Gay Partnerships and Christian Discipleship

Everyone knows that the Anglican church is ‘split’ – as the media love to say – over the question of gay sex and partnership.  I don’t think we are split – we are just doing what Anglicans have always done, which is to disagree vigorously while trying to find a constructive way forward.  I like that, it’s healthy, and it’s one of the reasons I’m an Anglican.

But I have felt obscurely bothered by the arguments for some time.   Various aspects haven’t seemed to me to be quite truthful, but I have found it difficult to articulate my misgivings.  Also, on the question of human sexuality, I feel – also  obscurely – somewhat guilty.  I am a happily-married  straight person.  I do not feel that I have the right to deny to gay people the joy I have myself.

Even so, questions keep arising in my mind as I listen to the arguments – and the biggest one, for me, is ‘what about celibacy?’  Celibates have been an honoured part of the church’s history since the beginning.  Some are straight and celibate because they believe that God has called them to be so – monks and nuns, for instance.  Others are gay and celibate, for the same reason.

We can’t all be right.

So I am immensely grateful for this article, recently published by Fulcrum, under the title above.  It is written by someone who has gay inclinations, which makes him an authentic voice.  He articulates my misgivings, and writes movingly about celibacy.  He is the first person I have come across to do so, and to do it with lucidity, charity, honesty and great courage.  He will not be welcome on the floor where the liberal arguments go round and round in circles.

Although his article deals with the arguments of a previous article by a good friend of his, it is still clear.

I also copy and paste it here:

Gay Partnerships and Christian Discipleship

by Sean Doherty


I am privileged to have been asked by Fulcrum to respond toMatthew Grayshon’s article, as Matthew is my spiritual director and friend. What unites us in Christ is far greater than anything we might disagree about in this context, and I hope I offer this response in a spirit of friendship and mutual accountability.

Pastoral care and moral teaching

Most of my comments in this article are in a theological vein (in keeping with Matthew’s original article). But theology cannot be separated from pastoral practice and experience in this or any area. My own journey is as a Christian who experiences same-sex attraction but who has chosen to move away from a gay identity, and I have written about this here.

This means that I know from absolutely first-hand experience that the church’s prohibition of same-sex sexual activity is not based on prejudice but is based precisely on love. I have never experienced homophobic treatment in the church. Rather, the church accepted and nurtured me, and encouraged me in my vocation as a clergy person and theologian, just as it also gave me guidance and direction about how to order my life and relationships. In my experience, unconditional acceptance of me as a person and clear moral teaching about how I should live were two sides of the same coin.

This is not to deny the existence of homophobia in the church, and that remains something which we must confront and condemn. But the view that same-sex sexual activity is wrong is not in itself homophobic.

So, having said that what unites Matthew and I is greater than what divides us, it appears that our disagreement is still significant. Whilst he is right to acknowledge the distinction between primary and secondary issues, but the sexuality debate does touch on some very primary issues – as Matthew himself acknowledges when he boldly claims that ‘it is not possible to both (sic) affirm the incarnation and assert gay marriage.’

Sex and marriage

And that gets us to the heart of Matthew’s reflections. Matthew is caught on the horns of a dilemma. His commitment to the Christian tradition means he wants to uphold and acknowledge the special significance of marriage. He is unwilling to jettison that, and is therefore unable to extend the category of marriage to same-sex couples even if their relationship is one of covenant love. But Matthew wants the church to bless civil partnerships on the basis that they are founded on covenant love even though they are not equivalent to marriage. He wants to have his cake and eat it too!

This is a major problem for Matthew, because the same tradition for which he has such respect rules out sex without marriage for precisely the same reasonsthat Matthew himself rules out same-sex marriage. In the tradition, sex and marriage are indissolubly linked because the ‘journey towards unity in difference’ to which Matthew rightly refers, is embodied and enacted preciselyby the sexual union between husband and wife.

So, it is no accident that the tradition does not recognise gay marriage and that it does not have a category for sexual love except for marriage. They are both expressions of the same theological claim, namely that the purpose of sexual intimacy within God’s good creation is to unite that which is different in a lifelong covenantal relationship. That is what God created sex for.

