The era of ‘gay and evangelical’ has, it seems, arrived in Britain. A number of American authors have been arguing that the two are compatible for a few years now, but the last few weeks have seen the publication of two books likely to have a far greater impact here in Britain: the autobiographies of Vicky Beeching and Jayne Ozanne. Both authors were known in certain church circles considered by many to be ‘evangelical’, and both recount their own experience of trying to reconcile homosexual desires with faith in God culminating in a decision to endorse same-sex relationships as fully acceptable for Christians, and ‘coming out’ as gay themselves. It seems certain that they will be widely influential.
The books are sufficiently similar (though Beeching’s is better written and produced) that I intend to treat them together. Both chronicle an extraordinarily painful internal struggle between a dearly-loved church inheritance and a deeply-felt sexual attraction. And both end with the same outcome: the conflict being resolved by abandoning the church’s teaching on sin and embracing a new belief that God believes their sexual desires to be good – indeed, he made them – and blesses the fulfilment of them.
My intention here is to give a basic theological assessment of the two books, before analysing both their rejection of and their continuity with the evangelical movement from which they have both come. I intend to show that both books bring to light serious shortcomings within the evangelical movement. Yet nevertheless they must in the end be considered as fundamental departures from what that movement has always stood for.
By way of explanation, the word ‘evangelical’ has become increasingly slippery in recent years. Many more conservative evangelicals will feel that the charismatic churches in which Ozanne and Beeching had their formative experiences were barely evangelical at all. I have some sympathy with that, as may be apparent from what follows, but it is not a point often conceded by charismatics and I do not intend to enter into that discussion here. I shall therefore use the word ‘evangelical’ here without distinguishing between conservatives and charismatics, though anyone wanting to go into this in more depth than I have done would need to do so.
The basic theological issue
In the preface to her book Beeching says
What is crucial, though, is this: wee need to love and accept who we are. It’s about making peace with ourselves. It’s about finally feeling comfortable in our own skin, not allowing others to make us ashamed or embarrassed of things that are part of our beauty, our diversity and uniqueness. When we take those pieces, shattered by shame, and dare to be ourselves, we find healing. We’re not forced to choose between aspects of our identity. We become whole and “undivided.”
And she ends with this:
Wherever I find myself these days… my message is the same: we become our most beautiful, powerful, irreplaceable selves when we allow our diversity to shine. This can only happen when we refuse to feel shame about the things that make us unique and different, when we gather together the fragmented pieces of who we are and boldly unite them into a self that is congruent and in harmony… Freed from shame and fear, we are finally able to live, and love, from a place of wholeness. We find peace. We become complete. We become people who are, at our deepest core, undivided.
This is the central point of the whole book. Perhaps it comes at its most explicit when Beeching quotes herself in a radio interview:
“I think, actually, it’s about coming to terms with who you are and realizing (sic) we need to accept our sexual orientations as God-given gift rather than making it sound like it’s a battle between who you’re meant to be and who you are.”
Ozanne’s aim in her book is similar but a little simpler:
‘… God IS love. It really is that simple. We are called to JUST LOVE – no matter who, no matter where, no matter how, no matter why. JUST LOVE! that’s all. The rest is up to God.’
‘My overarching desire now is to ensure that we are under no doubt that we are each fearfully and wonderfully made, and that the most important truth we must embrace is that God loves us, unconditionally, just as we are. I believe that our desire for intimacy is at the heart of each and every one of us – it is about our need to know and be known, to love and be loved. Whoever that happens to be with.’
Perhaps her clearest theological statement about what constitutes salvation comes immediately after she relates the experience of an attempted exorcism:
‘Sadly, it was to take me several more years before I realised that no amount of prayer, no matter how fervent or heartfelt, could change something that is part of the unique and marvellous work of creation that makes me, me. Our greatest challenge is to accept and celebrate who we have been uniquely created to be and know that we are loved equally.’
Both women relate experiences (such as this one) which Christians with any grasp of orthodoxy will find utterly horrific. Both women have suffered terribly at the hands of terrible theology and appalling pastoral care. I will say more on this shortly. On this both should be shown nothing but compassion. I ask my readers to bear that in mind as I say what follows.
Which is this: part of the tragedy of both books is that the religion which both Beeching and Ozanne commend is simply not Christianity. Both authors present a clear gospel message, as set out in the statements above. Both present a compelling narrative to support this message. Both see their brokenness as coming from the false expectations and demands of others; both found healing coming from within, as they changed their view of themselves. Both urge their readers that if they too will embrace the particular forms of attraction and desire they find within them, they too will find wholeness and healing.
