A Different Kind Of Coming Out
By Justin Brierley
July 22, 2013
After Steve Chalke and Rob Bell affirmed same-sex relationships earlier this year, Justin Brierley meets three evangelical church leaders who have decided to respond by going public about their sexuality.
In a basement under a church in London I'm meeting with three men who are in a support group. An unusual support group. 'We were tempted to say that we meet in a nuclear bunker in an undisclosed location,' says one of them with a wry smile.
They have been talking in private for a while, but believe now is the time for their voices and unique experience to be heard more widely. All three are evangelical church leaders who experience same-sex attraction, but all three describe themselves as either celibate or 'post-gay'.
Earlier this year, Steve Chalke revealed a new (and much publicised) gay-affirming stance in February's Christianity. Since then another well-known Christian figure, Rob Bell, has spoken out in favour of gay relationships. A recent poll by the Public Religious Research Institute in the USA showed that nearly half of young evangelicals there are in favour of gay marriage. If the headlines are to be believed, the Church is increasingly following society's lead in affirming gay relationships.
None of the three men I'm speaking to claim to have the influence of Chalke or Bell, but they are hoping to redress the perceived liberalisation within the Church on this issue by speaking from their own countercultural experience. For two of them, same-sex attraction has been met with a commitment to remain celibate, while one of them experienced a change in his feelings that led to marriage with a woman. All three see the Bible's prohibitions on same-sex relationships as nonnegotiable.
The core of this group are Sam Allberry, a church leader in Maidenhead, Sean Doherty, a tutor at St Mellitus College, and Ed Shaw, who helps to lead Emmanuel Church in Bristol. They meet regularly on an informal basis to support and encourage each other, and as we chat, it's evident that they deeply value this time. Allberry and Shaw share a dry sense of humour, while Doherty is more gregarious. In-jokes about Anglicanism abound as all three are involved with CofE churches. Their most pressing task is the forthcoming launch of a website called Living Out, aimed at helping others think through the realities of being same-sex attracted while remaining committed to a traditional view of Christian sexuality.
'I keep hearing comments about how evangelicals are very anti-gay, and at the same time I keep meeting evangelical friends of mine who are beginning to drift on this issue,' says Allberry. 'But we can talk from a personal perspective about what it's like dealing with this issue. From my own experience, I want to say that God is good and his word is good. It's not always easy, but it's a good word.'
Allberry describes to me how as a teenager his homosexual feelings conflicted with his new-found Christian faith. 'I just felt that I was very dirty and that therefore other Christians might want to keep a distance.' It was on hearing a liberating sermon that things began to change. 'The pastor made a really big effort to say, "All of us are sexual sinners. There will be some who experience unwanted homosexual feelings. If that's you, then you are not alone." That was a key turning point for me.'
Last year Vaughan Roberts, a leading conservative evangelical, spoke for the first time of his own struggle with same-sex attraction in an interview with Evangelicals Now, which was widely applauded. Allberry knows him well and was inspired to be open with his own congregation too. He has just written Is God anti-gay? (The Good Book Company), arguing that what the Bible says about sex is 'crystal clear' but believing in it doesn't make God a homophobe.
Shaw grew up in a Christian family and church where an evangelical view of sexuality was taught. He's grateful that it meant he never pursued a gay relationship. 'That's never been in my mind as an option. Although I have found the experience really difficult, it's never been difficult to reconcile with my faith. One of the best things my parents gave me was an understanding that the Christian life is often difficult and that God takes and uses suffering to make us more like him.'
Doherty has perhaps the most unusual story of the three. He came to terms with his sexual orientation relatively quickly while at university, attending a church where he could talk about it freely. 'Church was a place of nurture and unconditional acceptance, but at the same time the teaching was clear that I shouldn't act on those sexual desires. In an environment where young people were being encouraged to experiment, I was really grateful that I had been kept from acting on my feelings.'
From gay to post-gay
What's most surprising is that despite continuing to feel same-sex attracted, Doherty is now married with three children. 'I came to realise that labelling myself as a gay person, albeit a celibate one, wasn't actually helpful because it restricted me into this identity. The turning point was choosing to believe that my sexual identity was "male" - and that's what determines whether I could be married or not.' In time, he found his feelings changed to the degree that he fell in love with Gaby, a female friend who had supported him throughout his journey.
