Hazel’s Story – A question of conscience

Unlike many in AE, I am purely a theological and not a cultural Evangelical. By a “Cultural Evangelical”, I mean someone who spends much of his life in an Evangelical setting: who worships in an Evangelical church, has mostly Evangelical friends, and perhaps works for an Evangelical organisation. For such a person to come out as gay or gay-affirming must take a degree of courage that I can only marvel at.

My experience has been very different. I am Jewish by birth and was brought up by parents who were agnostic but possessed very high moral standards. I became a Christian during my teens through a purely intellectual process, and was baptised into the Church of England a few days after my twenty-first birthday. In those days one came of age at twenty-one, and I did not really feel that I could enter into the commitment represented by the baptismal vows at a time when, in the eyes of the law, I was still a child, incompetent to vote, enter into a binding legal agreement, or marry a man my parents disapproved of. Especially as baptism seemed to me to be morally equivalent to at least two of those three actions!

I chose the Church of England because it was the default option – the denomination you joined when you had no particular reason to prefer one of the others. But I also liked the idea of belonging to a Church that I couldn’t actually feel proud of belonging to. The other denominations, it seemed to me, were all based on a doctrinal position that made membership of them equivalent to the statement: “We are the ones who have got it right about baptism/the Holy Spirit/Church governance/…….. (enter your preferred option here) and you are the ones who have got it wrong.” Even then, I was conscious that I disliked this position. Little did I know that it would one day invade the Church of England too.

As a mainstream Anglican (something very different from what is now called Anglican Mainstream), I don’t remember getting much in the way of moral or theological guidance from the pulpit. Sermons seemed to consist mainly of platitudes. However this seldom bothered me as my parents had brought me up with the idea that it was my duty to work out for myself what I believed about things and not expect someone else to tell me. So I read widely, argued with myself over what I read, and gradually evolved a position on all such issues as seemed to me important enough to require me to have any opinion at all about them.

One result of this process was that I became a conservative Evangelical in my theology but remained fairly liberal and left-leaning in my moral and social outlook. I did not know at the time that this was unusual. Indeed I felt more the “odd man out” as an Evangelical in a mainstream Anglican church than I did as an Evangelical who had come to accept homosexuality as a harmless human variant. Some cultural Evangelicals might be interested to know how the issue looked to those of us outside the Evangelical laager.

In the sixties, I believed (as most people did then) that homosexual behaviour was wrong but I did not see why it should be a crime, as it hurt no one (except perhaps the perpetrators). Putting these poor men in prison seemed barbaric and a waste of public money, so I was quite pleased when homosexual acts in private were decriminalised. I wanted the police on the streets, protecting me from muggers, not lurking in public toilets trying to entrap homosexuals.

I did notice, in the course of my Bible reading, that Scripture had very little to say about the matter, and that Jesus had never even bothered to mention it. Moreover several of the passages that were routinely dredged up were clearly irrelevant. The incident at Sodom, and the very similar one at Gibeah, are about xenophobic gang rape in which the intended victims are only incidentally male. Lot would hardly have offered his daughters to the Sodomites if he had believed that they preferred men, and at Gibeah the offer of a woman was taken up with enthusiasm. There are a couple of passages in the Law of Moses prohibiting homosexual acts, but I knew from St Paul that the Law did not apply to Christians except in its moral parts, and I could see no evidence that this particular prohibition had a moral rather than a ritual or cultic basis.

The most famous passage, Romans 1 vv.26-27, quivers with moral indignation but is clearly about homosexual acts committed by heterosexuals (men leaving the natural use of women…). I was already aware through my private interest in history that this kind of pederastic behaviour by basically straight men was an important part of the Hellenistic pagan culture and I was not surprised that Paul both condemned it and linked it strongly to idolatry. But if the Holy Spirit intended this passage to refer to homosexuals as well as pederasts, why did He inspire Paul to use language that effectively excluded them? To gay men, the “use of women” is certainly not natural and most of them have never gone in for it and therefore could never have left it.

