Britain’s gay-friendly churches

This piece was published as part of a Guardian Media Group project in June 2015.

Mark Bennett has rediscovered the joy of a Sunday morning church service, at the age of 41. It is the same uplifting, uncomplicated joy he felt as a young boy.

“Back then I had a real, unforced passion for God, for my bible, for being in church,” he recalls. “My mum was a very devout Christian. The local Afro-Caribbean church played a big part in our lives – we were there every week, come rain or come shine. I loved everything about it.”

Mark is now a member of the Oasis Baptist church near Waterloo station in London. It’s a lively, friendly, evangelical gathering that welcomes gay and lesbian Christians, fuss-free. Oasis minister Steve Chalke has been vocal in support of committed same-sex relationships, leading calls for a re-evaluation of Christian attitudes towards homosexuality.

“It’s great to hear Steve talk about God valuing monogamous relationships above all,” says Mark, who married his partner Justin last year. “At Oasis I’ve found somewhere where being gay and Christian is completely normal – it just isn’t considered a big deal.”

Such places are still unusual. Despite huge social changes leading to a broad acceptance of same-sex relationships, despite huge advances in gay rights – Ireland recently joining Great Britain in legalising same-sex marriage – the church continues to struggle with the issue.

Subtle, important shifts have occurred, but they are still shrouded in secretiveness and inconsistency. Some Church of England congregations are now led by gay clergy (yet gay clergy still risk being defrocked by getting married). Last month the Church of Scotland voted to allow the ordination of gay ministers in same-sex civil partnerships (yet each church is free to block appointments).

In many congregations a quiet, unspoken sort of tolerance is prevalent: don’t ask, don’t tell – we don’t want to decide what we really think. For many gay Christians, this awkward ambivalence has not made life easy. Compromise is not always possible.

Mark, for instance, had a difficult time before finding Oasis. It was at the age of 37, after more than two decades of private struggles with his sexuality, he felt compelled to leave the Pentecostal church in Tooting he had grown up in. He had fallen in love with another man and was unable to reconcile his new relationship with his church’s traditional views.

“My marriage had broken down and my sexuality – my same-sex attraction – was the reason for that,” he explains. “The pastor and other church leaders were supportive – there was a very caring attitude. People told me, ‘don’t stop coming to church’, but they were also saying, ‘You’ve got to drop this homosexual thing’.”

“There was someone who I had fallen in love with. So for a while I was living a secret life, engaged in homosexual activity, but still trying to reconcile this with my church where I knew it was considered wrong. Eventually it came out. I couldn’t keep it a secret. And so I left the church.

“I wasn’t quite booted out,” he adds. “They were saying, ‘Stay Mark, we love you, but we really can’t have this homosexuality’. But by then I just didn’t want to deny it any longer. I was finally reconciling it in my own mind and so I had to start a new life.”

Despite the difficult rupture, Mark’s faith in God never wobbled. “It was probably about the age of 11 when I started to notice I was attracted to the same sex,” he says.

“I had all these years of struggling, resisting, fighting how I felt. I thought of my sexual thoughts as sinful. Yet through all of that I knew I wouldn’t be abandoned by God – I knew I would be loved by God, even before I had tried to figure it all out in terms of theology and what it says in the Bible.”

A survey commissioned by Steve Chalke’s charity, the Oasis Trust, found 37% of worshippers believe churches should “accept and affirm” same-sex relationships, but are reluctant to say so openly.

Two-thirds of those polled said their views on same-sex relationships had become “more inclusive” in the last 10 years. And only 1% of respondents thought gay people shouldn’t be allowed to attend church.

It suggests churchgoers are more tolerant than their church leaders might suppose. Chalke thinks it amounts to an “ethical earthquake”; even if the tremors are hushed, tectonic plates left rumbling quietly under the surface.

In the UK, the only LGBT-affirming denominations (the only ones that do not officially consider homosexuality or transgenderism to be a sin), are the Quakers, the Unitarians and a small independent group called the United Ecumenical Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church remains resolutely opposed to homosexuality. The Evangelical Alliance (EA) – an umbrella grouping of Pentecostal, Baptist and non-denominational churches – is also unapologetic about maintaining “historic biblical interpretation on issues related to human sexuality”. The EA very courteously kicked out Steve Chalke’s Oasis church for being unwilling to uphold “the traditional Christian view”.

In the Church of England – where the widest spectrum of views, approaches to ministry and worship styles are found – the picture is more complex. The evangelical wing, led by the large, influential Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), has a polite, cagey, “rather not dwell on it” stance. HTB vicar and Alpha course founder Nicky Gumbel has spoken about holding “to the orthodox position while being extremely gracious and accepting.”

