A Brief History of Courage UK
(Not to be confused with CourageRC, a Catholic ministry
based in New York, that is committed to teaching celibacy)
The ministry of Courage (UK) was founded in 1988, and was always intended to provide a safe place for lesbian & gay Christians who were ‘struggling to overcome’ their homosexuality. The ministry began with a profound sense of personal calling (as a priestly role). My local church was very supportive and before long several wonderful key people joined me, supporting the ministry in some important ways that enabled it to operate.
In the first place we offered regular support group meetings, which we still do (in 2011). Only months later this developed to become a Christian community with several houses available for people to live in with us. Several committed co-workers sold their homes to buy bigger houses to facilitate having a number of people to stay and share life in community.
All who approached Courage came from conservative evangelical (or Roman Catholic) Christian backgrounds. They all came from churches who taught that you could not be gay and Christian. Many of us bought into the pop-psychology of the time which suggested that homosexuality was indicative of a kind of ‘arrested development’ resulting from having grown up in a home where mother was domineering and controlling, and father was largely absent—emotionally if not physically, thereby failing as an important role model (especially for their sons), who therefore grew up with a deep need for a father figure, a longing that had become ‘eroticised’. So we believed that homosexuality was fundamentally caused by a strong need for unconditional love and for good same-sex role models who would bond with us in a healthy way and enable us to ‘grow up’ into what we believed was our natural God-given heterosexual orientation. (Such theories have largely been discredited today.)
As Christians, we tried to cope with our same-sex desires by making a distinction between orientation (which we could not help) and practice (which was sin)—based on the kind of thinking that “God loves the sinner but hates the sin”. We all determined to live a celibate life, and sought to ‘overcome’ what we saw as a deviant desire—through healing prayer and by living as open and accountable members of the Christian community.
Being gay myself, I had already struggled with this for many years, in spite of much Christian counselling, psychotherapy, deliverance ministry and healing prayer—all to no avail. After all those years of experience, one thing still seemed to be missing—and that was an experience of community life with other Christians, with whom you could be honest and open about life’s struggles, and where you could find unconditional love. Courage was founded as part of a local church (The New Life Church, Harrow), that set out to be that warm open Christian community which we all felt the need of.
Our community houses provided a place where gay men (and one or two women) could live together and work out their Christian discipleship in a community setting. Although any community life brings its challenges—just trying to relate to one another in a loving way—overall it was a great time; we felt a new sense of hope, common purpose and warm Christian fellowship. And because we were gay, at last we felt free of the hidden guilt and shame we had all suffered as a result of the attitudes we had experienced in our homophobic society and churches. Even if we ‘fell’ sexually, we felt free to confess and receive understanding and forgiveness with prayer support from our brothers and sisters in the community. But our understanding was always that any kind of homosexual expression was sin—we were all agreed on that teaching from our churches.
All went well, more or less, until gradually the people who had come to us (from all over the world in fact) reached the point where they had to go home. Leaving behind that loving and supportive community exposed the truth—that nothing had actually changed in their orientation at all. So they began to feel all the more alone, wondering what this experience of total dedication to Christ could have meant if it had not led to the change we all felt sure would come—especially when graduates of our discipleship programme found that the temptations to desire and seek a same-sex partnership were as strong and deeply-rooted as ever. Many lost their faith as a result; some became deeply depressed to the point of despair; some even became suicidal. As a pastor committed to helping people to grow in their faith, I found the situation quite heart-breaking, and this led to much soul-searching.
In the meantime, I had got married (in 1991) as a “step of faith”. But even though I was always committed to obeying the will of God (as I perceived it), it was not long before I realised that nothing had changed my orientation, a fact that was just as difficult for my wife as for me. I was able to lead a faithful and celibate life, but mainly because I found value and affirmation in running the ministry. However, for others who married and did not have that kind of encouragement, divorce often followed eventually and few years later (with just a few exceptions amongst those of us brought up with a very duty-orientated mindset).
By the mid 1990's, we’d had to close our residential houses, for various reasons (not least of those being the fact that the project had become more or less insolvent). This gave me more time to think, and carefully consider what we had been doing. Increasingly I felt that not only had our vision not been fulfilled, but worse—we had set people up with a tremendous expectation for healing based on a false hope, a specious illusion—that deliverance from unwanted same-sex desires would come if only we were prepared to struggle hard enough and for long enough. Seeing the experience of other ministries, especially those in the USA who had been going for much longer, made me gradually realise that we were never going to see our vision fulfilled. On the contrary, increasingly I could see that the only people who were doing at all well were those who came to the point of accepting that they are gay, and found a same-sex partner. The majority became more and more dysfunctional in life, as long as they suppressed what I eventually realised was their/our true sexuality.
For awhile, we tried to steer a middle road where we recognised that a change of orientation was not going to happen. However, we encouraged celibacy and the development of close same-sex friendships—of a non-sexual kind. But this proved impractical for most people; we completely underestimated the natural strength of desire we all have for the sexual consummation of relationship with someone we love. In my heart, I found myself approving and supporting gay partnerships, although theologically I was not quite there.
Meeting a group in the United States called Evangelicals Concerned, a long-running theologically conservative group that was, nevertheless, totally affirming of same-sex partnerships, helped me to see that this move, theologically, was both possible and entirely appropriate for gay Christians. In writing an article for LGCM magazine in 2000, to share my change of approach (a radical change for evangelical Christians), I had to go public about our new views. Consequently I lost fellowship and support from most evangelical churches who had previously approved our ‘ex-gay’ stance. But this freed me to be more open and candid about what I now believe—that God fully supports same-sex partnerships.
In June 2005, I was invited by Peterson Toscano and the Soulforce group in the USA to join a conference called Beyond ex-gay where, alongside other former ‘ex-gay’ ministry leaders, I made a public apology for our ‘ex-gay’ work and all the damage it has done to gay people over the years. In my defence, I must say that I had endeavoured to follow the teachings of the conservative church—and all who had come to us needed to make the same journey— for none of us were able to embrace a fully gay-affirming perspective until we’d exhausted the ‘ex-gay’ theories and discovered what is right in the sight of God for ourselves.