Mike’s Story – Rejected by man: restored by God

It is not uncommon for Christians to change denominations, though it is somewhat unusual to transfer from membership of a conservative Baptist Church to the Church of England—a denomination I had been brought up to believe was almost apostate. But that is what happened to me. In fact my whole life has changed in recent years including my spiritual life. And this all came about as I have gradually become aware of my sexuality as a gay man.

Let me begin by telling you about my childhood. My family were not churchgoers, but I always knew that my parents loved me more than anything else in the world. Having been born and bred in working class South Wales in the 60s and 70s, if I’d been clearly aware that I was gay, to admit it in those days would have been out of the question, to put it mildly. At school, a number of my friends, who were certainly not gay, were accused of being ‘poofters’ (an accusation I suffered from, along with them) for the simple reason that we wanted to play football (or soccer as we call it in Wales) not rugby. Rugby was a game that was supposed to make a man of you; only sissies played soccer—so that they could kiss each other when they scored a goal. Our PE teacher was as guilty as my fellow pupils, in encouraging the development of a mind-set that fostered such derision. When the father of one of my best friends objected to his son being forced to play rugby, the story ended up in the local paper. To a younger generation in today’s world, such an attitude must sound incredible.

In 1978, when I was 13, the film Grease came out. Most of my male friends fancied Olivia Newton John and were not slow to describe what they would like to do with her, in detail. I considered this rather pathetic and wished my friends would grow up. I disliked their crudeness. I told myself, ‘there is something wrong with them, they are not normal’. The girls in my class fancied John Travolta. My reaction was, ‘Well, why not? After all, he is an attractive young man.’ The possibility that I might be the one who was not ‘normal’ never entered my head. Maybe this was a sign of the beginnings of my sexual awareness, and with it an intuitive sense that to admit to being gay would make me an outcast. Or maybe I was just more comfortable with the attitude of the girls because they were not crude like the boys. To this day, I cannot say which of these was true at the time.

The winter of 1978 was the famous industrial ‘winter of discontent’. The unions had brought everyone out on strike. Rubbish was not collected; the dead were not buried. I found this situation to be so appalling that I joined the Conservative Party, at that time in opposition. Involvement in the Young Conservatives was of more interest to me more than youth clubs. Their social events provided opportunity to chat up members of the opposite sex. . . and of course, to discuss politics. Politics was far more interesting to me. At 14, I was not interested in girls in that way, nor have I been, at any time in the thirty years since.

My involvement with the Young Conservatives continued for another eight years. In the meantime, I passed my ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels, and then went to University where I graduated in Maths, Statistics and Computing. Apart from my studies I remained active in Tory party politics. During my university days, I had a friend called David who was as much a ‘political animal’ as I was. Like me, he seemed to be more interested in politics than girls, although I have no suspicion that he was gay.

On leaving University, I went on holiday in Northern Ireland, mainly to observe the loyalist marching season from a political perspective. During my stay, the friend who put me up took me to his church. I was inspired and challenged by the zeal the preacher showed; I saw a passion and commitment that I had only previously experienced in politics. So I gave my life to Christ. On returning home, I became involved in a very conservative Baptist church in South Wales.

A few years later, my work for the Civil Service brought me to London. There I joined a house church. My membership there only lasted a few years as I could not cope with their ‘heavy shepherding’. I will never forget the occasion when the church excommunicated a good Christian woman because her marriage to a Muslim man fell apart—he had deserted her. She was kicked out of the church on the spurious grounds that she had not done enough to make her marriage work, when it was clear to anyone who wished to see it, that the marriage was moribund. The leadership demanded that no one in the church should speak to this woman until she repented; quite how she was to demonstrate such repentance when her husband had deserted her was not explained! I was not prepared to go along with this ‘pharisaic’ attitude and refused to treat her in this way. So I was kicked out of the group myself. From the grapevine, I discovered the story going round—was that I was having an affair with the woman and this was the reason for my spiritual demise. Given that I had no interest in having sex with women, I didn’t know whether to be saddened or amused by such gossip.

I moved to a conservative Baptist church in London. By contrast, it seemed like a breath of fresh air as there was much more freedom than in the house church. After a few years, in 1994, I was elected onto the diaconate as church treasurer and preached for them occasionally as well. In spite of my bad experience in the house church, I felt at last that the Lord had given me work that I could do for Him.

This was fine until 1998, when a bombshell hit. After suppressing my sexuality for several years, I reached a point where I realised I could contain it no longer. I knew the stakes were high and that the church would not be able to accept it. When rumours began to circulate, the Pastor interrogated me in the presence of the church secretary, wanting to know if I was gay. Feeling very vulnerable, I denied it, as I felt it was the only safe thing to do. My denial was not believed, which didn’t really surprise me, but I was not prepared for what happened next.

