My Spiritual Journey
Over the past year, I have been taking a two-year course in Spiritual Direction. Recently, we were asked to write about our Spiritual Journey for discussion in small groups. This proved to be quite a helpful exercise for me, and although in a short time, or brief article, one cannot hope to give any more than a perfunctory description of one’s spiritual journey over half a century of life’s experience, I hope that nevertheless the following account might turn out to be helpful for some and maybe an inspiration to write their own story as a spiritual exercise.
"The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I [Jesus] have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." John 10:10 (ANIV)
My faithful and kind Father brought me up to attend a local Anglican Church. I became fascinated by those historic Church buildings which somehow gave me a sense of security. When I reached early adulthood, I was to spend the first 11 years of my career photographing them. The atmosphere of those cavernous stone edifices, silent, ancient places of worship and prayer, imbued in me an impression of God eternal—who was there, mysteriously present in the quietness—who was great (towering like the columns)—who made Himself known through the priests serving in them, through the liturgy, psalms, hymns and readings from the Bible.
For some reason, unknown to me, I never went to Sunday school. But at my regular school, and through books given by my Godmother, I learned many Bible stories— of Old Testament heroes and of course the stories of Jesus. Church-going was part of my life; I just accepted it. For years I sang in the choir. We were taught: "God is Love!". But I did not see much evidence of Him in the lives of the people there.
Through the Anglican church services, I imbibed an innate sense of sinfulness, no doubt because of the oft-repeated prayers and confessions that promoted a sense of unworthiness: "We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table . . .". The overall emphasis was on the need for atonement for our sins and human wickedness. I did not understand why I was so especially bad, but I became certain I must be worse than most: nobody else ever seemed to need to talk about their sins. Whereas I never seemed to measure up to the standards required in anything. There was always an adult around who seemed to need to correct me over something!
When I was seven, my God-mother gave me "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe" by C.S. Lewis. For some reason I identified with Edmund the traitor. This was not because I was treacherous or even particularly naughty. On the contrary, I tended to be an uncommonly compliant and obedient little boy, so I am told, and very loyal as a person. But deep down inside I always felt an uncomfortable sense of guilt. I never really understood why, but I feared that somehow, whatever the reason for my guilt, sooner or later I would be "found out".
The story of the great lion Aslan taking Edmund’s place and suffering the penalty Edmund deserved had a profound effect on me. Instinctively I knew that this was a story about Jesus and the Cross. I somehow understood the idea that Jesus had laid His life down for us all. I was awestruck by this. It was reassuring to learn, as C.S. Lewis put it, that there existed "a deeper magic from before the dawn of time" that somehow subverted and set into reverse the works of evil. Now I see this time in my life as the start of my spiritual/faith journey at a conscious level. But I did not understand how the Cross would make me any better. I thought there must be some profound secret to this; but until I found out what it was, I knew I must resolve to be very grateful and try to express that gratitude by being good.
As I grew up, life just seemed full of problems—monstrous injustices in the world, natural disasters, inexplicable tragedies—for which our Christian faith seemed to have inadequate answers. Everywhere I saw misunderstandings, hurts, betrayals, people falling out with one another. . . Forgiveness or willingness to forget past wrongs were rare gifts. Holding grudges, remembering wrongs seemed the norm. Perhaps for this reason, as a child I felt anxious, insecure, lacking in self-confidence. Life was frightening, even overwhelming; disaster might strike at any moment.
At the age of nine, I became a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, boarding at the Choir School until my voice broke. I came to love the choral tradition and found certain works particularly memorable: Mozart’s Requiem—searingly beautiful—made a deep though morbid impression on me. Through heart-rending appeals for mercy from a ‘righteous’ God, crying out "To which protector shall I appeal when even the just man is barely safe?", God seemed more and more like a monster to me—a terrifying and seemingly vindictive judge with a blood-lust for vengeance that made Adolf Hitler seem almost reasonable! We learned that we must worship this God—who plans to wreak cataclysmic vengeance with everlasting punishment on all his wayward creatures unless payment for sin is satisfied in full.
