‘God was still my highest priority and my greatest love’

by
22 June 2018

Vicky Beeching talks to Madeleine Davies about ‘unlearning a lifetime of shame’

ALEX DOUGLAS

VICKY BEECHING’s memoir, Undivided: Coming out, becoming whole, and living free from shame, is dedicated to Lizzie Lowe, a 14-year-old girl from Manchester who took her own life in 2014 (News, 9 January 2015).

“My mind just kept going back to Lizzie the whole time I was writing,” Beeching says. The parallels with her own story are striking: both were bright, churchgoing teenagers with a gift for music. Both struggled with suicidal thoughts as they tried to negotiate what Beeching describes as “the vast tension between being gay and being Christian”.

Beeching resisted these thoughts — though they drove her to the brink of jumping from a train platform in her twenties — and, having survived, is determined to ensure that others do not go it alone. “I really wanted to write the book that I would have needed at that age,” she explains.

Growing up in Pentecostal and Charismatic Evangelical C of E churches in the 1980s, Beeching wanted to follow in the footsteps of her maternal grandparents, who were Pentecostal missionaries in Africa. Those looking for an account of a miserable indoctrination into the Christian faith will be disappointed. It felt “as natural to me as breathing”, she writes. “It was not a rigid, cold, distant religion, but a genuine heartfelt relationship with God.”

While as a child she had “no reason to believe I’d ever be ‘out of the club’”, she remembers being “baffled” by Old Testament stories that depicted an angry, vengeful God, including that of Sodom and Gomorrah, destroyed because of the “sin of homosexuality”, according to a children’s church worker (“We can’t talk about that until you’re older — just know it’s something very bad”).

Beeching was not much older — 12 or 13 — when she realised that she was gay. It was the beginning of “a lifetime of secret sadness”. Unable to confide in anyone — with hindsight, she points to Section 28 as a silencing dynamic — she retreated into an intense interiority, which combined “mind games” — telling herself that “who you’re attracted to isn’t a big part of life anyway” — and prayers of confession uttered ten times a day.

She also stopped eating at school, punishing a body that “seemed to be betraying me with its sinful desires”. While the worship songs that she composed at home were already receiving a warm reception at her church, the record on repeat in her own mind reminded her that she was “broken and sinful”.

NICHOLAS DAWKESNICHOLAS DAWKES

THE first person she confided in was a Roman Catholic priest, during a youth weekend away. She asked for forgiveness and to be “set free”, and remembers him being kind, praising her bravery, before reading a prayer of absolution.

Her second attempt to secure healing took place at a youth camp in Warwickshire (she has always refused to name it, unwilling to cause the organisers “unnecessary problems”, and unconvinced that what took place is limited to their event). She was struck by the testimony of a teenage girl who took to the stage to announce that she had been “set free from the sin of homosexuality”.

When she summoned the courage to go forward for prayer, she found herself surrounded by four or five adults praying loudly over her for deliverance from “the demons of homosexuality”. Until this point, she had never imagined that being gay was caused by demonic forces. Her tears were interpreted as a sign of a successful intervention, and she left clutching tissues, with advice ringing in her ears that fasting might be necessary to complete the deliverance.

Had the organisers not stopped running the conference in recent years, she would have got in touch with them, she says now (she has confirmed that it was not Soul Survivor). She suspects that “probably any Christian youth conference is ill-equipped, I think, at the moment to deal with any young person that comes forward for prayer saying that they are LGB or T”.

She has received emails from teenagers who have attended “all the big-name Christian youth festivals that you can think of, saying that similar things have happened to them there — not quite as dramatic, with so much shouting, but people have been praying for them to be healed of or set free from being gay or being trans, and I just think that needs to stop.”

She was in her early thirties before she confided in another person. Much of the memoir is an account of living under cover: rushing from dinner at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (where she was a theology undergraduate), to an empty library, so that she could look up books on sexuality without being detected; worrying that band members would work out the reason why she didn’t have a boyfriend. A repeated refrain was her desire not to “let anyone down”.

