It was a beautiful morning in April 2003 – warm and sunny. I had a lot of work to do so I got up early, before the kids were awake, and set about my list of tasks in my office at home. Slowly the world started to move around me. Zac was up first (as always). He was 4 years old – soon to be five and very proud to be in Reception class at Reay Primary School near our home in Brixton. Iona and my wife Mel soon followed. Iona had celebrated her 3rd birthday just a couple of weeks previously and was feeling very grown up, but still needed a lot of help in the mornings. Mel got their breakfasts as I worked, helped them to get dressed, and got Zac ready for school.
Our friend Ali had been visiting and stayed overnight, so after taking Zac to school, Mel called into my office to say that Ali was going to look after Iona, and she was going to Yoga on her bicycle.
I barely looked up from my computer screen as I said “OK darling – bye!” Then I was back, immersed in my work, getting ready for the meetings of the day in the busy parish where I was Vicar & Managing Director all rolled into one.
Christ Church was a small church with a huge organisation. We employed almost 20 people in our Café, Charity Shop, Youth Work, Employment Project & Offices, and we were in the final stages of opening a residential Foyer to house homeless young people.
The work load was immense, and the church was in serious difficulties when I arrived with financial, legal, and people problems. The congregation had been shrinking for some time and was too small to support the empire it had created. Everything had been on the verge of falling apart.
But Mel and I both felt that despite the huge challenge (which could equally end in success or failure) God was calling us there, and one year on, things had started to turn around. The legal & financial issues had been largely resolved; the congregation was growing again; there was hope for the future. There was still a long way to go, but things were slowly moving in the right direction and I was working hard to continue what God had called me to.
Then the phone rang.
I picked it up to hear a voice on the other end saying “You don’t know me but I’m with your wife Mel. She’s been knocked off her bike and its serious.”
I didn’t know what to think.
I ran around the house picking up keys, wallet, mobile phone – and ran out to the car. The accident scene was only a couple of hundred yards away, and as I turned into the road, I saw a line of stationary traffic and a police car in the distance. I remember pulling out & speeding down the wrong side of the road straight for the police car. As I approached it, a large lorry came into view; it was stationary at a strange angle in the road I knew this was the place. I stopped the car in the middle of the road, ran around the lorry and found Mel lying on her stomach in the road, just in front of its huge front wheels with an ambulance crew around her starting to assess her injuries. Other police cars were arriving, sirens blaring and beginning to seal off the area and divert the traffic. And there was my Mel.
I went and knelt at her head and began to talk to her. She was sobbing, “I’m so sorry, Benny”
I sat in the road with her for over an hour as the Ambulance crew worked on her, and as we waited for the Air Ambulance to arrive with a surgeon on board. There were pieces of her leg scattered around the road, and the paramedics didn’t want to risk moving her until a surgeon was on scene. She had quite literally been crushed under the wheels of an 18 ton truck, and it didn’t look good.
Finally the surgeon and air crew arrived and the OK was given to move her. She was loaded, still conscious, onto a stretcher to be taken by helicopter to hospital.
As the helicopter sped away, the police took me to the hospital through the London traffic, sirens wailing & blue lights flashing. When we arrived Mel was in the resuscitation unit. I went in and stood by her head as the team worked to catalogue her injuries, stabilise her, and prepare her for surgery. Every movement brought screams of pain, followed by sobs of fear, the sights and sounds of which still haunt me today.
It was 2 o’clock the next morning when she came out of the operating theatre. They had saved both her leg and her life, but I knew that this was the start of a long road, and that she wasn’t out of danger yet.
Just after 3am, I finally went home for a couple of hours. Mel’s family had travelled down from the Midlands fearing the worst, and Ali, having looked after Zac & Iona through the day needed to know how things were. I also knew I had to be there when the children woke up, so that I could tell them what had happened.
In the space of a few seconds, our lives had been totally changed. A beautiful sunny morning had turned into a life or death ordeal, and both of us, in different ways had been completely shattered.
