Generous Spaciousness: Responding to Gay Christians in the Church
by Wendy VanderWal-Gritter
Brazos Press, 2014 (281 pages)
“Gay and Christian?” ask the bumper stickers I see around town. “Yes!” they answer, the exclamation point anticipating, it seems, a certain amount of surprise.
“Gay Christian” wasn’t a real category for most other categories of Christians until recently. It was an impossibility or a contradiction, a thing the imagination couldn’t conceive of or wouldn’t permit. But now it doesn’t have to be imagined. Gay Christians are visible, active members of many churches. It’s become harder and harder to deny their existence because, well, here they are.
And that’s why Wendy VanderWal-Gritter’s book, Generous Spaciousness, asks a different question than the bumper sticker does. The book isn’t concerned with whether or not a Christian can be gay but rather how a Christian who is gay can fit into the church — or even more precisely, how the church should be actively provide a place for gay Christians to fit.
VanderWal-Gritter is a good guide for this exploration. As the longtime leader of New Direction, a Canadian ministry formerly affiliated with the Exodus network, she used to believe herself that gay Christians didn’t exist — only ex-gay ones. That changed. Over the last few years, along with many of her peers in the ex-gay movement, she began to question the psychological and moral assumptions fundamental to her ministry. Too many gay Christians were getting hurt trying to overturn their orientation. Too many would-be ex-gay Christians just couldn’t become ex-gay.
So VanderWal-Gritter began to humbly and prayerfully develop the principle of generous spaciousness. It’s a fairly simple idea: gay Christians should be given the respect, and the latitude, to work out for themselves how to understand and respond to their orientation. “People need the grace of generous spaciousness as they navigate making sense of their experience of same-sex attraction,” says VanderWal-Gritter (53). “Generous spaciousness . . . gives the individual room to navigate the journey” (140).
“Generous spaciousness” means gay Christians should first of all be welcomed into churches. It means they should be trusted and supported. And it means, most of all, that if they come to a different understanding from my own, or your own, about their sexuality (especially if our understanding was formed within the safety of “heterosexual privilege”), they should still be loved and affirmed.
As she develops the idea of generous spaciousness, VanderWal-Gritter relies primarily on personal experience and personal encounters. Her voice echoes the evangelical trend of emphasizing narrative and “story” over discursive reasoning. And as someone who has been in the trenches, as it were, on both sides in the conflict over Christianity and homosexuality, she has a lot of “foxhole stories” to tell.
These stories tend to reflect two themes: first, most gay Christians endure unimaginable anguish as they try to reconcile earnest faith with their sexuality, and second, these Christians have felt the Spirit leading them to diverse, and sometimes apparently contradictory, positions regarding their sexuality.
Only after VanderWal-Gritter establishes the tensions, internal and external, pervasive in gay Christians’ narratives does she turn to Scripture. And in Scripture, too, she finds tension, but also a way to live with tension. (“Tension” is probably the most repeated word in Generous Spaciousness, with “uncertainty” coming in second. Both are to be embraced; our relationship with God, says the author, is both a journey and a wrestling match) VanderWal-Gritter asserts that the question of homosexual behavior, the issue of whether Christianity permits same-sex partnerships or requires celibacy, is a “disputable matter” of the kind outlined by Paul in Romans 14.
Just as the early Christians’ conflicting — and fervent — convictions about sacrificial meat were pious and defensible on both sides, so too are our differing opinions on homosexual morality. And just as the early Christians had to subordinate their opinions to their unity, so too must we.
Ultimately, VanderWal-Gritter’s message is an exhortation to create space for individual piety to define and express itself within a nurturing community. “The individual needs to follow their own path,” she writes. “God is more than able, through his Holy Spirit, to lead, guide, correct, and convict. Your role is to listen well, pray diligently, and ask open-ended questions that will help the individual better discern what God is showing them” (97).
This compassionate emphasis on the individual is the book’s defining strength. VanderWal-Gritter’s insight and experience reminds us that, whatever our convictions, we must remember that the question is one of persons and not abstract ideas. Generous Spaciousness is thus an illuminating read and valuable contribution to the controversy that is defining the twenty-first-century church.
The emphasis on the individual is also the book’s central limitation. VanderWal-Gritter’s point of view is consummately evangelical; personal revelation is paramount, and both tradition and philosophy are treated as secondary aids, almost dispensable, instead of primary authorities. (The book would make no sense, say, to a Catholic for whom the Church universal, and not just the church isolated and local, has a say in shaping morality.)
Generous Spaciousness might be, therefore, a good place to start when considering how charity should be expressed toward gay Christians, but not a good place to finish. Its scope is too narrow, and it leaves too many questions and objections unanswered, to give it the final word.