Our bodies our sexuality

Sean.ashxSean Doherty, who is on the staff of St Mellitus in London, offered two teaching sessions at New Wine on the subject of same-sex sexual relations and the current debate. He tells his story, along with others, in a recent edition of Christianity magazine.

In essence, he understood himself as same-sex attracted as long as he can remember. When he came to faith within an evangelical context, he understood and accepted that, because marriage was for a man and a woman, this meant his calling was to be celibate. (Interestingly, he comments that this was pastorally helpful, as it protected him from sexual experimentation which would have prevented him coming to a mature position in his understanding.) He appeared to be fairly content in this understanding, until he heard a ‘theologian in Oxford’ (whom I speculate was Oliver O’Donovan) comment that ‘God created two sexes, not four.’ In other words, sexual identity in creation centres around the two sexes of male and female, and not the four of male heterosexual, male homosexual, female heterosexual and female homosexual. For Sean, this was a revolution in his thinking. He realised that he needed to act not out of his ‘orientation’, however that had arisen, but from his sex as a man. He eventually met, fell in love with and married the person who is now his wife, with whom he has children.

Changing orientation?

Apart from Sean’s personal journey, this realisation sheds significant light on the current debate as it is expressed in our culture. It is because of our obsession with our feelings and our desires, and the apparently absolute need for their fulfilment, that we have come to understand ‘orientation’ as fixed, enduring, inbuilt, and defining of who we are. I suspect this is closely connected to our consumerist culture, where the fulfilment of wants is seen as an economic good—more than that, a necessity. But, as Peter Ould and others have pointed out, this has little basis in science, and recent longitudinal studies show that sexual ‘orientation’ is in fact unstable and changeable, even if it is not subject to deliberate change easily through ‘therapy’ or prayer. In UK discrimination law, orientation now has the same ‘essential’ status as race or sex, but without the supporting evidence.

Sean is reluctant to give himself a label, though is probably closest to Ould’s label of ‘post-gay’. He does not think his ‘orientation’ has changed, nor that it is appropriate to pray for this. As he pointed out rather entertainingly, what good would it be for him as a married man to now be attracted to all these other women? I think his story also supports the widespread observation that all people are on a spectrum—most people have experienced attraction to someone of the other gender than the gender they most often feel attracted to.

He also believes (I think rightly) that there is no clear scientific consensus on causality for sexual orientation—though I found Schmidt’s multi-causal model in Straight and Narrow? most plausible. But, crucially, he thinks that the churches’ buying into the gay/straight classification is a pastoral dead end. If you are in the ‘straight’ box, then an idealised promised land of happy marriage awaits; if you are in the ‘gay’ box then you are stuck with second-best celibacy. This paradigm is damaging for both groups. We need to move beyond this, he argues, and work with the biblical, creation categories of male and female as our defining identities.

Bypassing bodies

But my reflection on this is that we have two major problems. The first is that our culture, whilst paradoxically obsessed with bodies, in fact does not value them. I am not here thinking of the rise of obesity or self-harm or even sexual abuse—but simply the fact that, in living by the internet, we have a whole generation who are defining themselves and relating to others apart from bodily contact and bodily presence. This makes it so much easier to define who we are according to our feelings and desires, rather than according to the gendered bodies God has given us. I think this is a hugely significant factor in young people rejecting ‘traditional’ morality on marriage, and one that has not been recognised or explored.

imagesSecondly, in the church, we continue to neglect the God-given importance of our bodily existence. This is evidenced in our failure to appreciate some key aspects of Jesus’ resurrection, and as a result our misunderstanding of New Testament eschatology—that God’s future for us and the world is not a disembodied existence with God in ‘heaven’, but a resurrection-bodily existence in a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21). This is the pre-occupation of Tom Wright’s excellent Grove booklet New Heavens, New Earth as well as much of his other popular and academic writing on hope and the future. I find it fascinating that, in 1 Cor 6.14, Paul draw on Jesus’ bodily resurrection as a key part of his argument about sexual morality. This rarely features in contemporary debate.

So perhaps the most important things we can do in relation to the ‘gay debate’ are to do more of our relating ‘in real life’ rather than on line, and spend more time thinking about Jesus’ bodily resurrection and the implications for our bodies.

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23 thoughts on “Our bodies our sexuality”

  1. Love this site Ian. I’ve been crying out for you to write freelance for ages after seeing multiple facebook conversations. I would love to see you with a column in a mainstream paper. We need people like you to help us live in the light of God’s truth in a confusing, complex, but beautiful world.

    Keep help helping us be so heavenly minded, that we can be of great earthly use.

    Big Blessings

  2. A great contribution. I hope he can avoid that part of the UK homosexual lobby which is still holding firm to the idea that orientation is unchangeable.

