How Achievable is Celibacy?

One of the criticisms levelled at a conservative reading of Scripture on human sexuality is that it demands of those with same-sex attraction too much when it implies that those who don’t marry someone of the opposite sex should remain celibate. We are told that such a demand is unconscionable, that it is unacheievable.

In response I want to offer you some examples of gay men who have accepted a life-choice of celibacy and whose ministry has thrived in spite of it.

The first man is Henri Nouwen. A much loved and admired Roman Catholic priest whose “The Wounded Healer” and “The Return of the Prodigal Son” are recognised as spiritual master-pieces. He struggled with same-sex attraction and was outed shortly before his death and his book “The Inner Voice of Love” is widely regarded as speaking, amongst other things, about his struggle to remain faithful to his vows.

Here’s what one site has to say,

As transparent as Nouwen was with his audiences, few people knew of his on-going efforts to cope with and resolve same-sex attraction or homosexuality. Only a very few people knew of this struggle, yet this was an issue for Nouwen throughout his life and is an unseen backdrop to most of his writings. While Nouwen was apparently non-judgmental about Christians who lived their lives in a gay relationship, his own personal, biblical and moral convictions led him to adhere to his vow of chastity and choose to live as a celibate man.

Yet, as is true for most same-sex attraction (SSA) people, Nouwen had a deep and ever-present and pressing need to be loved and to love someone of the same gender, which had been unfulfilled and left him feeling incomplete from his childhood. Nouwen knew that being truly loved and being able to truly love another is the core issue of all our lives for we were created in the image of God Whose Name and Nature is Love. Between the lines of all Nouwen’s writings is this unfulfilled need to love and be loved, a love he apparently experienced then lost towards the end of his life.

Though Nouwen never spoke publicly of his SSA issues, or specifically identified his SSA issues, he has much to share about the emotional and psychological conditions underlying SSA. It is this perspective that will be examined in his writings, especially in the writing he called his “secret journal”, published as The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey through Anguish to Freedom, Doubleday New York, 1996. It can be read online at The Inner Voice of Love. Nouwen had wonderful insight into the inner life of the SSA Christian because he could search out and effectively articulate his own woundedness. This is the reason I have used his writings and life as the focus of this website. I believe “The Inner Voice” offers a substantial program of potential healing for SSA Christians.

About this book the HenriNouwen,org website says, “Certainly one of the most compelling of Nouwen’ s books. It’s power lies in its strictly personal nature, a private journal not intended for publication. For eight years it sat in a drawer in Nouwen’s room, shared only with closest friends. Over the years friends urged that it be released for publication. Nouwen resisted throughout, insisting that it was too personal. Fortunately, only months before his death, he yielded to importunings and after the necessary editing released the journal to his publisher. The record of a fierce inner struggle following what he called “an interrupted friendship,” a friendship that he had come to depend on, only to find himself seemingly abandoned and rejected. He left his community, went into counseling therapy, and during this period, after each counseling session wrote a “spiritual imperative” — “a command to myself that had emerged from our sessions. These imperatives were directed to my own heart. They were not meant for anyone but myself.” Which is precisely what makes them so powerful.”.

The second example I want to give you may surprise you, but his ability to remain celibate for a decade provides a major challenge to those who say such a demand is unreasonable and spiritually damaging. Jeffrey John has been, since at least the time he was nominated as Suffragan Bishop of Reading, celibate. It doesn’t seem to have done him any harm. He is still fondly regarded by his congregation in St Albans and there is no evidence that his preaching has diminished in the past ten years or that he is less of a pastor then he was when he was sexually active. Is the celibate Jeffrey John anything other than the great priest many claim him to be? Indeed, has celibacy actually been integral to his ministry of the past decade?

Before I got married I was celibate. Although I struggled as everyone else does with loneliness and also longed at times for sexual union with another, there was also a sense that once I had made the conscious decision to live celibacy (rather than fight it) it became less a struggle and more a long-distance run. I purposefully chose not to look for a wife until God would bring someone into my life is that was his will. Reading Scripture I was clear that God didn’t promise me sexual fulfilment as a reward for following him. Neither was celibacy a “gift”ever promised, but it was a demand of holiness for those unmarried. Indeed, it seemed to me to make a mockery of sacrifice and struggle if God only ever demanded of people (like celibacy) things which he gave them no problems in accepting. So I chose to be celibate, to die to my flesh and to accept God’s will. Once I accepted it it became much easier to live, and when I suddenly met the wonderful woman who God wanted me to marry I was ready because I was in God’s place, in a position where I was no longer looking for marriage (and sex) to provide me with anything.

If three ordinary men can manage to live celibacy and be fruitful despite of it, why not others? Why do we think it an impossible demand when all kinds of Christians cope, and thrive, by making such a decision?

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  • http://thesheepfold.typepad.com/ The Sheepcat

    Thanks, Peter. I’m not so sure I would cite Jeffrey John as an example of celibacy, in that while he is reportedly living chastely, apparently without consequent damage to his spiritual health (which I do recognize as your main point), he is still in some sense partnered.

    For my own part, when I was discerning whether I had to give up gay sex, I was convinced from the outset that God would not ask the impossible of me, and that if this was indeed his will, he would give me the strength to do so. Before eventually feeling a call to marriage, I lived a celibate life for close to a decade and would have been prepared to continue it indefinitely.

    Yes, celibacy has its difficulties, of course, but it was still much more satisfying than were any of my gay relationships. Who would ever regret having tried to live up to an ideal of total self-giving love?

  • http://twitter.com/richardengland Richard England

    Thanks, Peter. Good post. Perhaps we spiritualise our culture’s insistence that people should be able to pursue self-fulfilment in every area. But the way of Jesus seems to involve a fair bit of self-denial in many areas. I sometimes reflect on Paul’s words in 1 Cor 7.6 that ‘Each of you has your own gift from God’. Seeing differing life circumstances as a gift to us can be painful but it acknowledges that there are opportunities and possibilities inherent in every kind of life situation – married, single, childless and so on – beyond only the question of self0fulfilment.

  • Ryan Dunne

    Interesting post Peter. What do you think of the notion however that celibacy involves far, far more than just “not having sex”? I think many gay people would look at unmarried evangelical Christians flirting, dating, kissing etc and say that, even if such people are of course not actually having sex, they are still hardly ‘celibate’ in the proper sense? Of course people can do without sex – lost of unregenerate straight men go through ”dry spells”. Having to realise that one will never be in a partership is surely a different order of sacrifice.

    • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

      Have you ever read Josh Harris’ “Boy Meets Girl”? Some great advice for “courting” couples.

      My wife and I tried to desexualise our “courtship” as much as possible. Like Josh and his wife we chose not to kiss until we got married. That moment after we were pronounced man and wife was *very* special and the few of our friends in the congregation who knew what it symbolised whooped the loudest!

      And for the record, desexualising our courting didn’t harm our sex life one bit.

  • Steven Bradshaw

    We only have the word of people who call themselves celibate that they’ve never had sex. As far as I’m aware there’s no way of independently verifying that.

    It would be interesting to see the statistics on those who self-identify as celibate and follow them through their lives to see how many of them get caught with their trousers down in dubious circumstances. I’d wager it’ll be enough of them to cast doubt on the entire concept of celibacy. We’d also need some reliable way of tracking their thoughts and fantasies as well, because if according to Christ even just imagining being with another man’s wife is adultery, then what do you call ogling the tight buns of cute guy walking down the street in front of you?

    As for your claims of celibacy Peter, you’ll have to forgive my skepticism but as your stock in trade is that we can stop being gay and start marrying and impregnating women, you’re hardly an impartial witness. How many ex-gays have I heard giving emotional testimonies about how this or this ministry turned them straight, only to hear them recant a couple of years later? I know you identify as post-gay rather than ex-gay but the fact that your “marriage” hasn’t turned to custard yet doesn’t mean it isn’t going to at some point in the future. So let’s see how the land lies in 10 years or so, shall we? Until then, I’ll have to take your claims with a grain of salt and a shrug of my shoulders.

    • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

      If in doubt, sneer at someone’s family.

      • Steven Bradshaw

        OK, so the inverted commas around the word “marriage” in my previous post were inappropriate. Much as I may disagree with your philosophy, I can’t dispute your right to marry whomever you choose. I also can’t argue that it isn’t a legally binding civil contract, which is all I consider marriage to be. I’ll leave opinions on the sacramental side of things to those who care about such things, which I most assuredly do not. Unless the people who express such opinions try to foist them on me by preventing me from marrying whomever I like. That’s the point at which it turns from a yawn-fest into a fight for personal freedom.

        The rest of my earlier comments I stand by, however. Ex-gay, post-gay, however you want to qualify your gayness (or former gayness, if you insist), the track record of others who have gone down a similar path undermines your long term credibility.

        In other words, time will tell.

        • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

          You cannot write stuff like this and then accuse me of being aggressive. I think I’m being extraordinarily patient with you given the last few comments.

          • Steven Bradshaw

            So what’s your problem? All I’ve done is point out that other people who’ve claimed to change from gay to something other than gay routinely end up admitting they were just fooling themselves.

            Who knows, maybe you’re the exception. As I said, time will tell.

            In the meantime, as you’ve freely admitted that you respond to aggression with more aggression, can you really object to the mounting tone of our exchanges when you’re responsible for at least one half of it?

            As we say here in France, c’est l’hôpital qui se fout de la charité …

            • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

              Are you done yet, or do you want to carry on venting while I’m an easy target? Go on, feel free if it makes you feel better. No-one’s stopping you. The only rules are that you don’t swear and you don’t use perjoratives.
              Go ahead, say something else. I’m just all on tenter-hooks.

              • Steven Bradshaw

                Why do you consider yourself an easy target? Is there something you’re not telling us about your pre-marital celibacy?

                Well, whatever it is, as I said above, my own attitude to celibacy is that it exists largely in the minds of those who want to believe in it. “I’m celibate!” they cry. Then they go and have sex, or look at Internet porn, or ogle a cute parishioner and five minutes and a couple of mea culpas later, they’re back to crying “I’m celibate!”

                I’m celibate too, right at this moment. I won’t be this evening around 10 p.m. when my partner gets home from a trip abroad. Tomorrow morning I’ll be celibate again, but it will wear off once the sun goes down. And I’d be willing to wager any money that the three examples you cited above suffered from the same kind of intermittent celibacy we all suffer from. Because remember, even imagined adultery is still adultery. So unless thoughts of sex never entered your head from the moment you were “born again” until you married and bedded your wife, I maintain that you were NOT celibate. To say nothing of what ever else might have happened that you might not be willing to discuss for fear of undermining your own argument.

                In my experience, those who aren’t having sex generally aren’t having it because there’s none to be had. Which is generally, but not always, their own fault. In the immortal words of one of your country’s most astute social commentators (the character “Bubble” from the TV series “Absolutely Fabulous”) “I’m celibate! That’s what everyone says when they can’t have it off, isn’t it? I’m fat and ugly with no chance of a poke, more like…”

                Even then, they’re not really celibate. At least, not in their minds and hearts. So yes, celibacy is not only hard to achieve, I would say it’s well-nigh impossible. Unless you’re born asexual, of course.

                • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

                  Good job I’m forgiven then isn’t it?

                  How about you Steven?

                  • Steven Bradshaw

                    What, your behavior needs forgiving, Peter? So you weren’t being completely straight (sic) with us when you cited yourself as a shining example of celibacy, then? Well golly gee, who’d a thunk…

                    Anywho, as far as I’m concerned, being far less holy(er than thou) than you, yes, I’m afraid there is stuff that needs forgiving. But it doesn’t amount to more than an infinitesimal proportion of my overall sexual activity, and that in far distant past.

                    As regards the rest, I don’t need to ask for forgiveness for things I know not to be sinful – regardless of what the ancient Hebrews wrote down thousands of years ago. That was then and this is now. Eating pork was a sin then. It isn’t now. Divorce was a sin then. According to you, it isn’t now. So although disobeying God’s injunction against same-sex activity may have been considered a sin then, it surely isn’t now. Because there’s no male or female in Christ, right?

                    Or so I’m told…

                    • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

                      Mock away Steven.

                • Ryan Dunne

                  Steven
                  Do you agree that someone can be emotionally celibate i.e. have no interest in a partnership or romantic attachment? This would accord with much gay thinking,c.f. those who object to swapping the Edmund White-esque joys of extreme promiscuity for aping heterosexual monogomy.. Why then is ‘real’ celibacy at least not theoretically possible? As for porn, I imagine that many a feminist would say that it doesn’t just appeal to those who want to have sex but can’t, but leads may a man to prefer to double-anal-MILF-at-a-click world of fantasy for the challenges and compromises of genuine heterosexual relationships.

                  • Steven Bradshaw

                    But the Edmund White-esque guys you’re talking about aren’t emotionally celibate. They just don’t have emotional intimacy with the guys they sleep with.

                    Ever see “The Hours”? Ed Harris’s character was a good portrayal of how some gay men can separate emotional and physical intimacy. You couldn’t have called him “emotionally celibate”. In fact he was totally emotionally dependent on Meryl Streep’s character. He just didn’t want to sleep with her or any other woman, that’s all.

                    Another fictional portrayal of an intimate yet sexless relationship, this time between two men, can be found in “Queer As Folk”. It’s a common enough phenomenon in the gay scene. It might not be ideal (and certainly wouldn’t suit me) but you can’t just look at the sexual side of the split and say these guys are “emotionally celibate”. They’re not, you just have to dig a little deeper, that’s all.

                    I don’t think you can be “emotionally celibate” without being pathological. Humans are relational beings. If you’re not intimate with the people you’re having sex with, you’ll be intimate with someone else. Look at David and Jonathan. Even the most arch-conservative has to admit they were emotionally reliant on one another and yet (apparently) they never slept together. They had wives and concubines for that.

                    Personally I prefer to find emotional and sexual fulfillment with the same guy, but dissociating the two is as old as civilization. If it worked for Biblical patriarchs, why not for modern gay men?

                    • Ryan Dunne

                      I should say that Edmund White was one of the first names that came to mind (the other was the great Gore Vidal – RIP – but plainly it’s problematic to refer simplistically to either the man or his ideology as gay) for ”extreme” male promiscuity. On reflection, White is actually something of a romantic – his The Farewell Symphony is a brilliant love story.

