I’m currently taking part in the Creating a Life that Matters course with my local Metropolitan Community Church, an inclusive Christian denomination based within the LGBT community. The MCC isn’t my own church – I’m an Anglican – but my partner and I have special links with it as it’s where we were married and where she works. When I signed up for the course, it seemed like a good opportunity to develop my relationships with God and other people, and I didn’t expect the fact that it was run by a ‘gay’ church to be especially relevant. However, I have found the course material challenging in a number of ways. One of these is the extent to which inclusive language is used – even the word God is avoided, because some people think of this as a male-only term (as contrasted with Goddess), which came as a shock to me! Another is that there seems to be a slight assumption that participants will have been rejected by other denominations, and/or that other denominations have little to offer LGBT people. I don’t think it ever crossed the authors’ minds (the materials are denomination-wide) that one of their students could be someone accepted within a mainstream Christian church, and this makes me sad. Not because I’m the odd one out – although that brings its own challenges – but because my experience has been overwhelmingly one of being accepted while believing I wasn’t.
I was brought up as a Christian, and began to question my faith and the church’s teachings when I was in my teens. It would be misleading to say that this was all due to my emerging sexuality, or even other controversial ethical issues. I was becoming increasingly aware of atheism and agnosticism, and like anyone who has been taught a particular faith as a child, I needed to go through the process of figuring out what I believed for myself. However, the fact that I was finding myself attracted to other girls rather than boys was an issue. I don’t recall homosexuality ever being mentioned at my church (with its rather aging congregation), or by my Christian relatives, but I sought out more teenager-friendly places to get answers to my burning questions – the youth group at a different church, and the bookstore at Christian summer camp. It was here I learned of the Bible verses forbidding same-sex relationships, and here I was told that ‘all’ Christians believed homosexuality was wrong. One could simply not be gay and Christian. At the age of 18, believing that my childhood faith was incompatible both with my sexuality and with my view that love is love irrespective of gender, I said goodbye to the church.
Six years later, my partner and I were invited to join a church choir. I had turned down many such invitations before, and I don’t know what was different this time, but I entered the church tentatively believing we would have to be very discreet about our relationship. All such illusions vanished as soon as we met the other choristers. Not only did they already know we were a couple, several of them were gay themselves. I had stumbled across something I thought didn’t exist – a mainstream church where LGBT people were welcomed and same-sex relationships were not considered to be a sin. But the revelations didn’t stop there. In coming out to my family, and re-engaging with the Christian community, I learned that my previous church – yep, the one I walked away from – did not have a problem with me being gay. Nor did most of my relatives, and nor have many of the Christians, including clergy, whom I’ve met in the decade since. What I still find heartbreaking is that I cut myself off from my faith, from the people who could have supported me, and from God, largely because of an incorrect assumption. Rather than opening up and listening to the people in my life, I relied on a few fundamentalists to represent the views of ‘all’ Christians.
Some other time, I want to write about the theology of all this – why some Christians (understandably, in my view) believe my marriage to another woman is sinful, and why others have no issue with it. I want to write about the political climate in the UK, the proposed Equal Marriage legislation and why some of the debate dismays me on both sides. I want to write my plea for reconciliation between those Christians who believe same-sex relationships are wrong and those who do not – do we not all follow the same Christ? But today, I want to share my story, and I will finish with an exercise I wrote as part of the MCC course. The assignment was “Describe your first experience of the Sacred”.
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It’s hard for me to say when I first experienced the Sacred, because I was brought up as a Christian and talked to Jesus from a very young age. I identified strongly with this man who didn’t quite fit into society, and who was ridiculed by soldiers before his crucifixion – every Good Friday, the passage where the crown of thorns is placed on Jesus’ head still reminds me vividly of being bullied at school. As a creative child, I coped by withdrawing into books and into my inner world, but where many kids in my position would have had an imaginary friend, I had God.
Or at least, I talked to God. I don’t remember much of how he responded, and over time he must have become less real to me, because when I was twelve – shortly after realising how many people in my life and in the Western world did not believe in God – I lost my faith. I then spent my teens yo-yoing between atheism and born-again Christianity. There are several re-conversion experiences from this period that I could write about, but owing to the fundamentalist views of some of the organisations I was involved with, the ‘faith’ that I had was quite a damaging one, and I’m still trying to sort out what was genuine from what was not.
That’s why I’ve decided to write about a later meeting with God, one that happened after I had come out as a lesbian and cut all ties with the church. I was twenty and spending three months studying in Italy as part of my degree. Just the experience of being in the country felt like an awakening of my soul, although I didn’t view this in spiritual terms at the time. I had gone from northern Europe, where everything was grey, my job made me miserable and I couldn’t afford to furnish my sparse one-room flat, to this land of sunshine and delicious food and friendly people. It was not necessarily a happy time – I missed my friends from the UK terribly, and was wrestling with some big questions about myself and my future – but the simple pleasures of Italian living made a big impression on me.
On the day in question, most probably a Saturday in early May 2001, I caught the bus to Assisi, a nearby town best known as the birthplace of St Francis. I don’t have any photos of the trip, only of a later visit with a friend, but as I remember it the weather was hot and the sky was blue. I made my way down narrow lanes lined with stone and terracotta houses, some of which were still being rebuilt after the 1997 earthquake. I think the construction workers were at the stage of applying the finishing touches, because nothing looked too damaged, but I remember seeing scaffolding with rubbish chutes running down into skips. It felt a little as though the world were being recreated.
Eventually, my wanderings brought me out into the main plaza in front of the Basilica di San Francesco. When I entered the church, the air was refreshingly cool. I remember a combination of dark wood and vivid frescoes, which had already been painstakingly repaired. The air smelled of incense and polish, but the atmosphere is harder to describe. There was something solemn and mysterious about it, but very still and very calm, and for the first time in a long while I felt completely at peace. There was an area set aside for quiet prayer, and although I had been an agnostic for three years, without hesitation I moved away from the other tourists, found a seat and bowed my head. I was in no doubt that I was in the presence of God.
I don’t remember what I said to Him, other than that it had been a very long time. I know I made no promises or guarantees, and it wasn’t a conversion of any sort. I walked into that church as an agnostic, I left as an agnostic and I didn’t resume my relationship with God for another three years. But what is important to me is that despite all this, I heard God’s voice in that moment and I came to Him just as I was.