Coming out of the Church

I BEGAN to find my voice and  share my story in 2009 when an author friend approached me to talk about ‘coming out’ – she wanted to get an understanding  of this extraordinary process of identity-claiming to see what it might reveal to those people of faith who struggle to accept diversity of sexual orientation and gender identity in their communities. A bold aim – she had my attention.

Barbara Glasson

The Reverend Doctor Barbara Glasson, a Methodist minister currently working in Bradford, formerly led Somewhere Else, the community which hosted meetings of the Quest Liverpool group.

As she prepared to leave Liverpool, Barbara began a series of conversations with LGBT Christians, and other people marginalised by mainstream faith groups. Her book, The Exuberant Church, is the result of these conversations about how LGBT Christians, and other ‘coming-out people’, may be prophetic examples of the potential for new life and growth in the faith communities from which they spring.

In writing about the process of ‘coming out’, Barbara describes how it takes

‘an unusual and specific sort of courage’.

As a gay Christian man I can vouch for this from my own experience. And, as the former convenor of the local branch of Quest, the UK group for LGBT Catholics, and the coordinator of GYRO (gay youth ‘r’ out), a social and support group for LGBT youth in Liverpool, I think I can say with some authority that courage is indeed a defining characteristic of the process of questioning your identity and becoming something which defies the dominant norms of culture, society and faith.

Barbara invites us to share an understanding of the ‘coming out’ process and its relevance to others who undergo major transformations in life (survivors of sexual abuse, people living with disability and addictions) and to the church which struggles to include them. Here too, courage is a common factor – it is important to remember that, as Mark Twain once wrote:

Courage is not the absence of fear. It is acting in spite of it.

There are those (particularly some people of faith) who argue that homosexuality is a ‘lifestyle choice’, a defective form of relationship and intimacy, which can be ‘healed’ through prayer and the influence of morally upright role models in the community. And yet there is a significant body of evidence (anecdotal, neurological and psychological) that sexual orientation is not chosen. Just as each one of us is born with a biological ‘sex’ (female or male) and learns what it means in our society to be ‘gendered’ (girl or boy, woman or man), so I believe each of us is born with a predisposition towards a particular sexual orientation, and we learn what it means to be bisexual, lesbian, gay or straight in a society where heterosexuality is the norm. To be anything ‘less’ than the norm is a challenge to identity, both of the individual who is ‘different’ and the community which defines what it is to be ‘normal.’

But isn’t ‘normal’ just another way of saying ‘statistically common’? Just because there are fewer of us, does that mean we have fewer rights, as individuals or as a community? Does it mean we are less deserving of support? Does it mean we are destined to be victims, to be lonely, unhappy, and somehow incomplete?

I used to think so, as it seemed easier for a time to believe the negative messages of the community I grew up in than it was to stand up and be counted as ‘one of them’.

I always felt I was different, though I didn’t know why. As I gradually became self-aware, I believed my difference was a  weakness that made me unworthy and in need of God’s grace, though I could never believe I deserved it, and nothing I could do would ever be ‘good enough’. I went through several stages of what Barbara describes as ‘profound disquiet’, the experience of ‘I am not’, to the point where I literally wished I did not exist.

I finally got to the point where I realised that I would rather my parents knew the real me, and risk their rejection, than to hold back from them any longer and continue to pretend to be something I was not, even if that meant being excluded from the family home. Over time I built up my confidence and resilience to be able to risk being honest with them, whatever the consequences, until I reached a point where there was no going back.

My father’s response was to say ‘God still loves you’. This was the closest he has ever come to saying that he loves me, and this glimpse of divine unconditional love and acceptance was far more powerful than the efforts of those who have prayed for my ‘healing’.

Barbara goes on to describe those on the margins who undergo a ‘coming out’ process as ‘exodus people’ in the sense that their search for freedom from the oppression of denying their true self may also lead to a period in the wilderness:

‘the people that emerge become detached and either fall out of or fall out with the place from which they have sprung’,

especially where church is concerned.

However, just like the exodus of the Hebrew Bible, we are challenged to remember that ‘exodus’ is not merely a way out, a departure or emigration. It is also a way in, to the Promised Land in the case of the people of Moses, to a new way of being in the case of those who ‘come out’. The expression ‘coming out’ in current usage is often followed by ‘of the closet’, which suggests the restriction of remaining hidden from which a person longs to be free. Yet when it was first used in the early 20th century it was an analogy that likened a homosexual’s introduction into gay subculture to a debutante’s coming-out party, a celebration for a young upper-class woman making her début – her formal presentation to society – because she has reached adulthood or has become eligible for marriage. This sense of ‘coming out’ into the gay world suggests a world neither so small, nor so isolated, nor so hidden as the later addition closet implies.