For these and other reasons I became steadily less inclined to believe that gay sex was a sin in all circumstances or that Scripture unambiguously condemned it, but I do remember being irritated in the Seventies by the demands of gay activists not just for toleration (I sympathised with that) but for respect and acceptance. How could anyone have a right, I wondered, to be accepted by other people who thought them immoral? I think that this was a general view at the time. Gay rights were very much associated in those days with the “loony left” and with dire books like “Jenny lives with Eric and Martin”, and few people wanted to be associated with that kind of thing!

Margaret Thatcher was riding this wave of public exasperation when she arranged for the passage of the infamous Clause 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. Yet Clause 28 probably did more to persuade me to accept the normality of gayness (as we were slowly coming to call it) than gay activism ever did, because it was such a manifestly silly law. How could you “promote homosexuality”? People were homosexual or they were not; there seemed to be no way of altering it. You might as well try to promote left-handedness. What the law was clearly designed to criminalise was the promotion of a more tolerant attitude towards homosexuality, and that seemed to me to be contrary to our British traditions (not that the British are all that tolerant in practice but we like to think we are). Also Clause 28 brought a lot of eminently respectable gay people like Ian McKellan and Chris Smith out of the closet and I was impressed by their courage and decency. So were a lot of other people, and that, no doubt, was why there was general public acceptance of the equality legislation passed by the Blair government.

None of this affected me directly. I am not gay. I am, if anything, asexual, one of God’s natural celibates. I was however very much aware, as a Jewish Christian, of an undercurrent of institutional antisemitism in the Church which often made me feel that I knew what it must be like to be a gay Christian. I call it institutional because I have never met a Christian who was overtly and consciously antisemitic; nevertheless there was and is a presupposition running through sermons and Christian literature that the poor benighted Jews have always been wrong about everything and that God has completely given up on them. I sometimes felt as if we Jews were welcome in the Church only if we stopped being Jews. Does that sound familiar?

What brought the whole gay issue into prominence for me was the Jeffrey John affair in 2003. I never saw it as being about gay rights; actually I did not think then that having gay bishops in the Church of England was a particularly good idea and I am still dubious about it. Gay priests are fine by me. A priest serves a particular congregation and if they accept him for what he is and his bishop has no objections either, then it really isn’t anyone else’s business. But a bishop has to be a father to all the priests in his diocese and a symbol of unity for the Church as a whole. I don’t see how he can be that if his appointment causes endless controversy and half his priests regard him as a pervert.

For that reason I would not have been angry (though I would have been sad) if Rowan Williams had simply turned down Dr John on the grounds that the Church of England was not yet ready for an openly gay bishop. However, he accepted him and, in doing so, he accepted pastoral responsibility for him. Then he betrayed that pastoral responsibility, his own conscience and his friend in order to keep the money rolling into the diocesan funds from the rich Evangelical parishes. It was when they threatened to withdraw their contributions that poor Dr John was given the boot. This was a disgraceful performance, particularly from a man who flaunts his integrity in the way that Dr Williams so often does.

Until then, I had accepted episcopacy as a good way to provide pastoral oversight at all levels of the Church. An archbishop is supposed to be a pastor to his bishops, a bishop to his priests and a priest to his parishioners. It also claimed to be a school for moral and spiritual leadership. But in practice it seemed to produce leaders who caved in to financial blackmail and pastors who threw their sheep to the wolves! The parallel with the David Kelly affair, which was unfolding at about the same time, was ominous: two decent, honourable men caught up in quarrels that were none of their making and sacrificed in cold blood for political reasons by men they had every reason to trust. The difference was that Dr Kelly was betrayed by a secular government famous for its mendacity, Dr John by an organisation that claimed to be the Church of Christ.

