Where to start? I'm the youngest of four children, all brothers, part of a staunchly conservative evangelical family. Wikipedia describes my father like this: "Wenham had the distinction of being a conservative theologian, a defender of biblical inerrancy", although as specialists would detect he propounded a few unorthodox views. My mother came from another evangelical family. So I have evangelical genes through and through. We had animated mealtime discussions, but I don't recall any mention of the decriminalization of homosexuality, which following the Wolfenden Report (1957) was eventually passed into law when I was 18. Nor am I aware of being very conscious of the issue. I noticed CS Lewis in his Surprised by Joy referring to gay activity in Malvern College when he was a boarder there, but I don't recall speculating whether there was any in the boarding houses of the public school where I was a day boy. The idea of "fancying" (in the ugly term) boys didn't enter my head. The only fancies I had were for those who were very definitely the fairer and more exciting sex. I am immensely grateful for the innocent foundation for life that my parents gave me. I had a most happy and privileged upbringing.
So then I went to Cambridge - all men's college of course - and immersed myself in the evangelical Christian Union, work and visiting Footlights where my best friend was President. I look back with chagrin at myself as blind and deaf. I now realise there were a number of gay men among my friends, but when one of them asked me what I thought of homosexuality, my answer was somewhat dismissive, like, "Well, sex is meant for procreation, so it must be between a man and a woman. Otherwise it's wrong." For him that conversation held infinitely more significance than for me. Many years later I apologised to him and he remains a friend, which says much for his graciousness. I continued to enjoy the sitting-beside company of both men and women; but face-to-face love was reserved for women, eventually one in particular who agreed to marry me.
Which is a long preamble to explain why, when I was finally ordained into the priesthood, I remained thoroughly orthodox in my religious convictions and teaching. Much as I dislike such labels, I would have called myself a conservative evangelical, Bible-believing, strict on remarriage, anti-women bishops, anti-homosexuality and sceptical about charismatics (who believe that the Holy Spirit is still miraculously active today). And now I return to my previous post, which was about the revolution - or was it evolution? - in St Peter's attitude to non-Jews, moving from believing them to be unclean to welcoming them as fellow-believers just like him, and sitting down to eat their food. Luke in Acts describes the step-by-step process which my commentator says God was taking him on to think the unthinkable and to accept the unacceptable, and of course change the history of world Christianity.
My journey was similarly gradual. I have previously recorded two milestones, but never in my blog what might be regarded as the first. As I journaled shortly after: "That night, 30th September 1994, opened my eyes to the tangible reality of encounter with God. Whereas I had been able to assert God's activity in retrospect, I now began to find him in the present." It was an event witnessed only by my wife in our home, but the results of which were noticed for better or worse by many more. In other words I had discovered that my charismatic friends were right. The Holy Spirit is more than an odd old expression. Maybe that was what prepared me for subsequent changes, such as coming to the conviction that women may hold leadership roles and even become bishops! My faith in the authority of the Bible remained, but it too was changing to understand it in its cultural context and apply it in our contemporary context. I've found it nowhere better expressed than in the late Rachel Held Evans' Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again.
|from Meriam Webster dictionary|
Not on the Damascus road nor in a Tel Aviv apartment but in a Somerset field, I was finally turned round. It wasn't a voice from the sky, but it was a clear conviction which has never left me in spite of doubts. We sought the woman out. She told us her story, which included being banned from leading the youth group in her church years earlier and made unwelcome there. Since then she had not lost her faith, simply her fellowship. When I embraced her and her partner, she commented, "You know, you're the first Christian who has hugged me since I came out." And so supporting LGBTI+ people has become important to me. I want them to know that they are just as much loved and just as unconditionally as any other of us human beings. I have been indignant at the bile and vitriol directed at gay Christians by others who also call themselves Christians. This terribly happened when Christian musician, Vicky Beeching, admitted to a newspaper journalist that she was and always had been gay. She wrote her story in her painful book, Undivided, (see my review here Undivided by Vicky Beeching) in which incidentally she picks up the parallel of the story of Peter and the Gentiles. This week I hesitate to use the word, but the reaction to her coming out has been as near to verbal crucifixion as I have witnessed.
Having met and talked to LGBT people and their parents, especially within the church, I know that it's not a lifestyle choice. It is in their hardwiring. Which is why "conversion therapy" of any sort is so cruel. It's saying either, "You are an egregious sinner, who needs to be converted," or, "You are dangerously ill and need to be healed." I am glad the Church of England has called for it to be banned, but sad that other Christians disagree (Evangelicals urge PM not to ban conversion therapy). In her very good Thought for the Day on Radio 4's Today programme, Catherine Pepinster (listen here) quoted the late Cardinal Basil Hume: "In whatever context it arises and always respecting the appropriate manner of its expression, love between two persons whether of the same sex or a different sex is to be treasured and respected." Yes, all faithful love is to be treasured.
Who's to say whether I'm still an evangelical - not that I have much time for exclusive labels? I'd simply say I'm a sinner who tries to learn from and follow Jesus.
And so, to my dedicatees, and all your sisters and brothers, I will say, God welcomes you without reservation in His Church and you will find many churches who will also welcome you unreservedly. You're no worse a sinner than I am; and you don't need to be cured. You are loved for who you are.