Published: 19 September 2016
Revd Nick Bundock shares his church’s journey to being an Inclusive Church, born out of tragic circumstances.
‘Lizzie Lowe took her own life in a forgotten patch of farmland behind the river Mersey on 10 September 2014 while her parents were at a film club run by a small group from St James and Emmanuel , Didsbury. It isn’t possible for me to adequately convey the explosion of grief and dismay that hit the Lowes, the church, her school, and her wider network of family and friends.
Two years on from the tragedy we are all still wrestling with Lizzie’s death. She would be 16 by now and no doubt excelling at her A level studies. The litany of ‘what ifs’ is literally overwhelming.
Lizzie Lowe was gay. Nobody in her family or church knew this, how we wish we had. As a 14-year-old girl she was still exploring her feelings and trying to juggle the many powerful emotions of the teenage years, but it was painfully clear from the coroner’s hearing in December 2014 that her sexuality and her perception of faith were at odds with one another and had become a chasm too wide to cross. Lizzie had become convinced that God couldn’t love her the way she was, a feeling she expressed by text message to the few confidants she had leading up to her fatal decision.
St James and Emmanuel church has undergone a revolution since Lizzie died. It’s not that we were ever ‘hard line’. Actually we’ve always been a pretty broad expression of evangelicalism. But like many similar churches we’ve largely avoided the topic of homosexuality in order to preserve the peace. I now realise, too late, that ignoring the topic of sexuality is by definition exclusive and very unsafe for people who are gay.
In the months following the coroner’s report St James and Emmanuel has been through a revolution. It started with a decision by the PCC to adopt a statement of inclusion. This was followed by three structured ‘listening evenings’, and inclusion is now a regular item on the agenda of the PCC.
We lost some members during the turmoil of 2015. That was immensely painful as a vicar. But we’ve also gained members, including a wonderful gay couple who were told not to play in the worship band of their previous church when they found out about their relationship. I can also say that worship in our church has never been more vibrant and alive. Our paradigm shift has swept a new imminence into our worship and a new honesty into our interactions. Personally, I’ve crossed the Rubicon, there is no way back. When I do look back I do so with horror at what a spineless and passively homophobic priest I have been.
I don’t want anything I’ve written to sound like a hackneyed ‘rags to riches’ story, or even a resurrection after death story. There is no way to erase the horror of Lizzie’s death, or the sheer madness of the wider Church ripping itself apart over this issue. But two years on from Lizzie’s death I hope that we’ve gone some way to amend for our failures and I’m proud to lead a church that is both evangelical and inclusive.’
To find out more about Inclusive Church, visit their website at inclusive-church.org.uk/
If it takes a human tragedy to bring Christians to understand the crisis of young Gay people and their problem with the Church’s prejudice; then here is a very clear example:
” we’ve always been a pretty broad expression of evangelicalism. But like many similar churches we’ve largely avoided the topic of homosexuality in order to preserve the peace. I now realise, too late, that ignoring the topic of sexuality is by definition exclusive and very unsafe for people who are gay.”
This is one reason why I, at the age of 87 – who am intrinsically Gay – feel I must protest at our Church’s continuing marginalisation of LGBTI people – especially those young people who are affected by this particular social disadvantage in certain overtly ‘Christian ‘ contexts – must spend time doing all I can to disabuse Church Leaders and others of their perceived need to marginalise and judge people whose sexual orientation is different from the majority.
For the Church to continue to believe and teach that homosexuality is a ‘chosen’ way of life, born out of a need to be ‘different’ is, for me, an unreality so hideous that it needs to be labelled as sinful behaviour, labelled as ‘homophobia’, for which sheer ignorance is no longer a viable excuse.
It has been mainly evangelical conservative Churches that have perpetuated the myth of homosexuality as a ‘state of sin’, in the belief that the Bible expressly condemns the state itself – rather than the random promiscuity that homosexuality – like its symbiotic twin, heterosexuality – is heir to if randomly allowed to take over one’s life. It is acknowledged – even by the anti-gay people who rely on Scripture for their institutional prejudice on this matter, that Jesus; while talking a lot about unfaithfulness in heterosexual marriage, said not one single word about faithful monogamous same-sex relationships.
However, there are now Evangelical Churches around the world discovering that there are LGBTI people, often hidden in their own congregation – especially among young people – whose need for understanding and proper pastoral care ought to bring forth compassion and help from Church leaders and members.
This tragic story of Lizzie’s death and the effect it has had on her local Evangelical Church community testifies to the readiness of some aware congregations and their pastors to realise the intense harm that can be done by harbouring and preaching homophobia. Young people today can be much wiser than their elders in their understanding of those of their number who just happen, through no fault of their own, to be sexually different. We need to encourage youth, not turn them away by our intolerance of a sexual identification that we may find difficult, though genuine.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand