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After coming out, ‘I had PTSD symptoms’ says lay leader in church-plant

12 February 2021

Her experience at St Luke’s, Kentish Town, is the subject of a Bishop’s investigation

Camden New Journal

St Luke’s, Kentish Town

St Luke’s, Kentish Town

A LAY leader who says that she was forced out of the Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB), plant in which she worshipped after coming out as a lesbian has said that she has suffered from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of her experience.

Rachel Gillingham joined the church-plant, St Luke’s, Kentish Town, in spring 2016, and began leading “hub” groups (similar to Bible studies) in 2018. The following year, she came out as gay to herself and others, including the incumbent of St Luke’s, the Revd Jon March, “because she was not clear what his stance would be regarding her leadership of hubs”, nor what view his church, being an HTB plant, took on sexuality.

Rachel Gillingham

Ms Gillingham’s complaints about how her situation was subsequently handled by Mr March and his church form the basis of an informal investigation conducted by the Ven. Rosemary Lain-Priestley, who is an adviser to the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally. Archdeacon Lain-Priestley was given the task of responding to a brief sent by the Bishop of Edmonton, the Rt Revd Rob Wickham, in April 2020, on the extent to which Mr March conformed to or breached the guidelines for professional clergy conduct when responding to Ms Gillingham about her sexuality and leadership.

Although “surprised” by the conversation, Mr March had initially told Ms Gillingham that she could continue to lead and was welcome at the church. This position was later confused, however, in a “traumatic” meeting with other hub leaders in which they were told to live “beyond reproach” — in Ms Gillingham’s case, not being permitted to be in a same-sex relationship. The meeting was prompted by Ms Gillingham’s pro-equal-marriage posts on social media, a hub leader’s apparently living with his girlfriend, and hub leaders’ posting on Twitter after consuming alcohol.

During this meeting, Ms Gillingham asked Mr March three times whether living beyond reproach meant that she could no longer lead — a question that was met with deflections or silence, she said. Her subsequent declaration that “As a result of that I will leave St Luke’s” was also met with silence.

Mr March told the investigation that he had not answered because “that was not what he wanted out of that conversation,” and that he had apologised afterwards. Ms Gillingham was not contacted for several weeks after this meeting, however. She later wrote to the churchwardens, complaining about how her situation and this meeting had been handled.

“I am mortified that, in a meeting, I could say that I am clearly no longer welcome to lead a hub, and will then leave St Luke’s, and Jon does not delegate a member of staff to follow up on how I am.” In response, Mr March apologised again and said that he had wanted to give her space.

Ms Gillingham has suggested that Mr March’s handling of her situation was tantamount to an abuse of power. She told the investigation: “When a vicar or church rejects someone because of who they are or what they do or what they believe, it feels like God has rejected me.

“When Jon told me I couldn’t lead a hub because I was openly gay, it felt like God wouldn’t want me to lead because I was openly gay. When Jon told me I was not welcome at his church, as a leader, if I was openly gay, I felt like God told me I was not welcome in his church. When someone puts up boundaries and conditions to God’s love, it feels like God is putting up boundaries.”

She had also suffered symptoms of PTSD. “I couldn’t sleep for more than about four hours at a time due to replaying the meeting, emotions, and what happenedThis is a classic sign of PTSD. I was experiencing extreme emotions: anger, depression, grief, and having to process this while holding down a teaching job. . . When you experience trauma like this, any spiritual practice triggers the trauma.” She had stopped praying, going to church, and reading Christian books, she said.

Mr March has denied that Ms Gillingham was ever “excommunicated” from the church or leadership. He told the investigation: “I didn’t at any point say she couldn’t lead a hub because she’s openly gay. I said we’re going to be having conversations.”

He acknowledged, however, that he was not always clear, and struggled with difficult conversations. “I’ve been in more crisis as a leader in the church in terms of doubting my calling, my ability to lead, unpicking my theology, and I’ve been in tears on regular occasions knowing the impact of my decisions. It wasn’t intentional, but I clearly made a mistake, and that’s humbling.”

The confidential investigation report, seen by the Church Times this week, concludes that, while Mr March failed in his pastoral duties to Ms Gillingham, his actions or inaction did not equate to an abuse of power. Mr March, however, would benefit from, and has agreed to, training in handling “difficult conversations” on conflict on this or similar issues, it says.

Whether Mr March breached the 1991 statement from the House of Bishops, Issues in Human Sexuality, as Ms Gillingham suggests, is a matter of interpretation, the report says, given that the document does not answer the question whether “an open and welcoming place in the Christian community” includes lay leadership. The Bishops’ statement does, however, agree with Mr March on the “principle that sexual identity and sexual practice can be treated separately”.

The report says that, in his understanding, “sex outside of marriage, if it is not acknowledged as sin and repented, is equally a bar to lay leadership for those who identify as straight as to those who identify as LGBTQI+”. One of Ms Gillingham’s complaints had been that, while Mr March had invited conversations with her on theology and sexuality, she felt that he had simply wanted to advocate celibacy, which she believes is damaging.

The report recommends that, given the “lack of transparency” surrounding the position of St Luke’s on issues of sexuality, leadership, and welcome, the church should put a plan in place to explore “the theology of sexual identity, ethics, and practice using the LLF [Living in Love and Faith] materials” facilitated by trained diocesan staff.

It should also consider drafting a policy, to be agreed by the PCC, “in relation to sexual identity and practice and the practical out-workings for leadership and congregational life at St Luke’s. This may express an agreed ‘line’ or may acknowledge that there are a range of views but should clarify where the clergy stand.”

Also, “a risk assessment should be taken regarding the vulnerability of members of the LGBTQI+ community, including children and those with mental health issues.”

Other issues not covered by Bishop Wickham’s brief, but listed in the report, included the diocesan response and whether the parish should have identified the matter as a safeguarding issue, once it had been informed. The report notes that St Luke’s has already agreed to contribute to the cost of Ms Gillingham’s therapy, given that this relates directly to her experiences at the church.

Ms Gillingham told the Camden New Journal: “The biggest challenge is the lack of transparency. As an adult who is out and proud of who they are in all my aspects, I cannot make an informed decision about those churches because nothing on their website tells me about their position on LGBT+ communities. You need it and a risk assessment, so when a young person comes out, that is there to keep them safe and stop them being offered prayer ministry, which is them ‘praying away the gay’.”

A statement from the diocese of London on Tuesday said: “When the parishioner in this case made their complaint, it was treated extremely seriously, sensitively, and in strict confidence. The Bishop of Edmonton commissioned an investigation and a detailed report was produced and provided to both the complainant and the Vicar and his senior leadership team. The diocese is in contact with the complainant and is providing ongoing support.

“The Rev Jon March has been open and helpful throughout this process and has responded constructively to the report. He continues to work closely with the Bishop of Edmonton on a positive way forward for the parish. Jon leads an active, thriving congregation at the heart of his local community, where his continuing ministry and mission, including the crucial importance of St Luke’s work in combating knife and gun crime, have been particularly valued.

“This case has highlighted the ongoing, highly-personal discussions that are taking place within the Church of England around Living in Love and Faith — the detailed resources for which are available here. People across the Church are bringing a range of views to those conversations, and it is important that they can do so in a safe space, whatever their theological convictions.”

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