By Their Fruit… Chapter 6: Coming out!

by Benny Hazlehurst
 

I shudder to think how difficult it must be for a lesbian or gay person to ‘come out’.  To break with the expectations of family and friends; to reach the point of where self-awareness and acceptance meet the uncomfortable imperative of truth.  It must require extra-ordinary courage to embrace that truth and risk the reaction of those we value.  Indeed it is so difficult that many learn ways of avoiding facing this moment.  They develop, at least for a while, a compartmentalised life, with two groups of people – those they can trust and be open with, and those with whom the stakes are too high, and the deception goes on.  The fear of rejection is too great.

While I can only have a very limited understanding of the depth of this challenge, I now felt that I faced some of the same issues.  I had now entered a new state of existence!  I had become a strange animal, part of a new peculiar species – the ‘Pro-gay Evangelical’!  Indeed, for all I knew, I might be only one – a freak or mutant of spiritual evolution!

I knew that, for many of the people with whom I had shared my Christian life thus far, the concept of a pro-gay evangelical would be a contradiction in terms – an oxymoron – and as such I had to face the fear of rejection if I was going to be honest with people about my change of heart & mind.

The temptation would be to keep it to myself, or if this was too much of a deception, to find a small select group of people who I could confide in, swearing each of them to secrecy as I went.  This course of action was very appealing but could it possibly be right?  Some, it would be easy to tell – with others it would be very difficult indeed.

I am very blessed by my wife, Mel.  Despite the fact that she came from a Pentecostal background, and worshipped at a large successful ‘Assemblies of God’ Church when we met, she had always been streets ahead of me in this.  She had managed to sidestep the issues I had struggled with for years, by simply focussing on the character of God.  She had known for a long time that, irrespective of what the church might say, the God who had made himself real to her would not condemn people for their sexuality of for expressing that sexuality in mutual, faithful, self-giving love.

But what about others?  I was well thought of in the Diocese.  I had been elected to General Synod (the Church of England’s national parliament) by my fellow clergy and many of the people who voted for me were traditional evangelicals.  If I now ‘came out’, wouldn’t they feel betrayed?  And what about my congregation?   The church in Brixton where I was the Vicar was not particularly evangelical, but the vast majority of the congregation were from Africa and the Caribbean, where traditional Christian beliefs and values on sexuality were taken as read – how would they react?

The dilemma was a powerful one.  Perhaps I should keep quiet, at least until the end of my time on General Synod.  I could still work quietly to gently challenge people’s views (but not enough to give away my own!) and I wouldn’t run the risk of losing friends, not to mention the trust of colleagues & congregation.

On the other hand, to follow this approach would be to contribute to the conspiracy of silence that I suspected existed on this issue in some evangelical circles.  My experience thus far as an ‘accepting’ evangelical, had brought me into contact with numbers of evangelicals who would admit to me privately that, on a personal level, they weren’t as ‘traditional’ as others expected them to be.  I was always told this ‘in confidence’ with the clear implication that it was to go no further.  I wondered if there could be other ‘pro-gay’ evangelicals out there, caught up in this conspiracy of silence.

I began to look for others – where else but on the internet – that vast and slightly subversive network where you can be as public as you wish, or as anonymous as you like!  It didn’t take me long to discover that I was not alone.

The first group my search engine came up with was EF – Evengelical Felllowship of Gay Lesbian & Bisexual Christians.  I sent off for their literature, and was delighted to find that this was not a spoof or an ‘off the wall’ group of weirdo’s – just a fellowship, offering support and friendship to homosexual evangelicals and their friends.

Through EF, I began to hear about ‘Courage’ whose own journey from being an evangelical ‘gay healing group’ to being a gay support group is inspirational in its honesty and integrity.  I also heard about George Hopper’s story of his ‘Reluctant Journey’ as a URC minister, which in many ways paralleled my own experience.

These discoveries were heartening. I was not alone – I was not some mutant freak – there were others!

But that did not solve my fundamental dilemma – should I ‘come out’ as a pro-gay evangelical or should I keep quiet?

As I thought and prayed about this, the answer became blindingly clear.

While it was good to discover EF and Courage, they were still predominantly gay & lesbian groups, for gay & lesbian people.  They had a vested interest in saying that it was ok to be homosexual and a Christian.  Furthermore, their pastoral focus on supporting and looking after LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgendered) Christians who are more vulnerable to attack and harm than I can ever imagine, meant that they could not be as vocal as they would wish.   I had to ask the question – where were the heterosexual evangelicals ready to put their heads above the parapet to support them?  There were some courageous people like George Hopper, but all too few.  Most of us (if I was right) were still caught up in the conspiracy of silence which salved our conscience but did little to challenge the perception that evangelicals were 100% united behind a traditional view of homosexuality.

I knew I had to speak out.  I knew I had to do something – and as I prayed, I knew what I had to do.

The Church of England’s General Synod meets 2 or 3 times each year.  It is a group of over 500 people from around the country elected by their dioceses.  It includes all the Diocesan Bishops in England, and many of the protagonists in the various church pressure groups.  All the speeches and contributions members make are recorded word for word and published after each session.

The next session was coming up shortly, and there was to be a debate on human sexuality following the latest report from the House of Bishops.

I realised that this was my opportunity to go public, once and for all!  This was my chance to ‘come out’ as a pro-gay evangelical in a very public way.  And there would be no going back!  As I prepared my speech, I did feel more than a little nervous.  I knew that if it was just about my journey it would be self indulgent, and that for it to have any impact, there had to be a call within it for others Evangelicals like myself to begin to speak more honestly.

The day of the debate came and Church House in London was packed.  The national press were there in the gallery and I submitted my request to speak in the debate.  I was nervous but ready.

What followed was one of the most frustrating 2 hours of my life!

 

The Chair of each debate chooses who will speak in the debate.  They are supposed to ensure that a full spectrum of opinion is represented in the debate, so my request to speak as a pro-gay evangelical should have been a sure-fire certainty, as evangelicals were not exactly queuing up to speak in favour of gay relationships.

The way the debate then works is this.  If you want to speak, you have to stand up at the end of each speech until you are called by the Chair to give your speech.  If you are not called, you can’t speak – it’s as simple as that!

So for the next 2 hours I dutifully stood up at the end of every speech, with a whole host of butterflies in my stomach, wondering if this was the moment that I was going to go public!  And each time … someone else was called to speak.  This torture went on forever as far as I was concerned until … you guessed it – the debate came to an end – there was no more time for speeches, and my opportunity was gone!

I remember vividly my feelings at the end of the debate – disbelief – frustration – anger – disappointment – dejection.  I had built myself up to that moment, and now the moment had gone without so much as a whimper!  What was I going to do now?

I set off for the cloakrooms to collect my stuff to go home for the night with all this turmoil still going round in my head.  As I walked in I saw my old Vice-Principal of the Evangelical College where I trained for ministry – a very well respected traditional evangelical.  As I saw him, a strange determination rose within me.  Having worked myself up for that day, I decided that I was not going to let the day pass without telling someone!  So I let him have it – with both barrels!  Predictably, he was measured and gracious in his response to my outpouring, whilst firmly disagreeing with my new found conviction, but the most important thing for me was that I had done it – I had told someone!

The sense of liberation was immense!  I had broken out of the cage of silence and I felt free!  All my fears about how others would now see me just ebbed away, and I was left once again feeling a sense of release.  Again the words of Jesus came to mind, “You shall know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free!”

The next day I decided that I wasn’t going to let the speech I had prepared go to waste, and turned it into a letter to the Church of England Newspaper.  I knew that the chances of it being printed were slim – lots of people would be writing in with something to say about the issue – so why should they print mine?

To my amazement however, they did print it!  (There was certainly no going back now!)  But the reaction I got to the letter was very encouraging.  Yes there were the predictable responses from people appalled that an Evangelical could declare himself to be ‘pro-gay’ but there were also the positive responses from other Evangelicals.  Some came in the newspaper in the following weeks – others came directly to me, via emails, letters or phone calls.

One that I remember quite distinctly was a phone call from  Colin Craston, a retired evangelical leader from Bolton where I grew up.  I remembered that he lived just round the corner from the Vicarage we lived in and that my father used to say that he was ‘big in General Synod’!  He was one of the evangelical leaders who first drew evangelicals together for national conferences which eventually became NEAC (the National Evangelical Anglican Council).  He got my phone number from somewhere and rung me up, not to challenge or admonish me, but to encourage me and subsequently he wrote to the newspaper supporting the approach I was taking.

Such responses were the start of the road to the creation of Accepting Evangelicals.  To create a place where evangelical Christians can ‘come out’, not as being gay or lesbian or bi-sexual, but as evangelicals who have come to realise that it is possible to be a Biblical Christian, committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and affirm or accept loving faithful same-sex relationships between 2 people made in the image of God.

It would be wrong of me to pretend that all the responses were positive of course, or that there has been no ‘fall-out’ from my ‘coming out’ – there are people who I am no longer in touch with because of their dismay and incredulity at my change of heart.  But I have no regrets.  Our Christian faith has always encouraged people to speak out and tell of what God has done and shown them.  In Romans 10, Paul encourages his brothers and sisters in Christ  to do more than just believe, but to declare their faith as well.

“if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.”                                                                                                        
 Romans 10:9&10

 

In the Christian faith, both believing and speaking out go hand in hand.  It not easy to speak out sometimes, but it is the right thing to do.

As I come to the end of this story, it is my prayer that it will:

encourage others to examine the Biblical evidence once more – with prayerful and open hearts – and to listen to the experience of our homosexual brothers and sisters in Christ.

give courage to evangelicals who have crossed the great divide to the point where they can accept or affirm same-sex relationships to break the conspiracy of silence which allows Evangelical spokesmen and women to say that Evangelical Christians do not, and will not accept anything but the traditional conservative view.

 

God Bless you and thank you for your time and patience as you have read this tale – may God guide you in your response and action.

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