Saving Lives in the Church
Four years ago (September 10th 2014) Lizzie Lowe, a 14 year old school girl from Didsbury, ended her own life. She was a gifted musician, a successful student and a greatly loved member of her church community, but she ended her life because she was struggling to reconcile her faith with her experience of same-sex attraction.
Sadly, Lizzie’s story is not unique. A study released earlier this year has shown that gay and lesbian young people who acknowledge that religion is important to them are 38% more likely to have had recent suicidal thoughts than their non-religious counterparts. When the same-sex attracted girls in the study were considered alone, that figure rose to 52%. There is a problem here which cannot be overlooked.
Many have rightly seen the death of Lizzie Lowe as a wakeup call for the Church. The Bible’s teaching is meant to be life-giving, and if it is leading people to commit suicide something must be wrong. In a video produced this year, the rector of Lizzie’s church, Nick Bundock, has reflected on what his church has learnt from the events of four years ago. Two comments stuck out to me.
Breaking the silence
Bundock talks about the ‘conspiracy of silence…that had been the crucible in which Lizzie had existed in those months up until her death’. He admits that sexuality was something that wasn’t talked about in the church because it was recognised to be a divisive issue. Sadly, this silence silenced Lizzie until it was too late.
We must break this silence. We must start speaking. We must start the conversation so that those in our church families wrestling with their sexuality feel that it is safe to talk. We must acknowledge that all of us live with a broken sexuality and a whole host of other broken desires so that we make a context where those experiencing same-sex attraction feel safe to be open about it. This doesn’t mean asking every person whether they experience same-sex attraction so they have a chance to share; it means building a culture where it is safe and normal to talk about our struggles and weaknesses, including around sexuality.
When I was a teenager, I had to start the conversation. By the time I was 14, I, like Lizzie, was wrestling with my same-sex attraction and how it could be reconciled with my faith. I don’t recall ever hearing sexuality mentioned in church, other than it being made very clear in youth talks that I should be feeling sexually attracted to girls but that I shouldn’t do anything about that until I was married. The only times when same-sex attraction was ever spoken of was in the context of so-called ‘jokes’. Clearly, my experience was no more than something to laugh at. It didn’t feel like something safe to talk about.
When I was in my mid-teens I managed to break through the silence. I would have to do so again many times over the following years. Each time it felt like starting from zero because the conversation hadn’t been started; people weren’t used to talking about sexuality and the brokenness we all carry, and they certainly weren’t used to the idea that you could be gay and be a follower of Jesus. The silence was deafening, and were it not for a rather unexpected and spontaneous confession to a friend one afternoon, I might not have broken it either.
We need to break this silence. It’s great that many more people are now starting the conversation. We should all be thankful for the voices of people like the team at Living Out, but we need this in the local church, not just online. We need to start the conversation so that young people in our church families know it’s ok to talk about sexuality struggles.
The application of theology
In the video, Bundock also says, ‘[It must never happen again] that the issue of sexuality leads a child or an adult to that point of desperation and that the church in its own way whether through ignorance or silence or through deliberate application of theology creates an environment in which a tragedy like that can take place.’ Amen.
It’s the ‘deliberate application of theology’ which often carries the weight of the blame in current discussions. The historic Christian sexual ethic is now viewed as dangerous, leading to mental health problems and suicide. But I don’t think this is where the problem lies. It certainly shouldn’t be. God’s word and God’s way should bring life, not death. If he is God, he knows how things work; he knows what is best for us. Only the creator can give true wisdom that will bring true life to his creatures. The problem isn’t the deliberate application of theology. The problem is our failure to deliberately apply enough theology.
The Bible’s teaching on sexuality is beautiful and life-giving, but it only makes sense in the context of the Bible’s teaching on love and family (among other things). The deliberate application of theology leads people to suicide, not because the theology is wrong, but because it’s not surrounded by the wider practices which make it plausible.
Calling same-sex attracted people to faithfully follow Jesus by choosing not to engage in sexual and romantic relationships with people of the same sex won’t make sense as long as we’re still believing that we need sex to feel loved and that romantic relationships are the only real solution to loneliness. That’s what our society believes; it’s also what many in the Church believe. And if we believe that to be true, then the deliberate application of the Bible’s teaching on sexuality will drive same-sex attracted people to suicide because we are all – opposite-sex attracted and same-sex attracted – created with a need for love and a need for real connection. The call upon the church to love each other as Jesus has loved us and to be a family where all can love and be loved is the context in which it’s possible to be same-sex attracted, single and celibate.
If we want to save the lives of young same-sex attracted men and women, we don’t need less deliberate application of theology; we need the deliberate application of a lot more theology. And that means we all have a role to play in living out God’s vision for sexuality and making sure that everyone can experience it as good news.