LGBT and the Christian story (Part 1) -On growing up evangelical and the damaging silence

The short term prompt for this post is Peter Oulds piece in Christianity today, in which the title reads ‘why evangelicals need a better story’ which you can read for yourself here , it is a response to the conversations from a variety of high profile publications from prominent christians who profess to identify as LGBT,  his published piece includes the lines:

And this is something the evangelical church simply fails to do time and time again. Even today with so many gay conservatives being open about their sexuality, it is incredibly hard to stand up and say ‘I’m gay’ in the middle of an evangelical church teaching traditional orthodox theology. There is still too much suspicion, too much assumption. There is the fear about how you’ll be received, whether you’ll still be able to do the ministries that you were involved in. It’s getting better in many places, but it’s still a problem and needs to be addressed. You see the problem in the way that the tragic suicide of Lizzie Lowe (which might have been avoided if the church in question had taught clearly from the front that being gay was not in and of itself sinful) is currently being weaponised by liberals as a tool to promote revisionist teaching.

This is the point. The reason why Vicky Beeching couldn’t continue her ministry wasn’t because she came out, it was because she came out and accompanied it with a particular theological position. When Beeching chooses a title like Undivided she is actually playing a very clever game, because revisionists want to so conflate orientation and activity that in society’s (and the church’s) inability to divide them we find ourselves defending both because there is no other possibility.

And I think he is right, I think a different story needs to be found within evangelicalism, one that is more expansive, and takes maybe more into account. That will feature in part 2 of this two part series. This first piece is on the silence of the story, or shall i say the silence of the LGBT position within the story, that I and i think a whole load of people experienced growing up evangelical in the 1970,80s and 90’s.

Yet in the interests of self disclosure, I have begun to reflect on my own personal journey in thinking, believing and opinionating about the issue of gender inclusion and the church, or more so, gender inclusion and the evangelical church.

Questions that I ask myself have been like – when did i hear anything about LGBT as a young christian?  Where did i get information? when did i think or realise even that people could be ‘gay’?

In terms of my story, it was a post brethren evangelical church that I grew up in. One in which had a relative position of strength, at the time, it had built its own building locally and was becoming influential locally. But growing up, conversations about gender inclusion and sexuality were fairly low down on the list of regular sermon topics, or youth group chat, and all a bright eyed teenager like myself really had the tools to deal with it was to ‘look at what the bible said’ . Even Steve Chalke in his ‘lessons in love’ videos which we watched in youth group,  didnt mention that Boys and Boys could be in a relationship. So, when dangerously right wing Ken Ham and his creationist brigade turned up, and talked about Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve, and the literal reading of creation, i kind of wished i hadnt but, i kind of lapped it up. After all, it felt like, or i wasnt encouraged to, critically think about what was being said and the perspective being offered, at 15 I thought that being compliant with a perspective was what was required, what was needed to be accepted in the church. Only the compliant survived, or so I thought.

Teachers at school were bullied for being gay. I dont think i joined in at the time, i hope i didnt. I might even have thought that they were evil for being gay. forgive me.

In early 1994, a trip to see the film ‘Philadelphia’ and being moved to tears, even as a 15 year old caused me to think about gender, and relationships, and how this seems to be at odds with an evangelical faith that i knew of. Or at least scenes in it where the church  is represented by those who protest against someone, who may have life/death decisions to make. Whos side would i be on?

I have my A level English department to thank for pushing this further.

I had to read ‘Oranges are not the only fruit’ by Jeanette Winterson, as one of the key texts in the A level course. It famously tells of the powerful story that was based on her own experiences of awakening sexuality, lesbian attraction and how this was met with the full fury of a ultra conservative Pentecostal church. Where deliverance and prayer was being enforced whilst the young Jeanette was being pinned down on a chair to receive healing and the removal of demons. It seemed like the worse crime in this story was of spiritual abuse, and childhood neglect.

These children have fallen fowl of their lusts’ – said the preacher to the girls (including Jeanette sitting in the pews)

These children are full of demons’ 

and as the girls protested verabally

Listen to Satans voice’  (Oranges are not the only fruit, 1991, p102)

Could I ask about this story in church, should I- did I – no. The stories stayed separate. Two competing messages were going through my head, the adherence to evangelical beliefs and a story that seemed to ignore, or not engage with homosexual identity, relationships and faith – and on the other hand a growing awakening of the oppression in society and in the church against those who professed to be. And brothers and sisters within a faith who caused damage to others. Call me naive, but that was what i was exposed to and culturally grew up in. Honestly, that two of my relatives were in a same-sex relationship actually was never said to me, just implied.

