Sunday, 19 June 2016

Evangelical Christians - I Was Wrong

Evangelical Christians – I Was Wrong

There have been a lot of journey stories in the public discussion and debate about the churches and gay relationships in the last couple of years. This is mine.

Like most English people I was Christened. I wasn’t quite a baby – nearly 14 months, and already walking and talking enough to argue – but it was a family rite of passage. My grandmothers were one Italian, and one Irish, Catholic. But I never saw or heard of them going to church. My parents taught me what are fairly basic “Christian” morals – don’t cheat, steal, kill, murder, be horrid to people, or put your elbows on the table. They also had a deep sense of justice – that everyone should be treated fairly. This didn’t run to gay people. My father thought that religion was for weak people who wouldn’t know otherwise how to behave themselves. They had the usual lower class prejudices against gay people. If we couldn’t conform, or hold it in, then we ought really to be killed. This was the 1970s, a decade after the passing of the “Sexual Offences Act” which decriminalised gay men.

So I grew up fairly sure that I wasn’t a Christian, and hoping very much, despite the increasingly obvious evidence, that I wasn’t gay. And then I went to University. Before I went, having studied lots of Reformation history in the sixth form, we’d been challenged to read the New Testament as background reading to a deeper understanding of the arguments of those times. That was a life-changer. I read it – in the Authorized Version, which I’d never recommend to anyone now – and was fascinated by it. I didn’t understand it all by any means, but I knew it was important, and above all, I was drawn, attracted, by the figure of Jesus. Though it wasn’t anything to do with the subjects I had been accepted to study, I spend a lot of my gap year learning theology, and deciding that although there weren’t a lot of answers, the questions were much the most important one could ask. I went to evensong in the village church one night to try it out. This was not a success.

When you arrived at Oxford in those days – maybe still – you are bombarded with invitations from religious outfits. There was the college chapel (in my case that happened also to be the cathedral of the diocese), the neighbouring evangelical churches, St Aldates and St Ebbes, the Christian Union, the Catholic Chaplaincy, the University Church, Pusey House, and for all I can remember, thirty years later, the URC, Methodists, Quakers, and Baptists (for whom I now work). I accepted them all. Best of all, I made friends with two people who were regular and natural church-goers, one a Catholic, the other a low-church Anglican. I was presented with a picture of religious observance being normal, natural, and right. And there was nothing weak about it. I threw in my lot with the college chapel (it was nearest) and with the Christian Union. The CU reps – Karen and Robert (both tremendously attractive people) suggested that believing the Gospel was not enough, I had to do something about it. By March the 1st I was confirmed in the cathedral. I’m not sure that’s quite what Karen and Robert were after, but they were supportive all the same.

It had been an easy journey so far. But other things were stirring. I was drawn to this God who was love, and where there was God, there was love. Because I really wanted a bit of love. Incarnate love. And that would be with another man, and I reckoned that would be OK with God, despite everything I’d learnt as a child. At the same time, in fact from the day of my confirmation, I started wondering whether I ought to become a priest. I explored changing course to theology at the time – from PPE, a direction unheard of since the War, one of my tutors told me – and I mentioned it to my CU friends. Karen said “aren’t you worried that if you study theology you might lose your faith?” “If I do, it’s because I don’t think it’s rational to believe in it any more, so that’s OK”. That was the wrong answer.

That’s when I started to understand the evangelical-catholic split in the Church of England which I had just very publicly joined. This was 30 years ago, and at that time members of Christian Unions who had any position of responsibility, especially for teaching, had to sign up to a code which was essentially Fundamentalist. Not only did they have to believe six impossible things about Scripture before breakfast, but things like the “penal substitution theory of the atonement” which isn’t even in Scripture at all. They didn’t like women, either. The head CU rep was always a boy. So, even before I fell in love with another man, I was drifting away from a world which I knew would be unfriendly to me at best, rejecting at worst. Eventually I was removed from Bible Studies classes (because I’d taken Scripture more literally than the convenor – it was about money, and she was very rich) and after remedial classes with one of their heavyweights (a man who was of enormous and respected scholarship in the day-to-day life of the college) I was set adrift.

So that’s how I left it, with evangelicalism. Nice people, crap theology, can’t take an argument, and not really very keen on love.

The annoying thing about being young is that you are young. And you don’t know it. And for most of thirty years, despite having from time to time met and talked to and even been given advice by much more enlightened evangelical Christians, my own mind was set there. My reality was something they could never see. And it was vital to my existence that I gave them no credence, lest they chew away at the little of the image and likeness of the God who is love that I had learnt to discover in myself.

I was eventually ordained, despite being totally open about my sexuality, and later, moved from one job to another with the full knowledge of the authorities. That should have given me much more confidence than it did – but the authorities never acknowledged that they were ordaining and appointing gay men (and later women). When I came across evangelical Christians at deanery and ecumenical gatherings we’d talk about this and that, but I never trusted you with the truth about myself which I’d given to the bishops.

That’s my sin of omission. I never gave you the chance to relate to me, a relatively popular and successful (do those words mean anything in the Kingdom?) curate, and a gay man with a worked-out theology of why who I am is OK with God. You might have disagreed, but I didn’t even give you the chance to think it through. I didn’t trust you. I should have taken the risk.

Worse, as now we are finding out each day (but many of us could see all along), evangelical congregations teem with gay men and women who long for acceptance, and love, ideally from someone they love too, but ultimately, from God, their maker and redeemer. Those people, my brothers and sisters in the faith, as well as in the LGBT world, were on the receiving end of a far harsher ministry than the ministry of hypocrisy and “let’s pretend we didn’t hear that” that we High Church Anglicans received. Nor could they even get to know those of us who’d got to the place of acceptance, the God-given place, the place of OK with God.

Once I asked a wise man why it is that evangelicals argue – as indeed did Parliamentarians in the same-sex marriage debate – that if gay people are allowed covenanted love - it will undermine marriage? He replied “because in their world, when someone comes out as gay, they are usually married, have children, the marriage breaks. It isn’t the being gay that broke the marriage, it’s the making of a marriage out of the wrong materials. But it’s hard to tell them that”.

My evangelical sister and brother Christians are making great strides towards equality, justice, and openness to the Spirit. After three decades of hostility, anxiety, even fear, I look forward to the day when I can go to Holy Communion with you openly and in peace, as sons and daughters of the same good God, made in his image and likeness, who delights in his creation. And maybe you will find it in your hearts to forgive me the craven days when I didn’t tell my truth, which would have been speaking out for yours.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
June 2016