‘How can you be gay and a Christian?’
This is a question that I’ve encountered on a number of occasions, both from conservative Christians, and those who are gay without holding to any particular faith. I once had some tentative answers to the subject, but, as I wrote in a previous blog entry, attempting to reconcile my sexuality and my faith was a battle that I found I couldn’t win, and my faith became the casualty. So, I thought it was better that someone else had a go.
James joined the Bible college when I was in my final year there. While I, at the time, had come out only to my closer friends, I was taken aback when James brought up his own story of his sexuality in one of our first conversations. Over the course of that year and beyond, we’ve met up and discussed how it’s possible for someone who’s gay to reconcile that reality with their faith, though in the end we landed in slightly different destinations.
In the first part of our most recent conversation, James tells the story both of his rocky entry into the Christian faith, and how he eventually came to terms with his sexuality. In part two, James will then unpack the challenging position that this has put him in, and how he’s been able to move forwards with his life in the midst of such a tension.
It’s a fascinating story.
What was your experience growing up in terms of belief, and what did you believe about god, religion and faith from a young age?
I was raised in a lapsed-Catholic household – that’s probably a good way of saying it. So, raised Catholic with all the tradition, because when you’re Irish-Catholic you just do it anyway. We went to church each Sunday, but we didn’t really believe in God; I knew we went to church because that’s what my mum did. The bigger influence was secular spiritualism. My mum would be friends with psychics and witches and things like that. I do remember when I was about five, my mum started looking at my hand, and she went, ‘Oh, you’re going to have three children.’ Just little things like that, so we were raised more spiritual than we were religious.
Was the spirituality itself not actually tied to Catholicism?
No, it was more paganism: astrology, angels, crystals, that kind of thing. I wasn’t really raised with any inherent beliefs.
Do you think that you took that spirituality on yourself? Or was it just something that was around that you were aware of?
It was just something around. At the same time, we did have good connections with the church; my mum would go on retreats and things like that with the local nun. Also, I went to a Catholic school growing up, although I didn’t really believe any of it.
So, actually, a lot of what you learned about faith was from your school rather than church?
Yeah, any real religious belief didn’t come from my family or my church, because I didn’t listen in church, I was just there for the biscuits.
I’m aware that the Church generally frowns on a lot of secular spiritualism. How did your church respond to your mum’s leanings?
So, the priest at the church: absolutely fantastic man. I remember talking to him about it a few years ago, saying, ‘My mum, she likes to do everything from the little things like astrology to Reiki healing too.’ And he said, ‘That’s just what some people need to do, either they’ve had a hard life or they just find comfort in it and we can’t stop them, we can only just sit with them.’ That was the attitude of the priest at my church. He was never going to go chucking holy water at her, saying ‘How dare you!’ It was more, ‘You’re here, and there’s a reason you’re here, and there’s a reason you’re doing everything else as well.’
Were you quite close with the leadership?
Yeah, he started the same time we moved down to the coast of England when I was three, so I always knew him. And I used to try and steal out of the collection pot and he used to find it really funny and laugh at me whilst I was doing it.
And you did that until you were seventeen, eighteen?
Yeah, I’ve not really stopped!
I suppose that’s how you fund Bible College. So your primary school was Catholic, and how about your secondary school, was that just a regular state school?
That’s Catholic as well, but I left at fourteen.
So, what happened there? Did everything continue as normal into secondary school?
At secondary school I became atheist. There was no resolute moment of, ‘I don’t believe in God,’ it was just that I never really believed in him, so nothing changed. Actually, you know what it was? I was watching Family Guy, the episode where Meg becomes a Christian. I remember watching Brian describe himself as an atheist and thinking, ‘Oh, there’s a label for this, cool!’ I didn’t realize this was an option, really.
How long did your newfound realization of atheism continue for?
It continued for quite a long time, until I left school. And then in the stages of Catholicism you have a Christening when you’re just born, and then you do communion when you’re seven, then confirmation when you’re fifteen. And my mum said to me, ‘Do you want to be confirmed?’ And I just thought, I guess there’s no reason in not doing it.
