraced my queerness, and I had no idea how that vow was strategically created to bind me. 

For the years that followed, there was something that I could not put my finger on that lay between God and I. It was not until recently that I would find out what it was: this vow that God did not require of me, that man forced upon me as the price that I had to pay for others to gain the ability to avoid the loving conversation.

God, on the other hand, has never avoided the loving conversations with me. I felt the same good-humored embrace of the Spirit when I accepted my Queerness as I had when I accepted my call, “Welcome, it took you long enough.”

We can debate the content of the vow, whether it is reasonable or not, but that is a straw man, a distraction. Why those words are there matters. As a person who strives to live with integrity, the “why” always matters to me. The intention behind putting those words in my mouth matters to me. Both in the case of the Lateran Council, and in the case of the General Conference of 1984, institutional preservation was what was at stake, and not spiritual integrity. That is a betrayal. 

There have always been people on all ends of the sexuality spectrum, both heterosexuals and members of the LGBTQ+ community, who have recognized that this vow was a result of church politics and not sound exegesis. There have always been Queer clergy who have followed God’s calling into the relationships that God intended for them.

I admire them, and I aspire to have their courage to follow God with boldness.

To make a person choose between two callings God has placed on their life – one to be ordained and the other to be in loving relationship – is spiritual abuse. It is meddling in an area where only the Spirit has a say. It is prioritization of the institution over the community of faith. 

I am Queer. I am celibate, but I will likely not always be. I have never feared anything so much as I fear being outside of the will of God. So, if God calls me into relationship, I will obey. That is the integrity and courage that I have seen from my colleagues like Mary and Susan, Kimberly and Sofia, Bailey and Kelli. That is the integrity and courage that I want to have. I don’t want to hide any longer behind my work, behind my collar, or behind my vows.

 

9 thoughts on “When Celibacy Conflicts With Faithfulness”

  1. Hannah, I agree with the above, wonderful comments from your colleagues. “Institutional preservation” continues to be a powerful undertone to the GC narrative. For me, the issue is spiritual integrity. When church polity is placed above God’s grace and love, that integrity is undermined. When God’s grace is present you will find love, and I hope the communion, into which I was a ordained, will welcome your spouse with the same love and affection we will welcome you. Grace and peace.

  2. Thank you. There is so much in the Church that fails to he consistent with the teachings in the New Testament… a close read and study of the stories would be useful for members of the Church. Taking time to “go to Gethsemane” and listen to the small still voice is a forgotten art in our busy worlds. Thank yoinfornshsring your journey.

  3. Thank you. There is so much in the Church that fails to be consistent with the teachings in the New Testament… a close read and study of the stories would be useful for members of the Church. Taking time to “go to Gethsemane” and listen to the small still voice is a forgotten art in our busy worlds. Thank you for sharing your journey.

  4. Hannah, while I have never had to struggle with your pain (I am a cis-gendered, straight married woman) I can only tell you that I will do everything in my power (including putting my orders on the line) to stand for your right to serve our Church and your right to love as God intended you to love. My prayers are with you.

  5. Wow, that was very informative. I’m for the UMC allowing full privileges to LGBTQ but I never heard the rationale as to why the church laws were established to begin with.

  6. Hannah, your words have such an impact on me. When I feel physical tightness in my chest, your words comfort and loosen that hold. Thank you for your vulnerability and transparency. Your work continues to show me light and helps me to break down barriers I’ve struggled to overcome. Thank you doesn’t cover what you’ve meant to me for the past few months, but it’s the best I’ve got. Thank you, Hannah, for your courage, your faith, and your love.

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