Long admired by conservative evangelicals, Vicky Beeching can hopefully bring about an acceptance of homosexuality among Christians
The silence was awkward for him and beautiful for me. It happened at a conference last year run by a group from Holy Trinity Brompton, an influential evangelical Anglican church that counts the Archbishop of Canterbury among its supporters. And yet, surely knowing that the audience weren’t exactly Westboro Baptists, the speaker expected us to be noisily complicit with his rabid homophobia.
The preacher spoke of the “darkness” in our nation and with incredulity gave as an example the fact that schools in Northern Ireland teach that homosexuality is acceptable. “Are they doing that here?” he inquired of the hundreds assembled. But the assembly, hitherto effusive with their applause and amens, made no sound. The preacher was peeved and as silent second followed silent second, facetiously asked: “Shall we hold hands and contact the living?”
This moment seemed significant. The evangelical wing of the Church of England was standing up to homophobia. But it was doing so by sitting down and saying nothing.
This is part of the complex backdrop against which last week a woman named Vicky Beeching came out as gay. In 2014, this shouldn’t be a story. But since it may lead to change in Britain’s constitution and save lives, everyone should pay attention.
With 45,000 Twitter followers and a regular slot on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, Beeching is arguably the most influential Christian of her generation. She is, among other things, a singer and songwriter, and has long been admired by conservative evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic. She has been a star of the Bible belt and a mainstay of the British evangelical scene, from where she hails.
A perception remains that the C of E’s only relevant contribution to national life is as an organiser of village fetes and purveyor of cake. But it also has a confident and thriving evangelical wing. This often does good in the areas it serves but is part of the barrier to gay people who want to marry in their local Anglican church. Opinions within it vary widely and many evangelicals abhor homophobia. But two truths apply almost invariably to its churches: that they are members of the Evangelical Alliance, which appears equivocal on whether homosexuality is inherently sinful, and that they view Beeching as one of their own. Since knowing a gay person often changes people’s minds on the issue, there can be hope that Beeching coming out can help shift the centre of gravity and end an institutional and constitutional injustice.
But this issue extends beyond the C of E. Beeching’s experience of homophobia among Christians has left her literally scarred: her forehead is marked by a disease resulting from her turmoil. Some have fared even worse – a young gay American killed himself following an alleged “exorcism”, while concerns have been expressed about the effect of homophobic preaching on others who have taken their lives.
Today in Britain, the US and elsewhere, gay young people are being told by men and women in whom they place their trust that their feelings result from demonic possession and can be prayed away. Beeching tells of being “exorcised” at a festival for young Christians. I know gay Christians who speak of similarly scarring experiences. Emotional and spiritual abuse has been and is being perpetrated against gay young people. It must stop.
Church leaders understandably don’t want to appear obsessed with sex but this is a matter of life and death. Festivals for young Christians, such as Soul Survivor, must be explicit about their acceptance of homosexuality, and the wider church’s words on the issue must be matched with actions. The campaign against homophobic bullying in C of E schools is welcome, but when the church itself fails to treat gay relationships as equal to heterosexual relationships, its message is undermined.
Three years ago, the Christian activist Symon Hill embarked on a pilgrimage of repentance for his former homophobia. It’s now time for the church as a whole to follow in his footsteps. As a means of opposing injustice, sitting down and saying nothing may be polite but it’s not what Jesus did, and it’s not what Beeching’s story demands.
For me, the most telling paragraphs in Singer-Songwriter Vicky Beecham’s ‘Coming-Out’ testimony were these words, which describe the reaction to a homophobic speakers tirade at a Conference run by Holy Trinity Church, Brompton:
“The preacher spoke of the “darkness” in our nation and with incredulity gave as an example the fact that schools in Northern Ireland teach that homosexuality is acceptable. “Are they doing that here?” he inquired of the hundreds assembled. But the assembly, hitherto effusive with their applause and amens, made no sound. The preacher was peeved and as silent second followed silent second, facetiously asked: “Shall we hold hands and contact the living?”
“This moment seemed significant. The evangelical wing of the Church of England was standing up to homophobia. But it was doing so by sitting down and saying nothing.”
This experience of the latest in the Evangelical Anglican world to admit to her innate attraction to people of the same-sex would seem to be a word of hope – for all those evangelical Anglicans who have been taught that same-sex attraction is evil – or, at least, not compatible with Biblical Faith. It is people like Vicky, who have found they can no longer live a lie concerning their intimate inner sexual-orientation – and who have a high profile in the Anglican Church – that will help our Church to come to terms with the fact that God’s human creation is infinitely more varied than some might care to believe.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand