Sermon for LGBTQ+ History Month 2023
This sermon was preached at Worcester College Chapel, Oxford by the chaplain, Marcus Green, to mark LGBTQ History Month. On February 12th 2023.
Reading: Mark 10.46-52
In the Spring of 2003 I was invited to appear on the BBC TV show ‘The Weakest Link’.
A couple of mornings before the recording, I was walking the dog and it occurred to me that Anne Robinson was likely to ask if I was gay. I was an unmarried vicar, and it was a standard question she threw out in the typical, mean, acerbic manner of the character she adopted to present the show.
Of course, I am gay. But at the time almost no-one knew.
As I thought about this, the fun of going to London to be on the quiz became completely overshadowed by the fear of what I would do if she asked this simple question.
I mean - my family didn’t know. My parish didn’t know. I wasn’t about to come out on national TV. I’d spent years hiding in plain sight so I could operate as an evangelical vicar and not come under suspicion over this. In 2003, attitudes towards gay people hadn’t quite yet become the supreme measure of orthodoxy, but it was always simplest to answer the question, “Are you married?” with a quick “Not yet!” in order to deflect attention. And back then I was still young enough to get away with that answer.
But what would I do if I was asked a (cough) straight question on TV? I couldn’t lie. So I couldn’t say, “No”.
I walked through the woods that morning getting increasingly anxious about a question I might never face. I got home and sat there, silent and still, frightened of what might never happen. I spent a whole day thinking through a hundred different options.
I knew I was gay in my early-teens. I knew I was gay at University.
Actually, when I was invited to be on the CU Exec I was asked if I was gay. I did lie that time. In my defence, I was twenty and desperate to fit in. It was, I guess, what I probably thought of as an aspirational answer. It was, I’m sure, a sinful question.
I just wanted to serve Jesus. Why should who I fancy make any difference to that?
I knew I was gay a few years later when I started to train to be a vicar at Wycliffe Hall - and in my time there had a hell of a time as God, in his infinite kindness, made me really face up to the truth of it. Wycliffe was not an easy place to face up to that truth, and I sort of half got there. I’d edge towards seeing it, accepting it, and then hear a fellow student make some casual homophobic comment and run away from myself all over again. Yet God in his mercy wouldn’t let me off the hook. At the end of my time there, Dick France, the then principal at Wycliffe called me into his study for stern words. I had failed to do all sorts of things I should have done, I had missed events and courses, he was not going to commend me for ordination.
In my shock, I knew I had the choice to be silent and watch my career disappear; or I could risk being honest with Dick and see what that did. So I told him. I told him - I’ve been coming to terms with being gay, and that’s why I’ve missed things and been absent and been erratic, because I’ve been through emotional torment.
No excuse, really sorry, there it is.
Dick became one of my heroes and a life-long friend that day. I was just another student there amongst so many he saw go through that place. I don’t think many, however, can have experienced the level of pastoral care that I received from my college principal over the weeks that followed, through ordination and in all the years after as I went from curate to vicar and onward, till I stood with really not enough others at Dick’s funeral a decade ago.
I just wanted to be a good vicar, a good priest. Only, as time passed this became suddenly much harder.
The CofE changed. It became hard to hide in plain sight. It became hard to be a gay man and an evangelical vicar. I used to go to leaders meetings, support networks and conferences, and suddenly orthodoxy started to include Jesus and “traditional” views on sexuality. We changed. I had to develop this ability to appear to smile and agree with things I did not agree with, without actually agreeing. But I had to appear to do so. It mattered. It didn’t when I was first ordained. It did now.
I’d sit there thinking - do you see what I spend my life doing? I’m just like you! I work twelve hours a day (at least) growing a church. I see some folk transformed by the Spirit. I see some lives turned around. I see the love of Jesus touching people who had no idea. I see a town centre church that was teetering towards closure now filled with a life whose identifying marks are worship, evangelism and compassion.
And still you’re asking me why I’m not married?
Does it matter?
The joke was: on the one hand, I was feeling the burn of suspicion from the new orthodoxy of my clergy friends; and on the other, within my parish one bloke thought I was after his wife, and my mum was every other month trying to marry me off to some new female parishioner…
Eventually I am afraid it all became too much for me. I couldn’t cope. I took a break from being a vicar because I needed to do again what I had done at Wycliffe. I needed to come to terms with who I was. I needed to stop hiding in plain sight. I needed to be honest. I needed not to have a clever answer about my sexuality; I needed to be able to give a simple one.
I took a break from ministry; because it felt like life was taking a break from me.
I started by going to Kentucky for a month.
This isn’t the obvious place for someone working through sexuality issues to find peace… But I wasn’t looking to find peace. I was looking to find Jesus. A friend of mine at a seminary there offered me space, and it seemed like a good option.
Indeed, it was a very good option.
I had time with a remarkable Christian psychotherapist who helped me see that over the years I had simply accepted that as a gay man I was a second class Christian. Indeed, a second class human being. Knowing the truth does set you free; sometimes it takes someone else to help you see the truth about yourself. I had that gift in Kentucky, and the freedom that followed was immense. There are no second class human beings. I know the Scriptures well enough to know this intellectually. But I had to be helped to see I’d taken on a terrible attitude and let it rule my life. And then I had to make sense of my life on the other side of that truth.
I learned this: I was deeply, deeply broken. All that time I had spent hiding in plain sight, I was not hidden - I was broken. Hiding? I was pretending. I may have fooled others; I mostly deceived myself. I am not straight. That normality is strange to me, and it cripples me. It is a lie. It does not fit. It damages me.
