While my Year in God’s Time is over, a new cohort of the Community of St Anselm will this week be moving in to Lambeth Palace, being measured up for their albs, and wondering what on earth they’ve let themselves in for.
And statistically speaking, it’s almost certain that one or more of them, resident and/or non-resident, will be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise queer.
So I offer these words in the hope they’ll reach those for whom they might be helpful.
Dear New LGBT St Anselmer,
What you’re doing this year is something deeply personal, transformative, and unique – no-one else will ever experience exactly what you do in the next 10 months.
Your journey, individually and as a community, will of course be different to mine – and I can’t speak into exactly what you’ll experience. But these are a few thoughts and words of advice from my own time with the Community, which might help you navigate the year to come:
1. Begin with your eyes on God
At first it can see a little overwhelming – you’re spending a year at the very heart of the Anglican Communion, under an Abbot who is the spiritual leader of more than 85 million people. Perhaps there’s already part of you wondering how to make the most of such an opportunity. If you’re out as an LGBT person, there’ll certainly be those who’d like you to use it for politicking and point-making.
But above all else, your year is a year to come close to God, to learn from Jesus, to live step by step with the Spirit. That will impact every area of your life, not least how you understand and communicate about your sexuality. But start everything with your eyes on God, and don’t move them for a moment. Begin with a longing for his agenda, and be prepared to be surprised at what he has in mind.
2. Decide for yourself how out to be and when
It was my first ‘sharing group’ time when I explained that I was in a relatively new relationship, but I didn’t know how to tell them she was another woman. So I started my coming out less formally, chatting with the new friend I trusted most. Encouraged by her positive reaction, I dropped my partner’s name and gender into more and more conversations, until word spread and everyone knew.
Your sexuality, partner or gender identity might be so important to how you understand yourself that you bring it up in your first introductions. It might be something you’ve never told anyone about before. Both of those are okay. Expect to find it natural to open up more as you grow in intimacy with one another; expect to find it awkward sometimes to share more than any social norms dictate.
Be too open, and there will be those who feel uncomfortable by being confronted with your sexuality. Keep too much private, and there will be those who feel you’re lacking in transparency and trust. I say this not to make you feel you can’t win – but to show that it’s fruitless to choose how open to be based on other’s expectations.
Pray. Engage with your instincts and challenge them. And err on the side of faith, trust and friendship.
3. Know that they can’t unchoose you
One of the most profound privileges of being part of the Community of St Anselm is that each of you chooses to commit to the others before you know a thing about one another – except that you are all followers of Jesus who desire to follow him more closely.
Your community will include those who are LGBT, those who have never knowingly met a gay person, those who can’t understand how a Christian could condone same-sex relationships, and those who can’t understand why this is an issue at all. And probably everyone in between.
You can’t unchoose a member of that community when you discover they take a very different position to you. And they cannot unchoose you. This is the freest you will ever be to engage honestly and share openly about who you are and who you love – because even those who disagree are deeply committed to you. Have confidence. You don’t need to be anyone else.
4. Treat every issue as a community issue
Depending on where you’re from, you’ll be more or less used to some issues being private – for some people, faith is a deeply personal matter, and relationships are usually only between two people. But in community, it’s never only about you. Everyone has a stake in one another’s beliefs, experiences and even conflicts. That’s a frustrating, sometimes painful reality that makes no sense outside of a community. But as you begin to accept it, you’ll see the opportunities – to listen deeply, to love freely, and to practise reconciliation and forgiveness.
5. Expect relationships to change you all
I’ve got some really good arguments. I’ve got some great explanations. I’m sometimes sure that if I could just sit people down for long enough and talk at them, they’d have to come around to my way of understanding a Christian and biblical perspective on same-sex relationships. But of course that’s not true. Just like I don’t imagine that someone of a different view lecturing me is going to change my mind.
But relationships will make a difference. The single thing that will make the most impact for people who have only ever thought about sexuality in terms of arguments and verses, is knowing you. Be kind. Be generous. Be invested in their lives. Cry over what hurts them. Celebrate their successes. Pray with them and for them. Worship side by side. Share communion together. And be prepared for both of you to change.
I haven’t changed my mind about my relationship. I’m still as convinced as ever of God’s blessing upon it. But I’ll never be able to write off everyone who believes differently as a homophobic bigot – because I can see the faces of my friends, people who were part of a community with me and shared their lives and their worship with me. And I hope they too will never be able to write off every gay person as a promiscuous God-denier, because they know me. They’ve seen my faith. They’ve witnessed my love. And so all we can do is listen to one another, learn from one another and hold one another in prayer.
All the best, New LGBT St Anselmer, whoever you are and wherever you’re coming from. You’ll be in my prayers this year, and if you’d like to chat as the months unfold, get in touch.