It was the mid 1990s. A new teen, Jonathan, had joined the church youth group. He was cool; he had a black leather jacket. Jonathan was clean cut, held passionate opinions and was sensitive. We became friends. He was different to my other friends. Even though I was only 17 I was one of the junior leadership team. Jonathan asked if he and I could have a chat. Mum and I invited him for dinner and after the meal he came up to my bedroom which was my hang out space. I put on some music and we both sat on the edge of my bed, though I could see something was weighing on his mind. He sat, head in hands for a while, then looked up and said, ‘I think I’m gay.’ I immediately moved from the bed to a chair.
I was fairly spotty and a little overweight, but my first thought was, ‘does he fancy me?’ I was horrified. I felt revulsion. He remained frozen and afraid. Jonathan continued to describe the realisation of liking other guys. I was out of my depth. He had come to me for help but I had no help to offer. I dug through my mental archives for something useful. I had heard it preached that ‘God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.’ That didn’t feel fit for purpose. No I was now in full defence mode. I thought his sin would lead to contamination, not just of me but of the youth group and the church. I saw him as an interloper.
If I had taken a breath perhaps I would have seen he was looking for God’s assurance. He was overwhelmed by thoughts and feelings and wanted some guidance, or some normality. I advised him to talk to the youth pastor about it. I was struggling to know how to (cliche alert), ‘hate the sin and love the sinner.’ Twenty five years later, that moment still plays on my mind. He didn’t stay with our youth group for much longer. The gossip of his sexuality began to enter our conversations around the tuck shop. There was a celibate gay man in the youth group. He, however, was revered as a different species. He had tamed his desire, overcome temptation and had chosen to bear his cross. By contrast, Jonathan was lost as he seemed unrepentant. Once he had left we could breathe easily as we were safe. He would not be a problem anymore.
Skip ahead a number of years. I was a church planter, and known within a large church network. I had found myself beginning to question the traditional evangelical view of marriage being exclusively heterosexual. The church I had planted was part of this network and I had been absent from a number of gatherings. My doubts, and desire to avoid conflict had led to me slowly backing away without explanation. A member of the network had been sent to find out why I wasn’t showing up. We went out for coffee and she began a familiar script I’d heard before. She said: ‘Churches in this network are like family and friends, and you and your church are definitely family.’ She had a warmth to her tone. I decided to take a risk. I falteringly said: ‘I am unsure what I feel about same sex relationships.’ Without skipping a beat she said ‘Maybe you and your church are in the ‘friends’ category.’ In taking a tentative step towards her, she took a huge step backwards away from me. In a tiny way, my little identification with the ‘other’ made me into the ‘other.’ She didn’t physically move away from me, as I had done to the young man years before, but we realised the ideological chasm between us.
My uncertainty was born of shifting theological perspectives. I began to read scripture not as the last word on a theme but sometimes the first word. I encountered broader systems of interpretation of the Bible which led to me revising my view of the cross, sin, and scripture itself. The problem was that as a church leader people came to me for answers. I don’t think they expected me to have as many questions as they did. For the longest time I hid my personal civil war between holding a perspective of faithfulness to scripture, versus responding lovingly to those whose sexuality I had been taught and believed was sinful and deviant. I had sat in prayer meetings where normally kind characters would in prayer denounce the evil spirit of homosexuality. I heard same sex attracted people denounce themselves, in what sounded to me like deep shame and self-hatred.
Then, whilst ministering in my last church, a couple moved into an apartment besides the church. One man arrived first and I, being neighbourly, popped over and welcomed him to the area. A couple of months later he invited me to meet his partner who’d arrived from abroad. When I saw another man standing beside the first man hand in hand, and obviously in love, my theory and theology broke down in the light of the love I witnessed and felt in and from them. Over time, hearing their stories of rejection by the churches they grew up in shook the final doubts I had. Bible verses could be used to justify God’s displeasure at homosexual orientations. Bible verses could also be used to support faithful loving relationships between two people regardless of their gender. I decided to lean towards, learn about and eventually adopt the second narrative.
There is a cost. For a spell I was an occasional lecturer for a theological college. Their statement of beliefs sees marriage as heterosexual only. I shared my changing perspectives with colleagues. I learnt the college had a red line for its team. Their policy was that if I felt same sex marriage was something God might approve of I had probably moved too far away from the college ethos. Over my time of teaching there I came to see same sex marriage as equal marriage, and I stepped down. It’s painful to recount this as I deeply appreciated their welcoming me into the academic community, and believing in what I had to bring. I simply wish the welcome would have be extended even further.
I have a number of close friends who felt/feel me to be lost. Earnest friends who love me have tried to talk me out of my new position and I have felt a distancing from people I have known for years. I left the church I planted. I searched for another church where there was an openness to exploring a positive view of equal marriage. I sincerely hope to guide my new congregation towards becoming a member of the Inclusive Church network. The network have the following statement of intent:
“We believe in inclusive Church – church which does not discriminate, on any level, on grounds of economic power, gender, mental health, physical ability, race or sexuality. We believe in Church which welcomes and serves all people in the name of Jesus Christ; which is scripturally faithful; which seeks to proclaim the Gospel afresh for each generation; and which, in the power of the Holy Spirit, allows all people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ.”
Whilst writing this piece the heaviness of the anecdote of Jonathan in the youth group caused me to rifle through Facebook, sifting through friends of friends until I found him. We became friends on Facebook. I sent a message to him and asked his forgiveness. I was relieved to learn he didn’t hold it against me. I was delighted to learn he is in a loving partnership with another man. I hope in time he and his partner could happily attend a church I lead and feel at home in God’s and my love.
– Azariah France-Williams