A Different Kind of Coming Out

Great piece in this month’s Christianity Magazine.

Homosexual feelings

Sam Allberry, Sean Doherty, Ed WestThe core of this group are Sam Allberry, a church leader in Maidenhead, Sean Doherty, a tutor at St Mellitus College, and Ed Shaw, who helps to lead Emmanuel Church in Bristol. They meet regularly on an informal basis to support and encourage each other, and as we chat, it’s evident that they deeply value this time. Allberry and Shaw share a dry sense of humour, while Doherty is more gregarious. In-jokes about Anglicanism abound as all three are involved with CofE churches. Their most pressing task is the forthcoming launch of a website called Living Out, aimed at helping others think through the realities of being same-sex attracted while remaining committed to a traditional view of Christian sexuality.

‘I keep hearing comments about how evangelicals are very anti-gay, and at the same time I keep meeting evangelical friends of mine who are beginning to drift on this issue,’ says Allberry. ‘But we can talk from a personal perspective about what it’s like dealing with this issue. From my own experience, I want to say that God is good and his word is good. It’s not always easy, but it’s a good word.’

Allberry describes to me how as a teenager his homosexual feelings conflicted with his new-found Christian faith. ‘I just felt that I was very dirty and that therefore other Christians might want to keep a distance.’ It was on hearing a liberating sermon that things began to change. ‘The pastor made a really big effort to say, “All of us are sexual sinners. There will be some who experience unwanted homosexual feelings. If that’s you, then you are not alone.” That was a key turning point for me.’

Last year Vaughan Roberts, a leading conservative evangelical, spoke for the first time of his own struggle with same-sex attraction in an interview with Evangelicals Now, which was widely applauded. Allberry knows him well and was inspired to be open with his own congregation too. He has just written Is God anti-gay? (The Good Book Company), arguing that what the Bible says about sex is ‘crystal clear’ but believing in it doesn’t make God a homophobe.

Shaw grew up in a Christian family and church where an evangelical view of sexuality was taught. He’s grateful that it meant he never pursued a gay relationship. ‘That’s never been in my mind as an option. Although I have found the experience really difficult, it’s never been difficult to reconcile with my faith. One of the best things my parents gave me was an understanding that the Christian life is often difficult and that God takes and uses suffering to make us more like him.’

Doherty has perhaps the most unusual story of the three. He came to terms with his sexual orientation relatively quickly while at university, attending a church where he could talk about it freely. ‘Church was a place of nurture and unconditional acceptance, but at the same time the teaching was clear that I shouldn’t act on those sexual desires. In an environment where young people were being encouraged to experiment, I was really grateful that I had been kept from acting on my feelings.’

From gay to post-gay

What’s most surprising is that despite continuing to feel same-sex attracted, Doherty is now married with three children. ‘I came to realise that labelling myself as a gay person, albeit a celibate one, wasn’t actually helpful because it restricted me into this identity. The turning point was choosing to believe that my sexual identity was “male” – and that’s what determines whether I could be married or not.’ In time, he found his feelings changed to the degree that he fell in love with Gaby, a female friend who had supported him throughout his journey.

What’s most surprising is that despite continuing to feel same-sex attracted, Doherty is now married with three children. ‘I came to realise that labelling myself as a gay person, albeit a celibate one, wasn’t actually helpful because it restricted me into this identity. The turning point was choosing to believe that my sexual identity was “male” – and that’s what determines whether I could be married or not.’ In time, he found his feelings changed to the degree that he fell in love with Gaby, a female friend who had supported him throughout his journey.

I admit to still being a little confused about Doherty. ‘Are you no longer gay?’ I ask. His response involves some carefully chosen terminology developed by Peter Ould, an Anglican blogging on sexuality who shares a similar story. ‘I don’t speak of myself as an “ex-gay” person. I prefer the term “post-gay”,’ he says. ‘You choose to move away from the label of “gay” altogether, which has come to be associated with a certain lifestyle. I’ve clearly experienced some change in my feelings so that I am attracted to my wife. But it’s definitely not a 180-degree reorientation. All of us will continue to have desires and feelings which aren’t right, until Jesus returns.’

