The Rev. Peter Mitchell is not gay, and never has been. Sure, he began feeling sexually attracted to men during childhood, but in the eyes of this married man, father of two sets of twins, and pastor of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in West Ashley, being gay is an identity a person chooses.
Mitchell was in seminary when he first confessed to his wife that he was attracted to a fellow student. "I always thought that if I got married and could sexually perform, then a huge load would be taken off of my life," he says. "I didn't want to live a gay life, but the problem was I wanted homosexual experiences. It was the most shameful part of my life." Mitchell believes that people choose to be gay and that therapy can help people to realize they're actually straight.
After seminary, a fellow priest recommended that he enroll in a program called Living Waters, designed to help the "sexually broken" mend themselves. It was through that course that he attributed his same-sex attractions to a weak relationship with his father and says that forgiving him was a huge factor in his healing.
"It was slow, but I started to notice my same-sex attraction radically diminished," Mitchell says. "I believed God could heal me, but I just couldn't get Him down there to do it. I realized that He goes down there. I just had to be available to Him."
Holy Trinity now offers a program that Mitchell created called Beloved Son, designed for men seeking sexual redemption. "It's for people that want help, who are unhappy, and whose lives are in conflict," he explains. "They know at a gut level if they're broken. It's not a quick fix, but God is committed to their full transformation, however long it takes. Transformation is powerful and beautiful, but can be tragically painful."
Mitchell says he gets calls every week from people seeking help and says that our "do what I want as long as it doesn't hurt anybody" culture is at the root of homosexuals' pain. "I find it incredibly sad and closed-minded that the prevailing wind of our society is intolerant toward people changing their sexual attraction," he says. "It really bothers me when people say they're classically liberal but are utterly intolerant of reparative therapy."
At a time when the national Episcopal Church is self-destructing over its position on homosexuality, Mitchell is a paradox. He's "suffered from same-sex attraction" all his life and still feels tempted in "really insecure moments when life is particularly hard," but he's as convinced as anyone in the traditionally conservative diocese of South Carolina that homosexual behavior is a sin.
"I see any sexual behavior outside of marriage as incompatible with following Jesus," says Mitchell. "What the church has taught for 2,000 years still holds true, even though culturally it's a whole lot more unpopular. There's this dilemma for me, knowing Jesus, and yet being drawn toward and desiring experiences which are prohibited."
In 2003, the diocese of New Hampshire ordained Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church's first non-celibate, openly gay bishop. That action has led to turmoil in the international Anglican Communion, of which the U.S.-based Episcopal Church is only a part. A meeting of the Anglican primates in Tanzania led to demands that the Episcopal Church cease ordaining practicing homosexuals, giving a deadline of Sept. 30 for a response. A statement from a meeting of American bishops in New Orleans released last month continued to tiptoe around the issue, using vague language that indicates little change will occur.
This past October, after 274 years, Christ Church-Savannah left the Episcopal Church. Often called the "mother church of Georgia," the parish opted to join the theologically conservative Province of Uganda, under the worldwide Anglican Communion.
It's not an unprecedented move. Over the last five years, Episcopal Churches throughout the South, including the equally historic Christ Church in Mobile, Ala., have left the Episcopal Church in frustration over the Church's growing tolerance of homosexuality. The population of the African-based Anglican churches are growing by the millions, while the American church's aging, predominantly white makeup is diminishing.
"The crucial thing to understand is that this is a theological controversy, and all the sexual controversy is just the tip of the iceberg," says Kendall Harmon, Canon Theologian for the diocese of South Carolina. "The issue is about authority and the interpretation of scripture and the nature of marriage. The American church embraced a new theology in 2003 without consulting our Anglican brothers and sisters. Worldwide, this American unilateralism has led to a tremendous feeling of betrayal."
There's ample scripture for both sides of the homosexuality debate to defend their positions. Gay-friendly parishes like St. Stephen's Episcopal on Anson Street cite verses like Isaiah 56:7, which states, "My house shall be called the house of prayer for all people."
Bert Keller, pastor of the Circular Congregational Church on Meeting Street, mentions the "majestic inclusiveness of the household of God," in a 2004 sermon about marriage. "Every home, whatever its form, brings value to us and to God," says Keller. "There's absolutely no indication in the Bible that the family is 'sacred.' To the contrary, only God is holy and everything else is not. You can know all the verses that tell some readers God is displeased with homosexuality and miss the overwhelming point that the character of God is to love and accept us all purely for who we are in Christ."
Those in the church who oppose condoning homosexuality cite the understanding throughout the Bible that marriage is a gift from God, designed for one man and one woman. They also believe that homosexuality is not purely biological and that people, like Holy Trinity's Mitchell, can be "cured." Whether or not people are "gay," they'll say that "behavior is always a decision" and that homosexual behavior is a sin.
Rev. David Williams, pastor of the gay-friendly St. Stephen's Episcopal and a former psychotherapist, isn't sold on the viability of programs like Living Waters and Beloved Son. "Therapeutic compliance is when a patient will do anything a doctor tells them to do," says Williams. "Then it's a question of how long you can continue to hold the position that you're cured and now straight."
Williams differs from his diocese, and hopes one day that he can bless same-sex unions at St. Stephen's. He says, "There can be a godly marriage even if people are of the same sex." — Stratton Lawrence