By Their Fruit… Chapter 1: Thoroughly Evangelical, by Benny Hazlehurst

So how does a committed evangelical end up advocating acceptance of gay relationships?

That is a question I am often asked in one way or another.  Sometimes I’m asked it by evangelicals who can’t work out how an evangelical Christian can possibly affirm gay relationships.  Other times it is asked by people who are pro-gay and assume that in order to make that step, I must have stopped being an evangelical Christian!

So in these pages I will try to answer that question for both groups and possibly for others who are trying to find their way through this moral maze.

It has to be said that I didn’t start out as an evangelical Christian.

I was brought up in a vicarage family and my parents were definitely at the high church end of the scale.  Every Spring Bank Holiday, we would make the trek down to Walsingham for the annual pilgrimage, and we often went on holiday to St Mary’s Convent in Wantage where my mum had been a nun for 3 years (before she met my dad!)

But it was definitely a Christian upbringing, and I can never recall a time when I did not know that God was in my life.  Even as a young child I can remember reading my Children’s Bible from cover to cover, time and time again.

It was when I was 12 that things began to change.

First of all, I started to question if this God which I had always believed in was real.  I can’t say that it started out as a deep theological search.  It was rather the thought that if God wasn’t real I would be able to do whatever I wanted; so it was more of a bid for freedom from a moral code than searching after God!  God, however, had other ideas!

Secondly, after a number of dry years in their Christian faith, my parents started to come into contact with Charismatic Renewal, and as a result their faith and experience of God was being brought to life in a new & powerful way.  They began to take me with them to large meetings of lively spirit-filled Christians, and to hear preachers like David Watson and Colin Urquhart, many of whom were not just Charismatic, but also Evangelical with a profound sense of the power and authority of the scriptures.

To cut a long story short, God showed me in no uncertain terms that he was real.  Between the ages of 13 and 16 I knew that he was calling me to follow him.  And to follow him, not just because my parents did, or because I had been brought up to, but because I had made my own decision to do so.

This all finally came together for me in June 1978 when I felt God prompting me to go forward at the final day of a David Watson mission to Manchester.  I committed my life to being a disciple of Christ, and asked him to be my Lord as well as my Saviour!

From then on, I couldn’t get enough of God!

I had already started to read my Bible from cover to cover, and did that several times over the years that followed.  Every time I got to the end, I would simply start again.  I had already started to attend an adult home group for prayer and Bible Study.  I began to attend other churches as well as my parents church, often Pentecostal churches, where they were a little confused by this Anglican who firmly believed in Jesus, was Baptised in the Spirit, and who spoke in tongues!

All of this led me without realising it, into the evangelical wing of the Christian faith, a place where I felt more and more at home, and which had the in-depth Bible teaching that I longed for and thrived on.

When I was 16, I finally gave in to God who had been calling me quite clearly to ordained ministry for 2 years or more, and I filled in my first form for the diocese to apply for ordination.  I started up a Youth Fellowship in my church, got involved at the Christian Union at school, began organising evangelistic events, and taking groups of my fellow teenagers to events like Greenbelt and Lee Abbey Youth Camps.

In doing this I began a second transition.

The first transition was from being a believer to being a disciple.  This second transition was from being simply a follower to becoming a Christian leader, who other people looked to for both teaching and example.  And in making this transition, I became aware of what a huge responsibility it is.   When people ask you what the Bible says about this or that, or seek advice about their own discipleship, you can’t simply say “I dunno – ask someone else”.  Whenever faced with a difficult question, I would try to find an answer – going to the Bible, reading what others had written, taking opportunities to hear sermons and teaching on that issue, so that I could pass on what I had learnt.

One issue which had begun to become more commonly talked about was, of course, the Gay issue.  What did the Bible teach on homosexuality?  How should homosexuals live their lives in the sight of God?  Was it possible indeed, for homosexuals to even be Christians?!?!

Finding answers to these questions was not that difficult.  Everything I read said that the Bible condemns homosexual sex, and as I looked up the proof texts quoted, sure enough I found clear evidence for this.  Homosexuality was an abandoning of our natural desires, and acting on those desires was an abomination to God. People who lived out their homosexual desires would not inherit the kingdom of God.  At best, homosexuals needed healing – at worst they were instruments of corruption.