This earnest spirit permeates the book. It’s striking that, contrary to claims by some conservatives that liberals are insufficiently robust in their engagement with scripture, Beeching devotes much of a mainstream memoir to Bible study. Her recollection of experiencing “fear of what I’d do if I concluded that God did not approve of gay relationships, and also fear of what I’d do if I concluded that he did” points to a diligent and courageous spirit of genuine inquiry.

Although she concluded, while studying theology at Oxford, that “Christian interpretations of the Bible do shift over time,” struck by the examples of slavery and women’s equality, it was years before she reached a definitive conclusion.

“Whatever conclusions I would reach on this difficult issue, I wanted him [God] to be first in my life,” she writes. “Obedience to him mattered more to me than anything else. . . God was still my highest priority and my greatest love.”

During her studies, she encountered the contemplative tradition, taught by Sister Benedicta Ward, an Anglican nun, and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, an Orthodox bishop, from whom she took “a new perspective on what it means to be faithful to Christian history. We weren’t diminishing it by changing our minds on certain things; that was all part of the journey.”

She also caught a glimpse of a familiar face: the girl who told the youth festival that she had been healed of homosexuality, now a college LGBT rep.

NICHOLAS DAWKESNICHOLAS DAWKES

IN HER twenties, a burgeoning career as a musician in the United States, including a morality clause, acted as a brake on her tentative exploration of alternatives to conservative Evangelical teaching. On a worship-music tour, she was encouraged to promote the purity message, and found herself “the most unlikely spokesperson ever for the Christian abstinence movement — an ardent feminist and a closeted lesbian”.

Eventually, it was her body that rebelled. The diagnosis of a skin condition requiring chemotherapy prompted a consultant to question whether there was something “hugely traumatic or stressful” in her life. It was, she writes, the one thing “even more frightening than losing the Evangelical world I knew and loved”.

In parallel with counselling, she returned to her theological studies, finding solace for her anger and grief in the Psalms, and spending hours in Brompton Oratory reading the Bible. The pivotal passage proved to be Acts 10, in which Peter is instructed: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” The epiphany to which it gave rise was an expansive one: Beeching concluded not only that “my orientation was part of his grand design”, but that “having a same-sex spouse some day was not only possible, but something God would bless.”

There is an air of the detective novel to these passages, with their account of investigation and discovery, concluding with an ascent to the top of St Paul’s Cathedral, where she experiences “a huge sense of peace and God’s protection filling my heart”.

Having been on the receiving end of accusations that she had “lost my love for the Bible”, she’s conscious of a “tremendous amount of, I would say, judgemental arrogance” from some quarters. She admits to having once been wary herself of “sly, cunning liberals”. But if you look at the academic community, she suggests, “the conservative view is seen as extremely niche and extremely small; so it’s interesting just that within Evangelicalism, in a small bubble, you can feel that everybody thinks that it’s wrong to be in a same-sex relationship.”

VICKY BEECHINGVICKY BEECHING

NOT long after coming out to her family, she gave an interview to the journalist Patrick Strudwick, which was published in The Independent with the headline: “Christian rock star: ‘I’m gay. God loves me just the way I am.’”

For the most part, she writes, the Evangelical community to which she had belonged “slammed the door in my face”.

Does she think that members of this community will be surprised to read this?

“One of the greatest reactions the Church does well is silence,” she says. “Martin Luther King, Jr said he would remember more the silence of his friends than the words of his enemies. The silence of the people that I have known well has been overwhelmingly loud over the past couple of years.” She includes among them the organisations which once invited her to appear at their conferences almost every year.

The response in the US, where she once played her worship songs in front of thousands, has been “a lot more blatant”, she says. “I have had lots of messages from American churches saying ‘We’re so ashamed of you and we’ll never sing your songs again and you’re banned from our conferences.’ I think Americans tend to be a bit more straightforward about things, but British churches just put their heads in the sand and go silent, which can be quite deafeningly painful in its own way.”

