Although I would not always have recognised the language, I have always self-identified as heterosexual and cisgender. Other options and alternatives only existed in lurid tabloid headlines and as opportunities for blackmail storylines in TV dramas. Growing up I knew of nobody who was openly gay.
I did encounter homophobic bullying, although I would not have recognised it as such. As a relatively shy and naive teenager I was verbally taunted and physically ‘touched’ by classmates for being gay. I wasn’t gay, but that only served to heighten my sense of outrage. Looking back, I realise that at least one of my classmates was gay. I wonder how he felt on seeing the bullying? I wonder how he felt on seeing my outrage? Why was I so offended at being ‘accused’ of being gay?
I remember occasionally hearing evangelical preachers condemn homosexuality as the ‘sin of Sodom and Gomorrah’. One particularly vivid sermon at a Christian summer convention, filled with colourful language and imagery, was powerful and yet oddly not compelling. I laughed about it with a slightly younger friend who was with me. We laughed together. It was another 10 years before he felt able to come out (to me) as gay.
My parents’ faith became my faith when I was 14, and I became an active part of a multi-church youth group (a follow on from Crusaders). I remember on one occasion we were joined by a visitor who in the course of sharing and praying spoke of how she was wrestling with being a lesbian and not feeling/thinking (I wonder which?) that to be compatible with being a Christian. We prayed for her.
My faith developed into a relatively conservative evangelical faith, informed by the wonderful independent Reformed evangelical church I joined as a theology undergraduate. I knew that as a leader of the CU I had to get up and leave a Methsoc event addressed by the President of the Methodist Conference when he started to defend the idea of being both gay and Christian. I knew that the Methodist Chaplain was relatively openly gay. I knew that the person who ran an excellent coffee venue in town for one of the local churches had left our church because he came out as gay. I knew what I believed and what I felt I had to believe. But I also remember a growing sense of wondering why?
What was the problem? It wasn’t that I felt unclear regarding what the Bible said (although I am a lot less clear as to the sense and meaning of certain texts today), but rather a sense of not quite understanding what the problem was? Why would God choose to favour one expression of loving sexuality over another? I could see clear moral and ethical principles behind ‘do not kill’ and ‘do not commit adultery’ but issues of sexual orientation seemed much less obviously ‘wrong’. And if in fact it was not ‘wrong’ to love someone and express that love – irrespective of gender – then a huge injustice was being supported and enabled by the teachings of my church and my failure to challenge them.
In 1996, whilst a student at RPC, I chose to undertake a summer placement at St James’s Church, Piccadilly. As well as wanting to experience a church tradition quite different from my own, I was aware of St James’s because of its Alternatives programme on Monday evenings – exploring a variety of beliefs and teachings around what might loosely be termed New Age Spirituality. What I hadn’t anticipated was getting to know the then Rector – Donald Reeves – who was and is a champion for full equality within the church. During my placement I witnessed my first Gay Pride, sitting outside the church with a seminar group as the parade passed by, and participating in a very moving Eucharist to mark the occasion. I listened to fellow believers talking about how they had kept their sexuality hidden in church for fear of the responses they would receive, and I listened to people recounting how they had been treated when they had come out to friends, family, and their church. I also remember asking forgiveness for the way I reacted to those homophobic taunts as a teenager. Perhaps my calling was to explore what it would mean to identify with people who are LGBT rather than distancing myself?
My first sabbatical included a week living at Iona Abbey. One of the groups sharing in the week was from a Metropolitan Community Church, and I spent long hours that week talking with their minister. I was ministering in a relatively conservative context and wrestling with the growing dichotomy between what I believed and what I believed I was expected to believe. I began to recognise the irony of my need to ‘come out’ as gay affirming as a pale shadow of the reality LGBT friends often face as they come out to friends, family, and churches. But I was also wrestling with how this fitted with my calling to be an accredited BUGB minister – a calling that would not go away.
In 2009 I listened to Bishop Gene Robinson at Greenbelt speaking on the seven ‘texts of terror’ – the passages most commonly used to demonstrate the inherent sinfulness of homosexuality, and thereby to terrorise members of the LGBT community within and outside of our churches. I found his exegesis helpful, but my abiding memory is of listening to him describe his consecration service. Bishop Robinson spoke of the death threats made against him, and of the considered advice he received that he should wear a bullet-proof vest under his vestments. I remember wondering how this issue above all others has led to Christians threatening and bullying one another to the point of violence and death threats?