The following Sunday, in the middle of his sermon, the Pastor went off on a tangent and declared, “All this talk of gay rights is disgusting. It’s about time we stopped being nice to these people”. I felt betrayed and angry. The only reason I did not leave the church immediately is that it might have seemed a bit obvious that I was at fault. So I stayed on for a few months and then drifted off slowly.

My heart was not in it anymore. Despite the fact that I was still attending church, I told God to get out of my life. I believed God hated me and I wanted no more to do with Him. That resolution lasted just four weeks. One day, as an act of rebellion against God and Christianity, I went down to the local newsagents to buy my first copy of ‘Gay Times’. As I was reading through the adverts, I was baffled when I noticed an advert for a group calling itself “Evangelical Fellowship for Lesbian and Gay Christians”. This couldn’t mean what it said, surely, as I believed you could not be gay and Christian. You had to make a choice, I believed, and I had made mine. Did the word ‘evangelical’ have a different meaning in the gay world, I wondered. More likely, I thought it was a group of queens having a laugh to wind up the church.

Curiosity, it is said, killed the cat, and it was getting the better of me. I had to phone up, if only to find out what the group was about. What happened next quite literally changed my life. A man called John answered the phone and, in the course of our conversation, he said to me, “Mike, if faith, repentance and tears could have solved this many of us would have changed long ago”. I thought, “Oh my God, this man is a Christian!” So what do I do now? He agreed to send me some literature about the fellowship. Also, he told me about a book written by a heterosexual friend of his, George Hopper, called “Reluctant Journey”, in which he tells his the story—how God led him to accept, then affirm gay people. He also explains his understanding of the Bible texts that are traditionally used to condemn us. I phoned up George and ordered a copy of the book.

In the meantime, the former church secretary of the Baptist church (predecessor to the one referred to above) did try to be helpful to me. He gave me a list of a few ‘ex-gay’ groups that could help people like me. One of them was the True Freedom Trust (TFT). When I contacted Martin Hallett of TFT, he sent me some literature and kindly agreed to meet me when he was working near to London. As I read the literature, I realised that TFT believed that men become gay because of a lack of parental bonding and good male role models. This confused me as I had an excellent relationship with my father, and also with my late Uncle. When I met up with Martin, who was very gracious, I explained my difficulty in understanding this rationale, anticipating some sort of explanation. He replied that he didn’t know what to say or how to answer me. This was another pivotal moment for me. I realised that I had to renew my relationship with God but this would not come about through the ‘ex-gay’ movement.

I decided to join The Evangelical Fellowship for Lesbian & Gay Christians, and started reading Reluctant Journey. The scales began to fall from my eyes as I realised that God loves me as a gay man, because he has created me gay. I booked in for my first EF conference, in April 1999, but sadly had to cancel as I was ill that weekend. So I did not get to my first conference until October 1999. But I was amazed to discover many people there, who felt exactly as I did. I was warmly welcomed and could hardly wait for the next conference over the Easter weekend of 2000.

At this time I was only beginning the journey of reconciling my faith and sexuality. At heart, I still shared a lot of Strict Baptist attitudes towards the Church of England. I felt very concerned that the Evangelical Fellowship had invited a Bishop of the Church of England to lead the conference, but I still went.

The Bishop, John Gladwin (then of Guildford now Chelmsford), did not fit my stereotype of a Bishop at all. He was very understanding of Evangelicals, having come from that background himself, and came to the conference to listen as well as to lead. He fully appreciated where I had come from. At one point in the conference, when speaking of people’s struggles, he turned to me and said, “Mike, you know where I am coming from don’t you?” I found this so affirming, in contrast to the rejection I had received from my Baptist pastor, that I knew I could never be so critical of the Church of England again.

Although I now realised there were good Christian people in the Church of England (a virtually unthinkable concept for a strict Baptist!), I still never dreamt I would become an Anglican. In fact I doubted if I would ever belong to a church again. My support, spiritually, came from gay Christian groups such as the Evangelical Fellowship and the situation seemed likely to continue to that way. After all, the mainstream church didn’t want gay people like me. I was later elected as a committee member of the Fellowship (which I still am). I am proud to serve God through this Fellowship.

Within months of finding EF, I found a partner, Robert, who was also a Christian. He wanted us to attend Courage together (also a gay Christian support group). I went to meet Jeremy Marks and we agreed it would be good to start attending Courage. They met twice a month in London, so this provided more regular support than EF, which held just two weekend conferences a year. Around this time, Dr Roy Clements (a famous Baptist pastor and an outstanding bible teacher) ‘came out’, and Jeremy invited him to come and speak at Courage. This was a very brave decision for Jeremy and I admired him greatly for standing by Roy, when most evangelicals had rejected him completely.

