Being in a body – Embodiment, gender, sexuality and spiritual accompaniment

ARE WE spiritual beings having an embodied experience or embodied beings capable of spiritual experience?

Elements of this workshop are based on Terry Biddington’s book Recipes For Good Living

This was the question with which I began a recent workshop for trainee spiritual directors on embodiment, gender and sexuality, which I deliver on behalf of the Open Table network of ecumenical worship communities for LGBTQIA+ Christians and all who seek an inclusive church.

I didn’t profess to have the answer – it’s a question that has exercised philosophers and theologians, probably for as long as we’ve been conscious of our identity as humans. The aim of the half-day workshop was to enable those seeking to offer spiritual accompaniment the space to explore what this means to them, so they in turn might create space for others to do the same. I introduced them to resources for reflection on embodiment, gender and sexuality, and how our identity or sense of self may impact on our spirituality.

The 2.5 hour workshop was based on a series of six 1.5 hour sessions I delivered with Terry Biddington, former Chaplain to the Manchester Universities, at St Peter’s House, Manchester, in 2015. These were the themes for each of the six weeks:

  1. What makes a person
  2. Identity & individuality
  3. Being in a body
  4. Sense and sensuality
  5. Sex & gender
  6. Sex & sexuality
Resources on individuality, gender and sexuality were based on the work of Sam Killerman

The first part of the spiritual directors’ workshop focussed on personhood, individuality and embodiment. It was inspired by Recipes For Good Living: The Beginner’s Guide to Spirituality by Rev Terry Biddington, which he wrote in response to questions he encountered from students in the university chaplaincy. I also incorporated resources on individuality, gender and sexuality by Sam Killerman, author of and A Guide to Gender: The Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook.

Participants on the spiritual directors’ course asked three questions which I felt deserved more reflective answers than I was able to give on the day. I’m sharing them here, with the permission of the course leader, with my responses:

Why is it relevant for an LGBT+ person to ‘come out’ about their gender or sexuality?

I suggest taking a person-centred approach (offering the core conditions of empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard, as discussed in Brian Thorne’s book Infinitely Beloved: The Challenge of Divine Intimacy, 2003). This approach might ask ‘Why does this person need to share this?’ NOT ‘Why is it relevant for me to know this?’ In my experience, good accompaniment can enable people to find their own meaning in life’s circumstances in a way that is more ‘congruent’ (genuine, honest, authentic) than being directed by another, however well-meaning. For example, an LGBT+ person may need to tell me, for example, because they may see me as a representative of a faith community which has previously judged, rejected or otherwise hurt them, so they may feel the need to check if they can trust me with this experience. If they tell me early in my time of supporting them and they feel they can trust me, I am likely to be able to continue to accompany them beyond that moment of self-revelation. If they share this experience and feel I am unable to accept it, they are less likely to build or maintain a relationship of trust with me. If someone comes out to you, I suggest thanking them for trusting you, and asking what it means for them. If you are accompanying someone who ‘comes out’ to you, you may be the first person with whom they have shared it – it is good to support them to reach greater self-acceptance. It may not be helpful to suggest they ‘come out’ to others – for some it will be a good thing, for others it might be irrelevant, premature, or unsafe to do so. Help the individual decide what is best for them – this may include considering peer pressure, either to keep their secret from, or come out to others.

Should I ask a direct question if I think someone is gay?

I recommend open questions which gently and respectfully invite the person to share their experience. If I ask a direct, closed question, it may be unexpected if I haven’t prepared the ground and taken the lead from the other person, or unwelcome if the person is not ready to discuss this or I have made an assumption which is incorrect. For example, drawing on the Genderbread Person resource – a woman may appear more masculine or a man more feminine than their peers: that tells me something about their gender expression (how they present their gender to the world) but it doesn’t necessarily tell me anything about their biological sex, gender identity or sexual orientation (it might, but it would be wrong to assume it). An open question might be ‘What do you look for in a relationship?’ A clue might be the gender they use in the answer – e.g. if they say ‘a person’ rather than a man or woman, or if they use a pronoun for someone of the same gender.

Is it possible for the politics of identity and ‘labels’ to go too far?

Sometimes, yes. To take an extreme example – someone may come to you believing they are a unicorn. The person-centred approach would be to explore what that means to them, which might reveal deeper issues needing care and support, and in time lead them to integrate these into a more mature, holistic and healthy understanding of themselves. The directive approach might tell them unicorns don’t exist, that they only have two legs and no horn, etc. Such responses would more likely close a person down and send them away feeling unheard or misunderstood. Carl Rogers, the founder of the person-centred approach, wrote:

‘The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.’

On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy (Rogers 1995)

If we can offer the core conditions of empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard, we can help to create an environment where the person we accompany comes to believe they are loved as they are, and can become the best they can be, with our help and God’s.

At the end of the session I shared a prayer attributed to Fr Mychal Judge, an openly gay celibate Franciscan priest who was chaplain to the New York Fire Department and the first recorded casualty of the World Trade Center attacks on September 11th 2001:

‘Lord, take me where you want me to go,
let me meet who you want me to meet,
tell me what you want me to say,
and keep me out of your way.’

If I am accompanying people, and am tempted to judge or direct them, I find it helpful to pray this to remind me that I am here to be a channel for the love of God, which can overcome the limits of my love.

For more information about Open Table, visit: To explore the possibility of Open Table delivering workshops in your community, click ‘Contact us’ on the Open Table website.

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