I remember the first time I publically challenged homophobic attitudes. The local paper in the town where I was ministering carried an ‘outraged’ letter from a local resident who had seen men kissing each other on an episode of Emmerdale. I can’t remember what I wrote (I am not given to writing letters to the press) but I was reasonably robust in defending Emmerdale and the LGBT community. I’m not sure Emmerdale noticed, but I did receive a wonderful thank you card from a member of a local church who currently felt unable to come out due to the culture of bullying he had experienced. Again I was challenged by the realisation that to say nothing is to say something, and time and again what LGBT people were hearing was that they were not welcome.
For a long time I had resolved to give honest and open answers to people when they asked me my views on homosexuality, but I seldom chose to raise the questions publically. This reluctance to initiate conversations was to a certain extent a personal response to the then MRC rules which I felt actively discouraged me from taking anything other than a ‘traditional’ line as an accredited BUGB minister. But as the years went by it became clear to more and more of my previous church that when I preached on inclusion as a BUGB core value I really did believe inclusion included LGBT friends. This was approved of by some, tolerated by others, and considered an unfortunate aberration by a few. But we had been together a long time. We coped!
Whilst being interviewed by my current church 4 years ago I was asked in a Q&A about my position on same sex marriage. (I prefer the term equal marriage, or simply marriage). My response was to turn it back on the church itself. I responded that despite the fact that at the time it would have potentially resulted in me personally being at odds with the then BUGB MRC rules, and therefore arguably conduct unbecoming, I would consider a request if my church urged me to. My point was a serious one. I considered, and still consider, that this is an issue that needs to be decided by the local church – in line with the first article of our BUGB Declaration of Principle. This answer, which was both an answer and a somewhat guarded response, cost me some votes but I received a call to the ministry of the church.
During my third year of ministry in my current church a few people began to be concerned that my preaching of inclusivity was actually meant to be taken seriously. Other matters of concern precipitated a church-wide discussion on issues relating to making moral choices (utilising BUGB materials of that name from 15 years or so ago…), which included issues relating to joining and serving in a Baptist Church whilst in a same-sex relationship.
2016 was an unsettling and difficult year for our local church, resulting in a significant number of people leaving for a variety of reasons. At a critical moment, and not unrelated to the decision of BUGB Council in March to ‘humbly urge’ churches to refrain from registering for same sex marriages, I was again asked in a CMM what my personal opinion was on this issue. I at last felt able to say, loud and clear, that I would be thrilled to one day be able to marry people equally in church. Of course, I also stressed that my personal opinion was not the point! This will ultimately be a decision for our church, and we have no plans to have this discussion at the moment. We have much else to resolve first!
One of the key questions is what has led me to this settled conviction? There are clues in some of the experiences I relate above, and in conversations with friends unmentioned. I do find that the argument from the few Biblical texts that reference homosexuality is less compelling than it used to be – not least because I am convinced that what was being rejected then is not the same as what is being affirmed today. However, the overriding argument in my mind is at a much more fundamental level.
As I have slowly taken leave of some of my conservative evangelical heritage I have rejected a number of things I once tried to defend – including a literal young earth six day creationism. I am fully convinced of the scientific evidence for evolution, including human evolution, over a very long period of history. However, this has left me more, not less, convinced of the overarching and undergirding role of God in creation. I believe in a God who has created and is creating. I believe that we are created in God’s image and likeness. All people. All ethnicities. All genders. All sexualities. All made in the image of God.
I cannot conceive of homosexuality as an illness or an abnormality. Gender identity is a fluid and complex matter and whilst the issues it raises and the responses it provokes can prove a strain on our mental health I cannot conceive of them as symptoms of illness. Old attempts to criminalise, stigmatise and to categorise in terms of mental health issues continue to need challenging within society and within the church.
Why does the church struggle to adjust and adapt? Many answers come to mind, but I think one issue in particular will reward further investigation. For far too long Christianity has associated sex and sexuality with sin. Christianity has often been perceived as antagonistic to all expressions of sex and sexuality beyond the ‘necessary evil’ of procreation. This has also been coupled with patriarchal agendas damaging to women. We need to revisit a whole raft of issues related to sex and sexuality – sex before marriage, cohabitation, faithfulness in marriage (adultery is sinful not because it is sexual but because it breaks covenant faithfulness), masturbation, sex after marriage – as well as find a way forward that is appropriately affirming of people of all genders and sexualities in their God-given created-ness.
A final reflection. Why did I take my church through this unsettling conversation? We don’t even have anyone within our church who openly identifies as LGBT... Many years ago we had to lead our churches through the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act. Some churches were reluctant to install ramped access because ‘we don’t have anyone who uses a wheelchair.’ Of course they didn’t – they couldn’t get up the steps! Why is there no one in my church that is openly LGBT? We believe they would be welcomed, but have we said as much? Have we demonstrated an openness and equality, or do we actively or passively continue the message of condemnation and rejection? My church has a banner outside which boldly proclaims that we are ‘A Church for everyone…’ Are we?