Elsewhere, Anglicans have been at the forefront of campaigning for change. The Rev. Colin Coward is the director of Changing Attitude, a network representing LGBT Anglicans. And other leading lights like Vicky Beeching – the Anglican broadcaster and Christian rock singer who caused a stir when she came out last year – are part of a movement called Accepting Evangelicals.

The Rev. Rachel Mann, priest-in-charge of St Nicholas’s in Manchester, is a transgender, lesbian feminist (as well as a poet and major heavy metal fan).

“I feel absolutely loved and affirmed by my congregation,” she says. “I do sometimes think I’m living in a Manchester bubble – in a big urban metropolis it’s more likely that everyone is exposed to a diversity of experiences.”

“It’s clear that many evangelicals have realised that society has changed so much that if you make negative pronouncements, you’re seen as toxic,” Rev. Mann continues. “Leading strands like HTB want to remain credible, and to be seen as anti-gay is not credible. I think more and more evangelicals are now near the point of saying, ‘Yes, we are prepared to affirm monogamous, committed same-sex relationships’.”

“I do think a lot of churches across the country will be welcoming to gay people, even if many will not have dealt with it head-on,” she adds. “In some churches it’ll probably be the case everyone knows couple x and y are gay, but haven’t had the confidence to have a conversation about it, directly.”

What is this lack of confidence? If it is based on something more substantial than embarrassment about sex – a subject we Brits often struggle to discuss without smirking – what kind of theology continues to make many Christians uneasy?

Jesus – in the Gospels of the New Testament – had nothing to say about homosexuality. But conservatives point to passages in Leviticus and one of Paul’s letters to Corinthians about homosexual acts and wickedness. They believe to ignore or reinterpret these teachings is to cherry-pick which bits of the Bible to accept straightforwardly and which bits to imaginatively contextualise.

Yet those who have made the leap towards a new understanding say it’s impossible not to contextualise or reinterpret. They emphasise the many passages about faithful, loving unions, about the deeper morality of the heart.

Liberals like Steve Chalke point toward Old Testament references to stoning, slavery and the subservient role of women, and argue that cultural recalibration of scripture has always been the norm.

Rev. Mann talks about the “threefold chord” that informs the Church of England – scripture, experience and tradition. “I think it’s been the strength of the Church of England to say, ‘Yes we have the bible, but we want to see how it related to reason and experience today, as well as look to tradition’.”

Susie Flashman Jarvis is a professional counsellor. Susie is also a Christian who, like many believers, would rather not have been forced to work out a definite theological position on the subject of homosexuality.

But four years ago, it stopped being an abstract question. Her son Lewis, then 14 years old, told her he was gay.

“We’ve been on a journey since then and it’s been a bumpy ride at times,” she tells me. “I’ve looked at the bible and wrestled with the question. I’ve come to conclusion that it’s not really for me to judge, it’s just my job to love and support him whoever he is.”

Lewis, now 18, is still part of the family’s Baptist church in Kent. Although there has been tact and kindness, there have also been uncomfortable conversations about “what it says in the bible”. Lewis has found it tricky to be open about his sexuality and find non-judgemental acceptance.

“He is loved by the church,” Susie explains. “But it’s been difficult to watch his struggle. Some people have said, ‘Well, his sexuality is not set in stone – it could change, you know’. But we had become aware it’s not a choice for our son – he is who he is.”

Other church friends have had the familiar urge for the whole awkward business to kept quiet, at least until Lewis is older. “I think some quite well-meaning heterosexuals think, ‘I don’t see why gay is such a big deal, why it is at the top of the list of who you are as a person?’ I suppose I was a bit like that myself a few years ago, thinking, ‘Why is this such an issue, this label?’ But the penny dropped – I get it now. Your sexuality is important – it’s key to who you are.”

“I have been wary about watering down my faith to make it palatable, and I don’t believe I am,” says Susie. “I just don’t think gay Christians should be condemned to a life of being alone. How could I believe my son was a mistake? I believe God made him this way, who he is.”

“I want him to live an honourable life as a Christian man, and if he falls in love with someone of the same sex and is with them, I will walk that journey with him.”

How many Christians will make the same journey? Family ties tend to triumph, but what about gay friends and acquaintances in the congregation? Will the warmth of personal connection change long-held views, the received wisdom of tradition?

How churches adjust and accommodate – or decide to do neither – will be crucial in determining Christianity’s role and status in the decades ahead.

However politely, thoughtfully and graciously Christians continue to talk about the subject, if homosexuality continues to be discussed in terms of sin and transgression, a thing that merits special status and prayer, a problem, then the church will find itself drifting further and further from a society which just doesn’t see the big deal anymore.

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