The Bible teaches that, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 9:10). For me, that kind of "fear of the Lord" brought absolute paralysis. Only with a little common sense applied years later, was I able to see that ‘fear’ might be commuted to a ‘healthy respect’, the first lesson wisdom surely teaches. Then at last I could begin to trust in God.
The time came when boys were encouraged to go forward for Confirmation. My Mother challenged me as to what this meant to me and asked (somewhat peevishly) what I thought I was doing? She held some very plausible-sounding reservations about the Church’s teaching, so I did not feel free to go ahead with Confirmation without some answers. The Headmaster of the Choir School thought I was being very mature for wanting more time to think about the issues, before going ahead—which was affirming for me in one sense. But for some inexplicable reason, this unfortunately meant that I did not go through his confirmation classes. With hindsight, it seems strange that you could only go to the classes if you fully intended to be confirmed at the end. I felt cheated. The Headmaster was a very good teacher. I might have had the opportunity to ask questions and learn what I needed to know. So after awhile I decided to say I was ready. But though I was subsequently confirmed at St Paul’s, by that time I had left the school and had to go to confirmation classes run by the vicar of my local Church—which were worse than useless and left me with increasing doubts as to whether the Christian faith had any credibility at all. Certainly life in the Church of England (the only denomination I knew at the time) seemed as much of a relic of the past as the buildings where we worshipped—and was equally outdated, irrelevant and expensive to maintain. So my actual Confirmation confirmed nothing and the event only left me with greater questions.
I am sure my Mother’s views must have influenced me; she had "lost" her faith. To her the Church in those days was pompous, stuffy, regimented and seemed to have nothing to do with real life. I had a feeling, though, that her opposition to Christianity was a defence against the guilt she also had imbibed; but it felt to me like outright rebellion against the system, rather than lost faith. I feared for her.
My parents’ marriage broke up during my teens. I understood why they broke-up as they were so unhappy together, and I could see the sense of them doing so. My sisters and I were relieved when they went their separate ways. But the hostility towards my parents of many church-going friends around us (especially towards my Mother as ‘the guilty party’) was incomprehensible to me. It became clear to me that these ‘friends’ would have found it more acceptable for my Father or Mother to have a discreet affair (well, my Father anyway—women were not expected to have affairs) but to stay married not get divorced. I found the hypocrisy of this attitude absolutely mind-blowing, confirming to me all the more that the Church was out of touch with real life. Church services became for me a meaningless ritual and the people who engaged in them did so, it seemed, simply because they had always done so. Nobody, unfortunately, could tell me why we did what we did, but just that it was important to do it anyway. I became deeply cynical as a teenager and, in that spiritual desert, tried to reassure myself that "If God’s vengeance was anything like his blessing, we had nothing to fear at all!" But my cynical bravado was just a desperate attempt to stabilise my emotional life which was falling apart.
I must backtrack a little here: from the age of thirteen (1965) I had been secretly wrestling with emerging attraction to boys not girls. Intuitively I sensed this was ‘terribly wrong’—in the sight of God and everyone else. I became all the more fearful, depressed and disillusioned. The lives of us all seemed to be dominated by powerful authority figures who assured us of terrible penalties if we did not toe the line. I saw my Mother pay a terrible price for following her heart and pursuing a relationship with a man she fell in love with (long after my parents’ relationship had broken down) with the result that my Father divorced her. She was shunned even by her own Mother. She had no training for a career; the social expectations in those days required her to be a housewife from her early twenties. There were no opportunities for a woman without experience or further education. Working as a shop assistant was about all that was available to her. Thus my Mother and my sisters who had left with her had very little indeed to live on. My wonderful, loving, highly intelligent and gifted Mother was an outcast as far as most of the rest of the family was concerned. I had little doubt that if my feelings of homosexual attraction were found out, I would be shunned in the same way.
When I was about 21 years old, a former school friend became a Christian and his life dramatically changed. As a teenager at school, he’d become selfish, spiteful and self-orientated and had made life quite miserable for me. But becoming a Christian had turned him into a more mature young man, who knew he was accountable to God. Everything in his life had changed. He patiently tried to answer my questions. I was impressed that he could live with many unanswered (or unanswerable) questions, clearly knowing God as a real person who loves us. By this time in my life, I was utterly miserable, struggling with my homosexual orientation. I had hoped these feelings would be a passing phase, having been assured of this by a book about growing up which referred to homosexuality in adolescence as a phase. But I had never grown out of it. Though I was nowhere near being ready to tell anyone about it, the changes in my friend’s life kindled in me a glimmer of hope that perhaps, somehow, the God he knew could change me.