And then there are those who have filled her PO box with “pages and pages of handwritten letters telling me that, simply because I’m gay, I’m hated, I’m evil, I’m disgusting”. Death threats have appeared among them.

Against this backdrop, she tries to remain gracious in her interactions online. It is the affirmation of Evangelicals which she longs for, she says.

“I try to remember the good times we’ve had, and the times they have been really great to me, and give them the benefit of the doubt that this is just a topic they don’t understand fully yet, and that, hopefully, minds and hearts will be changed.” But she confesses that “over the years my tolerance is getting less and less as I just see the harm that is caused by that kind of theology.”

Among the letters from young LGBT people which she has received was one that read: “Thank you for keeping me alive.” Many ask where they can find churches that are supportive.

“For me, the answer has been that I’ve had to stop attending churches that hold non-affirming theology,” she says. “I can’t be there any more; it’s too painful.”

Although she lives near some large Evangelical churches, including Holy Trinity, Brompton, where “normally I would have been a really avid congregation member,” she has realised that she needs to go “somewhere that is really demonstratively pro LGBT people to its very core. . . I need to know that nothing is going to pop up in a sermon, out of nowhere, saying that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, because it’s just too triggering.”

Watching people lead worship in Charismatic churches has also proved too painful to withstand, “because I am now basically blocked from doing that myself”.

For the moment, she worships mainly in cathedrals, “where it’s quite anonymous”, and “even in the architecture there’s something about it that reminds us that we don’t know all the answers about God because he’s so vast”. Yet she’s honest about missing the Evangelical community she once called home.

“There’s a real warmth and friendliness and relaxed vibe, and the music is obviously the kind of music that I’ve given my whole life so far to writing and recording.” Other churches feel “so different”, she reports, although she has developed a love for more formal liturgical worship and “more mystical theology”.

Yet she would “love to be able to walk back into the places I used to be part of — Spring Harvest, New Wine, places like HTB. To be able to walk back in the doors and actually feel safe, and not feel like an awkward relative at a party that nobody knows quite what to say to.”

Many LGBT people outside the Church have asked why she doesn’t “get rid of this patriarchal nonsense, just throw off the shackles of this religion that’s kept you in the closet”, she says. “But I realised that if I did that I would actually have been putting another part of me in the closet.”

She was able to hang on to her faith for one reason: “I managed to separate the way that the Church had treated me from who God is. . . Somehow, I was able to see God as separate, sitting with me in all the pain, grieving, crying, and comforting me, and reminding me that actually these people don’t adequately represent his heart, and that his love is all about inclusion and welcome and broadening the boundaries of who gets to come to the table.”

Vicky Beeching receives a Thomas Cranmer Award for Worship from the Archbishop of Canterbury

LIFE has not been easy in the four years that have passed since the Independent interview. Among the quotations in Undivided is one from Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement: “A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn, not easily mended.” She has struggled with anxiety and depression, and has been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue. She has also found dating for the first time, in her thirties, challenging.

Among the responses to her 2014 interview was a blog, published by the Evangelical Alliance, by the Revd Ed Shaw, a member of Living Out, a group of Christians who describe themselves as “same-sex attracted” and believe that same-sex sexual relationships are contrary to biblical teaching. Mr Shaw acknowledged failings on the part of the Church, but spoke of how he had experienced “genuine acceptance” from Evangelicals, and suggested that Beeching was “wrong on the morality of gay sexual relationships”.

What does she make of the teaching that, for LGBT Christians, being faithful to the Bible means practising celibacy?

