I WAS invited to attend a church while on the dance floor of an LGBT nightclub; so the experience of reading heart-rending memoirs written by lesbians from the Evangelical tradition was at times perplexing and fascinating.
There is startling similarity between these two accounts: both are bright, confident, young women, successful academically and professionally. It is clear that Vicky Beeching and Jayne Ozanne were once comfortably embedded in the conservative Charismatic Evangelical church communities; they were enlivened and loved. Indeed, we learn of Beeching’s dazzling career writing and performing popular worship songs in the United States, and Ozanne’s position of authority in the Archbishops’ Council. Yet, as we see in their frank stories, their zeal and commitment to serving and worshipping God broke their hearts, minds, and bodies.
It is interesting that neither recognised that beyond the cultish bubble where religious literalism and patriarchy reigned, LGBT people in the UK were increasingly finding a voice and disrupting Christian approaches to human sexuality. Such ground-breaking and exciting activity contrasts starkly with the writers’ descriptions of exorcisms, “healing” ministries, and conversion therapies. Ozanne was spiritually abused and fleeced by groups hell-bent on delivering her from desire for another human being; in Beeching’s accounts, we witness her mutely observing such atrocities while she inwardly expires.
Beeching’s book is dedicated to a 15-year-old girl, Lizzie Lowe, who killed herself because she was afraid of telling her Christian community that she was gay. Moreover, we read in both accounts that suicide seemed at times to be a very real option. It is, therefore, unsurprising to discover how prolonged experience of hiding, self-hatred, and isolation has led to severe physical illness.
Thankfully — miraculously, even — each woman found the steel to survive, and the courage to write her own shattering testimony. Beeching has many young fans, and her memoir seeks to offer a lifeline to gay Christians. Her chapter on grappling with the Bible as a means of self-acceptance will provide sensible signposts. Ozanne has been at the heart of church politics, and there is no doubt that her book will challenge many readers, not least some General Synod members whose homophobic views are alive and kicking.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people all have their own “coming-out” story, and most don’t find their ways into books. Crucially, however, here we learn of the excruciating consequences of the authors’ revealing their sexual identity to Evangelical friends, families, and work colleagues. The phone stops ringing; invitations end; work dries up. Ozanne admits: “I felt I was living in total exile.”
We discover how telling the truth spiritually, financially, and emotionally punishes them. Beeching writes: “I wanted to please God with my life, yet I was being compared to people who had sex with animals or abused children.” Worse than the vitriol is the silence of those they once counted as friends and fellow followers of Jesus Christ.
Both authors recognise that daring to tell the truth has set them free, but the suffering has by no means abated. Each writes with openness and insight; and their gracious restraint is astonishing. At points, I was left fuming at the injustices and suffering that they have endured in the name of the Christian faith. We can only hope that their memoirs will not only change the hearts of those who have damaged many LGBT Christians, but also begin to mend hearts that have been broken by shame and exclusion.
Will the Church ever be undivided, as Beeching longs for it to be, so that, as Ozanne hopes, we can all “just love”? These bold testaments unarguably contribute to the cause of making us all one in Christ.
The Revd Jennie Hogan is Chaplain at Goodenough College, London, and Associate Priest of St George’s, Bloomsbury.
Undivided: Coming out, becoming whole and living free from shame
William Collins £16.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £12.99
Just Love: A journey of self-acceptance
Church Times Bookshop £11.70