I went to my friend’s church, known locally as "Millmead" (Guildford Baptist Church) where the pastor, David Pawson, had an exceptional Bible-teaching ministry. He could easily speak for an hour and it felt like ten minutes, whereas Anglican sermons in my experience usually lasted ten minutes, yet felt like an hour. I had never been anywhere like it. The first meeting I attended was so packed with people that I had to watch the service in a separate room on closed-circuit TV. The first sermon I heard David preach was on the subject "God is love"—one of a series on what Christians believe. That evening, it seemed as though God had overheard the conversation I’d had with my friend the night before. One by one, my questions were now being answered. It was quite a miraculous experience.
I enjoyed the simple informality of the Baptist services, which made more sense to me than the weekly intoned repetition of Elizabethan liturgy (this was before the Alternative Service Book or Common Worship used today). People of all ages took part and all seemed genuinely enthusiastic. They "knew the Lord" and seemed to have a joy and assurance that everything in life would work out OK, because God was someone who could be trusted. Especially helpful to me was that they had a good understanding of their faith which they talked freely about and could explain.
I was hooked! Over the next seven years I attended every meeting I could possibly get to. My Baptism as a believer, by total immersion, certainly meant a great deal more to me than my Confirmation. Moreover, in some mysterious way, I felt that God was there, that He’d overseen my spiritual journey—and even ‘led’ me to Millmead, so that my questions could be answered.
David Pawson was a brilliant Bible teacher; as he saw it, the Bible was, ‘The Maker’s Instructions’. I took him at his word. He was a most dedicated man of God and, as I saw him, he always acted with the utmost integrity. He seemed to know all the answers one might ever need in life—or what he did not know did not seem worth knowing. He became my hero and role model1. For those years and for long after I left that church, I unquestioningly and uncritically imbibed everything he taught.
Seven years on, for career reasons, I had to move to Watford. At the age of 28, I saw myself as a ‘committed Bible-believing Christian’, commitment being the operative word. Lack of serious commitment to Christ and a lack of good Bible teaching in other churches, meaning the Anglican church as far as I was concerned, meant that they had ‘lost their way’, whilst I had found ‘The Right Way’.
This whole way of thinking was strongly reinforced by Alan Vincent, leader of the House Church I joined in Watford. Like David Pawson, he was another absolutely dedicated man of God. A fine Bible teacher, a missionary and one who had planted churches, Alan had built up a thriving fellowship in the Watford area. He greatly longed to see revival in the Church, and left us all in no doubt that this would come about only if we were prepared to be absolutely committed to Christ. Something he once said made a huge impression on me: "I am tired of working with Christians who regard Christianity as their favourite hobby!" I got the message! I made up my mind that I would make absolutely no compromises in following Christ. No room for indulging trivialities such as my wayward feelings of same-sex attraction! I must have become an insufferable bore in those days—religious, judgmental, and self-righteous. I believed that nothing in life mattered other than ‘knowing’ and serving God, following His will in everything—and I thought I knew what that meant!
By this time I was pursuing a very good career, enviable to many people, working for a publishing company as a professional photographer and travelling all over the country photographing cathedrals, stately homes, museums and galleries, royal events etc. Though it was a privilege and a tremendous opportunity for me, through which I gradually gained more confidence and much valuable experience, there was a part of me that felt that I had accepted a second-rate option for my life. Deep down I felt disqualified from any real Christian service, because of my homosexual orientation . Now I believe that the kind of thinking that dismisses a "secular" career in this way to be seriously flawed, but this was part of my journey. Then at the age of 35 (14 years on from my new-found commitment to Christ), entirely unexpectedly, the opportunity opened up to go into full-time Christian ministry—to gay people who wanted to follow Christ. By this time I was attending a charismatic House Church in Harrow, led by Frank Gamble (a plant-out from Alan Vincent’s church).
This ‘Calling’ was something that my local Church elders believed was from God. So they prayed for me to be ‘set apart’ for the ministry, the nearest House Churches come to offering something like ordination. I began to see the previous years of personal struggle and my secular career as part of God’s training for Christian service.
My early ministry years were times of great certainty. Along with all good evangelical Christians, I knew that homosexuality was wrong, ‘because the Bible says so’—being ‘contrary to God’s creation plan’. Same-sex partnerships, we believed, were a parody of marriage and offensive to God. We believed that the only ‘right’ response for a gay Christian was to ‘obey the Word, to fight same-sex attractions and live a life of celibacy’. All other gay evangelical Christians seemed to feel the same. We all came from the same spiritual foundations. There was never any shortage of people seeking the kind of help they hoped we could provide. Never did we set out to persuade gay people that they needed our approach. And the journey we were embarking on in those days turned out to be an essential journey we all needed to go on, without which we would forever have wondered what might have been, if only we had tried a little harder and for a little longer.
In 1987, I spent some months training with an ‘ex-gay’ ministry called Love in Action in California, which was a very positive time for me. Increasingly, being influenced by the charismatic movement, I came to believe we should actively seek the possibility of change, with heterosexual marriage in view. My own marriage in 1991 was very much a conscious step of faith towards living out a life conformed to the will of God. Though I never claimed that my orientation had actually changed, that was immaterial to me— submission was the rule. My firm resolve was to obediently follow the path God had surely led me on.
There’s no doubt that the charismatic movement, in its early years, made a very positive impact on the evangelical Church, revitalising the faith of many Christians. Moreover it released many ordinary people to contribute their gifts to the life of the Church, rather than everything being dependent upon a trained priesthood. There was a new sense in which everybody belonged, everybody counted. This became a very exciting time and before long we were all increasingly motivated by a great expectation of Revival. We believed we would see an outpouring of the Holy Spirit as in New Testament times, with miracles and the power of God manifested in astounding ways. This would herald the return of Jesus and the end of this Age. None of us wanted to miss out on the revival we felt sure would come soon, if only we had faith and thoroughly prepared ourselves for it. So in the grand scheme of things, ‘overcoming homosexuality’ was surely a trifling matter for a God—for whom "nothing was impossible" (Matthew 19:26).
From 1988, when I began the ministry of Courage with a small team of the most dedicated co-workers anyone could ever have wished for, we faced one enormous hurdle after another when trying to develop the ministry. Yet our faith and optimism was such, we simply believed that if you were in the will of God you absolutely could not fail, however great the challenges were. After all, the Bible promised that the Christian life would mean hardship—so challenges were sent by God to be overcome, and we were not to allow them to defeat us.
As I saw it, the Christian life was to be one of chastity and obedience. I was not so sure about poverty—abstemiousness yes, but I saw poverty as something shameful. God’s gracious provision of everything we legitimately needed was a promise we just had to believe in (Luke 12:22-34). Moreover we believed God would provide everything with a generosity of spirit, as certainly as He would transform our lives—from being sullied by sin to lives marked by holiness and righteousness. But as the years went by, our unwavering belief that God would provide at least a modest level of prosperity together with a profound transformation of our sexuality turned out to be lamentably out of touch with reality.
It has taken many years to realise that our expectations were inspired by a particular way of viewing the Bible that seems embarrassingly presumptuous today. One of the first clear signs that should have alerted me to the fact that something was seriously awry, was in the early years of Courage when we were struggling greatly financially. Our astonished accountant challenged me one day, "Whatever are you doing giving away all this money?" I explained that we believed we must honour God with the first tenth of all our income (giving it to the Church); then God would ensure that all our needs would be provided for. Tithing was a strong expectation emphasised in many churches in those days—a sign of true commitment to God. The corollary of that principle was that God would provide for every need, with great generosity. Malachi 3:10 commands, "‘Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.’" The accountant reacted immediately by saying very sharply, "You are not honouring anyone—you’re insolvent!" But I simply could not countenance such a challenge from a man who was not even a believer!