    Two issues with the article:

    – “In UK discrimination law, orientation now has the same ‘essential’ status as race or sex” – but the same law defines religion as a protected characteristic too, presumably because of the view (promoted by certain anti-religious people) that one is born a Christian, Moslem, Jew, etc. This also needs to be contended, even if it results in a loss of legal protection.

    – “promised land of happy marriage” vs “stuck with second-best celibacy”. At least in evangelical circles, such a view would have to decide how to relate to Paul’s view that celibacy is best, marriage second best (ref 1 Cor 7 etc).

  3. This piece is unconvincing about the permanence or otherwise of sexual orientation. Both might be possible. But it’s the evidence from the change of mind of so-called conversion groups that might be convincing, Exodus International among the most recent. Exodus, which has promoted “freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ,” has de-emphasized conversion therapy in recent years as more of the counselors in its network have abandoned the practice.The American Others who have far more experience and research than Miletus College, for example, the American Psychological Association defines conversion therapy as aimed at changing sexual orientation, but adopted a resolution in 2009 condemning the practice. Suppose, for a moment, God wanted people to see that in Christ there was no hetero or homosexual – all are one and part of God’s rich tapestry of life – and this was God’s gift to the church of our time just as in the early days it was Gentiles who were the good news. They could be accepted as equals, though different. How could God communicate this to you?

  4. A very interesting and inspiring piece.. thanks Ian! Peter Parslow, my initial reaction to you pertinent observation about celibacy would be to muse on the idea of celibacy as a calling on some people’s lives, rather than the only option for faithful Christian homosexuals. If Sean Doherty is able to live a fulfilled married life then this offers hope, though it’s still not clear from his story how he became attracted to Gaby, or how replicable this experience might be..

  5. Ian Stubbs, thanks for commenting–but I wonder if you have missed the point here. Sean is very clear, as I point out, that he does not argue for or believe in ‘changing’ orientation. He just thinks that the construct of ‘orientation’ itself is false–which pulls the rug from under groups on both sides of the debate.

    How could God communicate to me that gay relationships are as hallowed as opposite-gender ones? By not condemning it unilaterally throughout Scripture, by not rooting human identity in gender-differentiation, by Jesus overturning contemporary Jewish morality (as he was happy to do on numerous other issues), and by Paul including gender as a difference that was dissolved in Christ. Unfortunately, none of these has happened.

  6. Peter, thanks for the interesting points you raise. On the first, my understanding is that protecting religious affiliation is NOT in fact about being born of a certain religion (though of course Judaism would satisfy that) but comes about from the principle of freedom of association. In other words, it is about choice. The wording and defence of sexual orientation has changed over the years; when I was a teenager, it was about having no choice (this is the way I am); then for many years the defence was one of choice; and now we have returned to the essential argument.

    On the second, I don’t think that, interpreted correctly, Paul is in fact saying marriage is second best. A key phrase is ‘because of the present crisis’ (7.26). Given his Jewish background and his use of marriage in Eph 5, I think it not possible he saw singleness as the higher calling.

  7. If sexual orientation is not fixed then it follows that if gay can become straight, straight can also become gay. So where are the hordes of straight people who suddenly wake up one morning and find themselves fancying members of their own gender?

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can speak for myself. I am 100% gay and have never experienced any form of sexual attraction for any woman at any point in my life. I’m pushing 50, so do you really think I’ll wake up tomorrow, or in 5 or 10 years, and start fancying women? The idea, even if it was something I wanted, is preposterous. You know who you are by the age of 50 and if you don’t, there’s something far more profoundly amiss with you than your sexual orientation.

    But anyway, even if some kind of miracle happens and I wake up straight tomorrow, today I’m gay and can therefore only envisage my life continuing the same as it always has. The Church tells me this means I’m called to be celibate. But I can tell the Church that I have no such calling. I am called to an intimate relationship with the man I love and of this I have absolutely no doubt.

    If the Church were right and I had to eke out the rest of my days in miserable celibacy, what would be the point of living? Can a life spent in aching loneliness punctuated by the odd parish social event and a stint or two per week serving soup to homeless people be properly called a life? Why would a loving God, a merciful God, instill a deep-seated desire for intimate partnership in me, send a man into my life who corresponds to my idea of the perfect partner and then force us to live alone and apart from each other for our entire lives?

    What kind of cruel, sadistic, nay Satanic deity would that kind of a God be? Certainly not one that I could worship.

  8. Stephen, you might think the idea is preposterous, but there is some good evidence that change happens. Peter Ould documents three studies here http://www.peter-ould.net/2012/07/06/sexual-identity-fluidity-the-evidence/.