Over the next 3 months while Mel was in hospital, I was plagued by flashbacks to the scene of the accident. Exhausted by trying to support Mel, looking after our young children, and continuing to work as best I could, I lived on 2 or 3 hours sleep a night, constantly anxious as Mel went in and out of the operating theatre like a ping pong ball.
I was also spiritually shattered.
I had never been the kind of Christian that believed that ‘bad things don’t happen to good people’ but I couldn’t help feeling deeply hurt and betrayed by God. After all, we had been answering His call, and I was sticking my neck out all the way for him in my parish in Brixton – the least He could have done was to watch my back!
All this came into even sharper focus 2 months later, when Mel developed a serious systemic infection on the same day as being told that she needed more life-threatening surgery on her pelvis. I watched as her body slowly shut down over the course of about 24 hours to the point where she was moved into a side room and a nurse was assigned to sit at the bottom of her bed, 24 hours a day as she fought for life. I became convinced that she was going to die, and that hurt even more than the day of the accident. If she had to die, why didn’t God take her then, instead letting her suffer all that time, and allowing me to feel hope again before snatching it all away!
I remember writing to my Bishop, saying that now, for the first time in my life, I really understood how Job felt when God allowed satan to attack him a second time.
Mercifully, Mel did pull through – thank God – after 5 years, 18 operations, and 9 months in hospital, she finished treatment permanently disabled, but not wheelchair bound. We have been rebuilding our lives ever since.
But what has this to do with the issue of homosexuality?
During those early months after the accident, when I was falling apart under the physical, emotional & spiritual strain, the person who did most to hold me together was my spiritual director, Jeffrey John.
He prayed with me, listened to me. At times – when I was unable to – he held on to God for me, and he ministered Christ to me in the midst of all the pain, confusion and despair. He helped me to re-live the awful events of that day so that I could start to deal with them. He prayed for me, and with me when I couldn’t pray.
What was ironic, however, is that at the very same time that he was holding me together, his life was falling apart. For it was at this time that he was appointed Bishop of Reading, and then coerced to resign because he was gay. At the very time he was supporting me, he had become the focus of the media’s all seeing eye, being chased by journalists, torn apart by half the church, and held up to be hit again by the other half!
But even when he was unable to go home because of the press camped outside his door; when some Bishops were writing letters opposing his consecration, and others were saying that he was unfit for service in the church because he was Gay; at that very time, he was listening to me, praying with me, crying alongside me, being Christ to me.
The incongruence – the injustice – the blind prejudice – of this juxtaposition was not lost on me.
‘By their fruits you will know them’ came to my mind again and again.
1 Corinthians 12 came to my mind too – that no-one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. And Jeffrey was saying to me, time and time again, by his prayers, by his actions, by his words, by his love that ‘Jesus is Lord’ – even when life hurts like hell!How could it be then, that this person ‘will not inherit the Kingdom of God’ ? (1 Cor 6:9&10)
As Mel began to heal, I began to realise that I needed to revisit the Scriptures again. What had been a brave move a few years earlier (to respect an alternative understanding of the Bible, even if I didn’t agree with it) was now just sitting on the fence. I had to resolve it. I could no longer say with integrity that I respected a pro-gay understanding of Scripture, but that I believed that acting on their desire to love and be loved was condemned by God. I needed to resolve this, one way or the other.
I have always known that the Word of God is where we should look for answers to life’s questions, not merely in situation ethics which all too easily mould our attitudes and decisions.
I knew the dangers of making decisions based only on feelings, and was determined not to follow that path. But I also knew that I had to face this dilemma, and to do that I had to go back to scripture – to look again at the passages which had formed my understanding and theology – to ask God to speak to me through His Holy Spirit, and to guide me through this maze of apparent contradictions.
So as I began to regain my strength, I went back to study the Bible, asking God all over again to help me understand His Word. I carved out a day each week to go away, read and pray.
And as I did, something remarkable happened …