We also believed in a biblical doctrine that warned against "blaspheming against the Holy Spirit—a sin which could never be forgiven" (Luke 12:10). How could we dare to doubt ‘the leading of the Holy Spirit’ based on the teaching of the Bible? No! We were resolved to follow the example of the apostle Peter who, when arrested for preaching the gospel and told to stop replied, "we must obey God rather than men!" (Acts 5:29). To do anything less would be to disobey God and invite judgement.
By the time I realised that the accountant’s warning could have been from God, it was much too late to recover financially. The inescapable fact is that from the time we invested all we had in the ministry, we’ve struggled on the brink of financial collapse. The devourer came anyway (Malachi 3:11)! Of course "following God’s command" could not possibly be wrong! But after 18+ years of relentless financial pressure, having made no financial provision for the future, having now lost our home too, there’s no escaping the fact that this personal humiliation is the result of my own foolish presumption and downright stupidity. Commitment to a biblical principle is no excuse for failing to exercise wisdom in financial investment.
The intoxicating fact was that living in a fantasy world where trusting in God more or less guaranteed success in everything we did—as long as we acted rightly, which meant ‘biblically’, was irresistible. Of course those early years were very exiting, and immensely challenging. We enjoyed a tremendous sense of community and common purpose. We created a safe place where people could be totally open and honest, bringing into the light those shameful aspects of our lives (our homo-sexuality) that had been hidden for so long. We believed that our formerly hidden lives, wretched because of our struggles with same-sex attractions and the ways in which some of us handled them, were at last going to count for something. We had steadfastly refused to follow ‘the way of the world’ and felt we could stand with our heads up high—with confidence that we had a place in God’s new Kingdom.
In reality, the long-term consequences for many who took part in our discipleship programmes, after they had left our community to get on with their lives, was a pretty depressing outlook—near-disastrous for some. In fact I have to say that the long-term damage in the lives of us all has been incalculable. It has to be said that our whole strategy had largely been inspired by those charismatic influences which inculcated a hyped up sense of hope and expectation for change—based on the demand for absolute submission to the perceived will of God. It has proved spiritually catastrophic, many having given up their faith altogether; financially catastrophic, many of us having lost practically all we had, leaving a wholly inadequate provision for retirement; and mentally and emotionally catastrophic— many ending up seriously depressed with some people even becoming suicidal.
The moral consequences have been extremely serious. I can now clearly see that this strategy, this demand—to "believe God" and refuse to listen to our intuitive sense of what is right (surely the way the Holy Spirit guides us)—to follow this fundamentalist biblical perspective, is utterly abusive and morally indefensible! Someone once humourously observed, "Fundamentalism is not much fun and mainly mental!"
When it came to celebrating Ten Years of Courage with a special service in London in the summer of 1998, I was privately beginning to experience growing doubts as to where we were headed for the next ten years. The fallout rate of those we had journeyed with was alarming to say the least. The near death of one of our former members not long before this, was beginning to impact me with a creeping sense of the delusion we were in. This man had taken part in our residential discipleship course for about 18 months before he decided it was time to move on. We were happy for him to do so; we had seen him recover from serious illness and great loss in his life, and we fully expected he would move on from strength to strength. Three or four years later however, we had almost lost touch with him until we learned that he’d made a massive and very serious suicide attempt. The circumstances in which he was found and rushed to hospital were in themselves quite miraculous. In the months it took him to recover, I drove the 300-mile round trip to visit him as often as I could. But clearly the inner conflict set up in his psyche as a result of denying his homosexual orientation and trying to believe that God was changing him had created total inner devastation. I am relieved to say that he eventually recovered his health. A few months later, he found a male partner with whom he fell in love; they’ve now been together for nine happy and fulfilling years. This man’s life was quite transformed—but not at all in the way I had expected! Of course I was absolutely relieved that he had recovered, but it chilled me to the bone to contemplate the possible consequences of our ministry for the lives of others who I did not know. This turned me back to God in prayer with a seriousness and a level of urgency I had never experienced before.
Seeing the incalculable damage to people’s lives over 10-12 years resulted in my certainties crumbling, as I saw the outworking of supposedly rock-solid ‘Christian principles’ bring catastrophe—whether that be to do with handling money, or issues of sexual morality, biblical and Church authority, evangelical Christian teaching and so on. We had been so sure we understood the principles of the Kingdom of God, and so sure we knew what the Lord expected of us. But as it turned out, we were so ignorant of the values of the Kingdom.