I could have dismissed the experiences of Jeanette this at the time written it off in class as something that representing the 1960’s or 1970’s. But, unaware to the real world of my A level english class, , there was something of a movement of spiritual renewal happening in churches in the UK at that time. And healing and demon possession removal was back in vogue with the various ‘blessings’ that were being caught, shared and distributed around. So, the practices of ‘Oranges are not the only fruit’ were back in vogue. But we’re they coupled with a greater compassion? Ill get to that a bit later. What certainly wasnt happening was conversations about homosexuality and faith. For me they were happening, at least a little bit in school, in A level English. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

Though what i will say at this point was that conversations about same sex relationships were tentatively explored, though fairly quickly shut down at conference Q&A’s at Soul Survivor, the one i went to in 1996, and not much mention of it as a conversation at any of the youth meetings i ever went to at spring harvest, on 5 occasions as a teenager (again dont judge me) .

I might not be alone in some of this. That sense of growing up evangelical, I have talked about before, trying to cling on to it or find a way of leaving it that doesnt damage faith, what I hadnt necessarily thought about is how an evangelical upbringing, in the 1980’s/90’s provided little in the way of tools, discussions or conversations around human sexuality, and, as a teenager, I was picking up snippets from a whole host of directions, without the building blocks or frame work, or even culture to meaningfully work through these things. It was a subject of too much cloak and dagger. To complicated to try and establish a perspective, to easy to ignore. A subject given the silent treatment. Left for the young person to work it out.

An example of where I was was as follows. Between 1996-1997 I was a team leader of a team of 4 on the Oasis Frontline teams, and sent to the north east, Hartlepool, to work in a team of four in a church doing childrens and youthwork for a year, if anyone wants to know with what i did with 2 years savings from retail work, thats what i did, spent it all on a gap year scheme in the north east, anyway, part of the deal was to undergo training, and this occured above a christian bookshop, the now closed Bridge books and music. I guess this is where i also discovered a love for learning through reading, as many of the sale books ended up on my bookshelf. And, having lived through and now being in what I would have said was the back end then of the renewal movement, I was keen to read more into it, or even to learn of its originators and the theology behind it. So, one of the books I read at the time was ‘Power Healing’ by John Wimber.

Everyone sort of knew who John Wimber was at the time. And if i was to go into Christian Ministry, at this time, knowing about Healing and Renewal seemed to be not a bad way to spend a few quid and give it a read on my next long train journey home. Tell you the truth at the time, it did open my eyes. At the time, only 19, i was sort of impressed by use of the Bible, and the stories in the book, and felt that Wimber talked about something that wasnt really what had been happening in the UK, its as if the movement had shifted from its original intentions.

At the time I probably thought that this section in the piece was fair game. On demon oppression, the following was stated;

‘The presence of one of more of these symptoms indicates the possibility though not the necessity that the person is demonised; contorted physical reactions, addictions to drugs or alcohol, compulsions such as lust, pornography, homosexuality, masturbation, stealing,  murder, lying, suicide, eating disorders’ (Wimber, Power Healing, 1985, p136-137) 

In a way this backed up what I had seen in Oranges. So i didnt question it.

Also it backed up some of the talk about deliverance and the Holy Spirit that had been evoked in the previous 5 years in the UK. Spiritual renewal was back in vogue, and it stemmed with Wimber, and others via Vineyard. Nothing about this caused a reaction to me then. I was part of the evangelical bubble, and with limited  other conversations about homosexuality, this was still the only one in the show in town. Being Homosexual might/might not be a sign of demon possession. Being Homosexual meant that you were a project to try and deal with through deliverance. And as it was said by Wimber, and he was influencing David Pytches and others in Chorleywood (so says the forward to the book), then it stands to reason a bit that this is where some of the UK learning about renewal might have come from. Add this to the sense, that no one is actually going to read this stuff themselves in the evangelical world, just hear about it from others, and the great divergence even from what was written takes place. If Wimber says ‘may or may not’ but see deliverance of homosexuality as a demon possession thing, then what will they go with?