And how does his wife feel about the fact he still experiences homosexual attraction? ‘In a sense it doesn’t bother her at all. Partly, she’s a tough cookie who’s able to make her peace with that. But all married people experience attraction to people they are not married to. There’s nothing inherently worse about those attractions being predominantly towards one sex or another.’

Allberry and Shaw share Doherty’s perspective, but accept that they will remain single for life if their orientation does not change. Meanwhile, the support group allows them to talk through the challenges of celibacy. Shaw admits to an internal struggle over the years. ‘It’s the same as for most heterosexual men – struggling with sexual fantasy. That is where the battleground lies for me.’ For Allberry, the issues are relational. ‘It can lead to strong emotional over-dependency,’ he says. ‘A really good male friend becomes the “messiah-friend”. I’ve had to learn the hard way about where to put boundaries when friendships have become a bit too intense.’

These admissions are offered in a disarmingly matter-of-fact way. However, the average outsider would probably regard all three men as repressed individuals, using theology to sublimate their natural sexual identity. But what feels natural isn’t always what’s best, according to Allberry. ‘We are fallen human beings. I don’t want to assume that my feelings are a wholly reliable guide to the best way for me to live. If I ate everything I feel like eating, I’d be even more out of shape than I am now.’ For Shaw, sexuality isn’t just expressed in sexual intercourse. ‘We indicate our love by who we don’t have sex with as well as who we do. I am a man with a sexuality that’s male which is celebrated, not repressed, through celibacy.’

We’re going to hear lots more from this group I’m sure.

25 Comments on “A Different Kind of Coming Out

  1. I personally do not understand the fear of a “gay identity” – as I don’t think even secular gay men process this “identity” in quite the way that evangelicals claim that they do. All of the SSA terminology evangelicals use still sounds clunky to outsiders – which is not to say it isn’t helpful for these guys. Looking forward to reading Sam’s book.

    I hear that HTB have now adopted a “don’t ask don’t tell” approach to the subject – not quite the full Chalke but heading that way. It isn’t getting easier for SSA Christians to live in that no man’s land between an occasionally culturally homophobic church and a dismissive “you are just repressed” wider world.

  2. Justin Briarley writes, “However, the average outsider would probably regard all three men as repressed individuals, …”

    I think the average outsider regards heterosexual Christians who do not have sex before or outside marriage, or who only sleep with their spouse, as repressed individuals, too.

    No big difference.

  3. I think people are perfectly entitled to hold this view. However, I think most will opt for the one I decided to take – to give up evangelical Christianity and be an out gay man, now with my partner of 21 years plus.

      • Why should gaining a partner mean losing your soul? We never suggest this absurdity to heterosexual people, so why suggest it to gays?

        • “We”? Are you an authorised spokesperson for this unidentified group? If not you presume much. You also presume much in your misreading of Utar’s comment. It was deliberately phrased in such a way as to include all forms of partnership. It is the plain reading of the comment. Your narrow response has proven the comment’s worth as a Rorschach of sorts.

          As for the risk to the soul, if a person persists in sexual sin it is right to question their salvation. The redeemed abhor sexual sin.


          • Utar, I would have thought it was pretty obvious that I was using the word “we” in the same way as the French use “on” or the Italians use “si”: “On ne suggère jamais cette absurdité” = “Non si suggerisce mai quest’assurdità” = “This absurdity is never suggested”. Unfortunately we don’t have – note that word “we” again – a handy little impersonal pronoun like that in English, so we – there it is again – often use “we” for the purpose.

            Since your comment was made in reply to Mike Homfray’s comment, it was perfectly reasonable to take it as referring to his relationship with his “partner of 21 years plus”, and as being meant to imply that this relationship was imperilling his soul. Why should this absurdity be suggested?

        • It’s not clear what Mike means by “give up evangelical Christianity”. Wave goodbye to the whole thing? That happens often enough after a brief spell in an affirming church. Or is Mike one of the few that retain their faith?

            • Herod Antipas gained a partner, Herodias, divorced from his half-brother, Herod Philip, forbidden under Levitical law and publicly denounced by John the Baptist.

              As a result of persisting in this ungodly relationship against the word of God through the prophet whom Christ Himself described as ‘a shining light’, Herod lost his heterosexual soul.

              Hardly an absurdity.