You were confirmed despite being an atheist?
Yeah, I just thought there’s no point in not doing it. And then I guess the more I thought about it, I thought, well I believe the big bang happened, and I believe in evolution, but at the same time I don’t believe that all of it could just happen. I think at that age I took on a bit of a spiritualist vibe. I believed there’s a lot of stuff that happens in the world, and I think there must be some connection between it all, so I had this idea of God. I didn’t believe anyone went to hell though, I don’t think I really believed in heaven either. It was just, there is possibly a god, and I think he does things, but he’s not overly fussed.
I remember reading the Sermon on the Mount and being a bit perplexed as to what it all meant, but at the same time a bit scared.
I think what happened was, as I started going to college at fifteen, I made friends with a group of people, all of whom were very devout atheists – or more secular humanists – and they used to sit around each lunch discussing why anyone who believed in any form of god or spiritualism was an idiot. And they prompted my thinking a bit more; I decided, well, there is a god, there is no hell, there is no heaven. I believed in some sort of spiritualism just because I was prompted to consider it, but I didn’t really consider any particular belief because I didn’t really care about any of the particular beliefs. I was a bit lazy in my approach; I didn’t want to put in any effort.
When did that start to become more overtly Christian?
It’s hard to say. Around that time I started becoming anorexic as well, so I lost a lot of memory from that time. I do remember reading the Bible later in that year, when I was sixteen, and looking at the book of Matthew. I’m not entirely sure what prompted me to, though. Actually, do you know what it was? It was very silly. I studied Sociology at GCSE, and I was a bit like, I want to understand everything. We had a Bible at home, so I thought, I’ll just pick it up and have a look!
And so I just started engaging a bit with Christianity, and I started reading through the book of Matthew. I remember reading the Sermon on the Mount and being a bit perplexed as to what it all meant, but at the same time a bit scared. I’m not entirely sure what happened after that, the next few months have slipped my memory because of the anorexia. The next thing I remember is being a Christian of sorts, but on the spectrum of the Westboro Baptist Church.
How did that feel?
Tough. I think what happened at around that time is I watched the Louis Theroux documentary about the Westboro Baptist Church. I remember reading in the New Testament that it’s a good thing if people despise you because that means you’re doing the right thing, and at face value I took it as, unless you’re hated you’re doing something wrong. I thought, well, these people are hated, I hate them, so they must be doing something right.
The problem was, around the same time, the thing that prompted the anorexia was that I realized that I liked men, and so I was looking for ways to change my sexuality. And I thought, well, these people are anti-gay, so what’s the furthest thing from being gay? It’s being anti-gay. I now realize most people that are anti-gay are usually a bit repressed sexually. I think the intertwining of watching that documentary, having introduced myself to religion a bit and also wanting to change my sexuality led me to believe these people might have the answer for curing me.
Taking a step back and putting a pin in your sixteen year-old Westboro Baptist self, what was your journey of realizing that you liked people of the same sex? Presumably that didn’t happen overnight.
It had always been there. My first crush was Harry Potter when I was about five.
Not even Malfoy? I mean Malfoy I get, but Harry Potter?
Yeah, he’s a cool wizard. So, it was just always there, and then when I was about thirteen,
I remember watching Come Dine with Me, one of the fellas on it said, ‘My mother knew I was gay because I asked for a chandelier when I was four.’ And I just sat there thinking, ‘Oh, gay. That’s a thing! That makes sense.’ And it was in that moment that I thought, oh yeah, I’ve always liked blokes. It kind of flipped the switch, and I was perfectly happy with it.
Then I went to school, and I thought, I’m just going to tell people. And young teenagers obviously didn’t respond nicely, so after that I just kind of repressed it. I was like, ‘Do you know what? I was joking, it was just a joke that got out of hand,’ because I thought, if people are going to respond this badly, I don’t think I want to be this. So that actually kick-started the repression, and then it resurrected itself when I was sixteen, but then at that point it was a bit more unavoidable.
Back to when you were sixteen then, how did this progress?