I was deeply ashamed of my Church and for a while I did not see how I could continue being an Anglican. Still less could I go on calling myself an Evangelical. That almost amounted to saying: I am a bigot, a homophobe, a blackmailer and a schismatic – and proud of it! At the same time, I did not particularly want to leave the Anglican congregation to which I had belonged for many years (St John the Baptist, Greenhill). My quarrel was not with them, after all, and there were various jobs which I carried out for them and which someone else would get lumbered with if I left; that hardly seemed fair to me.

Naturally I talked to my parish priest, who said straight away that he respected my position but did not agree with it. He slyly suggested that it would be rather irresponsible of me just to walk out without first writing a letter to Rowan Williams explaining why I was leaving and what he had done to make me so angry. I dashed off the first draft that very evening, but it took over three months of agonised editing before the letter said exactly what needed to be said, in the right words and in the right tone. No doubt that long delay was precisely what was intended!

While I was engaged in this task, I found out, via the BBC’s Sunday program, about the Inclusive Church movement. Here clearly were people who felt as I did, but they were not leaving; they were staying to fight. I went straight to their website and discovered that they had parishes signed up to their program as well as individual members. One of those parishes was St John the Baptist, Pinner. The fact that this parish was so close and under the same heavenly patron as my own seemed to me like a sign from God. I talked to their vicar and asked him if I might use his church as a temporary refuge while I worked out what God wanted me to do. After all, if the Church could provide flying bishops for troubled congregations, why not floating congregations for troubled individuals?

St John the Baptist, Pinner, is a liberal Anglo-Catholic church, and the only Sunday service I could get to conveniently was a sung high mass at 11:00 am. It was my first experience of high Anglo-Catholic ritual (which I had always dismissed as “bells and smells”) and, to my surprise, I found it beautiful and deeply moving. I had never had such a sense of holiness in any Evangelical service I had attended. For more than a year I worshipped mostly at Pinner, only returning to Greenhill when I was asked to do a reading or help to provide some music. My first impressions were strengthened; I found that I was as much an Anglo-Catholic in worship as I was an Evangelical in theology and a Liberal in my social views. Not only was I truly an Anglican but it seemed I was a miniature version of the Church of England itself and a member of all three of its branches. I knew then that there was no way I could leave.

Another deeply healing experience for me was discovering Accepting Evangelicals, again via Inclusive Church. Much as I agreed with Inclusive Church’s stance on gay issues and on women priests, I never really felt at home in such an explicitly liberal milieu. The AE position was much closer to my own beliefs and attitudes. And the fact that obviously decent, kindly and loving people could call themselves Evangelicals without shame slowly persuaded me that I could once again honourably use that name to describe myself.

I eventually decided to return to St John’s, Greenhill, and have been worshipping there exclusively for several years now. I know that my church friends are puzzled that I felt the need to absent myself for over a year and for a reason that seems so strange to them. After all, most of them don’t particularly approve of gay sex, although they are not obsessed with the subject as so many Evangelicals are. They don’t understand why I should have felt so strongly about something that, on the face of it, was no concern of mine. What did I have to get so angry about? I can hardly explain it myself except to say that I felt throughout that it was God Himself who was driving me. Somehow it was important to Him that I should be forced to confront this particular issue and “come out”, as it were, as gay-affirming.

This year, for the first time in my life, I took part in the London Pride March. With over a hundred other Christians, both Evangelical and Catholic, mostly gay but including other straight people like myself, I walked through the streets of Central London with my Jack Russell terrier by my side (he was the bright star of the afternoon!). The crowd cheered as we marched past them, singing joyful hymns about the love of Jesus. They were not just cheering the parade; you could hear by the sudden increase in volume that they were cheering us specifically. They were answering our message of love, recognising that we had good news for them. It was the most effective act of evangelistic outreach that I have ever been involved in. I don’t know what God has in mind for me in the years to come but I am glad that he has led me to this place. It is good for me to be here.

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