A journey towards inclusion and affirmation
Mike Parker shares developments in his ministry and that of the church he co-pastors, Worthing Baptist Church
During my early teens, I feared I might become gay, as though this could suddenly happen to a boy who only felt attracted to girls. Nobody ‘came out’ at my secondary school for boys, probably because of the teasing or worse they’d have faced, especially back in the early 1980s. My best friend left it until he was 18 to tell me he was gay and other boys only came out years later.
When I trained as a counsellor, in my 20s on a course that included my own weekly therapy, I realised that my fear of becoming gay stemmed from being abused by an older boy at primary school. This insight helped me work through my irrational fear of homosexuality and I felt even more comfortable with gay people, recognising that any previous discomfort was down to my own unprocessed ‘stuff’. As a counsellor I gained insight into the painful consequences of homophobia and how ingrained it is in many of us for various reasons.
After training at Spurgeon’s College, 12 years ago I became the minister of Worthing Baptist Church (WBCh). There wasn’t any teaching about the Bible and homosexuality at Spurgeon’s and, while I’d always assumed the Bible condemned it, I hadn’t had any previous teaching either. I had occasionally heard Christians convincingly quote the same few Bible verses that appeared to condemn homosexuality. Therefore, I took it for granted that the Bible was clear about its sinfulness and that most right-thinking Christians thought the same. However, I did often wonder how the grace and love that had attracted me to Jesus in the first place applied to people who are gay.
After ordination, what I now consider my uninformed position could be summed up as ‘hate the sin, love the sinner.’ I’ve since learned how offensive this phrase is to gay people, labelling their sexual orientation as sinful. At the time I was anxious about how I might respond as a minister if someone told me they were gay. I’d probably have said something like, ‘God loves you and we welcome you, but, in all honesty, my understanding of the Bible is that God doesn’t approve of same-sex relationships.’ I’m thankful that I never had to use that clumsy, albeit well-intended line. I’d probably have added that God expects gay Christians to remain celibate.
At WBCh my love of all types of diversity and my desire for inclusion grew. I also heard more stories of LGBT+ people being harmed or mistreated in churches. This sometimes ended in tragedy. However, while majoring on love, grace, diversity and inclusion in my preaching, I avoided the subject of homosexuality altogether, probably because it was too much of a hot topic. I remember one couple wanting a pastoral visit because of what turned out to be the husband’s forceful demand that I ‘preach against homosexuality.’ He turned purple with rage because I didn’t agree to this and he seemed unable to hear anything else I said during the visit. We didn’t see them again. I wondered if there was something in his past that caused his rage, rather than just his understanding of scripture.
My wife (Kate) and I have three daughters who are now adults. As they grew up they couldn’t fathom why Christians wouldn’t accept LGBT+ people for who they are. This was something that reinforced their lasting impression that church is outdated, out of touch and therefore irrelevant. While their challenges often proved uncomfortable for me, for example when they said many Christians are far more judgemental than ‘normal’ people, I’ve learned so much from how they and most of their generation see things. I find this common perception of Christians depressing, especially when the church, the Body of Christ, is meant to be a sign pointing towards and a taste of the Kingdom of God.
Due to my concern, confusion and discomfort, I decided to study what the Bible actually says about homosexuality on my first sabbatical four years ago. I read extensively, met people with different views and asked LGBT+ Christians about their experiences. Oh, and I prayed loads! Although I came to the end of my sabbatical still ‘sitting on the fence,’ I felt more informed and appreciated how the Bible is far more complex about this than I’d realised. I’d also become convinced that, in the same way my sexual orientation wouldn’t have changed, it couldn’t change for LGBT+ people. I could see how they might repress it, but not change it. Also, in the same way I'd consider it impossible for me to be celibate, I began seeing it as grossly unjust asking this of gay men and women who, like me, have not sensed a call to a life of celibacy.
