From Rejection to Affirmation: My Personal Journey
Tim Chesterton is rector of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church Edmonton, Alberta in western Canada and Warden of Lay Evangelists for the diocese of Edmonton. Over the past few years, Edmonton has identified itself as an affirming diocese. Clergy have permission to conduct same-sex marriages, and some clergy are themselves in same sex marriages.
I came to faith in my early teens in a church celebrating a charismatic awakening. It was very exciting and life-giving. A few years later we moved to Canada and there, aged 17, I entered the Church Army Training College in Toronto, Ontario and trained as evangelist. It was a very conservative evangelical setting.
In neither of these contexts do I remember hearing much about homosexuality. But I certainly remember the casually homophobic comments and jokes made in my high school by my classmates. This was part of the air we breathed in those days, and I don’t remember anyone questioning or challenging it. As for my Church Army classmates, a few years later one of them came out as gay. This surprised me, as he had been one of the most conservative members of our class. We were both living in Alberta and I had some interesting conversations with him. He was probably the first gay person I had ever consciously discussed the subject with. He was certainly the first person to take me to a gay-friendly church, which I rather enjoyed, despite my disagreements with them. They were very welcoming to me, which, ironically, would become a consistent theme in my contacts with LGBTQI+ Christians over the years.
In 2003 the subject of homosexuality, which had been simmering in the Anglican Church of Canada for a long time, suddenly came to boil in a big way. I was rector of a suburban church in the city of Edmonton when the Bishop of New Westminster (after three successive requests from his diocesan synods) authorized the blessing of same-sex unions in his diocese. Very quickly, the battle lines were drawn. Three different groups - the Prayer Book Society of Canada, Anglican Renewal Ministries, and Barnabas Anglican ministries - had already come together to oppose any change in the church’s doctrine of marriage. Together they formed the Essentials coalition. A national Essentials conference was held after the New Westminster decision, which I attended, and I became a leader in the conservative group in my own Diocese of Edmonton speaking out in support of the traditional view of marriage.
I have to be honest and say that I had not actually done a lot of study on the issue at the time. I had read a couple of books, all on the traditional side (Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice was one of them, of course, along with Anglican Essentials: Reclaiming Faith in the Anglican Church of Canada, George Egerton, ed.). But I had only skimmed the surface of the affirming view. It just seemed so clear to me that the Bible was opposed to what Gagnon called ‘homosexual practice’. I couldn’t fathom why anyone would think otherwise.
Then, completely out of the blue (although if I’d been paying attention, I would have seen the signs), my oldest daughter told my wife and I that the roommate she was living with was in fact her lover. She was a lesbian. I remember asking her to tell me about the process by which a Christian comes to this sort of understanding of their sexuality. I will never forget her reply: “Well, you spend a lot of time wondering whether you’re going to go to hell.” At that point, I knew that my next response needed to be very carefully phrased.
That was the beginning of the change. Eventually, in the summer of 2009, my daughter got married, and over the next few years, by the wonders of modern technology, she and her wife had two children. At no point, even while still conservative on the subject, was there any question about their full inclusion in our family. And as I watched them, I found myself chuckling from time to time about that oft-repeated phrase ‘the gay lifestyle.’ As far as I could see, the gay lifestyle was about paying the rent, doing the laundry, raising kids in a loving home, making mistakes and fixing them - just like the straight lifestyle! Once, when my daughter took part in a conversation about homosexuality in our church (yes, she’s a brave woman!), someone asked her why as a gay person she wanted to be a Christian. Her reply was, “I don’t understand the question. Why, as a straight person, do you want to be a Christian?”
"I found myself chuckling from time to time about that oft-repeated phrase ‘the gay lifestyle.’ As far as I could see, the gay lifestyle was about paying the rent, doing the laundry, raising kids in a loving home - just like the straight lifestyle!"
My journey of understanding was widening. I found a number of blogs frequented by LGBTQI+ Christians, and I gradually got into conversations with people there. I was clear that I hadn’t changed my view on the basic question, but I wanted to learn, and I wanted to talk and discuss with others. Some people got angry with me, but others were incredibly welcoming, and a few of them have become dear friends.
Listening to people’s stories, I came face to face with something I’d always known but had tried to explain away theologically - for LGBTQI+ people, their orientation is not a matter of choice. This is the way they have always been. Many of them have spent years struggling with it and praying to be delivered from it, but this has very rarely produced any positive results (and has often caused active harm). My standard theological rationalization—that ‘same sex attraction’ wasn’t part of God’s original design but was one of the consequences of living in a world spoiled by evil—seemed less and less convincing to me. Surely, according to the teaching of Jesus, if same-sex attraction was evil it would manifest itself in bad fruit in people’s lives, wouldn’t it? ‘By their fruits you will know them.’ So why was I seeing so much good fruit in the lives of many of my partnered LGBTQI+ friends?
