Gay and a person of faith?

Being gay can be hard. Being gay and a person of faith can be even harder. Whilst it is true that in many religious circles being gay is still not accepted, faith can be a thorny issue within LGBTQ spaces also, leaving queer people of faith in an awkward limbo. The usual narrative being that the two identities are incompatible — “choose one”, they are told. But thousands live this intersection between their queer and religious identities every day. In short, queer people of faith exist.

In this article series I will be hi-lighting the voices of queer people of faith, talking to them about their experiences of identifying as both, how they have been received in LGBTQ and faith circles, and myth busting commonly believed narratives.

For this first article I spoke to Anthea Colledge, an ordained Anglican minister and chaplain at the University of Leeds.

Responses have been edited for brevity.

So Anthea, tell us a bit about yourself. What does a chaplain do?

I’m an ordained Anglican priest and I work here as a University of Leeds chaplain. I’m employed by the Church of England, so the Chaplaincy is independent from the university but work closely with them. Chaplaincy covers three main areas of work: individual support for people, for both students and staff; faith activities; and inter-faith work.

Whilst working here you’re also studying for a PhD here at Leeds, what are you researching?

I’m in my fourth year, out of five. When you’re studying part time it takes five years. It’s quite a commitment. I’m based in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science, and I’m researching what the interactions are between would commonly get diagnosed as depression, or bi-polar disorder, but which not everybody accepts those sorts of medical labels for their experience. I’m looking at how feeling very high or very low interacts with Christian theology.

That’s interesting because most of the time mental health is seen as a science profession, and here you are looking at the subject from a theological point of view.

Yeah, I’m not a scientist. It’s a theology PhD. Mental health or mental distress is a very shared human experience, and as such it’s a topic for the humanities as well as science. If you have low moods or you’re hearing voices, there’s the fact of hearing that voice. But the way that is interpreted can have an effect on the whole experience. Different faiths have different interpretations of mental distress, and I think it’s safe to say that probably those interpretations have an impact on the outcomes of that experience, or how that experience carries on.

So, for example, in Christianity, people are told that their low mood or depression is the result is something they’ve done wrong, which is in my opinion not a particularly helpful interpretation of depression. Not least because it doesn’t work. That idea that you’ve done something wrong, people get stuck in it really — how do they get out of these feelings of depression if they’ve done something wrong, if they don’t know what they’ve done wrong. It becomes a bit of a cycle.

A lot of people would say Christianity and queer identities are not compatible. What would you say to that?

Photo by yoav hornung on Unsplash

That does get said. There are loads of people who hold both identities, who are Christian and LGBTQ, and you can’t just erase those from existence. We are here, we are saying that we exist, and that has been the case, although its more visible now, forever. It’s not a new thing.

Certainly within Christianity there are different schools of thought and different traditions. Christianity is not monolithic. There are also lot of people, more than is often heard I suppose, who hold a different view. We also value scripture, we also value the Bible, and the history of the Church, and the history of Christianity, but we have come to different conclusions about what they say about LGBTQ identities, and particularly, which is the sticking point for many people, about same sex relationships.

What does the Bible say about LGBTQ identities.

There are a very small number of verses in the Bible that refer to LGBTQ identities. There are six verses across the entire Bible might refer to specifically same sex relationships, and my opinion, which is shared by a stream within Christianity, is that those verse are not talking about LGBTQ identities as we know them today. They are talking about specific forms of abusive same sex relationships that happened at the time, usually between an older man and a boy. To say that those verses therefore apply to the kind of LGBTQ identities and relationships that we see today, really does not compute. They’re especially not talking about identity, because they didn’t have a concept of sexuality or sexual identity in the same way.

So the story is more complicated, more nuanced than we might first assume.

Yes, that is true. That is what I’m saying.

How have other LGBTQ people reacted to when you tell them you’re Christian?

A lot of people tell me that when they “come out” as Christian to the LGBTQ community, they find it quite hard, because there has been quite understandably historic, negative feelings within LGBTQ circles about religion. And so it can be difficult to identity yourself with an institution which has absolutely in the past done a great deal of harm to LGBTQ people.

To be honest, I’ve not experienced much of interest when I’ve come out as religious to LGBTQ people. It’s just been a kind of “all right, yeah, ok fine”. I don’t just come out as Christian, I come out as a priest and so that does offer and open up conversations with people. The reactions I’ve had have always been positive or just kind of like, “oh yeah, fine”.

Let’s talk about your journey and reconciliation, because you grew up in the time of Section 28, so it wasn’t just religion that was hostile to gay people, but society in general. This was not a good time to be LGBTQ at all.

I think that’s true. So, I did grow up in the time of Section 28, I was relatively young, which meant that there was no mention of anything really to do with non-heteronormative sexualities at school. There was lots of information about how no to get pregnant. My school was really good at that, but no mentioned was made of anything else; diversity in sexuality, diversity in gender, diversity in family relationships.

I also grew up in the time of the HIV crisis, again I was relatively young but it was certainly around as a backdrop to my teenage years. It [being gay] just was never talked about and there was a degree of moral panic associated with HIV and associated with just fearing difference. I grew up in suburban London which is more diverse than some other places, but was not visibly or verbally diverse in respect to gender and sexuality. So it just wasn’t talked about at all, ever, in any context except for sometimes in church contexts.

