Jeremy Marks used to believe you could make a gay man straight through prayer. Despite knowing he was himself gay, as a committed evangelical Christian he was utterly convinced that homosexuality was wrong in all circumstances.
In the late 1980s he set up a group which he hoped would “heal” homosexual men and women on their way to becoming straight. Then something remarkable happened. He began to change his mind.
“However much support we gave people it didn’t result in a change in their orientation at all,” the 60-year-old explains. “Once support was withdrawn they just felt high and dry, worse than before. Many lost their faith altogether. The only ones that did well accepted they were gay, found a partner and accepted it was right. It made me begin to realise that what I was doing was wrong, not them.”
The ongoing theological debates surrounding women bishops and same sex marriages has often been framed as one where liberal Christians are battling against a rising tide of highly organised evangelical zealots. Evangelicalism, the fastest growing form of Christianity in Britain today, is often seen as a byword for social conservatism.
Yet evangelicals are by no means a unified group. And there are even signs that a small number are finally beginning to shift of the crucial question of same sex relationships.
To many the word evangelical summons up images of Bible Belt America. Mega churches run by charismatic firebrand preachers, backed by Christian rock bands and zealous congregants who speak in tongues. They’re not exactly known for being welcoming to gays.
Much of the most vehement opposition to female leadership in the church and same sex marriage legislation comes from the conservative sections of evangelical Christianity. They are groups whose dogmatic adherence to scripture allows them to justify the kind of bigotry that – like slavery and segregation – most of Britain has long ago deemed unconscionable.
But slowly and quietly a revolution is taking place. A growing number of prominent evangelical theologians and pastors are beginning to speak in favour not just of tolerating gay men and woman, but preaching that they should be welcomed and recognised as good moral Christians. In Britain today, behind closed doors, a handful of evangelical churches are quietly welcoming gay congregants in a way that might have been unthinkable even ten years ago.
James Holland, a 45-year-old openly gay IT consultant, attends an evangelical church in London. “They’re very coy about it and they don’t want to advertise it,” he explains, requesting that The Independent does not publish the church’s name for fear of the backlash it could cause. For Mr Holland, being able to worship as an openly gay man in an evangelical church without judgement or castigation is deeply important to him. “Evangelicalism in in my background,” he says. “It’s my people and my culture. That’s who I want to be with and how I want to worship.”
Much of this theological change has begun in the United States, where evangelists like as Tony Campolo, his wife Peggy and the up-and-coming urban preacher Jay Bakker have gone back to the scriptures to argue for a theological embrace of homosexuality. Less liberal but equally radical preachers such as Brian McClaren have decried “fundasexuality” – a term McClaren coined to illustrate the way evangelicals seem to be obsessed with sexuality to the point where they often treat homosexuals with little of the compassion that Christ reserved for the oppressed, the marginalised and – crucially – those he disagreed with.
In a recent book that has caused little shockwaves to ripple through evangelical communities Bakker, a straight, divorced and heavily tattooed preacher whose congregation meet in a New York bar, says homosexuality – in loving, committed and monogamous relationships – cannot be sinful.
“The simple fact is that Old Testament references in Leviticus do treat homosexuality as a sin…a capital offence even,” he writes. “But before you say ‘I told you so’ consider this: eating shellfish, cutting your sideburns and getting tattoos were equally prohibited by ancient religious law. The truth is that the Bible endorses all sorts of attitudes and behaviours that we find unacceptable (and illegal) today and decries others that we recognise as no big deal.”
In Britain the prime mover in promoting pro-gay evangelicalism is Accepting Evangelicals, a group that was started by the Anglican priest Benny Hazlehurst.
Like Jeremy Marks, Reverend Hazlehurst spent much of his life fervently convinced that homosexuality was wrong. And his conversion is no less dramatic. Sitting in a café in Dorchester, where he now works as a prison chaplain, he charts his dramatic volte face.
Born into a relatively liberal high Anglican family, he became evangelical in his teens and decided to enter the church. Throughout theological college and his early working life he remained convinced that the scriptures insisted all forms of homosexuality were sinful. The discovery that friends and colleagues were gay confused him. He could see so much of the good they did, but every time he returned to the Bible – principally two verses in Leviticus and four verses in the New Testament - he saw what he felt was a clear cut theological position.