I would hear evangelistic speakers call upon homosexuals to repent and submit to Christ, and although I did not know anyone personally who professed to be a homosexual, I readily & faithfully passed on this teaching to anyone who asked.  Celibacy and abstinence for life was the only option (unless God healed you to be a heterosexual once again!)

Yet deep down, even then, I think there was disquiet in my soul about this.  As a teenager, I knew only too well the struggle to come to terms with the powerful desires that are awakened at that time of life – the all pervading power of falling in love for the first time (indeed second or third!) – the struggle to contain sexual desires, which seem all too unruly, and live a holy life honouring to God.  So the message to homosexuals that all their sexual desires were wrong, and that if they wanted to follow Christ, they had to say goodbye to any hope of fulfilling those desires did not always sit easily with me.  At least I could look forward to the day when I would be married and be able to have a sexual relationship which brought fulfillment & honoured God!  Homosexuals couldn’t – unless they were ‘healed’ – and this seemed like a huge burden to place on their shoulders.

As a result of this, I remember going to True Freedom Trust’s seminars at Greenbelt one year.  I had already sent off for their literature, and I went to the seminars because I needed to hear the message of celibacy & abstinence from a gay Christian to give it validity in my heart.  I had heard many heterosexuals preach this message but what did they know (indeed, what did I know!) of the effect that message would have on a gay Christian trying to live it out.  If only I could hear a gay Christian say it, then I could quote them and their experience rather than talking about something I had no understanding of.

And sure enough that was the message I heard at those seminars.  It was put gently and sensitively, but clearly, and by gay Christians.  They were at pains to point out that ‘being’ a homosexual was not sinful, but that acting upon your desires was.  The only option was being celibate, and it was in that discipline that true freedom in Christ was to be found.

So I went away reassured by this message, and continued to pass it on to others.   I went on to university, and books like John Stott’s “Issues facing Christians today” further strengthened this conviction, as well as the evangelical Christians I spent much of my time with.

I joined OICCU, the Christian Union at Oxford, was a college rep, and was then asked to serve on the Exec (the committee which ran OICCU) as Outreach Secretary in a mission year.  Despite a greater openness at university to gay issues, I found little to challenge my assumptions and the line I took.  I didn’t know any gay people – or more accurately, I didn’t know that any of the people I knew were gay.  The evangelical circles I moved in considered this to be a open & shut case, so what was there to discuss?  In my second year, my room in college was next door to the University President of GaySoc, but that didn’t impinge.  We said hello in the corridor but our lives didn’t cross apart from that.  I wasn’t out to ‘get him’ and he wasn’t out to ‘get me’ so what little contact we had was pleasant enough.

What I didn’t know, until much later, was that a number of the people I was in regular contact with were in fact gay.  My college chaplain was one, someone I worked very closely with in OICCU was another, and other friends eventually ‘came out’.  Some are now in enduring relationships of 20 years or more.  But I didn’t know that, and interestingly (though not surprisingly) even though some of those friendships continued after university, none of them ever told me directly – I always heard it from someone else.

After university, I spent some time in Christian ministry, doing youth and conference work.  I also spent a year in London working as a dispatch rider, and a year in Hong Kong working in Jackie Pullinger’s work with drug addicts.  The issue seemed to go away.

It was only when I began my training for ordination at Trinity College Bristol that it re-emerged in a new and disturbing way – a way which brought into stark relief the issues which had concerned me as a teenager and would force me to examine once again what I believed & taught others to believe.

When I reflect on this, I see how easy it is to talk in absolutes on this issue when you are not being confronted or challenged by the experience of dealing with real people.  It is much harder when you are face to face with a friend, whose life has quite literally fallen apart after trying, but failing to live up to impossible ideals.

But that time of complacency was coming to a shattering end.  From then on, I would have to face the issue head on, face to face with Christians whose experience was very different to mine.

Next – Chapter 2: The problem of Mike

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