    I am not sure any one is suggesting ‘miserable celibacy.’ The website http://www.livingout.org offers some considered alternatives to being miserable and being celibate.

    Your complaint to God needs to be heard—but I have heard similar complaints from women who are single and want to be married and people who are in pain or grieving. So I don’t think the solution is quite what you suggest.

  9. Nothing on the Living Out website makes me change my mind about the utter misery and pointlessness of denying who I am. The testimonies to be seen there are positively spine-chilling.

    What are the choices offered?

    Either I pretend to fall in love with a woman, marry her and then attempt to sire children on her by dint of sheer will-power. Or I pull a non-existent vocation out of thin air and invent a calling to the religious life that I just don’t have. Or I decide that I can be both gay and celibate and instead choose some other sin as the vehicle of my damnation.

    Look carefully at the margins of those glossy photos on the Living Out website and you’ll see that gluttony and sloth seem to be the sins of choice for the celibate gay man. So what, I wonder, would I actually gain by giving up love and sex (apart from 50 pounds, of course)? Salvation? Or damnation by another route?

    Perhaps this is something the well-padded gentlemen of Living Out should have contemplated in a little more detail before parading themselves as paragons of Christian virtue. As advertising campaigns go, it’s incredibly unpersuasive. Do they really see themselves as inspirational?

    What the Living Out site tells me is that I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t. If I give up sex, I’ll just end up taking up gluttony. So if whatever I do, I’m for the chop, then I may as well have as good a time here on earth as I can before death takes me. And as physical intimacy and love are far more appealing to me than burgers and fries, I think that sticking with my partner is probably my best choice for earthly happiness. It has been so far, at least.

    I’ll be seeing the Oulds and the Allberrys of this world when I get to the other side anyway. Unrepentant sinners that we are (me as evidenced by my partner, them by their waistlines), we’ll all burn together. Considering the amount of combustible material they’ve secreted about their persons, it’s true they may burn faster than me and therefore suffer less. But on the other hand, my much higher surface/volume ratio, which results in far greater pound-for-pound exposure to oxygenated air, may well give me the edge. So who’ll suffer longest? Hard to say, and perhaps it doesn’t really matter. We’ll see what we see when we see it. But until then, I can only exhort them to eat, drink and be merry (while I take my merriness in quite a different manner), for tomorrow we die.

    That’s what awaits us poor gays, apparently. So let’s just suck it up and enjoy the party while it lasts.

  10. I guess that those involved in the Living Out site would hope that people will find something more positive in it, not least a sense of our common identity in Christ. One of their key concerns is to encourage us to focus on our identity there, rather than finding it solely in our sexuality.

  11. Hypocrisy is the only lesson I have learned from looking at the Living Out site. Where exactly is Christ in the attitude of a fat man who pontificates about sexual virtue while his girth belies a gluttonous appetite all too frequently sated?

    So does our common identity in Christ mean we’re all entitled to exchange one sin for another?

  12. This argument about there only be two sexes and not four is incorrect. Some people are born intersexed. How would you classify those people? I would argue that there are more than four different sexes. If God did not make all of our physical bodies completely dimorphous, then why are too many people still holding onto the idea that if you’re male you can only marry a female? Or if you’re born with a vagina, you should act like a “lady” and not feel more male than female? Sex, gender, and sexuality are not the same thing.

    I appreciate the attempt to say that the science just isn’t there, and you’re right it isn’t. But at the same time, the science isn’t there that God created the universe, but it’s likely that you still have faith, without the science, that God did create the universe. Historical context is also a factor, which I’ve noted you mention in other places on this blog. Why not for this argument too? And if we have faith, we can say that God is still speaking to us and so we need to all be in prayer and consider what is the right thing to do. I believe the right thing to do is to welcome people into our churches regardless of sexuality or gender identity and not try to “unqueer” them. We need to love, accept, and support people for who they are and how God made them.

  13. Shannon, I think you have misunderstood this whole argument. Sean’s argument is not from science, it is from theology.

    You seem to be taking a science-based natural theology approach. Historic Christianity has by contrast looked to revelation as a key source for its theology. The reason I don’t follow your line is that I don’t think that science is the only form of knowledge, and in fact it has little to say specifically on questions of morality or even the big existential questions of life.