Matthew remains committed to this claim, because it is on the basis of this claim that he rules out gay marriage. He says, ‘Many voices claiming the validity of gay marriage do undermine the incarnation because they assert only the committed relationship is relevant and that the physical side is irrelevant.’ In short, he agrees that the physical difference between men and women matters. His problem is that this claim also rules out extra-marital sex. Pre-marital sex and adultery, for example, can also take place in the context of commitment and love. But commitment and love are not sufficient to establish the legitimacy of a sexual relationship. For that, according to the tradition on which Matthew is basing his own argument, marriage is necessary. But because Matthew is (rightly) unwilling to extend the concept of marriage to same-sex relationships, he is unable to show why same-sex sex should be understood differently to other forms of extra-marital sex.

A positive account of same sex relationships

This does not at all suggest that there is nothing to celebrate or bless in same-sex relationships! Trust, affection, support through hard times, commitment, laughter, companionship, even an appropriate degree of physical expression and intimacy – these are all things to be celebrated and blessed.

But of course, none of these things are restricted to exclusive, lifelong unions. They exist within families and, most pertinently here, within friendships. It is important to remind ourselves that the prohibition on extra-marital sex is not a prohibition on love, companionship and intimacy between two people of the same sex. But it is a claim that such relationships are friendships and that a sexual dimension is therefore not appropriate to them.

Yet this is also very good news. It shows that the traditional prohibition on same-sex sexual activity does not at all rule out intimacy, companionship, depth – even opening up one’s life to others and sharing it wholly with them. This is the ideal embodied by monastic communities, in which members are committed to celibacy and to deep community.

God’s love in the world

This undermines Matthew’s claim (slur?!) that not recognising stable same-sex relationships is ‘not only cruel but a near-pharisaic denial of the overflowing of divine love into present reality.’ For starters, this accusation masks the assumption that sexual attraction is an absolute constituent of human identity. It also betrays an insufficiently positive view of celibacy as a Christian vocation. There are many Christians who are involuntarily celibate. Some are celibate because they are gay but many would simply like to be married and are not. It is also cruel to deny that their faithful celibacy is somehow a second-best state which fails to access ‘the overflowing of divine love into present reality.’ We must promote and uphold celibacy as a positive, authentic choice for single people instead of contributing to the damaging widespread assumption that everyone needs a partner if they are to be truly fulfilled, as I have argued here, in the article already cited.

But more importantly, there is no difficulty in recognising the love between two people of the same sex as an expression of God’s love. I experience and recognise God’s love in my marriage, but also in my relationship with my parents, my children, and in my friendships with both men and women. In fact, divine love crops up all over the place! That’s the kind of abundantly generous God we have.

But the presence of God’s love on its own does not constitute an authorisation for a sexual relationship. Indeed, with respect to many relationships, we recognise that faithfulness to divine love requires precisely that the relationship should not be sexual, and that importing sex into the relationship would be profoundly unnatural and destructive to the integrity of what that relationship was meant to be.

Concluding questions

I have two brief, final questions.

First, I am uncomfortable with Matthew’s notion of covenant love ‘trumping’ or ‘outweighing’ other theological considerations. I have tried to suggest a moreintegrated theological picture which takes account both of the integrity of same-sex love (as a form of non-sexual friendship) and the traditional Christian commitment to marriage. If Matthew’s case is to persuade, he needs to offer a more holistic picture in which Christian theological commitments are woven together rather than played off against one another!

Second, given that he is working from within a high view of Scripture and tradition, Matthew needs to consider the question of what authorisation the church might claim to introduce the wholly new category of non-marital sexual union. To be convincing, surely the grounds must be that it is consonant with Scripture and tradition. For the reasons that I have given, I think that this case is very far from being made.



Revd Dr Sean Doherty is Tutor in Ethics at St Mellitus College and St Paul’s Theological Centre in London, and Associate Minister at St Francis Community Church, Dalgarno Way, a church plant in an inner-city housing estate. He has recently completed a doctorate on economic ethics at Oxford and is a member of the Grove Ethics group. He is the author of Foundations for Medical Ethics. Sean is married to Gaby and they have three children. They both became Christians at Soul Survivor, and before ordination Sean worked for Barclays Bank and USPG.

11 thoughts on “Gay Partnerships and Christian Discipleship

  1. I do not share most of the basic premises of of the article, still much less, do I like the tone of the piece. That said, I do not feel qualified to respond to it within the terms it is written. A less obviously evangelistic go-getting discussion may have elicited more sympathy for a broader debate.

    There is much merit in Rachel Barr’s comments, coming as they appear to do, from mainstream life, and not from lofty spires that sound as if they are divorced from it.


    1. Thanks for your comments, Menhir. I don’t expect many readers to be in sympathy with Doherty’s views, which are for those within the Christian faith to wrestle with. I would however not describe them as ‘evangelistic’, a term used to connote words and activities designed to persuade people of the Christian faith. ‘Evangelical’ – yes, in that they make an honest attempt to be faithful to the ‘evangel’ or Gospel. This is primarily an in-house discussion, and he makes an interesting contribution, particularly coming from someone with his sexuality.

      There are many reasons why faith and non-faith opinions do not always overlap. What interests me is that people who do not claim to have a faith feel they are able to tell people of faith what to believe. I find this puzzling.


  2. As a straight woman, one who studied comparative religions, I am astounded that there are people (and unfortunately there are many of them), who think that they deserve to marry and have sex because of their gender, and yet gay people should not.
    First and foremost, all religions go, hopefully, through a process of change and adjustment. If not they stay rigid and hold on to an archaic concept of god. The old testament talks about animal sacrifice and yet we don’t do it anymore. It talks about stoning the adulterer and we don’t do it, unless you’re in some place in the middle east, so obviously, to really think that God was sitting up above and making decisions about gays and straight is a bit of a stretch for me. After all, if he/she didn’t want it, he could have not created them, as he is all powerful, right?

    Secondly, to talk about celibacy as an option is so unrealistic, as to be laughable. Many priests do not manage to remain celibate, so do we really expect most of the population to be celibate? The whole concept of celibacy is a sticky issue by itself to begin with, and has a horrible track record, if you read the research. Moreover, why should we expect gays to be celibate when they’re in love, and not straight people? Aren’t we all God’s children?

    There’s no doubt that homosexuality is not a choice, but people are born straight or gay. To deny them marriage, if they are naive enough to want it, is to engage in cruelty, superiority and misunderstanding of the divine.


    1. Hi Rachel, thanks for putting your point of view. I’m sure you speak for many. We Christians have to work it out as best we can! I am interested that although you describe yourself as an atheist, you feel that you do have an ‘understanding of the divine’.


      1. You are right! I do have an understanding of the divine, at the moments when I put myself in someone else’s shoes. I have a lot of friends and clients who are religious, who I have a lot of respect for. To honor them accurately, I have to think like them, and to feel like them, otherwise I would be judgemental. Hence, when I do think of God as the Source, I have to believe that if there is such entity, it would be a loving one, and it would not distinguish between his creations.


      2. I understand that there’s a recent ‘experiment’, in which atheists were asked if they would like to pray, for a week, and see if it made any difference to their perceptions. I wonder what you think of that?


      3. There was a period in my life when I prayed daily. There was a period in my life I believed in God. I view prayed almost similar to meditation. As long as you don’t pray for the killing of your enemies, it must be soothing to the brain. If the act of prayed by itself makes you a believer, then you were not an atheist to begin with, or you were subliminally brain washed, which is very easy to do with repeated actions and words.


      4. This is very interesting. I do believe that our brain is structured in a way that it’s prone to believing in something. Believing is known to reduce anxiety and brings on more calmness. It’s quite difficult to be sick and know that you’re going to die (like Christoper Hitchens), and believe that there’s nothing after death. I wish I could believe in something, but unfortunately I cannot. Not in a personal god, like Jews, Christians and Moslems and not in the Source, like a lot of my new age friends. I’m not surprised that an experiment such as the one above, would produce believers, as I truly believe that most of us want to believe.
        However, I dislike these kind of experiments, because most are offered by religious organizations, and I don’t like any religion shoved in one’s throat. Similarly, I would resent an atheist organization trying to convince me that I should be one.
        I’m of the belief that as long as I’m a kind person, I should be left to mind my own business.


      5. Fair comment, but the Radio experiment is entirely voluntary, and the atheist whose link I sent you doesn’t think it will produce any change. He’s also not sure which ‘god’ he should pray to! Lots of imponderables.


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