My relationship with Robert was bound to be challenging as he had learning difficulties. But our partnership did not last because he was constantly being influenced (manipulated would be a better word) by homophobic churches. Robert always loved the worship and prayer ministry in charismatic churches where, seeing his learning difficulties, Christians would offer to pray for him. Every time, inevitably, the fact of him being gay would emerge. The counselling he received constantly undermined our relationship. One Christian counsellor in particularly insisted that he could love me or love Jesus but not both. Robert wanted me to meet this woman but she refused to see me. Now if anyone were to undermine a loving heterosexual relationship in this way, it would be considered unchristian, to say the least. Yet homophobia is so deeply entrenched in many churches that it is considered to be acceptable—even a supposedly Christian thing to do—to set out to destroy the relationship between a gay couple.

Despite breaking up with Robert we remained (and still are) good friends. Throughout the painful period of the break-up I received a lot of support from Jeremy and Bren, and other members of Courage and EF, including John who is now my partner. There were other friends too, who were not Christians, who supported me. I did not see Jesus in Robert’s homophobic advisors, but I certainly saw Him in my friends, some of whom were not Christians.

From time to time, Jeremy would invite a Church leader to come and speak at Courage, who were known to him from his conservative past and who do not agree with Courage’s stance in supporting gay Christians. His thinking was that they would have an opportunity to meet us and see what gay Christians are really like. I appreciated his motives but I felt that many of them were rather embarrassed about the issue and avoided using the ‘gay’ word. This got to me after a while, as it reminded me too much of my past.

One Friday night, I went with a heavy heart to hear yet another of Jeremy’s former colleagues speaking. This speaker, however, turned out to be quite different from the others. That meeting was led by a Church of England vicar called Dave Tomlinson. Unlike the others, Dave and his wife Pat had no problem with homosexuality at all. He spoke very movingly of one person close to him who ‘came out’ and had transformed their life. Their ‘coming out’ process was not unlike a religious conversion in some ways. I remember thinking to myself, I would try out his church if only it was near me. After the meeting I went up to Dave, thanked him for his ministry and asked him where his church was. I was astounded to discover that it was only 1½ miles from my home.

By this time, John (who I had phoned in the early days via the Gay Times advert) was my partner. We had started spending weekends together. When we were at his home, I went to the Salvation Army with him (that was his background). One weekend, when he was staying with me, I mentioned the Courage meeting and wondered if he would mind if we went to Dave’s church too. He readily agreed. So that Sunday morning, we plucked up the courage to darken the doors of St. Luke’s. We did not how we would be received. I had heard of many churches where the vicar, or pastor, was supportive but the congregation was not. I hoped things would be OK but was nervous nonetheless. However, I was very comfortable in the service and moved by the welcome we received. At the end of the service, John turned to me and said ‘I think you have some serious thinking to do’, and didn’t I know it!

Several months later, when John and I were attending St. Luke’s, it was Mothers’ Day. A baby had been brought to the Church for the first time with her proud mother. Dave announced that this was baby was privileged to have two mothers (her biological mother is in a civil partnership). I looked at John with tears in my eyes. I never believed I would hear such a thing in a church in my lifetime. Then I knew beyond all doubt that I had arrived where God wanted me to be.

The following Autumn, October 2003, I was confirmed into the Anglican Church. That was a very special day for me as many of my close friends where there. Now I really felt I was a member of the Church of England. John was later confirmed in February 2005.

In the spring of 2005, the Evangelical Fellowship had their regular spring conference, led by my vicar. Many of our people were greatly blessed by Dave’s ministry. The sense of privilege I felt, in belonging to St. Luke’s, was quite overwhelming. I shall never forget that conference when the two arms of my spiritual life—St. Luke’s and the Evangelical Fellowship—came together.

The theme of the conference was, ‘What a different a gay makes’. Dave gave useful suggestions of how an inclusive church should work,citing examples from the St. Luke’s community, which of course by this time I knew well. Several members of EF were heard saying, ‘We would love to go to that church if only we lived nearer’.

Over the last year or so, John and I have become very involved at St. Luke’s. He is a member of the choir as well as being on the rota for doing readings in the services. I am on the rota for leading prayers and organise the rota for welcoming people as they come to church.

I am also the church treasurer, which means so much to me as I am doing the same job as I did in my Baptist church. But now, there is a difference: I don’t have to pretend anymore—to be what I am not. John and I are accepted for who we are and what we are. God is no one’s debtor and His love is beyond anything we can imagine.

I conclude with words from a hymn by George Matheson that seems to me to sum up my journey of faith:

                              O Love that will not let me go,
                              I rest my weary soul in thee;
                              I give thee back the life I owe,
                              That in thine ocean depths its flow
                              May richer, fuller be.

                              O Cross that liftest up my head,
                              I dare not ask to fly from thee;
                              I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
                              And from the ground there blossoms red
                              Life that shall endless be.

Thanks be to God for His love and mercy.
 

Mike Dark
May 2008

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