A Long Obedience in the Wrong Direction

by Nicholas Bundock

A tragic teen suicide became a source of radical repentance and new life for a church in Manchester, England.

I should advise you; this essay comes with a serious trigger warning. Some of the content is extremely upsetting and contains a description of a teen suicide.

If you are willing to read on, then I have a second warning: You must only do so if you’re prepared to have the very foundations of your faith severely challenged.

Don’t say you weren’t warned . . . .

Wednesday, the 10th September 2014 is a date that divides my life into two pieces. Prior to that date I carried, believed, and operated with a set of beliefs I’d held since childhood. What I now call my long obedience in the wrong direction.

On Wednesday 10th September I was, as I still am, ministering to the Anglican church community of St. James and Emmanuel in Manchester, England. It’s a wonderful church, a kind church, a wise church.

What I didn’t know when I woke up that morning was that this was the last day of my exile, the last day before the dawn of a new freedom. As people of faith we are used to the idea of death and resurrection, what’s odd is how unprepared we are when it actually happens.

We’ll never really know what made fourteen-year-old Lizzie Lowe decide to take a length of rope, walk to a field close to her home, and hang herself from an electricity pylon. We’ll never truly know what it was like for her father and eldest brother to find her there late that evening. We’ll never know what dark and dreadful hours were spent by her family in the days, months, and years following her death.

I remember standing next to Lizzie’s lifeless body in the hospital mortuary with her mum and dad. I remember seeing the rope burns on her neck. I remember the tears, the numbness and the shock that a child I had known for nearly ten years—whose mother was the church treasurer and father, a much-respected scout leader—was dead.

The church and wider community were magnificent in the days and weeks following Lizzie’s suicide. The outpouring of support, the flowers piled high were reminiscent of the days following the death of Princess Diana. The funeral in our ancient little church, founded just twenty years after Magna Carta, was a ghastly but also wonderful expression of love and communal grief.

And I guess this is where the story could have ended—a tragic suicide, a community in shock, a family bereft, a church rallying in support—had it not been for the coroner’s hearing and a revelation that became the impetus for deep repentance and lasting change.

You see, Lizzie was gay.

Nobody, apart from a few friends, knew that Lizzie was gay, and that she was wrestling with her sexuality. Nor did they know that the gulf between her emerging sexuality and her deep Christian faith was becoming an unbridgeable chasm. “God cannot love me this way” was just one of the tormented messages revealed by the coroner.

It wasn’t as though her parents were homophobic, nor that St. James and Emmanuel were either. We just didn’t talk about sexuality—ever. Aware that human sexuality was like tiptoeing across a minefield, I’d simply decided that least said, soonest mended. How wrong I was!

There is a tiny parable in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 14:5). In twenty-seven words, Jesus sums up my ministry and our church at the time of Lizzie’s death. “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?” Not only had we not been able to pull Lizzie out of this metaphorical well, we hadn’t even heard her cry for help. I confess I had become too busy worrying about breaking the Sabbath, too busy worrying about what the pharisees might say. I had become so mesmerized by the divisive and vicious conversations about human sexuality, so terrified of breaking the rules, so enthralled by years of conservative teaching on the subject, that I was no longer alive to the one thing that Jesus really cares about: people.

Sometimes it takes a tragedy of monumental proportions to bring about an equally monumental change. Sometimes repentance is swift and decisive. Luke’s tiny parable became for me the fulcrum for this repentance because not only was it a pithy condemnation of my mind and heart, it also contained the means of escape. It still sounds radical now, and that’s because it is: if you need to break the law to save a life, just do it. If Jesus could break the most foundational, the most critically important law of Jewish identity—the Sabbath—then I could do the same for my LGBTQ+ siblings. The ones who have for so long been the scapegoats of Christian morality.

The realization that I could revel in my law-breaking, life-rescuing mission to my gay, trans, and non-binary friends has been not only a revelation to me and the church I lead but has literally become my own salvation. Applying grace to another human life has a funny way of working backwards. As I reached out and said, “Welcome among us” to our first gay couple, I found the love travelling back—I was welcome too, and so are you.

In the New Testament book of Acts, Peter is told to do the unthinkable, he is to welcome the non-Jews into the church. It’s easy to forget what a radical step that was, but it released the power and blessing of God in unimaginable ways. I’m not saying that welcoming gay men, gay women, gay couples, families with parents of the same gender, trans, bi and non-binary members has been plain sailing. We lost quite a few conservative members, many of whom were lovely people who couldn’t make the journey to this new way of being church. There was pain in every loss, for them, for me, and for all of us, but there was also a good deal of new-found freedom.

This new-found freedom was most poignantly expressed on 30th August 2018 when we organized and hosted a community Pride event. The gardens of our church were unexpectedly packed out with thousands of joyful revelers. At one point I came onto the stage to huge cheer that I will never forget. But more importantly, in one corner of the gardens was a woman called Gillian. Gillian had been baptized at 21 but, as a gay woman, had been hounded from her church and suffered years of depression. She had given up on church but had always had a sense of Jesus’ presence. She told us through tears that day that she could feel Jesus walking with her in the grounds of our church. She’s been a member ever since. Unknown to us on that day, Gillian’s wife was the founder of a large and successful suicide prevention social enterprise—and so once again grace comes full circle.

In the year after Lizzie died, the year in which we did most of our work of repentance, the year in which we lost most of our conservative brothers and sisters, I remember a conversation with someone who was on their way out of the church. They told me that St. James and Emmanuel were like Ezekiel’s vision of the Temple in chapter ten of the book that bears his name. The Spirit of God was so angered by our inclusion, acceptance, and celebration of gay members that he was departing from the church and taking us into exile. I was deeply disturbed by these words.

It’s been six years since that dreadful pronouncement. The church is filled with joy, we have a thriving LGBTQ+ community, we have every age, every race, every color represented. We have a burgeoning Farsi-speaking ministry, a ministry to those with autism, a ministry to those with disabilities, a ministry to those with dementia, together with responsibility for four local schools. We are held in high esteem in our community—even among people of other or no faith.

It turns out that we weren’t being taken into exile for our sins after all. It turns out we were in exile, and Lizzie’s dreadful and needless death was the moment we started the journey home.

Questions: If Lizzie had been a member of your church community, would her story have ended differently? Lizzie felt there was an important part of her life that God simply couldn’t love. Is there a part of your life where you feel a sense of shame or alienation from God? How might you bring that part of you into conversation with the God of love?

Nicholas Bundock is the Team Rector of St. James and Emmanuel Church in Didsbury, Manchester, UK. He has a PhD in Molecular Biology and enjoys growing weird and unusual plants. Nick has an MA in Theology and Religious Studies from Cambridge University and you can contribute to becoming a “Church for Everyone” at: https://churchforeveryone.info

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.

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