It is a clear gospel. But it is not the Christian gospel.
For the Christian gospel is about redemption. It is not about accepting and celebrating who I naturally am. It is in fact the opposite of this, for it is about how God the Father sent his Son to take human flesh, suffer, die and rise again for our redemption, to free us through the Holy Spirit from the guilt and the power of sin; from who I naturally am. It is about the death of my natural self and my recreation by the grace and power of the Triune God; it is not about the discovery and celebration of my natural self as having been good all along. The Beeching / Ozanne gospel fits very well with Disney and Osteen and ‘believe-in-yourself’ secularism, but it has almost nothing to do with the historic, redemptive religion known as Christianity.
This is in part because they have both reacted against their church backgrounds. But it is also substantially (and in part more) because of their continuing acceptance of their church backgrounds. Let me explain.
The rejection of their church past
Both books make in part for painful reading. Both recount sexual assaults from men who were ordained as priests, and the horror both of the experience and of the evil hypocrisy of the men who did this is plain. Terrible also are the descriptions of attempts of well-meaning Christians to ‘deliver’ them from their homosexual desires. Both describe attempted exorcisms, in Beeching’s case to drive out ‘the demons of homosexuality’ at an unnamed summer camp as a teenager; in Ozanne’s to drive out something called ‘the Spirit of Man’ which apparently meant the same thing.
Needless to say, not only is this sort of thing groundless in Scripture (there is, for one thing, no connection anywhere in the Bible between homosexuality and demon-possession), but it manifestly did not work. For both women their same-sex desires remained or returned, and it seems to have been these experiences more than anything which led to them turning their back on their previous principled rejection of homosexual practice.
The tragedy of course is that the gospel is about deliverance from sin, which includes our sinful desires. But it has nothing to do with, and nothing in common with, these kind of nonsensical spiritual exercises (which I too remember from my teenage years in similar churches). From a Christian perspective they are little more than pagan. For Christ does not deliver from the power of sin by incantations pronounced over us by others. Sanctification, to us the historical theological term for how God transforms his people, is not instant, nor ever complete in this life. God delivers by the Spirit working through the word of God to awaken our love for him through Christ, to work in us the fruit of the Spirit, and so to give us a new desire to love God which overcomes the still-remaining desires to sin (Galatians 5:16-26). This is what it means ‘by the Spirit to put to death the deeds of the body’ (Romans 8:13). It is what Jesus means by ‘deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Mark 8:34). And this is what, in the end, repentance is all about. It is about bringing ourselves with our still-very-much-active desires to do what God has forbidden, and in the power of the Spirit, out of the love for Christ fired in us by God’s word, to deny ourselves the fulfilment of those desires and put ourselves consciously at God’s service despite how much our flesh cries otherwise.
And though this is a battle, it is also freedom. This is what the new birth of which Jesus spoke means. It does not mean the battle with sin is finished but that the battle is joined; not the end of us crying ‘wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?’ (Romans 7:24) but its beginning. And in the long, hard road of taking up our cross and denying ourselves and following Jesus to Calvary there is indeed freedom; freedom from the slavery that otherwise our desires have us entirely subject to.
And though that road leads to Calvary, it then leads to Resurrection. There will be a day when the tormenting tug of our flesh upon our souls is gone. But that day is not yet. It will be when Christ returns. On that day we will find that our slight momentary afflictions have prepared for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Cor 4:17). His death has taken away God’s wrath at our sins. We stand justified and beloved before him, declared righteous, adopted as his children, delivered from the judgment we deserved, assured of eternal life. And in the knowledge of that, our afflictions – very real and terrible, often – in this life are made by God to seem slight and momentary. Because already those who are in Christ find a delight and a joy in him which outweighs them all.
In many ways both books display not so much a rejection of this gospel as an ignorance of it. What they have both rejected appears to have been, particularly in the area of understanding how Christ saves from the power of sin, a seriously inadequate version of how Christ saves. And in rejecting that, they have rejected not just the possibility but even the desirability of being delivered from sin at all. It is as if a sick patient refuses to have anything to do with a competent doctor, because of a past terrible experience at the hands of an unqualified quack. And then, worse, decides instead that the best thing is to redefine sickness itself as being health.
Because of this, all those who know the salvation that Christ brings will be moved to great compassion for both Beeching and Ozanne, and sorrow that they were offered defective goods in the name of Christ.
The deep acceptance of their church past
And yet, strange as it may seem, what equally stands out in both books is not the authors’ rejection of their church past, but their deep acceptance of and continuity with it. I will give three examples.