I admit to still being a little confused about Doherty. 'Are you no longer gay?' I ask. His response involves some carefully chosen terminology developed by Peter Ould, an Anglican blogging on sexuality who shares a similar story. 'I don't speak of myself as an "ex-gay" person. I prefer the term "post-gay",' he says. 'You choose to move away from the label of "gay" altogether, which has come to be associated with a certain lifestyle. I've clearly experienced some change in my feelings so that I am attracted to my wife. But it's definitely not a 180-degree reorientation. All of us will continue to have desires and feelings which aren't right, until Jesus returns.'
And how does his wife feel about the fact he still experiences homosexual attraction? 'In a sense it doesn't bother her at all. Partly, she's a tough cookie who's able to make her peace with that. But all married people experience attraction to people they are not married to. There's nothing inherently worse about those attractions being predominantly towards one sex or another.'
Allberry and Shaw share Doherty's perspective, but accept that they will remain single for life if their orientation does not change. Meanwhile, the support group allows them to talk through the challenges of celibacy. Shaw admits to an internal struggle over the years. 'It's the same as for most heterosexual men - struggling with sexual fantasy. That is where the battleground lies for me.' For Allberry, the issues are relational. 'It can lead to strong emotional over-dependency,' he says. 'A really good male friend becomes the "messiah-friend". I've had to learn the hard way about where to put boundaries when friendships have become a bit too intense.'
These admissions are offered in a disarmingly matter-of-fact way. However, the average outsider would probably regard all three men as repressed individuals, using theology to sublimate their natural sexual identity. But what feels natural isn't always what's best, according to Allberry. 'We are fallen human beings. I don't want to assume that my feelings are a wholly reliable guide to the best way for me to live. If I ate everything I feel like eating, I'd be even more out of shape than I am now.' For Shaw, sexuality isn't just expressed in sexual intercourse. 'We indicate our love by who we don't have sex with as well as who we do. I am a man with a sexuality that's male which is celebrated, not repressed, through celibacy.'
Same-sex attraction and leadership
Being a church leader who is samesex attracted brings its own share of potential complications too. Shaw and Allberry only recently revealed their sexuality to their wider church family, but it's been a positive experience. 'I've almost been embarrassed by the warmth and kindness I've been shown by my church family,' says Shaw. 'People falling over themselves to express their desire to support and pray for me.' Allberry agrees. 'I think it's really helpful that our churches have both known us well before we've disclosed this to them. We are still Ed and Sam to them.'
Another awkward question comes to mind. Male pastors often lay down rules about not meeting with women in one-to-one situations. What are the rules in their case? 'Never see anyone...ever. And don't do any work,' is Allberry's deadpan reply (while the others erupt in laughter).
Shaw says that being open about his struggle has actually led to better pastoral ministry. 'People have this sense that I'll be a good person to talk to: "Life's not easy for Ed, so he'll understand my problem." As for boundaries, it's about honesty and accountability. I have people who ask me whether there's anyone in the church that I'm sexually attracted to. I won't be asked every week, but I'll be asked regularly.'
'Which would be a good question to ask any church leader, regardless of sexuality,' chips in Doherty. There are other advantages to being 'out'. Doomed church matchmaking attempts, for instance. 'There's sometimes a pressure for single Christians to get married. Being open about your feelings may help take that pressure off,' advises Doherty. It's a subject that provides some comic relief for the group as they recall awkward social occasions.
'At weddings, it's a great relief not to be sat next to someone the bride and groom have clearly marked out for me,' says Shaw. 'There were some lovely people in my church always trying to get me together with other lovely people, and it just saves a whole lot of embarrassment.' Allberry agrees. 'It's easy to be single in your twenties at church, but in your thirties you become a bit more conspicuous and people ask, "Why hasn't he sorted himself out?"'
Marriage is not the Holy Grail
Mirth gives way to a serious point. Churches often focus on the gift of marriage to the detriment of singleness. Shaw explains why it's unhelpful for those who are committed to celibacy. 'One of society's mistakes is the belief that intimacy equals sex, and therefore the Bible is asking us to pass up intimate relationships and lead sad, lonely lives instead. It's not true. The Bible sees friendship as an amazingly intimate relationship. I have a greater capacity for deep relationships with many people than my married friends do.'