                      ‘Emotionally celibate’ was, similarly, probably the wrong term for me to use. To use your own example, if human beings are inherently relational, but they can achieve emotional intimacy with friends (“someone else”?), then what’s to stop them being permanently, deliberately single and celibate but still non-pathological? Tangentially, I know that the Roman Catholic line on celibacy is anti-masturbation – and some might say that its’ indeed ‘impossible’ for a human male to never ejaculate – but I gather that may evangelicals (including Dobson?) are not as harsh.

                    • Steven Bradshaw

                      I would maintain that unless it comes from within and is accompanied by a tame libido, then all attempts to force celibacy on the self are doomed to failure.

                      Roman Catholic ideas of celibacy were likely dreamed up by asexual ascetics who probably could remain celibate with little or no effort. But expecting a red-blooded male with a requisite measure of testosterone pumping around his body to follow them is utter idiocy.

                      So yes, apart from asexuals whose nature leads them to shun sex, I see a voluntary lack of sexual expression as pathological. I also see it as exceedingly rare. There are far, far fewer celibates in the world than there are people who claim to be celibate. As there’s no reliable way of verifying the claims of those who publicize their celibacy, those claims have to be taken with a grain of salt. So Isaac Newton, Cliff Richard, Morrissey, Ann Widdecombe and (once upon a time) Peter Ould, your stories are noted and although no-one can categorically prove them to be false, we’re under no obligation to believe them. As a statistician Peter should know that statistics based on self-reporting are notorious unreliable…

                    • Joe_R6

                      It’s much easier to sing “All you need is love” if you live in a wealthy, peaceful country. The burden of the commandment “love your neighbor as yourself” is much greater in places like Iraq and Nigeria but Christians in those countries aren’t saying “unless it comes from within and is accompanied by a placid nature all attempts to force love on the self are doomed to failure”

                • Joe_R6

                  If that’s true, what hope is there for fat and ugly gay men? Aren’t you terrified of growing old in such a gracious gay culture?

                  • Steven Bradshaw

                    There is hope. It’s called the gym.

                    When you look past people’s wanton neglect of their own bodies and firmly analyze their physical potential, you realize there are actually very, very few ugly people in the world. People make themselves ugly through neglect. A fit body is an attractive body no matter what your age. An unfit body is not.

                    If I let myself go, ate what I liked, piled on the weight, stopped washing, started dressing in dingy and shapeless clothes, and then blamed everyone but myself for the fact that I couldn’t attract anyone, I wonder how “gracious” I’d be then.

                    Your appearance is first and foremost your own responsibility. Of course not everyone is Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie, but even the homeliest face is attractive when it’s sitting on top of a honed body. What terrifies me isn’t the perfectly normal wish of gay men (just like their heterosexual counterparts) for attractive partners. It’s the attitude of those who sit on their backsides in front of the TV guzzling burgers and swigging beer all day, and then complain that nobody loves them.

                    Whatever happened to personal responsibility as a concept?

                  • Ruthmeb

                    What hope is there for fat and ugly straight people? It has nothing to do with being gay and everything to do with people being shallow.

                    • Tom Jones

                      Wise words.

            • Sean_Fear

              I really don’t know why Peter Ould tolerates you.

              • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

                So far he hasn’t actually broken the rules. Saying that is, of course, tempting fate.

  • Joe_R6

    You need to put it in context. How achievable is love, joy, peace, kindness, faithfulness etc etc?

    • Steven Bradshaw

      Interesting that the qualities you mention are oriented towards others whereas celibacy is an entirely selfish pursuit.

      Selfish in the sense that it’s all about the individual and his needs and wants.

      John Donne said “no man is an island” but he’d obviously never met a Roman Catholic priest. One of the few who actually ARE celibate, I mean.

      • Joe_R6

        But self control (which I assume can apply to chastity?) is in the Galatians 5 list of the fruit of the Spirit. And sexual immorality is one of acts of the flesh.

        Sexual immorality is one of the acts that can be (temporarily) hidden – whether it’s porn or prostitutes – unlike stuff like hatred, discord, selfish ambition, factions and envy which are more on the surface. That’s probably why it’s never a surprise to discover genuinely homophobic ‘angry Calvinists’ (who exhibit none of the difficult-to-fake fruit like love, gentleness, kindness) hiding great big sexual sins in their closets.

        The acts of the flesh and fruit of the Spirit are by products of a life lived out of or in Christ. If the first list isn’t diminishing and the second growing, it’s a fair bet the person proclaiming Christ is a clanging cmybal.