  14. Hello again Ian,

    there’s more that could be said in response to this piece but I think it should be noted that despite what you say of Sean Doherty, that he “does not think his ‘orientation’ has changed”, the ‘Christianity’ article you link to quotes him saying something different:”‘I’ve clearly experienced some change in my feelings so that I am attracted to my wife. But it’s definitely not a 180-degree reorientation'”. (I hope it’s accurate for me to note that I think Peter Ould would say something similar). You’re right to note that neither Sean (nor Peter) is advocating for, or trying to impose, any kind / degree of ‘orientation change’ on anyone else. But (I suggest) the problem for your argument above, is that in a sense both of them could be said to be defining who they are according to their feelings and desires – hence the ‘post-gay’ tag which, according to ‘Christianity’ if i’ve read aright, neither Ed Shaw nor Sam Allberry are claiming for themselves.

    in friendship, Blair

  15. Like many others, I am having to re-examine my conviction that I had this issue all sorted out! I am particularly challenged by the depth of conviction about their orientation of both Vicky and Stephen (above) and the pain they have both suffered from it for the whole of their lives as they have struggled to equate their situation with standard evangelical teaching. And yet other people with similar feelings seem to have accommodated fairly well to the expectation that they would marry someone of the opposite sex. I wonder if the problem is much more acute for some than others, rather as some people are intersex to a greater or lesser degree too. However I have to say that I am worried that people who feel a strong same sex attraction may be encouraged by the living-out website to enter into disastrous marriages in the hope that their feelings will change. I am currently giving pastoral support to a Christian widow who now believes that her marriage many years ago was probably to someone who felt no physical attraction to her whatsoever and who was incapable of any meaningful expression of love or appreciation, even though they did manage to produce children. You can probably imagine her misery and puzzlement over the years for all she remained faithful to her husband, and her regret that she was not able to address the problem. She has only realised this in retrospect as such things were never mentioned or even contemplated in Christian circles in the fifties and sixties! (A possible answer to your question about openness, Ian!)

    • Thanks Jenny. I am not sure anyone is advocating marrying ‘in the hope that their feelings will change’. Sean seems to be saying rather the opposite.

      I agree with you about strength of feeling. But the wider question is whether such feelings can be said to constitute our identity, not least given that they actually change over our lifetime.

      This is a fascinating, scientifically based insight:


  16. Hi Ian,

    Thanks for your reply. Lisa Diamond’s work is interesting and seems to confirm what I was was saying earlier about the wide range of sexual attractions that exist.

    However I feel very uncomfortable indeed about applying her conclusions to people who are trying to live within the context of Christian moral values. Non Christians today feel entitled to engage in sexual relationships of all kinds, whereas most Christian seek to live according to a much stricter moral code. I suppose what is under question at present is whether we have got this moral code right, particularly when it is plainly causing such anguish to many, some of whom are now at last beginning to speak out. Their pain is very evident, even if sometimes partially disguised by humour (see Stephen above), and has caused them misery over many years. Can this really be what the scriptural prohibitions are referring to?

  17. Whoops- sorry, posted prematurely, – I’m typing on my knee so it’s a bit erratic!

    It seems to me it’s very difficult to extrapolate from scripture on this. We pass silently over all the tricky bits (Abraham and his odd domestic compromises, David (!!), Hosea etc..) and also ignore the fact that marriage was very different both in O.T. and N.T. times. It was often to do with the protection of property for instance. How much of both OT and NT concepts were accepted unquestioningly from the surrounding society – Roman or Jewish, etc., and should we try to implement them today? As C.S. Lewis points out our western concept of romantic love is very recent and I wonder if we have thought about that enough as Christians.

    • “How much of both OT and NT concepts were accepted unquestioningly from the surrounding society – Roman or Jewish, etc., and should we try to implement them today?”


      The biblical authors were men of their time, who had no idea about sexual orientation, and therefore, no idea of the cruelty of their commands. We lack that excuse: Vicky Beeching is the latest in a long line of testimony to the harm done. If personal testimony is given weight when it comes to conversion, it should be given weight here.

      We choose how to read the Bible, and how to apply it. The responsibility’s on us.

  18. Ian, You misrepresent my meaning by your summary! I did not say that living out is “advocating” marrying ‘in the hope that their feelings will change’, but that is certainly the implication of the idea of our sexuality being fluid and “that there is good evidence that change happens” as you say. Someone pretty desperate already may well feel that this is a way forward for them. It should be pointed out too that any woman who finds herself married to such a person will not be able to make her experience public at the risk of destroying her marriage, so the silence of a wife cannot be taken to mean that she is happy with her situation. (I should emphasize that this comment is not made in connection with any couple named on the living out site but comes from my experience of being alongside a woman in that situation, as I mentioned earlier, who felt completely trapped and without anyone to turn to, without feeling she had somehow betrayed her husband.)

  19. By the way, I have had great difficulty finding this thread again as the link from the email notifying me of followup comments doesn’t work. (I eventually got back to it through google, if anyone else has the same difficulty. ) Have to say though that I am not an I.T.wizard so it could just be me.


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