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However could God love someone like me?

16 January 2015

We underestimate the impact of our image on vulnerable young people, warns Rachel Mann

A life cut short: Lizzie Lowe, who was 14

A life cut short: Lizzie Lowe, who was 14

THE recent death of a Manchester teenager, Lizzie Lowe, who was struggling to reconcile her faith with her emerging sexuality was a tragedy. As someone who is a member of the LGBT community, has struggled with depression, and is a parish priest, I want to help the wider Church to recognise the negative messages that we often communicate to young LGBT people, and how we might - with grace, courage, and faith - become good news for them.

Depression can affect anyone, young or old, gay or straight. But a 2008 study in the journal Psychiatry suggested that LGBT people were two to three times more likely to be affected by depression than straight people. Queer people have higher rates of substance abuse, and, especially with trans people (i.e. those who don't identify with their birth gender), shocking suicide rates. This has nothing to do with being LGBT in itself. It reflects the extent to which our society privileges heterosexuality. Our cultural iconography - from advertising, through to literature, through to relationship expectations - constantly says: "Being straight is normal." For example, straight couples don't get abuse for holding hands in public. Outside the big cities, gay couples often do. These cultural pressures to be straight are multiplied in church contexts.

All teenagers face questions about identity. These are magnified for those coming to terms with their sexual and gender identities. As a young trans person, I contemplated suicide on many occasions, and, despite outward success, had drug and alcohol issues through university. For years, I found it almost impossible to "come out" to anyone about who I was. Most of all, I was convinced that God condemned me. I wanted to be close to God, but I couldn't see how God could love someone like me.

One of the things the Church needs to hear is how often young LGBT Christians feel low, confused, and condemned. The horror stories - in which young people have been told they're sinful just for being gay, or have been offered prayer to "save" them from homosexuality, and so on - are more common than many dare suppose. In part, this is because many in the Church act as if there were no LGBT young Christians. The Church usually models itself as white, middle-class, and heterosexual. It is unsurprising that many LGBT people just can't "see" themselves as part of the Church, and either leave, or never enter a church in the first place.

I'm sad when LGBT people give up on church, but sometimes it's the safest thing to do. The spiritual and emotional pressures on LGBT young Christians to conform are enormous. In fact, I'm often amazed that so many queer people stay. It's both salutary and depressing that the C of E - one of the instruments of God's grace, I hope - has fewer inclusive policies on LGBT people than McDonald's.

Part of our problem as a Church is how we present ourselves to the world; and, yes, how the media presents us. We need to understand that, for most young people in the UK today, being gay is just not seen as a problem, or an issue to be debated. The Church is a "damaged brand" precisely because we're seen to be prejudiced against LGBT people. And the worst of it is when our LGBT Christian youth - already negotiating a youth culture that is hostile to faith - internalise the message that faith and being queer are incompatible.

It is relatively easy to outline the causes of the Church's malaise, and to hope that those who retain affection for the Church of England will understand. The C of E faces a toxic mix of issues: well-intentioned bumbling, hand-wringing about how LGBT inclusion in England will play in places such as Nigeria, and - in some cases - an ostrich-like unwillingness to accept that society has changed.

Yet, if we wish to retain any evangelistic credibility, we need to move on, and be inclusive. I think there is hope. That hope lies in part in emergent, non-denominational support networks such as Diverse Church, which offers safe space to young LGBT Christians in which to discern who they are and want to be. I also sense that many Christian youth workers are becoming more inclusive in their teaching about sexuality.

Substantive change in institutions and traditions often comes from the margins. That should not surprise us. Jesus Christ himself is our icon. He emerged from the margins to reveal God in startling ways. If parish-church communities and individuals feel paralysed in the face of global debates on sexuality, we can still be genuine agents of love in our local contexts. This is about loving actual people, and letting LGBT people be visible, as cherished lay and ordained ministers.

We are called to be agents of God's unconditional love in the places where we're set. If we are bold, who knows what might change. If we are timid, we risk betraying the many young people who feel pushed to the very edge of what they can stand, and beyond; and who long for a truly affirming love.

Rachel Mann is priest-in-charge at St Nicholas, Burnage and Resident Poet and Minor Canon at Manchester Cathedral.


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