  • http://twitter.com/KarinRosner Karin Rosner

    Of course, this applies to women, too and it’s equally applied across the sexual attraction spectrum. I’m still wondering about the word “celibate”, always thinking about it in terms of a state of life, a vocation, a gift. A new-ish acquaintance (with a “Rev.” behind his name) asked me out of the blue during a frank discussion if I felt called to “celibacy” knowing that I was 40-something, single and involved in ministry. Yikes. I frankly and emphatically replied “no, uh-uh. Nope. No.” . I don’t feel called (and I’ve prayed about this much) to a “celibate state of life.” I _want_ that whole Christian marriage lifestyle: husband for life, family.

    Waiting chastely is a struggle within itself, living and conducting relationships and praying for purity of not just the body, but of the mind and heart in friendships as well as praying for God’s will to reveal itself. What God’s will may be for anyone’s state of life vs what you as an individual may want for _yourself_ is where I know that I get lost, confused and frustrated. God may have a completely different agenda for me, which admittedly may mean keeping me (and others) all to himself for his purposes. Is that the “celibate” state of life? Is it a permanent condition, or can it be a temporary contract we enter into with our Lord? I’m still trying to figure this one out.

  • Charlie Angel

    Citing Jeffrey John as an example reminds me of a conversation I had with a bemused colleague years back when the whole story first erupted.

    I was trying to patiently explain to her why people were making such a fuss about it all and said that in his defence, he had revealed that he had been celibate with his partner for years.
    She paused for a moment with an extremely perplexed look on her face.

    “But *that’s* marriage,” she said. “After being with my husband for 5 years, it’s easy to be celibate with him! It’s the other men that provide the temptation…”

    So the point is that Jeffrey John not having sex with his partner of many years after having had an active sex life with him – and as it were, got it out of their systems! – is not necessarily that impressive a spiritual achievement. As my colleague Jessica would no doubt agree :)

    “It’s the other men that provide the temptation….”

    • Ruthmeb

      That may be true of *that lady’s* marriage (in which case, I’m sorry for her), but speaking personally, after 27 years of marriage, I’d still jump my husband in an instant (and do). The idea of sex as something to be “got out of your system” seems to me fundamentally repressive and frankly, immature.

  • Guglielmo Marinaro

    I am sure that numerous cases can be cited of gay people who have been happy and have functioned well leading celibate lives. That is no more reason for making permanent celibacy the default position for gay people than it is for making it the default position for straight people, many of who have also led successful lives as celibates.

    Unconscionable and unachievable are, of course, two very different things. Perpetual celibacy as an option is perfectly legitimate and valid, provided that is chosen freely and not as the result of any kind of pressure, and I have no doubt that it is achievable for many or even most people, although some would find it far more difficult than others. Perpetual celibacy as a demand is quite unconscionable.

    What I have read about Fr Henri Nouwen seems to me like a jolly good warning AGAINST committing oneself to perpetual celibacy. Certainly no-one has any obligation whatever to make a commitment to such a burdensome lifestyle just because they are gay, nor has anyone the right to try to impose on anyone else.

    • Steven Bradshaw

      While I disagree with the notion that most if not all of us can achieve celibacy, I do agree with your comment about Nouwen being a warning against the state rather than an advertisement for it.

      It’s a well known fact that Nouwen was a clingy, demanding friend who pushed the boundaries of friendship far beyond what they could sustain. His best friend (arguably the man he loved) pulled back from him as a result.

      I know of a celibate Christian lesbian who acts in a very similar manner with her friends. She turns up at their homes periodically demanding to be included in their familial intimacy as though it’s her right. A recompense for her sacrifice, if you will. I’ve witnessed her invade the intimacy of a close friend’s family and try to monopolize her attention away from her husband and children. It seems that Nouwen could behave in a very similar manner.

      I also know of a formerly celibate Christian gay man who in his desperation to make the concept work for him dreamed up a weird and wonderful scheme for an “intentional community” where straight couples would integrate a celibate gay into their families and they’d all live together under the same roof. The idea was that the celibate would get to taste family life without having to have a family and also provide additional financial and emotional support in the child-rearing process. In reality they either treated the home they were living in like a boarding house, or the family treated them like a modern version of a Victorian governess, or they became an unbearable emotional burden and intrusion on the married couple, a veritable third wheel dragging them down and leading to all sorts of conflict and tension. The tripod is the most unstable political entity, after all. You’ll always have two ganging up on one.

      Celibacy, if it’s achievable, must needs be a solitary experience. You can’t insert yourself into other people’s intimacy and two celibates trying to support each other will be seen as a couple and probably end up as one.

      But there you go. Lonely furrows need to be ploughed alone. If that’s your choice, then that’s your responsibility.

      • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

        The bottom line is that singleness only works if you embrace it and don’t run from it. That was what I discovered for a decade at least.

