The central books of the New Testament, the ones that follow the life and ministry of Jesus from Nazareth, are known as Gospels, which means good news. They are the good news according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And the good news to which they refer is that the nature of God is revealed in this person from Nazareth, and that God’s nature is to love all that God has made, and to seek its flourishing. “The glory of God is a human being fully alive,” summarised the theologian Irenaeus in the second century.
Vicky Beeching spent a great deal of her 20s singing about this good news to packed congregations of Christian churches throughout the American Bible Belt. “In this fragile world, You are the only firm foundation….”, she sang, standing on the stage, guitar slung round her shoulder.“Always loving, always true, Always merciful and good, so good, Yesterday, today and forever.”
It is this direct appeal to the heart that sustains so much Christian evangelical worship. And the congregations and Christian radio stations and EMI couldn’t get enough of this mild-mannered Christian girl from Kent. She was able to put into words and music some of their deepest spiritual inclinations.
Which was probably why, when she came out as gay in 2014, the reaction from the Bible Belt was so visceral. Almost instantly, the mega churches stopped singing her songs, the radio stations stopped playing them, and the recording contract was torn up. The word they often used, Vicky explains, was “betrayal” – though in truth, it was she who had been betrayed. God may be “always loving, always true”, but the same cannot always be said for Christians themselves. As they spat bile at her over Twitter, the good news became hate-filled news. And the story the Bible told about Jesus from Nazareth, and what He revealed about God’s nature, was turned on its head.
The importance of the debate in the Christian churches about homosexuality isn’t just about homosexuality. It goes to the heart of the question of whether Christianity is good news or not. Vicky knew she was gay at the age of 13. She tried to live as she thought God wanted, suppressed her feelings for other women, and became a pin up girl for evangelical spirituality. And the effort nearly killed her.
In the end, it was her body that couldn’t cope with all the stress of her divided soul. She was diagnosed with Morphea, a type of auto-immune disease, and ME. For her own health, she had to come out. So divided, her body had literally started to eat itself. A good tree produces good fruit, Vicky explains, referencing a Gospel teaching of Jesus. And her physical breakdown had been the fruit of a lie that she had tried too long to live.
Evangelicals, and other conservative Christians, read the Bible very differently on the subject of homosexuality. They think it obvious that the plain reading of scripture offers an unambiguous condemnation of homosexual activity. I think that is mistaken. The Bible writers knew nothing of permanent, faithful and stable gay relationships, many of which seek the ordering of marriage.
Even so, the debate continues, even within the Church of England. Last month, the Bishop of Litchfield wrote to all his clergy urging a warm welcome to all LGBT+ people in the churches of his diocese, referring to “the good news of God’s love”. But another more conservative bishop objected, suggesting some Christians should indeed be excluded from receiving the Eucharist on account of their sexual identity, reviving an old distinction between “worthy” and “unworthy” participation.
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For the majority of people outside the church, this is the worst sort of theological debate, confirming all the least flattering perceptions of a church debating slender, technical distinctions and pronouncing negatively on other people’s happiness.
For me, however, the central question is still theological: namely, whether the church is preaching good news or bad news. Whether it believes in human flourishing and a God who loves all that He has made. Or whether we are the servants of some malign despot who requires human beings to sacrifice their health and happiness in order to satisfy His need to be obeyed.
I met up with Vicky to discuss all this and more. Listen to our conversation here