“For me, that teaching drove me to a point of near-suicide,” she says. “I think it just created so much shame, because there’s no reason why you would need to be celibate unless your desires were inherently sinful. And that is the problem, because, if you are a gay person, it means that the way you are wired to love and be loved is inherently sinful. And it puts such a burden on anybody to bear that — especially young people, I think, who don’t really understand the nuances of that theology. They are just told that sex, family, marriage, that’s not for you.”

Having to “unlearn a lifetime of shame” is not unique to LGBT Christians, she suggests. Undivided includes an account of the impact of “purity culture”, including the import of the True Love Waits movement from the US, typified by Joshua Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

Straight friends who grew up in Evangelical churches have confided in her that they got married “long before they were ready to, just because they were so scared they would transgress the Evangelical no-sex-before-marriage rule, and then ended up realising that they really weren’t suitable as life partners, and it led to a lot of pain, and, in some cases, divorce”. The Church “needs to rethink how it handles talking about sex, whether that’s LGBTQ or straight people,” she thinks, including this rule, which “a lot of people aren’t actually following”.

Some would argue that, if the Church hasn’t always offered healthy teaching about sex, wider society hasn’t got it right, either.

“I’m not in any way saying we should throw the baby out with the bath water,” she says. “I think sex is incredibly sacred, and that the Church has good things to say about sex to the world. But I also think we need to revisit our repressive culture . . . and just figure out how we can actually create a situation where people are feeling comfortable and safe and can flourish in their relationship.”

Much of her own campaigning work happens behind closed doors, with influential church leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, “just walking through this journey of seeing the Bible in a new way”.

“I think change is happening mostly in the realm of people’s hearts and minds,” she says. “I have so many conversations with pastors and leaders who say to me ‘We are totally on the same page as you but we just can’t talk about it yet publicly.’. . . I think we are literally just kind of a breath away from a lot of very significant people saying ‘Actually, this is what I believe God is saying,’ and I think when that happens the tide will really turn.”

It’s notable that Evangelicals are among those listed in the acknowledgements to Undivided, and that it was Wendy Beech-Ward, the then director of Spring Harvest, to whom Beeching first came out. Last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury gave her an award for her “outstanding contribution” to contemporary worship music (News, 23 June 2017).

Nevertheless, she has sold her guitars, and is clear that that phase of her life is “definitely over. . . It just feels so tightly linked to a part of the Church that does not accept me now because I’m gay and believe in same-sex marriage.”

TODAY, she spends a lot of her time going into large corporate firms, advising them on how to create environments where LGBT employees can flourish — a role that brings her “a lot of joy”. This is alongside her work campaigning for LGBT inclusion, which includes showing the LGBT community “that it’s still possible to have a faith that isn’t homophobic”.

In one sense, it’s a far cry from her childhood ambition to be a missionary. Yet, in another, it undoubtedly involves taking the Christian faith to communities who need to hear about God’s love. She finds herself doing a great deal of apologising on behalf of the Church: “I find myself just saying, because I am part of the Church, I’m really sorry for the way we’ve treated you.”

When she first came out to her missionary grandfather, he offered to buy a set of CDs containing Christian teaching on how to be healed of homosexuality. But, after a two-hour conversation, they arrived at a point of agreement: a quote from another Evangelical, Billy Graham: “It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and my job to love.”

“It kind of became a picture for me about agreeing to disagree and existing in love with people and parts of the Church who aren’t on the same page as you,” she says. “I think my relationship with my grandfather has given me hope that that is possible on a wider scale.”

In the opening to Undivided, she addresses those readers who do not agree with her conclusions, writing: “Thank you for giving this book a chance. I hope you’ll keep the door of your heart open as you travel through its pages.”

Yet its dedication is a reminder of why Beeching deems its message pressing.

“The stories and the name and the memories of young LGBT people who have taken their own lives out of a sense of shame, we need to remember them, because it’s urgent and the Church needs to address this issue.”

Undivided: Coming out, becoming whole, and living free from shame is published by HarperCollins at £16.99 (CT Bookshop special offer price £12.99).

Listen to the full interview here.

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