Suicide rates among LGBT young people are higher than any other social group. Within Christian contexts, coming out to loved ones can be a daunting prospect – leading some young people to hide the truth, leave the Church entirely, or even consider taking their own lives. Diverse Church is a collection of Christians seeking to offer a pastoral response to LGBT young people, who are wrestling with issues of sexuality and faith.
Editor Phoebe Thompson spoke to Anglican priest and Diverse Church founder Sally Hitchiner about the group, gay marriage and her own experiences.
PT: What is Diverse Church and why did you set it up?
SH: I’m a university chaplain and my focus in life is trying to enable people to understand Jesus, and feel that they can respond to him. One of the largest groups who face a real block to faith in the university I work at are Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgendered people, so I offered the chaplaincy rooms to the LGBT society as somewhere to hold their LGBTea and cake welfare drop-ins. Initially they were scared about coming in and wouldn’t make eye contact when they walked pass me, but eventually they realised that I wasn’t going to bite, and we got chatting.
When Christian school friends came out to them, they told them that they should come and talk to me. They assumed I was the only priest in the country who would be nice to them. I ended up with a stream of young, evangelical, student-age Christians coming to talk to me, travelling from all over the UK. Their stories were often incredibly tragic. These were 18 or 19 year-olds who had been rejected by families and or felt they had to leave (in some cases even been asked to leave) home groups or churches when they told church leaders they were gay. Some of them had attempted suicide. Not all of their experiences were this extreme, but most were left thinking: ‘What do I do? I’m beyond hope.’
I thought that it would help for them to meet each other. Most hadn’t met another person in their situation and felt painfully alone with their secret. I set up a confidential Facebook group and invited all the young people who had spoken to me to come and join it. They invited their friends, so the group grew very quickly. It helped a lot just for them to meet others, but I realised we could do something to stop the cycle of ‘God hates me’ and ‘my future is bleak’ before it starts. The Church needed to hear their stories. When you come out in many evangelical churches, you’re instantly banned from the microphones, the coffee rota, children’s church and anything else that might build confidence. This has a psychological effect of making you uncertain about your views on anything to do with faith being valid and your story being something that others would want to hear. Working with a film maker, we made a short film of six of their testimonies of God’s work in their lives. It went viral and within the first four days we’d had 2000 hits. I felt it was important that at the end of the film we explicitly highlight and celebrate conservatives who have just been supporting and caring and kind to these young people, even though they don’t agree with gay marriage.
Our starting mission statement in Diverse Church it is that we want to be a pastoral and mission resource for the wider Church so that LGBT young people don’t give up on God or life. It’s as stark as that. We now have about 120 people in the closed Facebook network, and I’d say about 15-20 of them have attempted suicide in the last five years. They’re just the ones that I know about. Many of them join us after thinking that they’ve walked out of churches for the last time. They’re from good, loving Christian homes. There often aren’t other contributing factors that we’d associate with [attempting suicide], apart from this constant belief that you are riddled with the worst possible sin that you can’t escape.
Diverse Church was a pastoral response, not a grand plan. I didn’t plan to become an activist. I’m just a regular Christian minister - but when you’re faced with these young guys looking at you, needing to know that God loves them and that they are welcome in Christ’s Church, it’s hard to just pass by on the other side.
We have a variety of views represented in Diverse Church – from those who are committed to celibacy to those who support gay marriage
PT: How do you think homosexuality is viewed in the Church?
SH: There are four or five ways that the Church views same sex attraction or being gay. There’s the idea of it being a demonic possession. We have got a number of young people who are in churches or families who strongly believe that it’s a demonic possession that needs to be cast out. That’s at the more extreme end, but it’s scary how prevalent that is.
Then there’s this idea of it being a rebellion, so a conscious decision that has to be repented of over and over. It’s a bleak future when you’re only 14 or 15 and struggling with feelings of romantic attraction to men rather than women that are growing stronger by the day. Another view is that it’s a sickness, comparable with alcoholism, that you need to be healed from. We’ve got loads of young people who have been through gay conversion prayer ministry and courses. I think it was quite big in the 2000s. It’s rare that you find churches now that push it as much as they did five or ten years ago.
