Jeremy Marks spoke recently at the Hampton Court Mada Deli series. Jeremy founded Courage UK in 1988, with the aim of supporting gay Christians who wished to change their sexuality in order to conform to evangelical teaching. Several years later, having evaluated their dispiriting results, Jeremy began to grapple with tough theological questions which would gradually bring about a fresh sense of direction both for Courage and for Jeremy himself.
So earlier today Fred Phelps, of ‘God Hates Fags’ Westboro Baptist fame, died at the age of 84.
Members of his church were featured on Russell Brand’s show, the video of which was linked to this blog’s Facebook page. The most interesting aspect was the way in which their bigoted so-called ‘Christian’ stance was shown up by Brand’s genuine efforts to ensure they had a fair hearing, and that they weren’t pilloried by the audience, or in other ways made to feel uncomfortable.
It’s interesting to see how a similar scenario is playing out in many cases following the death of Mr Phelps. Given that he and his church would cruelly picket funerals with any trumped-up association with being gay, it wouldn’t exactly be a surprise if gay people everywhere were now gleefully preparing to return the favour – if only a funeral were on the cards for Mr Phelps.
A number probably would be. But what really gets the attention – in line with the reaction of the gay guests on Brand’s show – is when those in Fred Phelps’ line of fire refuse to react in the same spirit.
George Takei’s (Star Trek’s Sulu, and gay activist) Facebook page today carried the update: ‘Today, Mr Phelps may have learned that God, in fact, hates no-one. Vicious and hate-filled as he was, may his soul find the kind of peace through death that was so plainly elusive during his life.’
And according to cjonline.com, Planting Peace, the group that painted their resource centre (across the road from Westboro Baptist) in rainbow colours to symbolize peace and change for LGBT communities, responded by sending their condolences, saying: ‘(Our) philosophy has always been to overwhelm hate with unconditional love.’
How ironic that the upsetting, hateful actions of a so-called church group should be answered in such a different spirit by those not even claiming to be Christian.
Earlier this week, I was asked whether a lovely young man I knew was ‘the Lord’s’. I find the assumptions behind that question breath-taking. And the actions of Fred Phelps v today’s grace-filled reactions of some of those he targeted remind me just why.
I’m lucky enough to have a Christian academic friend who has proved an enormous help over the years as I have sifted through my accumulated weird and not-so-wonderful rag-bag of charismatic evangelical beliefs. Usually he would say very little as I sought to draw him out on yet more superstitious clap-trap; he would just listen intently – and then with laser accuracy, pose a quietly explosive question. Once we knew each other well enough, he confided that he used to think that people who actually believed all that kind of stuff were ‘nutters.’ Even that comment brought a little more freedom to my spiritually schizophrenic soul, our laughter effectively pinging off yet a few more strands of any lingering bonds.
‘Nutters’ – it sounds somehow sad yet harmless. But this morning I clicked on a youtube video to find a story of American evangelical funding being diverted from feeding the hungry to pushing for anti-LGBT legislation in Uganda – which originally included the death penalty.
It throws Steve Chalke’s candid stand last week against the traditional evangelical line on homosexuality into sharp relief. And also contextualizes Steve Clifford’s official Evangelical Alliance response, which though seemingly-respectful, nevertheless emphasizes their stance that homosexuality is clearly incompatible with scripture.
I was convinced of that myself, once. Not that I really gave it much thought. After all, not so long ago, homosexual acts were illegal in the UK, so those of us old enough to have been around at the time, grew up accepting that they were just wrong. The fact that this was apparently borne out in scripture was unsurprising.
There’s an old saying that used to be quoted in my NLP ‘modeling’ class: ‘you can’t understand someone until you have walked a thousand miles in their moccasins.’ As evangelical Christians, we were taught that scripture was clear enough for us not to have to engage in any real ‘understanding’. But when I finally woke up to the fact that I had never heard gay Christians themselves represented in our church teaching, I began to take steps to listen to the experiences of any who were prepared to risk opening up to me.