I then picked up that some of our teens at WBCh had questions about their sexuality. This made me much less comfortable sitting on the fence, having learned that how ministers, parents and significant others respond can be extremely helpful or highly damaging. At around this time, Peter Heath, our Assistant Minister, and I visited a retreat centre to take time to study, discuss, and listen to God together. It was here, three years ago, that I finally came off that fence and became fully affirming of LGBT+ people and same-sex marriages. I no longer believed that the Bible either condemns or even speaks about committed same-sex relationships.
Peter and I love the Bible. Neither of us came to a change in our thinking despite it, but from turning to it with even more intent. It was after both of us became affirming that we decided to tell the diaconate one by one, trying to give each deacon the space to ask questions and express their thoughts and feelings. Some were shocked and one left WBCh immediately. Others turned out to be ahead of us in this. Peter and I then explained to the membership why we felt the time had come for WBCh as a whole to explore how the church might become even more loving towards members of the LGBT+ community. It proved to be our best and most moving church meeting to date; so much openness, vulnerability and quality listening, with people sharing their stories about relatives and friends. This was surprisingly better than I’d anticipated.
From the results of a questionnaire it was clear that, apart from most members knowing one or two Bible verses, few if any had knowledge of what the Bible says and doesn’t say about homosexuality. Peter and I were asked by the majority of members and regulars to introduce some teaching and open up the conversation further. Not everyone was happy about this. Sadly, about 30 per cent of the church left over the coming months, some leaving before our teaching series started. This was painful. Given the beauty of our church’s growing diversity, it was gutting that many of these were our Filipino members.
Our preaching series focused on texts that have often been associated with homosexuality. We offered it as sensitively as we could, making clear this was a starting point rather than imposing our thinking. Throughout we attempted to open up a dialogue to ensure that everybody felt they had the opportunity to share their view - and be heard. Peter and I kept on reminding members that we were more than happy to meet up with them to both talk and, perhaps more importantly, listen. We also encouraged our small groups to have open and respectful discussions. Overall, we had to trust that the culture we’d been trying to nurture over the years at WBCh would come into its own and more than stand the challenge. This required a significant amount of faith. While this felt like the biggest risk I’d taken so far as a minister, I think God had been teaching me over the years to go with the courage of my convictions and hand the rest over to Him.
It would be wrong to say that this has been a pain-free journey for the church. It hasn’t. Much loved members have left. We’ve had difficult conversations. We’ve had to discover a new level of honesty with each other, something that has proved uncomfortable at times. Yet, through the process, the church has not only survived, but it has also actually thrived. WBCh has matured over the last three years and the catalyst for this was our bringing this hot topic into the open. I think members are more able to discuss anything and everything, while also listening to different views. Personally, I really hope that the membership gets to the stage where we register our building for same sex marriages. I also hope WBCh becomes increasingly transparent to people in the LGBT+ community who want to be part of a church where they will be affirmed for the whole of who they are.
While Peter and I thought we would also face fallout from outside of WBCh there hasn’t been too much. I have picked up disapproval and disappointment from some Baptist ministers. Others have been intrigued, with some humbly acknowledging that, while they hold a more ‘conservative’ view, they haven’t studied the Bible and homosexuality in any depth. A couple of Baptist churches asked us to meet up with their leadership and share our story. I know other Baptist ministers who were affirming before us. Peter and I both realise that if we move from WBCh the majority of Baptist churches wouldn’t call us because of our position on LGBT+ affirmation. But although there has been some personal cost, it pales into insignificance compared to the painful stories of so many LGBT+ Christians.
As for our precious Baptist Union, I hope that we all become better at listening to each other, especially when we disagree. With this in mind, I would encourage churches to use one of the many resources which are now available, such as Creating Sanctuary, which helps congregations to safely have this conversation.
Even if you are unable to become theologically affirming, the resource can help your church become safer for all people.
I also pray that our inspired Declaration of Principle (DoP) helps hold us all together. I hope that, in what I see as the spirit of the DoP, more Baptist churches will discern it is right for them to conduct same-sex marriages, and there will be freedom for people in committed same-sex relationships to become accredited Baptist ministers.
Image | Tim Mossholder | Unsplash
The Revd Mike Parker is Senior Minister at Worthing Baptist Church, Sussex
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