For non-religious people it must seem odd that some gay men are drawn to the Christian faith when so many churches are anti-gay. I can only speak from my own experience, but I saw a few reasons:
I was taken to church all my life but it wasn't until I heard of a church two stops down the motorway that had 70 young people in the youth group that I took any real interest. I had few friends up to the age of 15 and now suddenly here was a room full of my peers that had to be nice to me no matter how many social skills I lacked. And by that stage I lacked a lot.
Within a couple of months I discovered I had a faith of sorts, but it wasn't until two years later that I first encountered fundamentalism. I was on a Christian retreat at a Butlins holiday camp one Easter, listening to a youth leader who believed every word of the Bible was literally true. When it was time for questions I went up on the stage and said: "I've never heard anyone say that they believed Noah was really lived for 950 years before, why do you believe it?"
Looking back, the answer I wished he would have given me is: "There are many different ways of interpreting the Bible, which is why there are so many different denominations all claiming to be Christian. Churches at the liberal end of the spectrum say that the story of Noah is figurative and it's only the point of the story that matters. Other churches at the fundamentalist end believe that every word of the Bible is 100% scientifically accurate, and then they reverse engineer some pretty bizarre explanations to support that belief. But they are only a tiny minority within the church and it's up to each individual Christian to decide where they stand."
Unfortunately what he gave in response was a funny joke about how "there was a lot less stress in those days", and then a passionate, moving, energetic rallying cry based around the theme that "either the Bible is true or it's not. Either you believe it or you don't. Either you stand up for everything the Lord has given us or you might as well go home now and be a heathen!"
For a bunch of teenagers wanting to live in an ideal world this was like fireworks going off. No-one had ever got this passionate about the Bible being true before. A whole new world was opening up before us ... the world of fundamentalism.
Over the next few years I think our group of teenagers fed off each other, buying books and tapes that gave us more and more fantastic things to believe. We were encouraged by a few youth leaders who were impressed with our enthusiasm and handled very carefully by other church leaders who didn't wish to kill our newfound faith, but also didn't approve of what we were getting into.
Then I discovered a new skill: I was able to write comic sketches and was put on the fast track to being the "chosen one" of the young people in the area. I bullied other teenagers into performing my plays at church, school and the local YMCA. We were booked to perform alongside professional Christian preachers, musicians and artists at evangelistic events. The encouraging hand of several youth organisations was upon me and it felt good.
There was a down-side to this. It's a lot easier to get financial support from the fundamentalist wing of the church which demands that every member gives at least 10% of their income to the church, than it is to get money from the liberal wing that suggests one should aim to give a regular sum, but only if you can afford it. As a result we tended to be sponsored and booked by fundamentalists. It's also much easier to get passionate about "We have the answer to everything! Just come to the front and you'll be saved!" than it is to shout "I hardly know anything! Come to the front and we'll muddle through together!" Having absolute answers was much more attractive. Both of these factors contributed to dragging me further into fundamentalism.
I was surrounded by my heroes: musicians and preachers most people have never heard of, but I wanted to be just like them. The more I repeated what they said, the more time I was given on stage. By the age of 20 I was performing with a professional Christian theatre company for 3 weeks at the same Easter Butlins retreat where I was once a punter. This was what I had always wanted.
But I wasn't happy. Just like the kids in my childhood who avoided me for being different, most of the people I worked with could tell I was gay - although I didn't have a clue. They made a point of drumming into me that homosexuality was something you did, not something you were. Jonathan and David (2 Old Testament characters - see 1 Samuel 20:17 and 2 Samuel 1:26) were apparently "blood brothers" - definitely not lovers. Although we were commanded by God to love gays, sex was NOT an option outside marriage for ANYONE. And if I was caught socialising with liberal Christians I was told off for "taking my problems outside the team."
This attitude is what fundamentalism is really about. It has nothing to do with faith and everything to do with needing to feel secure and certain that you're right. At every event we were reminded that the path of communication was:
This NEVER worked in the opposite direction.