First, the authority of religious feeling. A recurring theme of Ozanne’s book is the way that God speaks directly to her; increasingly she speaks of her conversations with ‘Mr. God’, an appellation drawn from the hugely popular 1970s book ‘Mr. God, this is Anna’. Mr God speaks to her, sometimes almost audibly. It is Mr. God who assures her that all she needs to do is JUST LOVE, and all will be well. It is these messages that she feels come direct from God – and her feelings themselves – that convince her to change her mind.
‘To non-evangelicals this may not make too much sense, but so much of my life to that point had been determined by “the witness in my spirit’ of what I believed was the Holy Spirit. I just ‘knew in my knower’ that some things were either right or wrong. It’s what makes so many godly people, despite all the evidence they are presented with, continue to believe that same-sex relationships are wrong – they say that ‘they just know’. So, my testimony here is that the moment I broke that homophobic spirit off me – the one spirit that I should always have had deliverance from – my inner spiritual life changed. And finally I found peace’.
Notice the point here. Ozanne is not distancing herself from the way that she had been taught to discern truth, which is to be guided by inner feelings. She is entirely embracing it, but saying that others have the wrong result. Her feelings confirmed that accepting same-sex relationships was right, because they led her to find peace.
Beeching’s account of her ‘conversion’ makes more of her study of Scripture than Ozanne does. In a highly illuminating passage, she relates how it was in studying Acts 10 that she was finally convinced.
‘As I read about Peter’s vision, I felt as though I were there myself, looking at the sheet falling from the sky. For me, the “unclean things” on that sheet represented my gay orientation… And what God had said to Peter, I felt he said to me too: “Do not call unclean what I have made clean.’
Notice what she says, ‘I felt… for me… I felt he said to me…’. The plain, canonical meaning of Peter’s vision, as explained by Peter himself and by Luke as he recorded them in Scripture, are entirely overridden by Beeching’s feelings about what she felt they meant. And this feeling is for her entirely authoritative. ‘But only one voice ultimately matters in time and eternity – God’s voice… The person I’d always been – a gay person – was not something to be ashamed of… Just as the Gentiles could fully join God’s family, now LGBTQ+ people could too.’
This method of entirely subjecting the interpretation of scripture to the feelings of the readers is not in any way an innovation for Beeching. Rather, it one which is endemic in the evangelical/charismatic churches in which she (and I) grew up. I have sat in more prayer meetings and Bible studies than I could name in which just this sort of thing is done with Scripture all the time. Read a verse, say what I feel it means with total disregard to the intent of the author or the rule of faith of the church, and then conclude that this is what God is saying.
Secondly, it is deeply Pelagian. Pelagianism is the heresy which says that while our sins need forgiving, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with human nature. Sin is about our actions, but not embedded in our inclinations; about what we have done, but not about what we are. It hardly needs arguing that Beeching and Ozanne are Pelagians. Their entire purpose in writing is to argue that because their homosexual feelings are part of who they are, therefore they must, by definition, be good. This presumes the necessary unfallenness of human nature, which is the definition of Pelagianism.
The sad fact is, however, that this Pelagianism is deeply embedded in the charismatic/evangelical churches from which they came. This is perversely demonstrated in the accounts of their ‘exorcisms’: ‘These feelings are not from God’, cried one man over Vicky Beeching at her summer camp. Indeed not, but it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone present that they were from her; from her own heart, as Jesus said all evil thoughts come, rather than from some alien ‘demons of homosexuality’. A belief that we are naturally basically good and right, and a failure to grasp the seriousness of the Scriptures’ (and historic, orthodox Christianity’s) assessment of the profound dislocation and corruption of the human heart and all its desires is very much part of the warp and woof of evangelical/charismatic culture. Jesus knocks on the door of our hearts, but as both John Stott and Nicky Gumbel have said (with the help of William Holman Hunt’s famous painting), the handle is on the inside. It did not seem to occur to either of them that the really terrible thing about sin is that it means that of ourselves we will never want to open the door; that our problem is as much that we don’t want to be forgiven as it is that we need to be forgiven. British evangelicalism has long assumed that sin comes from outside, and has in large measure ignored Jesus’ teaching that it comes from inside, out of our own hearts (Mark 7:14-23)
