Gregory Coles, Single Gay Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (IVP, 2017)
I opened this at the beginning of a two-hour train journey, intending to read a couple of chapters. By the time I had reached my destination, I had laughed out loud (slightly embarrassing on a train), cried (even more embarrassing on a train) and finished the book. It is short – and superb.
To be honest, I had slightly groaned at being given it to review – there has been no shortage of memoirs of gay Christians. But in the preface, Wesley Hill makes the point that we need dozens of books ‘because there is no one way of living that complicated, multifaceted story’ (p.2). He is right. Despite having read many accounts of Christians’ experiences of being gay, I was delighted to add Greg’s account to the mix.
Despite having read many accounts of Christians’ experiences of being gay, I was delighted to add Greg’s account to the mix.
That’s largely because it is written with such warmth and poignancy. We hear of his early realisation that he is gay whilst growing up in a missionary family. There is a sense of pain which leads to attempts to make himself straight, or at least play the role of being straight. Greg then tells us of his time wrestling with whether he wanted to keep living for Jesus and if it was possible to revise his view on the Bible’s teaching about same-sex relationships. He questions whether he is simply unlovable and repulsive. And yet, we get to see a turning point for him as he considers Paul’s thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12 and notices parallels with his own experience. ‘When Paul was begging for healing, God was celebrating an opportunity to show off his strength’ (p.42). Whilst this didn’t remove all sense of struggle, it did lead him to a positive conclusion: ‘Being gay didn’t mean God has rejected me. Maybe it was just a thorn in my flesh, an invitation to frailty, a unique kind of weakness’ (p.43). There was the realisation that God had not made a mistake, a conclusion that transformed Greg’s perspective on life.
As I’ve said, this made me cry. The reason for my tears was the sense that I was reading somebody telling my story – just more eloquently than I could ever muster. As it happens, hearing a sermon on 2 Corinthians 12 was a vital moment for me as well. They were good tears. One of the challenges at times for celibate, gay Christians can be a sense of loneliness – is this only me? My suspicion is that many, especially those who have grown up within Christian families, will spot at least some element of themselves in Greg’s story. That is hugely reassuring – we are not alone.
But Greg’s book should also enable the wider church to empathise and care. The second half of it covers his interaction with others on sexuality. There is the agony he feels in a church prayer meeting as somebody encourages prayer on the gay issue without any sense that they are talking about real people. And then there are the coming out stories, sometimes happening inadvertently (those are the genuine laugh out loud moments). Encouragingly, we see a range of good responses within the Church, which means that, whilst Greg ends up living without sex, he doesn’t live without intimacy. There are open, honest conversations about the challenges and benefits of celibacy. Towards the end we see a meal surrounded by friends where an antidote to loneliness has been discovered. The climax of the book is a letter to his younger self. ‘Dear twelve-year-old with a secret, everything will be all right…’ (p.115). The fact that everything ends up well is in large measure down to the way God uses family and friends to be supportive. That’s one reason why I would love this book to have a wide readership.
Greg’s book should enable the wider church to empathise and care.
Two sections are especially noteworthy. We see a younger Greg wrestling with the biblical passages – was it really the case that same-sex relationships were prohibited? Interestingly, it is the shape of the Christian life that leads him to an orthodox conclusion. Jesus is abundantly clear that to follow him will involve sacrifice and suffering. ‘Obedience is supposed to be costly’ (p.37). That left Greg impatient with those who thought giving up sex was a cost too great to be asked. His argument is compelling and should lead to reflection on the image of the Christian life we sometimes have in our minds.
The other section is about language. The title of the book is deliberate – Greg refers to himself as gay rather than same-sex attracted. We read of a conversation with his pastor where he explains why this is the case. He dislikes the use of same-sex attraction because of its connections with the ex-gay movement in the United States that promised changes in sexual orientation, leading to pain and disappointment. Furthermore, he explains, ‘If I refuse to call myself a gay Christian, if I say “gay” and “Christian” are contradictory identities, a lot of people will hear me saying that they have to be straight to follow Jesus’ (p.71). Christians will come to different conclusions on the best way to describe their sexuality, but Greg’s book shows why it is worth listening to an individual’s reasons for their choice, rather than dismissing them pre-emptively.
This is a book written by someone relatively young. ‘I’m just a half-written story,’ Greg confesses (p.103). But the quality of that story makes me long for a sequel in the years to come and hope that everybody reads this part in the meantime.