              • When applied to a gay man in a committed gay relationship, hardly anything other than an absurdity.

                • Herod’s divorce from his first wife was permissible. His re-marriage to the wife of his half-brother was prohibited, even though it lasted the rest of his life. It was a committed straight relationship.

                  The distinction that you hold between Herod Antipas: a straight man in a commited straight (but scripturally prohibited) relationship and a gay man in a committed gay (but scripturally prohibited) relationship shows your clear bias in favour of a special homosexual exemption from scriptural prohibitions.

                  It’s that bias that is an absurdity. Unlikely as it is, unless abandoned, it makes all further discussion useless.

                  • I really don’t think that “scriptural prohibitions” are the last word in these matters. I see no reason why the way in which people thought about homosexuality back then – in so far as they understood the concept at all, which is perhaps debatable – should determine attitudes till the end of time. This is now 2013, and we have thankfully moved on.

                    • ‘This is now 2013, and we have thankfully moved on.’

                      Similar to what Herod Antipas might have said of his own era (centuries after Leviticus was written) and after imprisoning John the Baptist for ‘hate speech’.

                      But, mind you, only move on with respect to homosexuality. Other sexual prohibitions in scripture that are less onerous to an active homosexual life remain as timeless as ever. Quel surprise!

                      I rest my case.

                    • Actually, no. The prohibition of sex with a woman who is having her monthly period (Lev. 18:19) is in the very same section of the “Holiness Code” as the prohibition against men lying with men (Lev. 18:22), being sandwiched between the prohibition against taking a woman and her sister into your harem at the same time and that against giving your marriage bed to your neighbour’s wife. This prohibition in scripture is not remotely onerous to an active homosexual life, but most modern Christians, even fundamentalists, feel quite free to ignore it.

                      By the way, if you insist on inserting pointless French tags into your posts, it would do you no harm to get them right. “Surprise” is feminine, hence “QUELLE surprise” (not “quel”).

                    • Yes, I suppose you can’t see the effect of predictive text on my iPhone, and how could you possibly make allowance for that.

                      Your point is aptly blunted by Moses statement of deference to Christ’s superseding messianic authority: ‘‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you must listen to everything he tells you. Anyone who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from their people.’ (Deut. 18:15,19).

                      Christ, in turn, told His apostles (upon whose testimony the apostolic faith is founded Eph. 2:20): ‘Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.’ (John 15:20)
                      The witness of the apostles to those prohibitions that remain in force include homosexual acts, as is evident from the New Testament.

                      A better tactic would have been the old ‘do you eat shellfish’ argument. Or just publish a slimline version of scripture, after deleting the bits you don’t like.

                    • The “scriptural prohibitions” have provided a rationale for sickeningly cruel and wicked abuse – physical, psychological and spiritual – of homosexuals down the centuries. In the name of common sense and humanity, the best thing that we can do is to ditch them and move on.

                    • So, rather than abandon the *wrongful* use of scripture which, as you say, has been a basis for cruel and abuse, you now insist that we should ditch those scriptural prohiibtions, no the basis that they are *liable* to abuse.
                      Well, I can’t think of any scripture that isn’t liable to abuse. Even Jesus’ commandment to love was interpreted as sexual licence to practice Flirty Fishing by the Children of God cult.
                      So, by your appeal to common sense and humanity, why not ditch, or re-write the whole bible founding a new religion based on human intuition and the mystical, subjective, but ‘inerrant’ liberal predispositions of its 21st century adherents? It just needs a name…
                      And with the current market leadership of iPhones and iPads, an ‘iGod’ app to comfort liberal sympathies might just catch on…

                    • No, you misunderstand me. No doubt that’s my fault for not being sufficiently explicit. I don’t propose that we ditch them on the basis that they are *liable* to abuse. I propose that we ditch them on the basis that, if they really mean what we keep on being told that they mean, then they *are* wrong and abusive. That’s why they have served as a pretext for such wicked abuse of homosexuals. Let’s have no more of it.

                    • ‘ I propose that we ditch them on the basis that, if they really mean what we keep on being told that they mean, then they *are* wrong and abusive.’