I had to learn how to be truly me, faithfully, worshipfully, Christianly me.
And before I could serve people and point them to Jesus, I had to stop; spend time with Jesus; and discover who the honest, not-hiding, gay me was with him.
Well my life as a vicar in South Wales at this point was a bit of a whirlwind, but fortunately for me we Anglicans have ways of dealing with whirlwinds.
I phoned my archdeacon.
I received exemplary care from my archdeacon and from my archbishop. They had no idea - absolutely no idea - what I’d been going through. But the compassion, care and ongoing protection they offered were all superb.
Emails, phone calls, visits - my archdeacon sometimes just sat there with me talking about music or films or anything just to spend a little time with me and show that I was not alone when I was feeling very alone. There were days I was incredibly angry with the Church for the twists in the journey I was experiencing; but it was the Church, the people of God, that believed in me when I stopped believing in myself, and it was the Church that sheltered me through the storm, even if all I could see was the way the wind kept blowing outside and in.
I stopped being a vicar. I took time to study the Bible.
It is a common place that there is nothing in the Gospels about homosexuality. But there is everything about how Jesus deals with people. I am not an issue, apologies, I am a person, and so actually I find an awful lot in the Gospels that hits the spot directly for me.
In the two years I spent not being a full-time clergyman, I moved to Yorkshire. I was well looked after by my vicar there. I didn’t preach at all for a year. My second or third sermon after that time was from the end of tonight's New Testament reading.
As I was preparing it, I took a journey with the director of the art gallery at the place where I was working. We were going to view some things that might be displayed, and we travelled by train together. We chatted about all sorts of things. The gallery director told me of her plans for the weekend, and asked me mine. I told her I was preaching at church. She was fascinated - she was Jewish and asked me all sorts of questions. So I gave her an outline of my sermon.
I spoke of blind Bartimaeus calling out to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has kept who he is quiet, and now as they leave Jericho others are telling the blind man to be quiet, but Jesus wants him to speak up. Then there is the wonderful question as Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” and the text gloriously adds, “The blind man said, ‘Rabbi, I want to see’.”
Sometimes salvation is the healing of things that have been wrong for a long time.
Jesus is the first Son of David, the first king in David’s line, for hundreds of years to be acclaimed as king in Jerusalem. The last king in David’s line was Zedekiah. He escaped Nebuchadnezzar’s armies at Jerusalem, ran and was captured at the plains of Jericho. Jericho, where Jesus now is. There Zedekiah was forced to watch as his sons were killed, and then he himself was blinded.
Now Jesus hears a blind man cry out in Jericho and sees a chance to put right a “long wrong”. Zedekiah’s (and everyone’s) redemption is coming.
And I said, the question for the congregation from all of that is: what is your “long wrong”? And perhaps, to help answer that, who are you - deep inside? Who do you see yourself as being? The blind man? Perhaps, perhaps not. The lonely person? The bereaved? The guilty? The sinned against? The poor? The thoughtless? The friendless? The ignored? The abused? Who?
Bishops’ discussions about queer people miss the mark repeatedly because they get caught up in issues and problems and above all in policing bedrooms. When civil equal marriage was passed in 2013, the CofE bishops responded with a document tightening up what was and was not acceptable bedroom behaviour. Sex. Gloriously, they published it on Valentine’s Day 2014. And every time they do something like this they forget to ask ‘What Would Jesus Do’ - no, ‘What DidJesus Do?’ Because every time Jesus meets a person in the Gospels he treats them as a person, not as an issue, not as a problem, not as something to be controlled but as someone to be loved and raised up, cherished and valued, given dignity and respect in exactly the same way as every other human being. That’s what Jesus did.
So take a moment. Think about being offered all of that.
And think about who you are. Deep inside.
And one more question: What do you want Jesus to do for you?
Let me tell you a secret: We preachers preach to ourselves. As I spoke those words, all those years ago I knew who I was. The gay man who is a very much a priest; and my prayer added to that was - Lord, I want to be both. Not either or; I want to serve. That thought went through my mind on the train as I explained the sermon and in church on the following Sunday as I preached it, and both times I was hit by the love of Jesus.
And as I heard the final verse of that Bible passage.
Mark 10.52: “Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.
The following encounter was broadcast in the first round of The Weakest Link on BBC1, during an afternoon in the autumn of 2003.
Anne Robinson: “So Marcus:”
Me: “Yes Anne?”
Anne: “You’re thirty-ish, single and a vicar.” Me: “That’s right.” Anne: “Are you gay?”
(Very audible intake of breath from the other contestants.)
Me: (pause, smile) “Why Anne, are you checking to see if I’m available?”
It took me a day of thinking and being afraid to come up with those ten, relaxed “off the cuff” words. That’s no way to live, and I’m glad the world I knew then seems a very long way away.
Please hear this: Some things change. Some things stay the same. Churches and chapels and colleges and every sort of place you can name are peppered with ordinary, normal people. There are no second class human beings. Nobody needs to hide, or live in fear, or apologise for who they are: whatever is going on in the church or the world, Jesus is constant.
And you are precious beyond words, you are loved beyond understanding, and though sometimes things are left wrong for a very long time, we will
We will -
We will all rise together.
Oh, and I know you’re wondering…
Marcus is chaplain at Worcester College.
He is the author of The Possibility of Difference – a biblical affirmation of inclusivity (2018).