Even so, do they ever feel they have missed out by not having a partner? Allberry says he has never envied friends in same-sex relationships, but when it comes to marriage 'there's part of me that would love to be a husband and a dad. I'm very close to several families, and you see family life at its best. But at other times you also realise it's not all a walk in the park.'
Doherty presses home the point. 'Married people can help by being more honest about the demands of marriage. Loneliness can be just as big a problem for married people as it is for single. There's sexual temptation and dry spells too. It's not as if there's a really difficult lifestyle for some people and an easy lifestyle for others.'
Responding to Steve Chalke
Doherty first got in touch after reading the Christianity article by Steve Chalke in defence of gay relationships. 'What's wonderful is Steve's willingness to welcome people. Being in a same-sex relationship in no way prevents you from being a committed Christian and having God at work in your life. But I couldn't ever bless a relationship with an ongoing sexual aspect to it. God has given us sex to join together people who are different - a man and woman - to give us a picture of a relationship between Christ and the Church.'
While disagreeing with his conclusions, Allberry also understands Steve Chalke's concern that churches need to be more inclusive of gay people. 'We want to be welcoming and rightly inclusive because Jesus and the gospel are for everyone. But part of the gospel is that God loves us enough to challenge us, change us, frustrate us and contradict us.'
The cost can be high. Allberry tells the story of a man who approached him after a carol service at his church. He was in a gay relationship but wanted to find out more about following Jesus. 'He asked me, "What could possibly be worth giving up this relationship for?" And I thought, "Golly, that's an absolute blinder of a question." But there must be an answer because Jesus must be worth it.' The man did not become a Christian, though Allberry still regularly meets up with him to chat. I have to ask: isn't it better to encourage him towards faith in Christ and then work out the ramifications afterwards?
'I wasn't saying you have to give up the gay relationship in order to become a Christian. But I didn't want to bury anything in the small print,' says Allberry. 'I wanted to be real with him that this is what the teaching of Christ is on sexual ethics. I can't say that this is a secondary issue, because the Bible speaks with one very clear voice. Part of the call of Jesus is for each of us to lay down our version of self and take up the cross and follow him.'
For Doherty, lowering the asking price of the kingdom isn't an option either. 'Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes on the cost of discipleship and the idea of "cheap grace" - that it doesn't matter what you do, because you'll still get to heaven. That's not actually Christianity. Jesus says "repent and believe".'
This seems to be the year when the ground has been cleared among evangelicals for an open and honest discussion about how homosexuality fits with the gospel. For those tired of the politics of gay marriage and confused on where the Church stands, hearing these personal stories of people choosing a different path may be the next step they need.
Soon after becoming a Christian at 16, Doherty realised he was attracted to men rather than women. He says that his church accepted him for who he was, but was also clear about sexual boundaries. 'No one told me I needed to change my sexuality, but at the same time the teaching was clear that I shouldn't act on those sexual desires'.
Over time, Doherty experienced a change in his feelings, falling in love with and marrying Gaby, with whom he has three children. He still experiences same-sex desires but describes himself as 'post-gay', choosing to define his sexuality in terms of his 'male' gender rather than gay or straight.
Sean Doherty is associate minister at St Francis, Dalgarno Way in London and teaches theology at St Mellitus College
Allberry became a Christian after hearing an evangelistic message aged 18. At the same time he began to realise he was attracted to men, but chose not to tell anyone. 'I was desperate not to acknowledge those desires. I didn't want to be different from the other guys I knew.'
A turning point came after hearing a sermon on homosexuality as one among a number of sexual temptations. 'I suddenly felt able to share with that pastor.' Realising that his orientation was not going to change, he began to confide in friends. He draws on his experience of living a celibate life in his new book Is God anti-gay? (The Good Book Company)
Sam Allberry is associate minister at St Mary's Church, Maidenhead
The son of an Anglican vicar, Shaw grew up in a Christian family with 'a really clear understanding about what the Bible says about sex and sexuality'. From puberty onwards he began to experience same-sex attraction, but hoped that it was a phase he would grow out of. 'It hasn't been a phase, it's still there,' he says. 'Only by my late twenties was I in a position to talk about it with close friends.'
Choosing to be celibate, Shaw has found his pastoral ministry at his church was in fact enriched by being open about his experience of same-sex attraction.
Ed Shaw is part of the leadership of Emmanuel Church, Bristol