                      This is actually progress. Rather than resorting to casting the scriptural prohibitions as misunderstood by conservative evangelicals and inapplicable to the kind of same-sex relations that are faithful and monogamous, you are open to the possibility that they might actually target same-sex relations of any kind.

                      You further propose that, if we can agree that any part of the apostolic witness which founds the ‘one holy, catholic and apostolic church’ actually does prohibit homosexual coupling of any kind, we should ditch it for being wrong and abusive.

                      Such a position makes an empirical assumption that God’s sovereign discretion to establish His chosen code of morality (even commanding Abraham to the point of almost sacrificing his beloved son) should be subject to the dictates of any relationship that is proven to be permanent, loving and mutually beneficial. The trajectory of scripture is that not even approved relationships are beyond God’s supreme claim on the individual, far less prohibited ones.

                      In contrast, we would probably agree, on the basis of St.Paul’s mandate of monogamy to elders, that the foundational apostolic testimony of the church also bluntly prohibits polygamy. So, why wouldn’t a person born into a polygamous society discard this teaching as an unfair and abusive imposition. Because we in the West believe that one partner should be enough? When compared to gay churchgoing partners, polygamous ones could, at least, hark back to the numerous examples of tacit approval in the Old Testament.

                      In the end, we would have a church in which the universal validity of the apostolic testimony is undermined by special pleadings. A church that is neither one, nor catholic, nor apostolic. Nor, for that matter, would it be holy. In the name of humanity and ‘common sense’, Abraham and Jesus could both have ignored God’s command of sacrificial obedience, as many others have.

                    • That’s quite a lot to deal with really. I’ll just, for the present, say two things:

                      I do not believe that right and wrong depend on God’s “chosen code of morality”. Nor do they depend on scriptural commands and prohibitions. On the contrary, I believe that right and wrong, in the words of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, “rest on eternal and self-existent principles, and not on the arbitrary will of any being whatever.” If polygamy, or anything else, is wrong, it would still be wrong even if not a word of scripture had ever been written. It would still be wrong even if there were no God.

                      As for “sacrificial obedience”, if Abraham had ignored a command to sacrifice his son, he would have done the right thing. A command to do a wicked thing like that cannot come from God. Not that I am committing myself to the belief that such a person as Abraham necessarily existed anyway.

                    • And therein lies our difference. In the oldest book of the Bible, Job’s chief complaint before reproof before God’s incomprehensible majesty is that, if the fairness of God’s actions are not completely discernible by human standards, God is wrong, found guilty by some higher eternal principles that agree with human moral intuition, like the one you mentioned.

                      In Job’s case, it was the experience of escalating personal and family tragedy after a life of circumspect devotion to God.

                      So, by the same token, these ‘eternal principles’ gleaned through human moral intuition could also judge an all-powerful God as guilty of passivity in the face of genocide, world famine and a host of natural disasters.

                      Either that, or your god is really not *all* powerful.

                      This doesn’t mean that Christian discount moral intuition, we merely recognise its limitations. In fact, St.Paul says: ‘(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)’ Rom.2:14,15.

                      However, the proof of whether natural moral intuition is valid is whether it bears scrutiny for internal consistency. Christ, the Jews and the apostles held the consistency of scripture in this high regard: ‘scripture cannot be broken’ (John 10:35)

                      In contrast, consider the LGBT ethos that, in one case, insists that the heterosexual sex-gender dichotomy is false: that the male-masculinity and female-femininity correspondence is arbitrary. Yet, in the same breath, they insist that those with gender identity disorder (which some liberals want de-classified as a disorder) should have sex change to maintain consistency between sex and self-identified gender.

                      It’s this kind of blatant contradiction (and self-indulgently jettisoning every non-affirming part of scripture) that undermines any moral credibility of the LGBT movement beyond its appeal to populist notions of benign individualism.

                      You can have the last word, but let’s leave it there.

                    • sheppied007, I will just point out one thing. You apparently believe that right and wrong depend on the arbitrary decisions of God. If this principle is valid, then adherents of any other religion can apply it too, with the result that any moral objections to their beliefs are null and void. A Muslim, for example, can say that Allah decides what is right and what is wrong, using His sovereign discretion to establish His chosen code of morality, and that therefore any criticism of the Qur’an on moral grounds is a priori out of court.

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