My friend and former professor, Adam Ackley, recently wrote a great article for Huffington Post ("Better to Marry": For Christians, Gay Marriage -- Not Celibacy) about a trend in evangelicalism of churches willing to accept gay people as long as they remain celibate. Some see this as progress, given the fact that many of these same churches used to be of the persuasion that homosexuals should be “cured” through “reparative therapy” (which is now, as Ackley notes, illegal in many places). But Ackley is less thrilled. He writes, “…as a scholar of religion who is gay (and—by the way—currently celibate), I staunchly oppose this heretical Christian claim that the rare spiritual gift of and vocation to celibacy is automatically to be assigned to an entire group of people merely because of their affectional or sexual orientation (the gender of the two partners in a committed couple).” Ackley is clear and helpful in pointing out that sexual orientation does not imply a spiritual gift of celibacy. “Being gay and Christian does NOT automatically imply that one possesses what the Bible itself describes as a rare spiritual vocation or gift -- lifelong celibacy…”
This evangelical trend of demand for celibacy is, in fact, not new. It’s reminiscent of some of the language that some mainline denominations adopted, in early attempts to deal with LGBTQ identity in sexual ethics, wherein a distinction was made between homosexuality (read: LGBTQ identity or orientation) and “homosexual practice” (read: sexual activity in same-sex relationships). The demand for celibacy is dependent upon this distinction—the distinction between action and identity or between orientation and practice. By imposing the term "homosexual practice", they’re able to condone homosexuality (as an orientation) while still condemning the action (sexual activity in same-sex relationships). These churches, I imagine, think they’ve found a way to be accepting of homosexual people without having to accept homosexual activity. They think they can claim openness and still protect their heteronormative agenda.
The fundamental issue with trying to make such distinctions is that personhood is more complex than that. "Homosexual practice" is a myth. There is no healthy or authentic way to separate sexual practice from sexual identity. Personhood emerges from a complex web of interdependent relations including sexuality. One cannot isolate sexuality from the whole and suppress any action which appropriately corresponds thereto. Being and action cannot be separated. They are two sides of the same coin.
We don’t make distinctions between orientation and practice in heterosexuality. In fact, most of us would say it would be unhealthy to do so (except, perhaps, in the case of one given the “gift of celibacy”). This distinction is not one which LGBTQ people would apply to themselves either. It is the invention of heteronormativity, for the preservation of heteronormativity, being imposed on LGBTQ people. Indeed I have had colleagues who are gay and lesbian share their frustration with me saying things like, “My sexuality cannot be severed from my identity… Christians may think they’re being more loving by accepting me without my ‘sexuality’ but their efforts actually hurt more, as I see it all still feels like rejection…” Distinguishing practice from identity, orientation from action, and attraction from activity is just rejection in a more subtle form. And in a way, it's more devious for it tries to pass itself off as acceptance and openness.
If a church wants to continue to condemn same-sex relationships, let them do it honestly. The demand for celibacy and the corresponding distinction between homosexuality and homosexual practice may be clothed in good intentions, but it is nevertheless a form of rejection. If we are going to accept someone’s sexuality, we have to accept the appropriately corresponding sexual activity (and I would add, in the context of otherwise ethical relations). For we are not talking about a specific action or a crime, we are talking about human sexuality which is integral to human identity and personhood itself.