Then there’s the view that it’s a result of the fall, but God’s grace is enough that you can live with it and it doesn’t make you an innately dangerous person. Either they would promote celibacy - you don’t need to feel bad about falling for someone but you can never act on it - or might believe that you can have a lifelong committed relationship because that would be better than promiscuity. They would say that it’s not God’s best, but it’s not sin.
And then there’s the view that I came to – that it’s just a variant of creation or a parallel with being left-handed. A hundred years ago people used to think that it was deviant to be left-handed and would try and train people out of it. Some people would even say that it’s a spiritual deviance to be left-handed. But now we just see it as another version of being human. After a lot of study reading only evangelical books and talking to evangelical theologians I came to the unexpected conclusion that the New Testament is not against faithful gay marriage, so this last view is where I have landed, and it’s the view that the majority of people in Diverse Church have.
But we do have a variety of views represented in Diverse Church. We have people who are committed to celibacy and we even have a young male / female married couple. She feels that she has been healed of being gay, but has come to the conclusion that not everybody is or should be, and they both wanted to help. Because our aims are just to be a pastoral and mission resource for the wider Church so that young LGBT people don’t give up on God or life, we’re forming quite a radical community with a unique perspective in the debate.
Our focus is not to convert people to the idea of gay marriage - our focus is to stop people from leaving the Church and giving up on life
PT: There are other Christian groups seeking to do similar things, but perhaps from a more conservative viewpoint. Do you work alongside these guys?
SH: I’ve been good friends for years with a lot of the guys who run more exclusively conservative groups. We have dinner and respect each other enormously as Christian brothers and sisters. Anyone with half a pastoral or missional brain would see that they’re not the enemy; we’re both trying to help young adults respond to Christ. We’ve yet to do things that are officially together, but we’re quite a new organisation. We’ve only been public since Easter. I’m very open to working together where we can and we have explored options. I think it’s just finding the right context that would allow us both to hold our different views with integrity. While the gay marriage debate is going on there are a lot of straight people jostling for personal positions over this issue on Twitter and in theological papers, desperate to say which camp they’re on so they can be thought highly of by their friends. People are just not seeing the bigger pastoral need of individual young people both inside and outside the Church. Part of the problem is language. Christians use the word ‘gay’ to mean the activity where as LGBT people use it to mean the orientation. So when they hear ‘you can’t be gay and Christian’ they think ‘I’m not welcome in Church’. The media often makes this worse; they don’t often convey nuance or the fact that if you sat down with many conservative vicars they would listen to your story and want you to be part of their church. This isn’t coming across to LGBT people in the UK though. They’re just getting the headlines that ‘God hates gay people.’
I marched in Gay Pride for the first time this year with a lot of other gay Christian groups, in solidarity with Christian gay people around the world who face terrible consequences for being honest about being gay. I wore my clerical collar and held a sign saying ‘God Loves Everybody’. The response was overwhelming; hundreds of people took photographs, had tears in their eyes or came to thank me. It was heart-breaking that such a basic statement could be so powerful. The first thing that we should be saying as Christians is being lost.
We have a Friends of Diverse Church Facebook group that has a lot of youth workers, pastors and theologians who are at very different ends of the debate about gay marriage, but just know that they want to pray for and support young LGBT people in finding Christ. Over August we ran a month of getting the young people back into the Bible. A lot of LGBT evangelical young people stop reading the Bible because they’re told ‘The Bible says you can’t be gay and Christian’, and they think, ‘Well I can’t stop these feelings’. We decided to all read Luke’s Gospel together and each day one of the young people wrote a reflection. Then something amazing happened. I posted it in the friends group and suddenly conservative pastors and theologians offered to help with this. They wrote reflections for them on what Luke might have to say to help them with forgiveness, or loneliness, or relationships to parents, or a dozen other things they’re facing. It was incredibly moving for our young people to know that people in the Church, even the conservative Church, cared about them.
