‘Gifted by Otherness: Gay and Lesbian Christians in the Church’ by L. William Countryman & M.R. Ritley | Interview

The gift of otherness

Being a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender Christian can be tiring, frustrating even. It seems that we are always on the defensive, always having to explain ourselves, justify our existence or tell people over and over again why the Bible does not condemn us. We’d like to be able to live differently, to live into our faith instead of having to defend it all the time. But, we’ve spent so much of our lives in that defensive stance that we don’t even know where to begin to live outside of other people’s definitions of us. We are defined as the church’s “problem” or society’s “outcasts.” Living as confident, beloved children of God sometimes eludes our grasp.

A new book promises us hope as we search to live an honest, proactive faith. In Gifted by Otherness: Gay and Lesbian Christians in the Church, M.R. Ritley and L. William Countryman, both Episcopal priests, attempt to help us “relearn who we are as gay Christians … using gay experiences as the norm of gay interpretations, rather than trying to justify our existence to the majority community.”

‘We think there are enough experiences of gay and lesbian people in the Christian faith that we’re finding our voice as a group,” Countryman told Whosoever in a recent interview. “It certainly is time to get past the defensive stance that we had to begin with just to make a place to talk, and begin to say, ‘What is it that our particular experience of God contributes to the overall understanding of Christianity?'”

At the heart of this proactive faith, Ritley and Countryman counsel GLBT believers to reject the label of “problem” that the church has stamped on us and begin to define ourselves as a community.

“There is clearly a problem, but it is a problem of attitude on the heterosexual community’s part, and one of the first steps in healthy gay and lesbian self-definition is the rejection of the role of ‘problem’ and the refusal to be punished for the heterosexual community’s failure to deal with its own problem,” the authors write.

“The time has come for us to define ourselves to others, as women have had to do, as African-Americans have had to do,” Ritley told Whosoever. “In the church, that means taking a very courageous stand because we’re used to looking at the church to give us definitions. We have something to teach the church now.”

One of those things we must teach the church is that we are not “defective heterosexuals” in need of healing, but people made gay or lesbian “by the grace of God” who are equally called to be part of the Christian community.

To do that, we must abandon our defensive stance, Ritley writes, because “it is not for the church to admit us. The church did not call us; God did.” Ritley readily admits that will be upsetting to many in the church, but she insists that “the gospel is not about smoothing over issues that divide us, nor integration in the sense of making us all agree, think alike, or even worship alike. It is about affirming the godly identity of every human being, even those whom we find strange (or queer).”

But, that mindset also upsets many in the gay and lesbian community. GLBT Christians often find themselves in a strange middle ground where we are defensive both before the Christian community and the GLBT community that doesn’t understand why we would even choose to be believers.

Many gays and lesbians would rather believe in the homophobic God presented by the religious conservatives than have to strive to reconcile their spirituality and sexuality.

“We’d rather have a religion that rejects us than have the real God who might love us in unexpected ways,” Countryman writes.

“Sometimes it’s just easier to have everything fixed even if that means you have to be the only outsider in the world,” he told Whosoever. “At least you know where the boundary lines are instead of living in a world where there’s the possibility of genuine surprise which can be real scary.”

Overcoming that view of the homophobic God and embracing the God that loves everyone, even GLBT believers, is no easy task, and is often actively avoided by GLBT people. Learning to embrace this God of love will lead us into a spiritual desert that can be painful and lonely, but ultimately rewarding. It’s logical that GLBT people would want to avoid such a hard journey, but Countryman said the desert experience is often inevitable.

“In the long run, if you try to avoid spiritual issues all together, it drains your life of meaning,” he said. “So, I think that’s why a lot of us wind up coming back even if we’ve gone away for awhile.”

Ritley agrees. “We discover that even if we say we’re not going into the desert we end up there. The self begins to assert itself and we can’t live with the evasions and the lies.”

Ritley says our spiritual growth is closely linked with our own coming out process. Just as when we are coming out, our spiritual growth begins with an awakening or conversion, followed by a time of “crossing the wilderness” where we must confront our demons and face the shadows in our lives. The final stage involves returning to the world where our “self emerges reintegrated and deeply changed.” As this deeply changed person, we are empowered to be agents of change within the world.

