It’s five days since top Christian singer Vicky Beeching came out as gay. Evangelical Christianity in Britain is still shaking with the impact of this earthquake, whose effects will be felt for years and probably decades.
I admit to being slightly embarrassed about my own response to the revelation. I knew of Vicky Beeching mainly as a religious commentator. She delivers Thought for the Day and appears on religious discussion programmes. I was only vaguely aware that she was also a singer. Basically, I had no idea how well-known she is, in the US as well as the UK.
My ignorance was in part due to my being so un-musical. Also, I’ve not belonged to an evangelical church since I was in my early twenties, pre-dating the popularity of Vicky Beeching’s songs. I dare say I’ve occasionally heard (or even sung) one of her songs in church, but to me she was still primarily a religious commentator.
So last Thursday, while many people were saying “Vicky Beeching’s gay”!, I was thinking “Vicky Beeching’s a world-famous singer! I had no idea.”
But many evangelicals, especially in the UK but also in the US, are used to singing Vicky’s lyrics and looking up to her. True, she has become more liberal recently on some issues. She is also a great proponent of Christian feminism, which no doubt puts off some evangelicals but by no means all.
I am cautious about attributing too much to the actions of individuals, however exemplary or heroic. Vicky Beeching is inspiring, but – as I’m sure she would be the first to acknowledge – similar struggles to hers are faced daily by other Christians trying to come to terms with their sexuality and the responses of others.
What’s so good about the Beeching revelation is that it appears to have given many other Christians the confidence to come out as gay or bisexual, or to acknowledge that they have been wrong to oppose same-sex relationships. A gay friend of mine who grew up in a conservative evangelical setting has been texting me over the last few days to tell me how many of her friends, former friends and acquaintances have either come out or apologised in the wake of Vicky Beeching’s coming-out.
This may all sound as odd to liberal Christians as it does to many non-religious people. I’m sure many are wondering what all the fuss is about. But as Peter Ormerod points out in the Guardian today, Beeching’s coming out will help to “shift the centre of gravity” in Christian attitudes to homsexuality.
The reality is that a few prominent evangelicals coming out as gay or bisexual are likely to make a bigger impact than a well-argued academic argument in favour of Christian acceptance of same-sex relationships. This is for the same reason that people are less likely to be homophobic if they know gay and bisexual people personally. Here are people leading faithful Christian lives, valuing the Bible, who are OK about their attraction to people of the same gender, and whose sexual relationships would be regarded as ethical by evangelicals were it not for the gender of the people involved. As Jesus said, a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. The goodness that comes from these people and their relationships makes it hard for many Christians to accept that they are wrong.
The often overlooked reality is that evangelical views of same-sex relationships have been shifting for some time, albeit gradually. There are now several pro-LGBT evangelical groups. They range from Accepting Evangelicals, which campaigns vigorously for change in churches, to Diverse Church, which supports LGBT+ young people in conservative churches. Last year, the Baptist minister and writer Steve Chalke became the most well-known British evangelical cleric to back same-sex marriage. Beeching has now become by far the most prominent evangelical to come out as gay.
Al of this makes the attitude of the Evangelical Alliance (EA) all the more questionable. The Alliance includes evangelicals with contrasting views – for example, creationists and evolutionists, evangelical pacifists and evangelical members of the armed forces. It is meant to be an umbrella body so naturally these differences exist. But when it comes to sexuality, the umbrella disappears. Groups such as Accepting Evangelicals are not allowed to affiliate. Steve Chalke’s Oasis Trust (with which I have major problems, but for other reasons) was thrown out after Chalke backed same-sex marriage.
The day after Vicky Beeching came out, the EA posted an article on its website by Ed Shaw, a pastor in Bristol who experiences sexual attraction to men but who believes same-sex relationships are wrong. Despite starting off in apparently gentle tones, he then declares that Vicky is wrong because “we are simply not at liberty to change what the Bible says”. He goes on to make several similar statements about the Bible without acknowledging for a moment that different readers might sincerely interpret it in different ways.
Thankfully, many evangelicals know very well that the Bible can be interpreted in various ways when it comes to sexual ethics. When I was a homophobe, I suppressed my doubts about the shoddy biblical interpretation that backed up opposition to same-sex relationships. I am no longer an evangelical, and I no longer believe that everything in the Bible is true, but I love the Bible as much as I ever did. It remains very important to my faith.
In my experience, there are numerous evangelicals who are struggling with their views on same-sex relationships, having been brought up to oppose them but now finding themselves conflicted. Many of these people are genuinely open to dialogue and are appalled by the behaviour of extreme homophobic groups such as Christian Concern. Those of us who support equality and inclusion should be engaging with these people, honestly listening to them and explaining our views.
As evangelicalism slides into its own division over sexuality, the Evangelical Alliance is on the brink of losing any credibility in its claim to represent British evangelical opinion. Call me an optimist, but I believe that it is Vicky Beeching, and not the EA, whose views represent the future of evangelical Christianity in Britain.