PT: You mentioned that part of what you want to do is educate people about how to respond when someone comes out as gay. What would you say to Christian parents and Christian youth workers?
SH: A key thing is to understand that while it may be a massive worry for you that they have rejected the view of scripture that you want them to have, the thing pretty much everyone in Diverse Church was worried about was that their friends and family wouldn’t love them anymore. I can’t tell you how important it is just to say: ‘I love you. You’re my daughter or you’re my son, and that will never change.’ We have some people in incredibly strong and supportive families who worry that they can’t go home for Christmas, or worry that when they told their parents they wouldn’t want to know them anymore. So to really reinforce that [they are loved] is the key point. Every conservative evangelical could say, ‘God loves everyone and you’re always welcome to come to Church’
PT: You were recently ‘outed’ as gay on Channel 5 News. What was your reaction to that?
SH: It was a bit of a surprise! It wasn’t at all when or how I would have planned it. I had to make a few rushed phone calls to extended family and friends in the taxi home so they didn’t hear it second hand. I wasn’t expecting to be outed in July, but to some extent I was prepared for it. When we went public with Diverse Church and I decided not to conceal the fact that I’d set it up, I knew I was risking people realising that it was a personal issue for me. I’ve known that I was gay since my early teens and though I’ve always gone to conservative churches I’ve never been made to feel that God didn’t want me because of that. A few years ago I went on a journey of theologically and emotionally processing what God’s call was for me in light of it. I came to the unexpected conclusion that the Bible isn’t actually against gay marriage. This changed a lot for me but I still think the most important thing is that everyone, gay or straight, knows that God loves them, calls them to follow him, and that they can have relationship with God through Christ. This is why I have so much in common with kind, thoughtful conservatives on this. We can disagree about what the Bible says about marriage but we have far more in common than that. The call of Christ in the Bible is incredibly challenging to us all but I found it doesn’t have this extra, seemingly arbitrary challenge just for this one group.
I wrestled with whether it was better to stay doing the good I could do as a general priest, without people knowing I’m gay. But then we showed Les Miserables as our Easter film in the chaplaincy, and I think God spoke to me through it. There’s a scene where someone else gets arrested in the main character’s place. It still makes me cry. He realises that an innocent man will go to a living hell that they would condemn him to, while he gets on with a respectable career and all this good that he’s doing in his local community. He then sings this song, a battle about whether he should go and admit that it was him, or if he should let the other person go off and live the life of slavery. It hit me like a sledge hammer. It was like a second conversion. God was calling him to be honest and open for the sake of the other, whatever the consequences. God had given him strength so far, so God would give him strength to face whatever was to come.
So I wrestled through the battle internally in the run up to our launch at Easter. There are so many young people who don’t know that you can be gay and Christian, and I’ve found that there is so much hope. I know that God loves me. Even if we put aside the quest of relationships, loads of young people inside and outside of the Church think that they are going to hell because they feel attracted to people of the same gender. I am confident that that’s not the case for me.
It’s one thing to say ‘God loves gay people’, it’s another thing to say, ‘I’m a strong Christian, I’m committed to all the things I would be if I was straight, but I’m gay.’ We need role models. The world doesn’t need another very minor Christian celebrity giving their perspective for or against gay marriage. There are already a lot of good people doing that. I have a platform because I’ve had years of people assuming I’m straight - I’m ordained, I’m fairly well respected across the Church and I talk about things on television - but the evangelical young people in Diverse Church who are coming out are giving up the potential of that platform, they aren’t being listened to, so I want to get their stories out there. And I want to use any opportunity and influence I have to enable their stories to be told. When we lose any group’s perspective from the Church, the whole Church hears less of God. We all need to hear their voices.