Another stereotype that was quickly shattered was the view that Christian LGBTQI+ persons were all liberal revisionists, cheerfully abandoning the creeds and the orthodox doctrines of the church in favour of whatever currently fashionable theology would support their quest for acceptance for their ‘lifestyle’. I actually found that most of my gay and lesbian Christians were thoroughly orthodox Christians who loved the Bible, the church, and the gospel every bit as much as I did. Actually, when I thought about it, this made sense to me. After all, the church had made life very difficult for these dear people. If they weren’t thoroughly committed to Christ, they would have abandoned Christianity a long time ago!
"I found that most of my gay and lesbian Christian friends were thoroughly orthodox Christians who loved the Bible, the church, and the gospel every bit as much as I did. This made sense to me. The church had made life very difficult for these dear people. If they weren’t thoroughly committed to Christ, they would have abandoned Christianity a long time ago!"
A precise chronology is difficult for me at this point. I accepted the idea of committed, loving same-sex unions some years before I changed my view about marriage. Friendship and conversation with LGBTQI+ people and their allies was part of that, but so was intentional study. Andrew Marin’s Love is an Orientation was a good stepping stone along the way, but a trio of books and one church report were a huge help to me. The church report was This Holy Estate, produced by a working group in the Anglican Church of Canada in preparation for our 2016 General Synod. The books were Karen Keen’s Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships, David Runcorn’s Love Means Love, and Marcus Green’s The Possibility of Difference. Karen Keen’s book in particular was the one that helped me cross the line from acceptance of same-sex relationships to a fully affirming position on same-sex marriage.
"Partly it was to do with my evolving understanding of what the Bible actually is. I found myself more and more drawn to its communal character, with conversations going on in its pages on different subjects just as they do in the church today."
When I told one of my LGBTQI+ friends that I had changed my view, she surprised me by replying “All these years you’ve been a good friend to us, but you’ve insisted on maintaining your theological integrity. I’ll be very disappointed if you’ve sacrificed that theological integrity without a strong argument to back up your decision.” As I thought about her statement, I realised that I had found that argument. Partly it was to do with my evolving understanding of what the Bible actually is. I found myself more and more drawn to its communal character, with conversations going on in its pages on different subjects just as they do in the church today. I saw how even in the pages of scripture, statements are made which are reinterpreted at later dates in new settings.
"I gradually realised that we are all selective literalists when it comes to our obedience
to the letter of the law"
I gradually realised that we are all selective literalists when it comes to our obedience to the letter of the law. I don’t know any evangelical Christians who lose any sleep over the lending of money at interest, or Jesus’ statement that no one can follow him unless they give up all they have, or even the command in the Torah that a man who lies with a man should be stoned to death. Most seem to have reconciled themselves to remarriage after divorce (which is very hard to support purely on the basis of obedience to the biblical texts), and it’s mainly just the Anabaptists who embrace what was the majority opinion in the first few Christian centuries: that ‘love your enemies’ means you can’t kill them in battle. Even the so-called ‘controlling text’ about marriage (Genesis 2.18-25, quoted by both Jesus and Paul in the New Testament) is not always understood literally, either in biblical times or today. It assumes monogamy, but the vast majority of Old Testament people completely ignored that aspect of it, and in many cultures both ancient and modern ‘a man shall leave his father and mother’ is not literally followed.
I could go on, but I’m trying to be brief. A good summary of the arguments is found in Jonathan Tallon’s recent book Affirmative: Why You Can Say Yes to the Bible and Yes to People Who Are LGBTQI+, and Karen Keen goes into them in greater detail in Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relations. I’m labouring the point because of the charge often levelled at us affirming evangelicals: that we’re ignoring the plain teaching of scripture. I can’t speak for others but in my case, I found it impossible to make the move to affirmation until I was persuaded that I could do it without compromising my commitment to the authority of scripture.
"I found it impossible to make the move to affirmation until I was persuaded that I could do it without compromising my commitment
to the authority of scripture."
This has been a thirty-year journey for me, from my initial conversations with my gay friend from my Church Army days to my present position as the happy father of a married lesbian daughter and the friend (and, I hope, ally) of many wonderful LGBTQI+ Christians. I’m happy to live in a diocese where same-sex marriages are regularly celebrated and where we are trying to be more open and explicit in our welcome and affirmation of LGBTQI+ Christians in their journey of faith.
Thirty years ago, in my rare moments of honesty with myself, I sometimes admitted that on a scale of one to ten, the scariest situation I could envisage as a pastor was that a gay or lesbian couple might show up in my church; how on earth would I respond to them? Today, I rejoice when that happens. It’s very clear to me that the Spirit has been at work in my LGBTQI+ Christian friends every bit as much as the Spirit was at work in me in the early days of my faith (‘as at the beginning’). Now, I pray for strength and courage to be part of that work, and it brings me great joy.