Washed and Waiting
Wesley Hill’s book Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Zondervan: 2010) is a refreshing, inspiring and humbling read. It is deeply refreshing because Wes writes from the perspective of a self-described ‘homosexual Christian’, who is convinced by the truth and goodness of the Christian teaching that sex is for marriage only. It’s all the more refreshing that, as an Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies with a PhD on the New Testament from Durham, he is well-qualified to say so. It is inspiring because Wes has not experienced any change in his ‘steady, strong, unremitting, exclusive’ same-sex attraction, and is therefore committed to singleness and chastity. It is humbling because Wes does not gloss over the cost of such a decision.
At the same time, Hill’s book represents a challenge to the church. Despite the voluminous literature on Christianity and homosexuality, he could find virtually no books which offered him solace and encouragement as he sought to live faithfully. So by sharing his own experiences, he seeks to do just that. And he succeeds in doing so admirably. Wesley begins by sharing his own journey in some detail. He then sets out a remarkably comprehensive overview of the Christian life, showing how the Christian teaching about sex makes sense and is meaningful within this.
Hill also devotes a searingly honest chapter to loneliness and the deep-seated reasons behind it. In particular, he argues that the celibate gay experience is especially lonely, not only because it lacks companionship (because, as Hill says, companionship can be found through deeply rewarding friendships, though this is hard work), but because some deep-seated and God-given desires will never be met. These include the longing that everyone has to be mutually desired, the search for a covenantal union with someone else. And it’s not enough to seek the fulfilment of all these desire in God – because God has made us to desire human companionship, not just fellowship with himself. So, Hill doesn’t downplay the heartache. But he starts to find a ‘new paradigm’ for human relationships in the church. Along the way, Hill shares stories and insights from two (celibate) gay Roman Catholics whom he admires, Henri Nouwen and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
It is worth noting a friendly and respectful difference between Wes’s book and the approach of the Living Out site. As Jonathan Berry explains in his article for us here, we find it more helpful not to label ourselves as gay or even homosexual. Some of us, including me, have previously used this language but now chose not to define ourselves in this way any longer. Other contributors to the site have never used these terms although their feelings and attractions are the same as Wes Hill’s. ‘Gay’ and ‘homosexual’ are terms which Hill is willing to use, but it is important to note that he does so with circumspection. He states that he only uses them as adjectives (e.g., ‘gay Christian’ or ‘homosexual person’) but not nouns. This is because, ‘gay isn’t the most important thing about my or any other gay person’s identity.’ It is hard to quibble with such a careful use of language, and for Wes and others it is perhaps helpful as a way of being honest and accepting something which is so deeply rooted and fundamental about oneself. Certainly, for me, there was a time when I found it helpful to describe myself as a ‘celibate gay Christian’ as a way of being honest about my orientation. But there came a time when letting go of that label was important, and this was obviously necessary as a step towards marriage. (You can hear more of my story here.)
I have more of a qualm with Hill’s view that shame and struggle are ‘endemic to much homosexual Christian experience.’ He often describes his journey as a ‘struggle’, albeit one of learning to ‘struggle well’. As a description of many people’s experience this is hard to fault, and it is essential to be honest about this. But my claim would be that it doesn’t have to be this way. Not all same-sex attracted Christians feel ashamed of being such, and nor should you. We should seek to improve the church’s culture and pastoral care, so that same-sex attracted Christians feel safe and welcome. By being open about our own experiences and journeys on this site we hope to show that there is nothing any more intrinsically shameful about same-sex attraction than about any other temptation, sexual or otherwise.
In fact, Hill’s book contains some wonderful wisdom here in accomplishing precisely this. His final chapter, ‘The Divine Accolade’ is a fantastic antidote to shame. Drawing on C S Lewis’s justly famous sermon ‘The Weight of Glory’, Wes shows how our decisions to honour God in the midst of costly struggles are ‘a real ingredient in the divine happiness’ and therefore also to our own future glory and delight. Fear of pride should not prevent us from being ‘pleased that we are pleasing to God’. These truths are full of potential to affirm and liberate all Christians, and I really hope that this review convinces you to read and ponder this precious and invaluable book.