        • Ryan Dunne

          But if your singleness is coupled with not ruling out the notion that God could give you a wife one day, then that’s still not quite the same order of sacrifice as what you expect of gay people is it? Would you challenge the views of someone who self identified as evangelical and gay and who assumed that they must be celibate and will never be heterosexual and married or, given that there are more ex ex-gays than there are ex-gays, would that not be a cruel form of false hope?

          • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

            And God never gives gay men wives?

            I think the call is to die to our flesh and to honour God with what we *won’t* do sexually. If he then decides to bring us into marriage, so be it, but ultimately the goal of singleness is not marriage but holiness.

            • Ryan Dunne

              yes, and I gather they discuss shoes together ;-)

              My comment was made in the context of your comment about how singleness works, which I took to be practical advice on what it says (i.e. singleness per se). Frankly I find singleness a doddle (which is just as well, eh? ;-)). As the great Larry David says: “every time I see a woman who’s happy, she’s married, every time I see a man who’s happy, he’s single”

              Is it not still the individual’s responsibility to detect WHEN God is bringing him into marriage i.e. his desires are orientated in a way that can be pursued legitimately? Or can a previously gay person ‘turn’ straight in response to a particular person of the opposite sex which is in itself a sign that God put them their?

              • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

                All kinds of things happened. Some people stay single for life and their sexual attractions don’t change. Some people find themselves sexually attracted to a single person. Some people find over time that their general sexual awareness of the opposite sex increases over time. Who are we to judge or demand what God should or shouldn’t do. Ultimately it’s *not* about trying to get married. Singleness should be embraced for its own sake.

                And yes, we men (in particular) need to be aware of what God might be saying. Have you read “Boy meets Girl” yet? It was really helpful for me.

        • Steven Bradshaw

          So if that’s what God has planned for you, you have to like it, eh?

          You VILL be celibate and you VILL like it!

          Jawohl, mein Gott! Dein Wünsch ist mir Befehl !

          God as Reichsfûhrer. You Anglo-Saxons really did fall from a Teutonic tree, didn’t you?

          • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

            I’m getting tired of this now Steven. Every time I try to answer you seriously you just mock and abuse. Do it again and you’re history.

            • Steven Bradshaw

              Serious? OK, so I have a serious question for you then.

              If singleness only works if you embrace it and don’t run from it, what happens when you do run from it?

              Just because you think God wants you to do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re capable of it. When, like Nouwen, every fiber of your being is geared towards being relational, how do you obey a command from God to shun the very thing that defines who you are?

              Nouwen did it by putting himself and everyone around him through an emotional wringer. He suffered from long bouts of clinical depression and invaded the privacy and intimacy of many of his friends in deeply inappropriate ways. It’s easy to say he should have just embraced his singleness, but he obviously couldn’t. So why did God demand it of him?

              In effect, if God really did require Nouwen to be celibate, given the man’s personality, he was essentially being condemning to a life of mental illness (depression) and suffering. Is this the abundant life we’re supposed to find in Christ?

              Seems to me that your earlier question to me about what I think would happen if I abandoned myself to what you say Christ wants of me is amply answered by Nouwen. He’s an object lesson in the pitfalls of conservative religion. Did his published works justify his suffering, or was that suffering really just a spectacle for a conservative audience to cluck over and moralize about how even the most disgusting of sinners can be redeemed, as long as they suffer enough.

      • Guglielmo Marinaro

        Well, Steven, I can assure you that it isn’t my choice, nor is it a choice that I would recommend to anyone else. As far as I am concerned, the only good reason for committing oneself to perpetual celibacy is that it is what one genuinely prefers, and I suspect that that applies to rather few people. But they must be free to make their own decisions in such matters. What I am absolutely against is trying to pressure people into celibacy by saying that it’s what God demands etc. My reply to those who go round telling gay people that they are obligated to embrace a celibate lifestyle is that they should go away, or words to that effect, and organize their own lives instead of trying to play games with other people’s.

        • Steven Bradshaw

          Enfin, a comment on this blog that I can wholeheartedly agree with.

  • Philip Cole

    Good post, Peter, and thanks for your honesty about both your decisions and your struggles. Celibacy is not easy and to be honest I failed at it as a Christian before marriage, as do many. But you are right that God first and foremost calls us to intimacy with him and that sexual desire, while powerful, must always be ordered within His boundaries. God blesses those that willingly embrace this call and brings his own special grace and joy from handing over our sexuality and our sexual behaviour to him to sift the good from the bad and the best from the good. This is a message that our sexualised post-modern culture, which believes that sex is either expressed or repressed, desparately needs to hear, whatever our sexual orientation. It seems to me that tis is one of the positive messages that TFO brings. Well done!

