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My story of being Christian and Gay

If you expect an exciting story, think again. This is a very ordinary story.

I grew up in a Brethren family as one of five boys. My youngest brother came out as gay in his late teenage years, at considerable cost to his acceptance in the family and the Brethren.

Personally I never had the vocabulary to deal with my sexuality. There were lots of pointers that I was somehow different from my friends and my other brothers. I was called ‘Mary' by my schoolmates. I never had any interest in girls, although I had lots of friends. I have a very extroverted personality, and many close friendships made up for the lack of intimacy. Also I have since my conversion at the age of 8, been very passionately committed as an evangelical Christian. By nature I am an activist. I have always been involved in many Christian organisations. The Brethren are a small and introverted group, but I have long been an active member, eager for them to be involved in a wider world of Christian commitment. I agitated for acceptance of women as equal members, even though just because of my Brethren links I have a reputation for a conservative outlook.

My activism and my sheer enjoyment of being a Christian, of sharing my faith and enjoying the deep layers of Christian community has been expressed for many years by mixing with a huge circle of Christian friends in various interdenominational organisations. These organisations have been fairly harsh on gay people, and they were renowned for opposing the law change in 1986. But I was out of the country at the time, and was very uncomfortable at the things being said. Like a lot of gay people I was inclined to be emphatic on disapproving of gay sex, in a kind of homophobic defence, but in some ways I was almost totally naïve, without really a level of understanding to analyze myself, and consequently reluctant to do so, for the way in which it would disturb my life. I wrote articles on some of the law changes, but I wouldn't deal with the issue inside myself. It was too hard. I was not the only one. As I now know from letters from all sorts of people, there are many gay and lesbian and bi-sexual and trans-gendered people (each kind every different from other forms) in evangelical churches. I now believe that self acceptance and acceptance by their community of faith is really important for their safety and growth.

Probably for me a very crucial step was hearing the story of Roy Clements, the highly respected evangelical preacher and writer and pastor of a Baptist Chapel I attended in Cambridge in 2000, who had acknowledged his sexuality and been dismissed from the pastorate. The story was close enough to my own to shake my security. Also I was reaching out to needy people and sometimes in the process I encountered issues of sexuality. They didn't have the inhibitions that I had. So I was placed in challenging and tricky situations in which I had no answer.

So when I had an unexpected sexual encounter, I was very confused. It didn't seem the terrible wrong thing that I had painted in my own mind. It seemed like something very natural for me. With all the determination that I can muster when I feel compelled, I began to think and read and talk to close friends. To my astonishment most of the women already knew I was gay, before I had articulated it myself.

Learning these lessons while I was the chair of the elders of a Brethren assembly, and fully engaged in preaching, teaching and leading in several contexts was traumatic. I made it my business to honestly explain to people who needed to know about my changed understanding of myself. The price was high in the trauma of people's reactions. To compress a painful story into a few sentences, I voluntarily ceased to exercise leadership in the church; I made a public statement to my church about my sexuality; and I offered my resignation to all the organisations that I was part of. In one case this was accepted enthusiastically. In other cases I was accepted on condition I was up-front about my behaviour. People left my church, people made outrageous statements, and people were shaken.

Do you know any gay people? I find that most people are freaked out when they discover that I'm gay and that I am involved in the gay Auckland Community Church meeting in St Matthew's and then they realise that the sky hasn't fallen down and life is still OK! But I haven't changed in any fundamental way, and almost all my old friends are my current friends. Not everyone agrees with me, but I can handle this. I still love God, read my Bible and pray daily, and seek to honour God where he has placed me. I mix in more circles now than I used to, but I still am very loyal to my old values. I just really want the evangelical Christian community to get over their fear, and to read scripture with more faith and understanding.

For me to share this story is hard, because I have to let you inside the pain; the pain of an intelligent adult male with a PhD who wouldn't deal for so many years with his sexuality. I have to admit

that I am still a little scared of talking about it here. I'm not ashamed, you understand; I asked to be permitted to stand up in front of my church and tell them all this; but I know how stories get distorted when they are passed on. I want to tell my own story. For me living comfortably with myself and telling my own story without shame has been a good experience.

beliefs and perspectives

Like most evangelicals I cannot resolve the issue just by trying to take a pastoral attitude to it. For me this is very much about what I believe, and that affects the way I approach the issues.

As an evangelical believer I have a very high view of biblical authority and the real issue all along has been how I understand the scriptures on this subject. I've tried to bring my behaviour under their authority. But this proved much harder than I expected. My Brethren church produced a statement on the biblical guidance, and as they worked on that and consulted me, I realised how much their own values had got loaded into the lessons they drew up for me to follow. I've not been able to accept their interpretation, and that has resulted in my exclusion from any public role in the church.

When I had my first gay sexual experience I realised that scripture has to make sense in the context of our experienced reality. I realised that the boundaries and rules I had put around the sex act should really be exactly the same for sex between men and men and men and women. It wasn't possible to call one natural and the other unnatural. Sex was an activity built into the human life-force, but it is different for different people and in different circumstances.

Fundamentally we have to work from first principles, and then check them against the texts and the culture. I don't mean that love justifies everything; it doesn't, but a love that his holy and just and honourable and within covenant commitments comes pretty close to biblical standards. I have come to believe that my faith and my values are applicable in guiding me in how to live human relations justly and lovingly, in full respect for the other person and for myself.

I soon realised that the loving caring relationships I observed, while different from the heterosexual married homes of friends, were just as loving, committed and fulfilling, although different from marriage – although personally I don't think that the word marriage is appropriate for them. So although I am not in a relationship I have no doubt that such relationships can be good and moral.

I am well aware of the debate about the ordination of gay clergy. Personally I see ordination as simply a setting apart to one ministry of a particular kind, but I can't really accept that there is a special level of demands for ordained people. Any people who speak or act on behalf of the church need to be committed to Christian moral standards and beliefs. It is clear enough that some gay people like some heterosexual people ought to be excluded for these reasons, but I have several close friends who are ordained Anglican clergy in committed relationships. I believe that their Christian morality is enhanced by their relationships, and I wish the church had a way of honouring those relationships.

some dilemmas

Firstly I continually struggle with the issue of finally getting scripture to make sense. I know my understandings are tentative. I am very aware from 2 Peter 2 of the risk of false prophets deceiving the people, and the last thing I want to do is lead God's people off track.

Secondly I worry a great deal about those who don't understand. I've discovered it takes people a while. I have sat in the back seat in my Brethren church for 2 years now, and cried my way through the service. Slowly people have become more understanding. I have had

to allow people to have their own views as long as they allow me to have mine. I am personally prepared to live in a church where there will be sometimes robust debate, but I long to have acceptance and an opportunity to use the gifts God has given me.

Thirdly I continually puzzle over what God has in it for me. Does he have some relationship for me? Has the pain and the joy been something to mature me? Why do I have to be so open and

hurt myself so much? Is this the only way for me? The trouble is that I believe in Christian community, of mutual accountability, but I also have richly grown through the acknowledgement of my sexuality, even though it has pained and hurt the community.

Fourthly I'm frustrated when people make this issue centrally important. I really don't think it is fundamental. Issues of poverty and justice, making known the saving power of the Lord are so much more important, and I think it's tragic that we lose so much energy over this issue. But it won't go away. You can tell me, as some have told me, to go away and that you don't want my help. And I guess that has hurt me the most.       

Peter Lineham

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