The next few years brought a whole mixture of challenges and experiences.
During this time, I discovered that one of my close friends from University was gay and had a partner for a number of years. We had followed similar paths since University – after a year in Africa, he went to train for ordination, and was ordained before me. We had not kept in close touch during that time, but saw each other at parties and get-togethers from time to time, and it came as quite a shock to find out that he was gay.
We had worked closely together in the Christian Union in Oxford, attended the same church, were in the same college and year, and yet I discovered that everyone else in my circle of friends knew, except me!
Looking back on this, I can fully understand why!
He was gracious enough to invite Mel & I to a garden party back in Oxford, and there we met his partner for the first time. We invited them to visit us in London, and some time later they came for dinner. I remember his partner (who was also a vicar) quizzing me on where I stood on homosexuality, and as my answer unfolded, he cut through all of the polite niceties, right to the heart of the issue.
He said to me, “So you believe that people like us shouldn’t be in Christian ministry.”
After a moment‘s pause came my answer. “Yes” I replied.
“So do you think I should leave the ministry?”
Put in such a personal way, the question was more than a question, it was a challenge – and it challenged me! Here was a fellow member of the clergy in the Church of England, and everything I had said led me to only one possible answer – “Yes,” I said.
If I were him, I would have walked out there and then, never to speak to me again. But he didn’t, and amazingly we kept in touch, with them showing me a love and acceptance of others that was much more Christ-like than mine.
Another surprise was to discover that my old university college chaplain was gay, and had a partner for many years. Again, I had worked closely with him at college, and admired him for his faith and ministry. Although a definite Anglo-Catholic, he was brought up in the Welsh valleys from a Chapel background, and had retained that passion for the gospel, for preaching, and for church growth.
Mel and I were still living in South East London, and he left Oxford to become Vicar of a church in Eltham, not far from us. I got in touch with him again and asked him to be my spiritual director.
Why did I do this? Mainly because I wanted to learn from his very different, but equally Christ centred and dynamic ministry – but I guess that there was also something about me which was intrigued and wanted to know more about how he reconciled his faith and his sexuality.
Jesus said, “ Can a good tree produce bad fruit, or a bad tree produce good fruit” and yet here was a man who was producing lots of good fruit, some of which had blessed my own life, and he was gay!
I began to see him 3 or 4 times a year, to reflect on life, faith & ministry – his name was Jeffrey John.
In the parish where I was serving as curate however, my experience was much less positive. Looking back, I think that my increasing openness to engage with gay Christians (even if I didn’t agree with them) worried my training Vicar considerably. He was (& still is) a very conservative evangelical who was saddened deeply when he met people who ‘used to be evangelicals’ but who had moved on. In his mind, the race had somehow been too hard for them, and they had fallen by the wayside. I am sure that was his concern for me.
As my openness to engage grew, so did his anxiety, and things started becoming difficult between us. I tried to reassure him, and showed my loyalty to my evangelical teaching wherever possible – including signing a petition which went to the national press, opposing any relaxation in the church’s approach – but somehow his doubts were never quite reassured.
This all came to a head when we opened a project for homeless people in the parish. A former children’s home opposite the church had been empty for some time, and my vicar allowed me to see if there was a way to prevent its demolition, and turn it into a homeless project. I identified a national homeless charity to partner with, & set up a local partnership of churches, community groups, businesses, and individuals. In 6 months, we raised £1/3m, bought the building, and began converting it for its new purpose – so far, so good - and our church was at the centre of the partnership.
But when the time came to employ an administrator to run the project, I ran into trouble. The national charity which took responsibility for the project had a strong Christian history, but was a secular (ie non-religious) organisation and, more to the point, they were an equal opportunities employer.
When we came to interview candidates, the best candidate by far, was a gay Roman Catholic ex-priest, and we appointed him to be the first administrator. For my vicar this was the last straw – deeply painful and very embarrassing. I think it must have felt to him that he had allowed a kind of Frankenstein’s Monster to be created right there at the heart of his parish, opposite his church. Under his leadership, the church resigned from the partnership, ceased any active support or involvement, and out of loyalty to him, I withdrew as soon as I could once the project was up and running. The sequence of events was deeply embarrassing to him, and deeply painful for both of us, and our relationship was never the same again.
But the time was coming to move on in ministry. My curacy was coming to an end, and although I continued to live in the same parish and work some of my time there, I began a new ministry, working with churches over a wider area, helping them with evangelism and outreach on deprived housing estates.
This involved me working with an increasing number of churches of different styles and traditions. Alongside the evangelical churches I worked with, I also worked with Jeffrey John in Eltham, and a prominent pro-gay church in Charlton. I started to become aware of other gay priests and Christians in the area. As I did this, I listened and I observed.
My theology up to this point had been that gay sex (& therefore gay relationships which involved sex) was sinful. Anyone who was promoting such a lifestyle was promoting sin and anyone involved in such a lifestyle would not inherit the Kingdom of God (1Cor 6:10). Surely then, God would not bless the ministry of such people. I read Romans 1 and it placed homosexual offenders alongside slanderers, murderers, haters, inventors of evil, and yet here were very ordinary Christians (not instruments of evil!) trying to follow God’s call, and God appeared to be blessing their ministry!
“By their fruit you will know them,” kept ringing in my ears!
When I would gently bring these passages of scripture into discussion, gay Christians would say to me that they didn’t recognise themselves in those descriptions, but I couldn’t accept that – after all, homosexual acts were specifically included.
The two things were becoming increasingly irreconcilable in my mind – and something had to give!
I found myself unable to condemn or dismiss the faith & ministry of my gay brothers and sisters in Christ – and as I prayed, talked and listened, it began to occur to me that perhaps there was more than one way to interpret scripture on this issue – even if I thought their interpretation was wrong!
These Christians who I was working with, or who I had known for many years were not taking an easy way out in seeking to hold on to both their faith and their sexuality. That path was a hard and difficult one – a costly one. The easy thing for them to do would have been to allow their faith to slip quietly into the background, or at least their relationship with the church which at best tolerated them, and often rejected them. But they held on to their faith in Jesus Christ, and to God’s call to ministry in their lives. There was an integrity about their walk with God which I could not deny.
As a result came my first leap of faith—or at least, that is how it felt!
I still could not bring myself to ‘explain away’ (as I saw it) the passages of the Bible which spoke against homosexual sex, but I was willing to accept that others saw these passages very differently, and could do so with Christian integrity. Put another way I recognised that I did not have a monopoly on truth in interpreting the Bible, and more importantly, neither did my evangelical tradition.
The inspiration & authority of Scripture in my life had not changed – but what had changed was an implied belief in the infallibility of traditional evangelical teaching on how to interpret the Scriptures on this issue!
So I began to articulate a very different approach to gay Christians. I did not agree with their interpretation of the Bible on this issue, but I respected their integrity of faith. Equally importantly, I recognised their call by God to ministry, and would therefore stand by them and support them in their calling.
Although this might not seem like a big step to some, it made a huge difference to me.
I remember soon afterwards, being told that someone I knew had been effectively blocked from a job in the Diocese because he was gay. I was incensed, and wrote to the Bishop a most undiplomatic letter saying how appalled I was that this had happened. The Bishop (who I think was being harangued on all sides) very graciously phoned me to discuss it. I remember him saying to me “But Benny, what I don’t understand is that you are an evangelical!”
Trying to explain this was not easy to begin with, but in time it started to become more acceptable. I was still working as a resource to parishes with housing estates. I increasingly found that the pro-gay churches were happy to invite me to work with them because I would support their integrity, while the conservative evangelical churches were happy to invite me because my interpretation of scripture on this issue was still fundamentally in line with theirs. So one week I might be working with a gay vicar in a pro-gay parish – the next I could find myself in a conservative evangelical church, with members of ‘Reform!’
Underneath, I was still the same evangelical Christian – passionate about the Gospel; passionate about seeing people come to a personal faith and relationship with God through Jesus Christ; and passionate about the authority of the Bible as the Word of God. The only difference was that now I was willing to accept that not everyone interpreted God’s Word as I did on this issue.
One sadness I have about the way in which this whole issue has developed, is the way in which someone’s attitude to the gay issue has become the litmus test (or shibboleth – to use a Biblical word) of whether they are a true evangelical or not. For too many people, it has become a touchstone of the Christian faith – of whether someone is ‘sound’ or not – and I wonder how this issue managed to become such a fundamental ‘first order’ issue of faith for evangelicals.
For me, as an evangelical Christian, my aim, my hope and my prayer has always been to introduce people to Jesus Christ, and for Him to become their Lord and Saviour. Yet all too often, the gay issue has come to overshadows all of that. If I am to believe some of the emails I have received in recent years, it is my attitude to gay people, and not my relationship with Christ that will determine whether I get to heaven of burn in the fires of hell!
Thankfully I know, and always have known that Jesus Christ is my Saviour, and “If Christ is for us, who can be against us”. We all have the potential to get things wrong in our interpretation of scripture, but our faith and salvation does not depend on getting everything right – it depends on Jesus Christ! “It is by grace that we are saved, through faith, so that none may boast”.
I believe this is one of the most important points about Accepting Evangelicals.
AE does not require its members to be pro-gay in their understanding of scripture – it merely asks us all to accept that there may be another interpretation. We haven’t got a monopoly on truth – whoever we are – and that God can work through anyone who puts their faith in Him – even us! In Christ we find grace, mercy and forgiveness for all our sins and mistakes, so how is it that a positive attitude to gay people has become the unforgivable sin, and gay people the unforgivable sinners!
I am reminded of a story (probably apocryphal!) of 2 churches in the City of London – one evangelical, the other pro-gay.
A letter was written, so the story goes, by the evangelical church which had a large number of bankers in the congregation, to the pro-gay church which had a lot of gay people in the congregation.
The letter pointed out the verses in scripture which appear to condemn gay relationships and asked the vicar “In the light of these scriptures, what do you intend to do about your congregation?”
In response, the pro-gay church wrote a letter to the evangelical church pointing out all the scriptures which appear to condemn usury (or the charging of interest on loans) and asked the vicar “In the light of these scriptures, what do you intend to do about yours?”
Interpreting scripture is sometimes not straightforward, and we all have the capacity to be wrong sometimes – but Jesus Christ is the one who saves us despite ourselves – perhaps even those who are unfortunate enough to be both gay and bankers!
So it was that God moved me on to a place where I still could not agree with a pro-gay reading of scripture, but I could accept the Christian integrity of those who could.
That could have been the end of my journey, and I thought that it was. It was an understanding that I could articulate effectively and that enabled me to work with a wide variety of Christians and churches. It was in many ways a comfortable place to be, and I would have been very happy to stay there.
But that didn’t last for long …