  • Thomas Marbson

    I am not sure about the Anglican terminology (I’m RC), but wouldn’t the whole discussion better served by separating celibacy (used in a narrow sense as a promise to not marry), abstinence and chastity.
    Following this, only a few people (i.e. Roman-catholic priests and other consecrated persons, anyone else ?) are called to be celibate, anyone unmarried is called to abstinence, and everyone is called to chastity. This implies if you violate abstinence you don’t violate celibacy… This would also shift the attention to the point that marriage is not a licence to do anything you want but still requires to live your sexuallity responsibly.
    I haven’t read the whole brouhaha with Steves but isn’t the big difference whether a lapse, a sin invalidates everything that happened before it? We all fail, the difference is how we react to inevitable failure. If we take that as proof that something isn’t possible and therefore shouldn’t even be attempted (this seems to be Steven’s position, but I may misunderstand him), then yes abstincence/chastity may not be feasible and celibacy is a pipe dream. But if we acknowledge the failure, repent for it and still strive to improve our lives and do better the next time, than these ideas (including celibacy) become worthy goals to strive for (even if we never fully attain them)

    • Guglielmo Marinaro

      But is permanent sexual abstinence, in itself and for its own sake, a worthy goal to strive for, either for gay or for straight people? I see no reason whatever to think so.

      • Thomas Marbson

        Abstinence isn’t the goal, it’s merely a byproduct. We should strive for holiness, chastity is a the way to get there and abstinence is merely a consequence. As a goal in itself it’s pointless, it needs to point you towards something higher.

    • Steven Bradshaw

      Abstinence is an absolute. Either you’re abstinent or you’re not. “Fall” even once and you can no longer claim to be abstinent.

      You could say you’re attempting to abstain from sex. Or you could limit it in time and say that you’re currently abstinent and are hoping to remain so in the future. But to call yourself plain abstinent (or celibate, or whatever word you choose to use) when you may have had sex at some point in the past is misleading and gives a false impression of virtue.

      If abstinence is something you believe you should strive for, I think you need to identify exactly why before attempting it. If you honestly believe that gay sex is bad then of course you should strive to abstain from it. Even so, it seems pretty clear to me that if you have an average or above average libido and there’s no external factor keeping you abstinent, no matter what your convictions, you’ll end up succumbing to temptation sooner or later. But then you can repent, get your get-out-of-jail-free card and pick up the game where you left off. And round and round the Monopoly board you’ll go, abstaining for a while, falling, beating yourself up for it, getting your get-out-of-jail-free card, staying abstinent for a while, falling … and so on and so forth. If you’re genuine in your contrition there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have sex on a regular basis. Christianity really is the “have your cake and eat it too” religion, isn’t it?

      If you’re not convinced that gay sex is bad though, then I think you need to be very wary of abstinence. No matter how much faith you may have in your church, if they’re telling you things that your conscience tells you cannot be true, cognitive dissonance will set in and could end up destroying your faith altogether.

      If an overbearing priest tells you that you have to abstain from sex and you try, not believing him to be right but giving in to his admonitions so he’ll shut up and leave you in peace, you’ll reach a point where the tension of trying to follow rules you don’t believe in will lead to you reject the Church, and possibly God, altogether. That’s where the majority of the LGBT individuals who were raised in Christian families find themselves. Being forced into a pointless and cruel celibate straightjacket against their will has led to them leaving the Church, and often God, altogether.

      That’s where I find myself. Forced out of a Church that tried to force me in to a mold I just didn’t fit into. That’s something I think certain people will be judged on when the time comes for them to be judged.

      • Guglielmo Marinaro

        Well said, Steven. I concur with you absolutely.

      • Thomas Marbson

        I think virginity is the absolute rather than abstinence, but for clarity’s sake it might have been better if Peter would have framed his post not as ‘achieving’ but ‘living for a long time’
        I am not sure whether I understand you correctly, but you seem to have a pretty pessimistic view of human nature. I do believe that we can overcome and control our instincts and desires, which is part of what makes us human. Sex isn’t like food, water or air, it isn’t necessary for survival so there isn’t a right to it nor is it automatically justified. Just two thoughts, first can’t you make the same argument about sex before marriage and adultery (if your partner can’t provide what you think you need) ? And what are those supposed to do whose temptations involve harm to others ?
        Yes, the temptation to take confession as a simple rinse-repeat mechanism is large, and unfortunately we too often succumb to it, but that isn’t how it works. As part of contrition and repentance it also requires the intention to change our ways. If that isn’t there, the whole thing becomes meaningless.
        We are focusing way too much on rules here, which shifts personal faith from its core as a love relationship to a legalistic set of rituals. If we see it as a personal love relationship with God, than this like any love will ask us for service and sacrifice. We might not like that, but love as central motivation makes those service and sacrifices more meaningful and valuable than we might be able to reach through simply following our basic instincts.
        I am sorry that you were forced out of the church, but my personal experience is rather the opposite. Yes, the church asks us for constant conversion, but I am still there because this church does believe that I can do that regardless of who I am, who I am attracted to or what I have done in the past.

