Imagine this pastoral scenario, a real and true one that I encountered in my first year of pastoral ministry. I had graduated from divinity school, one of the best and most highly-regarded, two years prior, and been ordained into the Lutheran ministry just the previous year. I was twenty-six years old.
A young couple whose wedding had been performed by the previous pastor of the congregation made an appointment to see me. Actually, it is important for what comes later in this blog to know that it was the wife who made the appointment. Not surprisingly, it was the wife who came to my office alone.
Recently, she had discovered that the man she had married after dating him for over two years had a strong attraction to men. He had divulged this rather calmly to his wife, adding that he wasn’t positively certain that he was actually gay. He also assured her he had never engaged in sex with a man…or any other woman, for that matter.
As she related to me her tale, poured out her grief that as far as she was concerned the marriage was over and expressed her fear for her own future, I rummaged madly through my mental notes from divinity school for any lecture or piece of advice about such a pastoral situation. Oh, my God! She’s come to the pastor seeking an answer, and actually expects me to have one! What do I say? What do I do?
The topic of sexual orientation was out in the open in the media by 1976, and my own understanding of homosexuality had been evolving quickly to a more open and affirming stance. Nonetheless, I couldn’t recall a single lecture, article, or even conversation among my classmates about the scenario facing me in my office at the moment.
I wish I had read Vivian Fransen’s The Straight Spouse in 1976. I couldn’t of course, because, one, she only wrote and published the book in 2017; and two, such subjects were not discussed openly in the early years of my ministry.
I had the pleasure of meeting Vivian at a workshop in Princeton, NJ in March sponsored and hosted by my editor/publisher, Karen Hodges Miller. She told me that once she heard the confusing and marriage-shattering news from Victor, her husband, that he was experiencing attraction to the same sex, her first instinct was to turn to the thirty-something assistant pastor at the church where they worshiped. To the poor guy’s credit, he was quite up-front about his lack of training and experience with their predicament. He did wisely suggest a referral to a professional with experience in helping couples like them deal with their dilemma and offered a compassionate prayer for strength for her. But he didn’t provide the spiritual solution that she was hoping for. She left the pastor’s office feeling very exposed.
Several years later of keeping the details of her marriage a secret, at her older sister’s suggestion, Vivian sought the direction and comfort of an Episcopal priest. However, this particular pastoral encounter was disastrous, to say the least. The priest offered a prayer for a reversal of her husband’s sexual orientation back to heterosexual—as though the priest simply assumed that the majority orientation is the only legitimate one, and if Victor were to resume behaving in a heterosexual manner, it would be the simple solution to the obstacles in their marriage.
In the epilogue of The Straight Spouse, the author states her fervent wish “for a world where all clergy are trained in seminary to embrace the needs of couples who are struggling with unresolved sexual orientation issues by showing Christ-like compassion and offering non-judgmental, practical guidance.” Amen, to that. I would add a fervent wish that family members, friends, and fellow congregants learn to provide the kind of understanding and acceptance to couples in this complex scenario that sadly, Vivian found lacking in her own experience.
As for may pastoral “performance” on that evening in 1976? What perhaps salvaged my clumsy attempt to provide pastoral care for that young shattered wife in my study was that I had had the opportunity to develop friendships at the divinity school with several gay and lesbian fellow students. At least the wife, I sincerely hope, did not feel shamed or degraded.
Since 1976, I have become aware of similarly emotionally convoluted situations in several other heterosexual marriages, including that of a valued colleague. I suspect that more couples like Vivian and Victor exist in our society—and sit in our pews—than we are aware. Vivian even provides a helpful list of helpful resources. I recommend Fransen’s The Straight Spouse to all who wish to have an enlightened and compassionate understanding of them.
You may not need reminding, but my own second novel, Accidental Saviors, has been released. It will celebrate its launch into the literary world this coming Sunday. Accidental Saviors is less timid and shy than its author. I hope to see some Philly-area friends there.
Till the next time, cherish each blessed day of the spring and sprinkle it with some reading. And, let me know what you’re thinking and reading.