The stories were diverse. I had extensive conversations with some who were petrified about peers in their church learning about their sexuality, to others who had come out about their sexuality but believed they should be celibate, to a number who had repeatedly asked for prayer, or put themselves through ex-gay ‘programmes’ – including some who had self-harmed or attempted suicide when it failed to change them – to a few who had found a measure of peace and contentment in a heterosexual marriage, to others who were deeply frustrated with their experience of heterosexual marriage, some who divorced and then settled in monogamous gay relationships… and so on. Such a wide range of personal experiences and beliefs about scripture and how it played out in their lives. Definitive scriptural truth continued to be beyond my grasp; but these deeply painful experiences did at least show me that what I had been taught amounted to little more than old wives’ tales mixed in with a pinch of shallow conjecture.
And meanwhile, something else had been happening. Hearing and engaging with these stories had drawn me out in a way that my attempts to arrive at a clear biblical line never had done. I broke through the need to arrive at the objective truth on this issue by discovering a deep sense of affinity with and care for many of these friends who were having such an agonising journey.
And surely that is the whole point? Coming up with an objective scriptural perspective on gay sexuality may be beyond our scope. But maybe the very impossibility of producing a crystal clear scriptural line underlines the fact that the really important issue is the foundational call to love one another? That much, at least, really is crystal clear in scripture.
And when care for one another not only flies out of the window in our obsession with scripture, but potentially leads to utilising church donations given in good faith to push through harsh anti-gay legislation – then continuing to be a Christian ‘nutter’ has surely gone way beyond a laughing matter.
Over 10 years ago a TV Series Editor told me that when it came to being gay and Christian, there were no more issues left to explore or resolve: life had moved on. But here we are in 2012 and two recent stories suggest she was being overly-optimistic.
First, Dr Jim Reynolds, author of the unbelievably-titled The Lepers Among Us, a book addressing gay sexuality and Christianity – caused a stir by turning up to teach at a number of UK venues. Dr Reynolds is associated with the Core Issues Organisation, which offers controversial therapies to empower gay people to become straight.
Then last week the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, drew on history and tradition to launch a strong attack on gay marriage.
Many today see gay marriage and gay rights in general as no-brainers. But for some Christians who grew up in an era when homosexuality was barely acknowledged, and were taught by their churches that gay sexuality was incompatible with Christianity, the changing perspectives can be challenging.
For me, lights began to go on when it hit me just how devoid of hope the message offered by many churches was for gay Christians. If Christianity was good news, then surely it had to be equally good news for people whatever their sexual orientation? It’s in my nature to research and explore, and since I worked in TV at the time, I set about that through the medium of programme-making.
Suddenly I was meeting gay Christians whose stories were light years removed from pretty much everything I had been taught. All had grasped at whatever straws they could find in their efforts to conform to church teaching, with miserable results. Some had hoped heterosexual marriage would magically change them, others suppressed their sexuality, still others put themselves through Christian ‘sexual re-orientation’ programmes, or continually went forward for prayer at their church, risking that their confessions would become common knowledge. Their experiences were peppered with stories of self-harm, breakdowns and suicide attempts.
No wonder these stories had been airbrushed out of evangelical church teaching – they present a real dilemma for those who are convinced that you cannot be both gay and Christian. Coming face-to-face with people whose experience threatens to unravel your particular paradigm is unnerving.
The experience of one person in particular made a huge impact on me. I started hearing stories about Jeremy, a young photographer I vaguely remembered from the early days in my church, who had apparently struggled with being gay. After trying all the usual avenues, he had signed up for a Christian re-orientation programme in the US. By all accounts it had worked, since he went on to marry and, together with his wife, launch a similar programme for gay Christians in the UK. This was a huge gay re-orientation ‘success’ story in the evangelical world, and his organisation received funding for their work from evangelical bodies. I tracked him down and phoned to ask how it was all going…
I had picked an extraordinary moment to make that call. Jeremy’s story had taken an unexpected turn after he decided to audit the outcome of twelve years’ work with his organisation. All was about to explode in the national press. With characteristic openness and from a place of faith, he patiently filled me in on the story behind the story…
Some years later, with this issue still very much a hot potato in a number of church circles, Jeremy agreed to a filmed interview about his personal journey and his experiences of working with people on his programme. It is in 3 parts. For anyone wrestling with questions or seeking to understand more about this whole area, I recommend giving him a listen…