The pre-1950’s focus was on entrance into a new world of hope and communal solidarity, whereas after the Stonewall Riots in June 1969 (a rebellion against state oppression following a police raid on a gay bar in New York, often cited as the birth of the LGBT rights movement) the overtone was an exit from the oppression of the closet. This change in focus suggests that ‘coming out of the closet is a mixed metaphor that joins ‘coming out’ with the closet metaphor: an evolution of ‘skeleton in the closet’ specifically referring to living a life of denial and secrecy by concealing one’s sexual orientation.

The question for us is how, for those whose ‘coming out’ involved flight from their community of faith (and there are many), what are they coming out into? Barbara’s exploration of ‘coming out’ stories in biblical narratives reveals that, although there may be periods in wilderness or chaos, the process does not inevitably signify

‘unboundaried exits into licentious living but rather cause a reappraisal of morality in the light of the experience.’

This has been my experience – not conforming to the norms of my faith community has forced me profoundly to question my identity and my faith and reach a new understanding that may put me at odds with those whose authority I have been taught to respect and receive almost without question. It has involved discerning a new moral code: not the permissive and promiscuous culture of hedonism that anti-homosexual Christians portray, but one with boundaries different from the tradition I inherited, since I believe the expectation of lifelong celibacy is a man-made rule, not divinely ordained by a God of relationship who calls us to loving intimacy.

I believe God called me to ‘come out’, and to share my experience, not to boast in my own courage, (I still manage a lot of fear) but to entrust that fear to God and to boast in God’s power to show strength in my weakness: ‘For it is not those who commend themselves that are approved, but those whom the Lord commends.’ (2 Cor 10:18). This courage is a gift from God in spite of, or perhaps because of, the fear that caused a split between my sexuality and my spirituality.

Without it I longed for integration and doubted I would ever find it. For a time my ‘coming out’ story was one of God’s absence from my times of greatest distress, and feelings of separation and isolation from God that the attempt to separate my sexuality from my spirituality had caused. In between the lines was a voice of self-pity, a victim of an unjust world and an unjust church. Yet I am not a victim – I am a survivor who has found the courage to share the story of my survival, my struggle, my healing and forgiveness – my forgiveness of God for ‘making’ me gay, forgiveness of myself for being less than perfect, and forgiveness of those whose rejection, betrayal and unjust judgement I feared or experienced.

Through it I believe God calls me to have empathy for others who feel marginalised by the community of believers they long to call home. Although I was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, I believe I have more in common with other Christians on the edge of their traditions than sets us apart, and my hope is that there is enough universal truth in this experience to speak to others of God’s unconditional love and acceptance. I know we are not alone in experiencing the shortcomings of the imperfect Body of Christ that is the Christian church in our world; women, people from other cultures and faiths, those living with disability or mental distress, the young and old, the poor and homeless, are also often left on the margins. There is no special pleading here. It is not the case that ‘our lot’ necessarily have it worse than anyone else.

But my God-given sexual orientation is a part of the core of my being, the image of God in which I was created. Therefore it does give me a unique perspective that has set me apart from the norm and challenged me to find my voice and be heard over the din of negative messages reinforcing the fear that I didn’t belong.

I now know with confidence that I do belong to the Body of Christ, that I am ‘indispensible’ (1 Cor 12:22), by the grace of God through my baptism and God’s continuing call to intimate relationship with my Creator in all areas of my life, including and especially my sexuality.

The Exuberant Church cover

As Barbara invites us to consider the lessons the church may learn from the ‘prophetic communities’ of ‘coming-out people’, the challenge to the church may be heard in the words of Winston Churchill:

Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak;
courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.

Our faith communities have had much to say about those who live on the margins of our church and society – perhaps it is time they had the courage to listen. Then perhaps the ‘exodus people’ of our times may find their Promised Land among other people of faith, those who would once have enslaved them or banished them as a scapegoat (Ex 16:10).

This is adapted from a review which originally appeared in the Quest Bulletin, 60 (Spring 2011)

Barbara Glasson, The Exuberant Church: Listening to the Prophetic People of God

Darton, Longman & Todd 2011.
ISBN 978-0-232-528619 – More details here.

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