        • Steven Bradshaw

          There’s no automatic right to sex, but it’s not automatically forbidden either. Any behavior that does nobody any harm and, if it involves two people, takes place with the free consent of each individual is justified by the exercise of free will.

          You may, like Paul, argue that not all behaviors are beneficial, but I’ve yet to see a convincing argument for the harmful effects of gay sex. A Church that invents fictional and intellectually bankrupt justifications like “natural law” and “complementarity” in order to bolster an otherwise untenable philosophical position has left the path of wisdom far behind and is venturing into idolatrous territory. Worshipping the clobber passages and trying to bend science to fit them is idolatry in action.

          When the Church asks all heterosexuals to give up sex, then it will be reasonable to ask the same of me. Until that point, let them stop imposing heavy burdens on some and feather-light burdens upon others. They’ll have to answer for their treatment of us when they’re called for judgment. I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes that day…

          • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould


            Any behavior that does nobody any harm and, if it involves two people, takes place with the free consent of each individual is justified by the exercise of free will.

            So are we to understand that you believe that sex between a father and daughter (when both are adults, it is consensual and monogamous) is moral? Or do your criteria for what is justified by free will only fit scenarios that you personally don’t find disgusting?

            • Steven Bradshaw

              If incest is truly consensual and causes no harm then free will has to carry the day.

              Of course, whether consensual incest is objectively harmful or not, I don’t know. I do know that a lot of mental health care professionals maintain it is, but I’m not familiar enough with the research to be able to give an informed opinion on the subject. If it can be shown to cause harm then I think it must be immoral. If not, it’s as justified by free will as any other morally neutral act.

              Disgust and objective morality are two different things, you know. There are plenty of morally neutral acts that disgust me. Men having sex with women, for example. Ew! Straight porn turns my stomach. So does eating tripe sausage. But I would never limit the right of my fellow man to have sex with women or eat tripe sausage. The right to free will isn’t predicated on my disgust. Nor should I expect those who are not disgusted by activities that disgust me to renounce them just to spare me those nose-wrinking moments.

              No matter how disgusted I may be, if I diminish your right to exercise free will, I also diminish my own.

              • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

                Would you support moves to legislate in favour of consensual incestuous marriage (given it is a free choice of those who so desire to enter such a relationship) on the grounds of equal rights? If not, why not?

                • Steven Bradshaw

                  No, because I don’t want to enter into an incestuous marriage myself.

                  I wouldn’t support such moves, but I wouldn’t oppose them either. If you’re asking me how I would vote in a referendum on the subject, I wouldn’t vote at all. I wouldn’t vote in any referendum that proposed to extend or restrict civil rights for any group. Civil rights should NEVER be subject to mob rule.

                  If the government legalized incestuous marriage tomorrow, I’d shrug my shoulders and get on with my life. The sky wouldn’t fall, the world wouldn’t stop turning, society wouldn’t crumble, my own marriage wouldn’t be devalued. All that would happen is that a few closely related couples would become man and wife. Or man and man. Or wife and wife. This would seem strange to me because I can’t understand why someone would want to marry a close relative, but then history is full of strange marriages that I don’t understand. Look at your own Queen Victoria, married to her first cousin! And if that’s not weird enough, what about Queen Maria I of Portugal, married to her uncle!! With a full Papal dispensation, I might add.

                  Now to me those marriages seem weird and distasteful, but oddly enough the social fabric of Victorian Britain and eighteenth century Portugal didn’t dissolve overnight as a result. So there’s no reason to think it would today either.

                  • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

                    So you’re basically ambivalent, apart from things that affect you personally at which point you feel it is valid to take a particular stance?

                    • Steven Bradshaw

                      If someone can persuade me that incestuous marriage is not objectively harmful then my objections to it, which are rooted in personal disgust, become less compelling than the right of those who desire it to exercise their free will and marry the person they love.

                      I would still remain personally opposed to incestuous marriage, i.e. I would not enter into one myself. But I would not be able to justify preventing someone else from doing so.

                      Does that make me ambivalent? No. It simply means I realize that it’s unacceptable to hold others hostage to my conscience.

                    • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

                      So you don’t think you should ever hold people “hostage to your conscience”? If you disagreed with 90% of people on something you would just shut-up?

                    • Steven Bradshaw

                      If I express an opinion, I hold nobody hostage to my conscience.

                      But if you pass a law to prevent me from exercising my free will when what I want to do harms nobody, then you most certainly are holding me hostage to your conscience.

      • annalee14

        But we don’t apply such unforgiving standards to anything else. That’s like saying ‘Patience is an absolute. Lose your temper once and you’re forever marked as a bad tempered person. You can endure 5 toddlers having a 3 hour temper tantrum, but you can never again think of yourself as a patient person because you lost your temper that one time your neighbour’s dog got into your garden and dug up the geraniums.’

        If it worked like that, we’d all have given up on virtue long ago!

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