In significant measure this accounts for a failure to understand homosexuality for what it is: just another sin, a serious one of course, but like all sin one which finds its origins in the desires of our own hearts. My own experience is that much of evangelicalism has simply failed to grapple with this, assuming that, in general, with the knowledge of Jesus’ forgiveness and the benefit of his example, we can do pretty well at being godly because our hearts are more or less in the right place. The examples of graceless teaching about sexual purity which both books relate, if accurate, display they same sort of pelagianism: here is what purity is, now go and do it, and God will approve. One suspects that there was not a lot of gently encouraging young people that we cannot resist sin except by God’s grace, nor much teaching that the struggle with sin for all of us is lifelong, nor much acknowledgement that all our desires are fallen, and particularly all our sexual desires; and that we are urged by Jesus our Great High Priest to approach the throne of grace to find mercy and help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16)
Third, both books display a faith which is barely, if at all, Trinitarian. They both talk about ‘God’ lots, but there is little if any evidence of an awareness that the God of Christianity is three persons in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is no appreciation that it is the incarnate Son who brings us to the Father by the application to us of his work by the Holy Spirit, no appreciation that Christian worship is about the Spirit uniting us to Christ and in him bringing us before our Father, no appreciation that the Scriptures are the Spirit’s testimony to the Son’s revelation of the Father. The adoption of the ‘Mr. God’ moniker by Ozanne serves to drive this home, for ‘Mr. God this is Anna’ is a book which specifically rejected any discussion of Jesus, and speaks of a knowledge of God which has nothing to do with the incarnation of the Son or his death, resurrection and ascension; indeed it is hard to know how the god addressed in this way could be Trinitarian at all. Beeching, in a disclaimer at the end of her book, appears to deny that God can be Father, Son and Spirit, because he is ‘beyond gender’. The deity of whom they speak is a therapeutic monad, something of a cross between a benevolent grandfather and a girlfriend, with no apparent distinction of persons and many of the true God’s biblical attributes conspicuously absent.
And awful as it may sound to say it, this too is something which they have evidently both learned from their church backgrounds. It is rare to find a modern worship song which references the Trinity, and rarer to find one which praises him in Trinitarian categories. I remember in my (highly conservative and evangelical) student church hearing one talk on the Trinity in my entire four years there, and that made it sound like an intriguing irrelevance to what really matters in the gospel. There have been encouraging signs recently of something of a recovery among some in both charismatic and conservative evangelical camps of the importance of the Trinity, but on this there is still a long way to go.
To summarise, both Beeching and Ozanne listen for the voice of God as they were taught to; they interpret scripture in the way they were taught to; they understand human nature in the way they were taught to; and they believe in the God they were taught to. Many evangelicals will be rightly horrified by what these books are arguing for, but the reality is that in these key ways they are simply bearing fruit that these churches themselves have been cultivating.
One vast difference
Yet, despite these deep continuities, there remains one thing that sets both books utterly at odds with evangelicalism as a historic movement. It is this. Evangelicalism is about the evangel, the gospel; and that gospel has always, throughout the various streams of the movement, been about how Christ saves sinners. To be an evangelical has always been about recognising the seriousness of my own sin, and the unique and glorious work of Jesus Christ in saving sinners like me. Charles Wesley perhaps sums it up best in that most famous of all evangelical hymns:
And can it be that I should gain
an interest in the Saviour’s blood?
Died he for me, who caused his pain
For me who him to death pursued
Amazing love! How can it be
That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
This relentless focus on the wonder of our Lord Jesus Christ, on my unworthiness, and on the extraordinary mercy and grace and love that he has shown in saving me from who I naturally am, is at the heart of what evangelicalism – and Christianity at its best – has always stood for. And that is the very opposite of what both these books do. Indeed, the salvation that they relate is a salvation from thinking in this way into a new self-understanding in which they do not need mercy and grace at all. Their god is not one who saves sinners, but one who says that they are not sinners after all. Their god is not one who redeems from the power of sin but one who redefines sin out of existence.
A key part of evangelical tradition has been the telling of testimonies; recounting how our conversion came about. Both these books are very much in that tradition. In that sense they may, I suppose, claim to be evangelicals still. But the evangelical testimony – stretching back through Nicky Cruz to John Newton to John Wesley to Martin Luther – and before him to Augustine of Hippo and of course the Apostle Paul – has always been about the opening of my eyes to my own sin and the discovery of how great Jesus Christ is. What cannot be avoided is that both Beeching’s and Ozanne’s testimonies are fundamentally about their discovery of how great they themselves are. And that, in conclusion, is all that really needs to be said.
 Undivided, p.xi
 ibid, p278
 ibid, p216
 Ozanne, p19
 ibid, p243
 Ozanne, p232
 Beeching, p171