I actually got into contact with some members of the Westboro Baptist Church; I started speaking to them online. Looking back on it now, if I saw that kid I would want to give them a hug and say, you need some help, you need some counseling. But I was lapping up the anti-everything sentiment of whatever they were teaching. I think the main thing was it was just very lonely. I didn’t really have any friends because of it, because I was not a nice person, and so it was just a year of isolation, being stuck in my head thinking about these horrible sentiments that I didn’t particularly like.
After about a year I cut off all contact and was like, ‘I’m just being a bit of an idiot,’ and then I got on with life. I was still listening to sermons online from quite far-right preachers. I actually started listening to another American preacher who’s also quite infamous, Pastor Steven Anderson of Faithful Word Baptist Church. They’ve made documentaries about him on the BBC, he’s a strange man. I just needed that thing to kick me and say, ‘Do you know what? This is still wrong, what you’re feeling is wrong.’
From that point I started to realize that, maybe I don’t need to search for the vehement, far-right propaganda to change myself, maybe I should just reconcile who I am.
And the more I kept listening to this sort of far-right nonsense, it was getting increasingly harder to be content with myself, until I started finally going to a church in my town. I went in with guns blazing, thinking, ‘These people are going to believe the same as me, and if they don’t, I’m going to revolutionize the church,’ in my arrogant seventeen year-old mind. What actually ended up happening was these people were just very kind, very nice people. Around that time I recognized that actually, maybe I am attracted to blokes, but maybe that’s not an entirely bad thing.
I came out to the vicar at the church, and he just said to me, ‘We’re a conservative church, so we don’t support same-sex marriage, but at the same time, we are still a church and our doors are open to everyone and we will do the best that we can do to love you. So long as you’re here you will always be welcome in the church.’ And he was just a very supportive man. From that point I started to realize that, maybe I don’t need to search for the vehement, far-right propaganda to change myself, maybe I should just reconcile who I am a bit more. That was kind of my entry into Christianity properly as well. I’d say before that I wasn’t really a Christian, I was more in it for the benefits as it were, of, how can I be changed?
Did you actually believe the religious claims about God before?
I remember I spent a lot of time reconciling my lack of faith with the faith that I was listening to. I didn’t actually really believe in God, I was more trying to convince myself there was a God. So, even though I would have told people I was a Christian, I wasn’t really. In fact, there were quite a few mornings where I woke up and I was just like, ‘Crap, I still don’t believe in God. How can I make myself believe in God?’
How did that then change after you’d started going to your church?
It ebbed and flowed. I went into the church and I thought, I sort of do and I sort of don’t believe in God, I don’t really know. I was probably more agnostic than anything. The more I started seeing of the church, the more I started seeing, actually, these people do act like the Jesus of the Bible, which is a nice sign. And then the more I started thinking, if I were to believe in a god, it would be this one.
At that point what I ended up doing was getting more into apologetics on YouTube, and I started watching all these debates. I would watch debates between atheists and Christians and I ended up believing in God because of the arguments I was watching, because I thought, actually, there is a reasonable argument for God. At the same time I was watching other arguments where I watched these Christians, and I was like, my goodness, you are an idiot. You are just sitting in blind belief and don’t know why you believe what you believe.
So it was more a gradual process of looking at the various arguments and thinking, actually, Christianity doesn’t seem unreasonable, depending on the brand of Christianity that you go to. With Westboro Baptist Church and the other far-right preachers, not only do you have to believe in God, you have to believe in their version of God; literal six- day creation, literal flood, and so on.
At what point did that intellectual affirmation of God become faith or personal belief?
I think the problem with a lot of people into apologetics is your view of faith is that it’s only really found in arguments. So, my faith had changed me, but all it had really changed was how I was willing to view everyone: mainly as targets with which to fight. Then I ended up going back to college for another two years, and I kept getting high, and it just went. I stopped caring. So at that point it was just, well, I believe these things, but it’s a lot of effort having to reason constantly. What’s easier is getting drunk, getting high. I kept going to church, but it didn’t really translate into anything in my life, it was this thing I did on a Sunday, and then the rest of the week I was just having fun.