I desperately wanted to be successful, but the higher up the chain I got the more prejudice I found. My highest/ lowest point came at a training conference for 600 youth leaders from all over the UK where my own company was the resident theatre group. On the final night the main stage speaker gave a sermon full of homophobic jokes, poking fun at a Biblical character who must have been gay because he couldn't finish a missionary journey with St Paul and "had to run home to mummy". Everyone found it hysterical. I was devastated. When I told one of the leadership team how outrageous the sermon was he told me to "drop the artistic temperament or you'll never make it in this profession".
I finally realised I was gay the day after I met my partner David. Unlike the people I'd met so far he didn't give me passionate speeches or use emotive language. He didn't give me books to read, tapes to listen to or articulate Biblical arguments. All he said was "has anyone ever told you that it's okay to be gay?" No-one ever had. That night I couldn't sleep because I was so happy. The next morning my face hurt because I'd been smiling so much. I deduced I must be gay to be feeling this way and, as Dave recommended, sat down for a long chat with God.
I didn't have a clue what to say. I'd spent the last seven years obsessively apologising to God for what I was. Now I had to find something else to say. What did other people pray about? I had no idea. Did I have a temper? Was I meant to be performing drama for a living? What plans did God have for my life? It was like trying to drive without the hand-brake on for the first time.
I still believed that there was a future for me doing professional Christian work. After all, I'd been told that being gay was okay so long as you didn't have sex, and that honesty was a good thing. So putting two and two together I decided to tell all the Christians I knew that I was gay and planned to be celibate. All but two people reacted badly to the news, and they'd previously been through the same thing with others and decided not to react badly again.
I received letters for the next 18 months from friends who told me that I was getting in the way of their relationship with God and they couldn't have anything to do with me. Other people discussed behind my back how I couldn't be a Christian any more. Churches didn't want to know me. The few churches that did accept me said that I had to stay at the back and would never be in a position of leadership again. It took a long while to rebuild my life outside of fundamentalism, and by then I had a completely new set of friends.
One of the main arguments used against my new point of view was that I was "being subjective" by listening to my emotions. Only the Bible was truly objective, and everything had to be measured against that. But I couldn't make them see that the Bible itself can be subjective as long as a few people are interpreting what it means on behalf of the majority, whilst ignoring personal experience. Who decides that when the Bible appears to support slavery or the oppression of black people it is wrong, but when it appears to support women or non-heterosexuals being second class citizens it is right?
If you know someone who is getting sucked into a fundamentalist point of view please don't argue with them. They have already been taught that stubbornness is a good thing and they'll be rewarded at church for "standing up for their faith". The only way I know to effect change is live or work alongside them and show them a better way of living by example. This can take years.
If you are struggling to reconcile sexuality and faith please relax. There are alternative points of view, although they probably won't be available in your local church library. I found that for every book in a Christian bookstore which condemned homosexuality there was a book available in a secular bookshop (some written by Christians) that provided a more positive interpretation. Two books I found helpful: Terry Sanderson's "Stranger in the Family (How to Cope if Your Child is Gay)", published by The Other Way Press, has a chapter on religion. And Bishop John Spong's large volume "Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism" has an introduction which was enough to get me thinking that maybe I hadn't been told the whole truth by my mentors. Michael Vasey's "Strangers and Friends" has also been recommended to me.
You can also order books and pamphlets from the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and other religious organisations listed in the UK monthly magazine Gay Times . Several members of clergy in the Metropolitan Community Church have also written pamphlets I found useful. I am not a member of the M.C.C. and do not endorse them. But I found that the knowledge that there were alternative points of view was more groundbreaking than finding a point of view I did actually agree with.
In the end, if you aren't hurting yourself, other people or your own faith in God does it really matter? (Of course, my ex-friends would claim that being gay does hurt your relationship with God, but then, you can use that argument to support any ideology, can't you?)
I wrote a poem after all this had happened, which still sums up how I feel:
They claim they have the truth and proof that I'm a heretic.
They say they know theology and so I must be thick.
Experiences I've been through they conveniently ignore,
So I'm not a fundamentalist any more.
I'm told I must be sad or bad, illogical or mad,
A miserable liberal who's going through a fad,
A patronising humanist with morals on the floor,
So I'm not a fundamentalist any more.
Now I don't mind if people need to read a book of rules,
Treating God's abundant love like punishments at school,
But I take exception when at me they aim their law,
So I'm not a fundamentalist any more.
Copyright © John Pendal 1999. All Rights Reserved.
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