I was quite late coming to the awareness of my identity. And so at that time, I wasn’t really thinking in terms of myself so much. I guess I kind of accepted it as true, but regrettably true. So kind of I wish it wasn’t the case, but ok, this is what the Church teaches, you know this is the truth, but I wish wasn’t the truth, because it seems very unfair, and it doesn’t really seem to have a lot of common sense. But I do remember having debates about this is just not fair, that someone who is gay has to remain abstinent/celibate for their entire life.

I think gradually I just started to come to the conclusion that that wasn’t the case. That people didn’t need to stay celibate for their entire life. And I suppose that went alongside a sort of growing acceptance from me that perhaps my orientation, was not straight. It took some time, but I never felt it as a really terrible struggle. I did some reading around about what different people said, what the Bible said and looking at things from different perspectives, and I talked online to LGBT Christians. But it felt more like a natural development for me.

Historically, the Church has not been very accommodating of LGBTQ people. Would you say this is changing now? Are these conversations now mainstream?

It’s certainly true that the voice you hear the most, the dominant narrative is that Christian and LGBTQ identities are considered incompatible. Within the Church of England I wouldn’t say that is the numerically most common position. There are Anglican clergy who are trans, and have transitioned either before or after being ordained, and our governing body made a strong statement to welcome and affirm trans people.

I think in some ways that the conversations are being had at all, and frequently, has made a degree of polarisation more obvious in that before when it wasn’t talked about there was kind of “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. It was less apparent where there was disagreement. I’m not at all suggesting “don’t ask don’t tell” is a healthy policy, but having the official conversations and the unofficial conversations it has I think highlighted, but perhaps not caused, quite a degree of division in how people approach this topic.

So by no means is everyone agreed on the issue?

No

But it’s getting there?

It’s getting there, and we’re having the conversation.

Why is important for you to be “out” as a minister?

I’ve had people contact me to talk about LGBT stuff and faith, and they wouldn’t have done that if I wasn’t out. Part of being a minister within my religious tradition is that idea of being there for people and being available, and in a way I say that I come out, so other people don’t have to. That if I’m out, they can come and find me, if they need to. And also, because there’s this quite strong idea that LGBTQ identities and faith are incompatible, and that leaves people who do have those identities, or who might like to have both those identities, in a difficult position, if you can’t be both those things. I try to put out an alternative perspective, and that’s more effective if I’m out.

You’re a member of “OneBodyOneFaith”, and organisation dedicated to support LGBTQI Christians. Is it a religious organisation or a support group for gay Christians?

We’re not a support group, we are a religious charity. We work for the “advancement of the Christian religion” in the legal phrase I think? OneBodyOneFaith has existed in previous incarnations for the past 42 years now. In essence, we’re working for the full inclusion of LGBTI people in the Christian churches, and our Statement of Conviction is that there is no incompatibility between being Christian and having an LGBTI identity.

You wrote a report on Christians at UK prides — what were your findings?

A condition for my PhD is that you do a separate project for a month, so this was my short term project. Our rationale for doing this research was that there have been in recent years increasing numbers of Christians going to Prise in order to be a visible Christian presence. And we are aware that the dominant narrative is that Christians go [to Pride] to protest.

The two take away messages were that the perceptions of Christians at Pride didn’t match the reality in terms of what people were reporting to me. So numerically, the protestors are a tiny number compared to Christians going to Pride. To take Leeds this year [2018] as an example there were 10 protestors down the side of the market. There were at least 50 people in the pro-faiths at Pride group. The other thing to note is that there was a strong perception that Christians would be unwelcome at pride, that Christians would be afraid to go. But actually that wasn’t borne out by the research. The reactions that people reported to Christian groups being at Pride were something like 70% positive. Of the rest some were ambiguous and the negative reactions were like, someone tutted, or they didn’t take a badge. Nothing really all that negative, not compared to the positive reactions that were reported of people cheering, and wanting selfies, or crying, or wanting blessings. The positive reactions were really positive, and the negative reactions were really minor.

I think there is a perception on both sides perhaps that Christians are going to Pride with an agenda, wanting to convert people or something like that, and they’re not going for that reason. At least the people talking to me said they were going to put out their side of the story, and to support the values of Pride.

How does it feel to be in a position where you are helping other LGBTQ Christians?

I’m really pleased I can do it. So I’m far from being the only LGBT chaplain in the country, but in terms of where I am right now, I can support people and people can access me in a way that they wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable to do if they thought I was straight. I think there is value in what I’m doing, in terms of being available to listen to people. My role isn’t to tell people what to do, or to push them towards a particular direction.

What would you say to someone struggling to reconcile their Christian faith and sexuality?

I would encourage them to look more widely than the tradition which says, the conservative tradition that says it’s wrong, you must change.

We read, we think, we ponder and we have to come to these decisions ourselves. People around us can support us, but we have to become settled in our selves. I would encourage them to look broader and more widely than the conservative tradition. I would encourage them to talk to people and hear their stories, they aren’t the only ones to have wrestled with this question. Personal stories can be really powerful.

Think and pray about it, but to do those things in a way that’s kind to themselves, and in a way that is not aimed to change their identity. In all these things what we’re doing is coming to a point where we’re comfortable in ourselves, not to change our identities because that simply doesn’t work, and has generally quite harmful effects.

If someone wanted to know more about queer Christian theology, what would you recommend?

There‘s the Queer bible commentary which if people are interested in the Bible, that’s an interesting starting point. I would say probably start online, some of the online groups like Inclusive Church or OneBodyOneFaith who have resource lists, and can put you in contact with people, if you want to do that.