This process affects us deeply, stripping us of all the preconceived notions of God that we have – forcing us to delve deeper into our faith than many heterosexual people have ever thought to go. It produces in us a new heart – a new attitude.

“Once we seriously attempt to engage in a serious spiritual walk, we find that even our canned answers go out the window,” Ritley said. “I can look at the people I condemn and can’t stand, but as a Christian I am obliged to try to get past that. A loving God is so much more demanding than a judgmental one in a very different way.”

That loving God, Ritley and Countryman say, is a God of surprises, of unexpected and often perplexing grace. Countryman recounts the words of a parishoner who, after Countryman had prayed, “Thank you, God, for surprising us with grace,” had immediately reacted by thinking, “And please don’t ever do it again!” A loving God can put us off balance with grace, but ultimately leads us “to a place of unguessed joy and freedom.”

When we let ourselves become open to the possibility of a loving God, who surprises us with grace, then we turn from our stagnant religion to “a religion of grace … of risky reliance on God,” a God we cannot control, grab hold of or even predict very well.

“This is a God who has a penchant for surprising us, sometimes in ways that are not really at all welcome in the beginning,” Countryman writes. “And this God wants, in response, not a religion of stasis, but a faith that can cope with newness, change and growth. At the same time, this disruptive experience yields a religion, a faith of depth — of deeper roots, of greater confidence.”

That kind of faith, however, has a price and cannot be attained without moving through the steps of recognition, wilderness and return into the world that Ritley outlines. The journey is never easy, but Ritley and Countryman assert that GLBT Christians are uniquely equipped to take the journey because they possess something that many heterosexual Christians do not — a sense of humor!

Too many heterosexual Christians are “humor impaired,” Ritley writes. If anything involves religion then it must be terribly serious and can’t be anything to chuckle at. Ritley disagrees, asserting that Jesus must scratch his head over our dourness, because after all, “a great deal of the gospel was really about poking at people’s rigid and fixed religious assumption,” she writes.

GBLT Christians have a special gift when it comes to humor — a gift we can offer the church. After spending many years as society’s outcasts and the church’s prime example of “sin,” GLBT Christians have had to use humor to deflect the often crippling blows to the self that the church and society deliver.

“We are not going to be intimidated into being humorless and joyless just because other people have a problem with us,” Ritley told Whosoever.

Our humor, Ritley says, can often be subversive and ironic. She tells the story of the Canadian Anglican Church’s General Synod which was held in a hot, un-air-conditioned building on a college campus. The night before the meetings began, Integrity — the Anglican association for gays and lesbians — bought five hundred Chinese fans and put little “I’m a Fan of Integrity” stickers on them.

“The anti-gay folks from the head table rushed over to the Integrity booth and grabbed a handful of fans. To Integrity’s delight, the evening news coverage showed the most vocal of the anti-gay delegates holding forth, all the while fanning himself, with the “I’m a Fan of Integrity” label clearly visible.”

Sometimes God’s sense of humor is delicious — and uniquely gay. That sense of humor sustains us, even in the deepest deserts of our journeys, because we know that no matter how painful or lonely our deserts are, we are never truly alone. God is always beside us, joking with us, and surprising us with unexpected grace even in our darkest moments.

Embracing our “otherness” is never easy, but Ritley and Countryman go a long way in their book to helping us get past the idea of being “accepted by the church” to thinking instead about the many and wonderful ways in which God affirms our lives every single day.

The joy of affirmation does not mean our struggle with the church, society, or even the unbelieving GLBT community, is over, but it does mean that we should shift our main focus to celebrating our lives instead of defending them.

“We do have to respond to attacks and we do have to explain the Bible again and again but as long as you’re in that defensive posture that does something to your own psyche,” Countryman says. “The truth is we don’t have to be on the defensive the whole time. There’s so much richness here, we also need to enjoy what God has given to us and appreciate it and celebrate it and share it with each other.”