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.

Posted in Church of England, PostGay, Sexuality Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,