It is only as i re read Wimbers Power Healing last week, on the back of Vicky Beechings experience that I look at what Wimber wrote, and the influence of it, and him, that things make sense. In that bubble, I hadnt questioned this aspect of what Wimber had said at the time. I do now. Why couldnt I then – what was the teaching on homosexuality? Did anyone share or engage in one? In an evangelical bubble where homosexuality is a non conversation, the only conversation that seems to resonate is one of fear, continued ignorance and distance the evangelical community from the deemed impurity of anyone who might be considered homosexual. It all made sense, as did the stories of evangelical parents who kicked out their children as they ‘came out’.

As I said, this is me reading this back 20 odd years later, and recognising the non conversation growing up evangelical about homosexuality. Realising that Oranges was not an extreme case. Realising that permission was even in print to do this. Realising that a silent culture on a subject could allow for positions to foister without challenge, or alternative. And Wimber wasnt as far right about it as Ken Ham was he..? Wimber was, in the evangelical world an established leader, success was following him around.

In Gemma Dunnings excellent chapter ‘Integrity and Imago Dei’ in 4 Views on Pastoring LGBTQ Teenagers (2018), Gemma talks about how unprepared she was with doing ministry with young people in a variety of settings who had been excluded from communities because of profession of or being found to be LGBT, She found that in developing an awareness of informal education, and anti-oppressive practice, she was able to find a method, or at least a view of humanity that helped, as undoubtedly being in the presence of and with her local LGBT community to hear stories will do as well.

And that probably is a similar place to where I pick up the story, for myself. In the mid 2000’s. Talking about anti oppressive practice and equality within youthwork and theology degree course at ICC ( Now NTC, Glasgow). Discovering, because I had ignored, the issues that LGBT identifying young people were likely to experience in society, families and schools, and how youthwork practices could, should help, and create safe spaces for conversations. And not only that, thinking for the first time about how equality is a faith issue, and theology is for those who are oppressed.

This is only the part of this blog in which i have personally looked back at how homosexuality was the big non conversation in growing up evangelical. There was no conversation. LGBT was given the silent treatment within evangelical churches, families and culture, for at least towards those who didnt profess to be LGBT there was no conversation about it that would help create the possibility of a good story about it. The dominant voices were negative, cruel and damaging, and only had one version. One version that was powerfully communicated, one version in which compliance and power to it was rife.

I would like to think that a conversation on LGBT is not as silent in churches for young people today as it was for me 30 years ago. I would like to think so, and Gemmas book, would certainly be a help for anyone wanting to begin a conversation on it. Young people professing LGBT need community more than ever, as churches we have got to normalise 100% acceptance. The silent treatment is just not good enough.

This is part one, of two, the second to be published later in the week, this is a little of what was for me, the LGBT conversation and growing up evangelical. For the many young people in churches in the UK today, there needs to be a different story. One where the two cultures are not separate, and where the stories are more coherent. At least where there is conversation. We owe it to young people to offer spaces of conversation, of listening and place to learn, have question and consider a number of views on LGBT and the christian story. Silence and putting it off isnt going to help anyone.

References

Winterson, Jeanette, Oranges are not the Only Fruit, 1991

Wimber, John Power Healing, 1986

Gemmas resource, Pastoring LGBT teenagers can be purchased via this link: 4 Views on Pastoring LGBT teenagers

This is a powerful read too: http://www.unadulteratedlove.net/blog/2018/7/29/evidence-of-shockingly-prejudiced-attitudes-to-lgbti-people-in-the-church-of-england

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One thought on “LGBT and the Christian story (Part 1) -On growing up evangelical and the damaging silence

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  1. The decades you write about so evocatively here were also the period in which the AIDS pandemic wiped out a generation of gay people. It’s probably worth remembering that the evangelical response to this was that AIDS was a judgement on the immoral sexual behaviour of gay men in particular. This, too, fed the silence and the fear-filled responses of many parents when their children came out.

    It’s also worth noting that there is a more general culture of silence about non-heterosexuality in the Anglican Church. Down to the 1990s Anglo-Catholic parishes were often places where gay men could meet each other without fear of condemnation, but the cost of this was often not actually talking in a meaningfully serious way about the connection between sexuality and faith.

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