Today, I have to remind myself from time to time that whenever you are dealing with people who know they are right, especially when supported by the Word of God (whether the Bible or the Koran, as fundamentalists share much the same intransigent spirit whatever their religion) then no-one can convince them that they are on the wrong path. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6:11 echo in my mind: "Such were some of you!"—hopefully the tough humbling lessons over all these years have softened our hearts, teaching us wisdom and understanding of God’s ways.
The redemptive aspect of this journey is that as I earnestly sought God in a new and deeper way, I discovered more and more of the human side of Jesus—God incarnate, made man, dwelling amongst us in the flesh—and that Jesus shows to us a new way of living, rather than dictating orders from on High. I discovered that Jesus reveals to us the values of the Kingdom of God—having made the laws of God in terms of a written code obsolete (Hebrews 8:13). It is having the compassion to feed the hungry, offer a drink to the thirsty, invite in strangers, clothe the naked, visit people who are sick or in prison, that demonstrates we are worthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 25:31-46). Whilst seeking, albeit for the best-sounding of reasons, to ascend to the moral high ground—to be celibate if you cannot marry, to become straight rather than gay, or pursue the ‘right’ biblical doctrine, denying what is true for the sake of a higher ideal—invites judgement of truly tangible kind!
James Alison, a Catholic author2 who I’ve found so inspiring in recent years, wrote:"Ideology is what you have when you don’t have faith. When you are not aware that there is Another, bigger than us, who is holding all of us in his hand through the upheaval and that ultimately we are safe, there is room, we can be wrong, and we can learn to get it right; when you are not aware of that, then you are frightened of disagreement and what you need to do is to produce a unanimity of opinion, of ideology, you need to get everyone to agree, and have those who are in, in, and those who are out, out.
But this is the classic sign of people who have a compulsion for certainty, a compulsion for being right, and a compulsion for being considered to be good, and so who grasp onto a fake certainty, a resolved righteousness, too small a togetherness. If we react like this, then it means that our anchor isn’t in the rock beyond the veil. If it were then we would be happy to know that we can all be wrong together, all learn together, and that our squabbling about what is right is a necessary part of the process of all of us learning. In fact, faith in the goodness and trustworthiness of the Creator as revealed by Jesus being prepared to undergo a lynch death and so undo our lynching ways, has as its direct consequence the belief that we can be brought into knowing what is objectively true by the paths of human reason."
James Alison, San Francisco, February 2006, "Is it ethical to be Catholic?
From the tough lessons over many years now, I too have reached the conclusion that certainty is the very opposite of faith. Because if you are so absolutely certain of what is right and true, faith becomes unnecessary, even obsolete; you cease to see your need for relationship with God who is alive. Church leaders who offer us very directional teaching are in danger of doing all the thinking, so that we have no need to seek God ourselves. Religious certainty becomes an insidious form of idolatry, the fruit of which is shame and ignominy for its adherents. The only certainty we may rightly hold on to is the assurance of God’s grace, His goodness and kindness towards all who turn to Him and His presence amongst us.
It is ironic that Christian people who find acceptance of homosexuality hard to understand, are so quick to quote Romans 1:25, deciding for us that gay people have "exchanged the truth of God for a lie". The sad fact is that so many of us have exchanged the truth about ourselves—that unique person God made us to be—for a lie, in order to conform to a narrow perception of what the Bible appears to demand. Trying to live by ‘right doctrine’ is surely to eat forbidden fruit—feeding from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, with the result that we die—instead of finding our nourishment from the Tree of Life, which is Jesus Christ.
Increasingly I have seen that living to ‘get it right for God’ is an utterly self-centred, self-righteous approach. This is a huge stumbling block to faith in the living God who loves us and dwells amongst us. I also see that commitment to righteousness and truth, as expressed by the more fundamentalist Christian groups these days, is more to do with imposing human agendas that are themselves profoundly sinful —falling short of the righteousness of God—because their principles control people rather than give life. But as we each listen to the voice of Jesus, who gently and warmly invites us to share with Him a new way of living, we discover and come to appreciate the values which express the character of the God who created us—who loves us, who walks with us and invites us to do something creative with our lives.
I also see now that where homosexual practice can be so wrong is in those ways of relating that exploit, use or abuse others for selfish ends—just as heterosexual people can exploit, use or abuse others. But, hard though it may be for some people to accept, I’ve seen from the lives of many gay Christian friends that to share life in mutual love with a partner of the same-sex can be a profoundly creative and life-giving choice for those who are ‘eunuchs’3—as taught by Jesus in Matthew 19:11,12. In what better way can we glorify God than to offer Him our true selves and walking with Christ learn to love God and our neighbour as Jesus commanded?
The profound sense of sorrow and shame I now feel—for allowing myself to be driven by fear into blindly pursuing a bogus religious purity—and the need to speak out about it, is the only appropriate repentance for denying the simple truth about myself and my sexuality. For obsequiously colluding with the seriously misguided proudly convinced Religious Right in our times, may Christ have mercy on me.
When I have opportunities to speak about my journey and the essential change of approach in the work of Courage, I have sometimes been asked by members of a shocked congregation, what have we done to make reparations for the damage done to people who sought our help? However, I have to remind our critics of the fact that none of the people who sought our help would have come at all if we had not made it absolutely clear in all our published literature what our approach was all about. All came from churches which preach the same uncompromising message against homosexuality. If we’d been seen to be at all ‘liberal’ in our approach, they would have stayed away. They were all adults, in most cases in their late twenties upwards into their fifties, who freely chose to come. We have all needed to make the same journey together. The man who attempted suicide was the worst-case scenario we encountered. Fortunately it was not ultimately disastrous—his story had a happy ending, when he felt free to choose the way in which he wanted to go.
The only reparation we can make today is to teach the truth as we have learned it, and pray that those men and women still entrenched in a rigidly fundamentalist outlook, will become willing to listen and learn from our experience. This is an ongoing journey and we do not know all the answers. But I believe it is fair to say, in our own defence, that we always believed and taught that God is a gracious and loving God. We believed it was important to be uncompromising, but we were gracious in our approach, not domineering or abusive in our attitudes.
James Alison (in the talk quoted from above) pursues these themes further in a way I find poetic and profound, and gives me some insight into how I need to move on:
". . . it is part of the mercy of the Catholic faith that those of us who are infected by spiritual haughtiness find ourselves being lowered slowly and gently into the mud, the slime, of being one of ordinary humanity, and learning that it is this ordinary humanity which is loved as it is. If there are to be any diamonds, they will be found amidst the clay, and as the outworking of the pressures in the clay, not perched on high, on stalks, trying to avoid being infected by so much common carbon."2
Over the past 50 years, I have learned that putting our faith in Christ takes us on a journey in which we discover God’s ways. The Christian life is surely not about studying the Scriptures to learn "the Maker’s instructions", and acquire certainties about God—as a kind of fire insurance against future judgement. To me, the Bible is given to motivate us to seek God for ourselves, as the Patriarchs and heroes of the faith down the ages have always done. Most of Jesus’ early disciples were uneducated people, who would have been unable to read, and did not possess the wealth of modern translations to study. Books had to be written out by hand and were not commonly available to all as they are today. Jesus disciples just trusted in Him. They had begun to learn the lesson Jesus taught so often, that "only as a little child can we enter the Kingdom of Heaven." (Matthew 18:1-6) Perhaps Jesus emphasised this teaching so often because He knew we could see that little children have not developed the sophistication needed to form their own agendas.
As for me, I’ve not thrown out the baby with the bathwater! I am still an evangelical Christian, according to the definition of Dr Roy Clements (see his excellent article "What is an Evangelical?" at www.royclements.co.uk). I still believe that the Christian message is the greatest story ever told; I still believe that to follow Christ is the greatest aim we can make in life; I still believe that the Bible is the divine revelation from which we can come to a greater understanding of God’s ways, though I would handle it differently now. We’ve discovered the hard way what a dangerously literalistic approach it is to see the Bible as ‘the Maker’s instructions’! Yet however ‘fallen’ we may be as a human race, I believe we were made in the image of God—and when we seek to understand the truth with honesty and integrity, we may rightly have the confidence to believe God will speak to us today. Otherwise the Christian life is just about studying a book to get the ‘right’ understanding of Instructions-To-Be-Obeyed, rather than having a relationship with the living God who dwells amongst us, drawing us to Himself. And for all the challenges, the struggles, the times of real failure, I am thankful to God: my life has been a very interesting and fulfilling one; I would not exchange it for any other.
It is a great pity that, maybe because of generations of established Anglicanism in this country, so few ministers in the days of my childhood saw the need to teach the Scriptures or give church-goers any informed understanding of what the Christian faith is all about. But that situation has changed greatly in my lifetime as the increasingly secular society has drawn people away from the Church. Today, the Anglican church leads the way in offering opportunities to learn what the faith is all about, at least at a basic level (for example through the Alpha course).
These days are exciting times for the Church, not because charismatic preachers are promising miracles and revival around the corner, but because disillusionment with the hype has forced many sincere Christians to look again at the scriptures and seek God afresh. A wealth of new books full of inspiration and hope is emerging. My most recent discovery has been a book by relatively unknown Peter Rollins from Northern Ireland who has written "How (not) to speak of God" (published by SPCK). Part One is entitled: "Heretical Orthodoxy: from right belief to believing in the right way". Peter Rollins explores how,
". . .orthodoxy is no longer (mis) understood as the opposite of heresy but rather is understood as a term that signals a way of being in the world rather than a means of believing things about the world. . . This approach opens up a Christian thinking that profoundly challenges some of the most basic ideas found in the contemporary Church. It is an approach which emphasises the priority of love: not as something which stands opposed to the knowledge of God, but, more radically still, as knowledge of God. To love is to know God precisely because God is love." "Orthodoxy as right belief will cost us little; indeed it will allow us to sit back with our Pharisaic doctrines, guarding the ‘truth’ with the purity of our interpretations. But orthodoxy, as believing in the right way, as bringing love to the world around us and within us . . . That will cost us everything. For to live by that sword, as we all know, is to die by it."
I would like to conclude with a celebration: by repeating the now famous and passionate words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu who, in January 2005, in response to the tensions and divisions that have arisen from the appointment of openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson, declared,
"I am deeply saddened at a time when we’ve got such huge problems. . . that we should invest so much time and energy in this issue . . . I think God is weeping." . . . "Jesus did not say, ‘I if I be lifted up I will draw some’, Tutu said, preaching in two morning festival services in Pasadena, California. "Jesus said, ‘If I be lifted up I will draw all, all, all, all, all. Black, white, yellow, rich, poor, clever, not so clever, beautiful, not so beautiful. It’s one of the most radical things. All, all, all, all, all, all, all, all. All belong. Gay, lesbian, so-called straight. All, all are meant to be held in this incredible embrace that will not let us go. All."
He continued: "Isn’t it sad, that in a time when we face so many devastating problems— poverty, HIV/AIDS, war and conflict—that in our Communion we should be investing so much time and energy on disagreement about sexual orientation?" Tutu said the Communion, which "used to be known for embodying the attribute of comprehensiveness, of inclusiveness, where we were meant to accommodate all and diverse views, saying we may differ in our theology but we belong together as sisters and brothers" now seems "hell-bent on excommunicating one another. God must look on and God must weep."
My hope for the future is that the Christian gospel will be preached and made known by ordinary men and women of faith, gay or straight, who are not saddled with having to maintain a traditional outlook for its own sake, or tempted to preach a legalistic message goaded by fear and a false sense of guilt, but rather who demonstrate and speak out the life of God to all who are seeking the Way.
"Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.’" John 14:6 (ANIV)
Updated August 2006
1.David Pawson’s autobiography has recently been published under the title "Not as bad as the truth—Memoirs of an unorthodox evangelical" published by Hodder & Stoughton, 2006.
2.See www.jamesalison.co.uk for more information about James Alison’s books and articles
3.For a fascinating study of the meaning of the word "eunuch" in the Bible, see www.well.com/user/aquarius researched by Faris Malik.
I have recently written a new personal testimony, dealing more specifically than this article with the issues of the Courage ministry development, my marriage to Bren and being Christian and gay. Entitled, "Really Gay Really Christian", this is available on the testimonies page.