THE DIVERSE CHURCH GUIDE FOR CHRISTIANS
HOW TO RESPOND IF A YOUNG PERSON TELLS YOU THEY ARE GAY
1. Try to think about how hard this is for them. Most LGBT people who come out to close friends and family have been wrestling with how to say this to you for years. Try to tell them you appreciate the fact that they are being honest with you, that they can and want to tell you about this aspect of their lives.
2. The obvious things to you won’t be the obvious things to your loved one at this point. Most LGBT people coming out to conservative loved ones will be very aware of your views on the Bible about this. They may be very unsure of whether you will still love them and see them as your son/daughter/sister/brother/friend. Most young people in Diverse Church (even those in loving families) were worried that they wouldn’t be welcome at home or at family gatherings anymore. Even if you want to correct their theology, try holding back and focusing on the bigger picture of love to start with. This is especially true if you are in Christian ministry. There may be consequences for how people will perceive you because of your association with them but please try to focus on your loved one in this moment and not mention that to them the first time they talk to you about this. This may not be easy but it will make a huge difference to your loved one in hearing that you really do love them.
3. Try to respect their views, even if you disagree with them. Your loved one will have spent a great deal of time and effort getting to this point, so it’s important to try to listen to the language they use about themselves. Many LGBT Christians find the terms ‘same-sex attraction’ and ‘the gays’ disrespectful and derogatory.
4. Give up any attempt to make them straight. All the medical research shows that it is extremely likely to do significant damage both to your loved one’s mental health and to your relationship with them. All professional bodies in the UK, and many evangelical churches, have now realised that this is not good practice. Even if you believe that their lives would be happier or more godly as straight people, telling them this comes across as though they are not loved as they are.
5. Be aware that your assumptions might not be accurate. Your loved one may still want to get married, have children, not sleep around, not cross dress, continue to be a Christian and move to the suburbs with two dogs and drive a Volvo. They might not, but neither do all straight people! Being gay doesn’t necessarily mean anything else aside from being romantically attracted to people of the same gender. They may want to continue their relationship with God, which is a good thing, and you can celebrate with and for them!
6. Try to dissociate love from lust. Being gay just means that when you are romantically attracted, it is to people of the same gender rather than to people of the opposite gender. It doesn’t make the person any more out of control or dangerous.
7. We’ve really appreciated it when conservative loved ones have treated us as whole human beings. If we have relationships, they have shared our sorrows and joys. Even if it is not easy, if you ask after our boyfriend or girlfriend and show kindness to them it will mean a great deal to us. When families or close friends do not treat gay loved one’s partners with the same kindness as they would a straight partner, it can really hit your loved one as a personal attack.
8. Educate yourself about violence towards LGBT people in the UK and around the world. Stand up against it! You don’t have to agree with Judaism to stand against anti-Semitism. In the same way, you don’t have to agree with gay marriage to stand up for LGBT young people. Stand up for those who are being tortured and killed in Russia and parts of Africa.
9. Challenging their views on scripture may be important to you, but if you want to do this here are some helpful things to remember:
• Timing is key. If you don’t ensure that they have fully grasped your love for them just as they are, anything you say will just add to the worry that you don’t really love them.
• They will probably have read more than you have on this topic. They may have spent years agonising about what the six commonly cited verses mean and how they should be applied to their lives. Try to respect that and don’t assume that they don’t care about the Bible. If you and your loved one disagree on the interpretation of some key texts, it doesn’t mean you will disagree about everything else too, nor does it mean that they have taken the easy way out.
• If you keep repeating your views on scripture or that you think the Bible is ‘clear’ on this, you will sound like a hollow gong or a clanging cymbal. It will make you sound unloving and disrespectful. Once you have made your views known, try to let it rest. Your loved one will have had a lot of people quoting scripture at them. They know what you are going to say about it, but what they will continue to be unsure about is whether you really love them. Find ways to communicate this.
10. Know how much we value you showing kindness to us at this time. We know how much effort it takes for you to do this. When conservative loved ones show that they care, it is so meaningful that it sticks with us for the rest of our lives. Thank you!