Over time he began to describe himself as an affirming evangelical – someone who tolerates and welcomes homosexuals but nonetheless believes scripture clearly forbids same sex relationships. Then in early 2003 he had a revelation – one that came from the depths of personal tragedy.
One April morning his wife Mel was struck down by an articulated lorry while cycling near their home in South London. She survived but for months it looked like Mel would remain in a coma and even when she looked like she might just pull through she was hit by an infection. Rev Hazlehurst’s faith was shaken and, he says, he might have lost it altogether were in not for one man: the now Dean of St Albans Jeffrey John.
At that exact time Jeffrey John – one of the few senior Anglicans to be open about being in a same sex-relationship – was made the Bishop of Reading. The reaction from the conservative evangelicals was swift and brutal. John was vilified and condemned as a sinner who could not possibly be a leader. Some even threatened to split the Anglican Church in two if his appointment was continued. Eventually the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams pushed for Jeffrey John to back down and he reluctantly resigned his post.
“Two months after the accident it looked like Mel was dying and I was in pieces,” Rev Hazlehurst explained. “Jeffrey was there for me at that time, even though that was exactly the same time he couldn’t go home at night because of all the press camped out on his lawn and he was being torn apart by one half the Church.”
He added: “It felt like to me that the fruit of his life was so profound and he was being Christ to me in such a profound way that I needed to go back to the Bible and re-examine what it said. It didn’t feel right that God said this person was being sinful. And when I went back the blinkers were gone, I suddenly saw things in a new way.”
Reinterpreting the Bible to allow for same sex relationships is crucial for evangelicals because they place such a profound importance on scriptural purity. What pastors like Bakker and Hazlehurst believe is that the Bible’s references to homosexuality have to be seen in the context of when they were written.
The Old Testament, for example, tends to condemn homosexuality as a form of cultic or temple prostitution while Paul’s writings in the New Testament on same sex relationships are aimed at a Roman audience, one which encouraged same sex relationships outside of marriage for largely pleasurable reasons.
“There is nothing in the Bible which condemns consensual, loving, committed gay relationships,” concludes Rev Hazlehurst.
Conservative evangelicals naturally balk at this sort of scriptural revisionism but it has happened before. Two decades ago is was very difficult to find evangelical congregations who accepted the idea of women in leadership roles within their churches. Now it is just a minority of evangelical churches who still hold that view, precisely because the pieces of scripture that were once used to forbid female leadership have been reinterpreted.
Rewind another 200 years and a similar thing happened with slavery. It was primarily evangelicals like William Wilberforce and John Wesley who preached that although sections of scripture could be used to defend slavery, the overriding message of that Christ came down to set captive free – a key sermon recorded by Luke – trumped any justification for the continuation of what was clearly an abhorrent and un-Christlike practice.
The picture is still far from rosy and many gay Christians who wish to worship with evangelical congregations often find themselves leaving. The number of senior church leaders who speak from a pro-gay stance, meanwhile, can be counted on two hands whilst the major evangelical umbrella bodies do not represent affirming or accepting followers.
“It’s still the vast majority view among evangelicals that you can’t be gay and Christian,” says Mr Marks, who has only recently retired from Courage, the group he founded back in the 1980s which moved from “healing” homosexuals to supporting them unconditionally at a pastoral level. “There are only a handful of evangelical churches I now know of who are supportive of same sex partnerships – most would only say so quietly. But there are a great many Christian at a grassroots level – not the leadership – who are fully accepting of homosexual relationships. The old logic Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve is breaking down in people’s minds.”
Where pro-gay evangelicals draw hope for the future is among younger congregants, who tend to be much less implacably opposed to same sex partnerships than their elders or church leaders. Last year the Evangelical Alliance, the biggest group in the UK representing evangelical churches, polled thousands of people who attended New Wine and Spring Harvest, the two largest evangelical festivals. When asked whether “Homosexual actions are always wrong” a surprising 27 percent disagreed with 16 percent actively disagreeing and 11 percent saying they weren’t sure.
“There’s a long way to go but the hardest work has been done,” concludes Mr Marks. “There’s a younger generation of evangelicals growing up now who don’t have an issue with same sex relationships and can’t understand why others do. And Church leaders are beginning to realise that if they don’t soften their attitude soon, their churches will become irrelevant.”