Notes on Faith, Grief and Homophobia

This is going to be a long one. And when I say that at the start – instead of aiming for brevity and spawning a great verbose behemoth instead – you know it’s true. There’s also extremely personal and painful stuff in here, so there will be less snark than usual. Probably not no snark, because that would involve a personality transplant. But less. This relates to issues that have once again become topical, and need some kind of topical remedy. Because, like herpes, this never goes away for too long. But let’s start with a trek into the past.

From time to time, it comes up in conversation that I was a devout Christian through my twenties. The response to this from others is usually slack-jawed bewilderment. I can’t imagine why (1). 

This, buddos, is the story of why.

So. If you’re a Brit of my age, you may remember the winter of 2000-2001 and the fact that it rained. Every. Single. Day. Lots of British towns flooded over and over. I was in my first year at university, and depressed. The town where I studied is wonderful and I still miss it. But when I think of that first year, my enduring memory is of stumbling along dark and gloomy streets in torrential rain, and desperately fighting to open a door as the howling wind tried to slam it shut. My sleep schedule was so bad I didn’t see daylight. In February I took an overdose, whereupon the local mental health services noticed my existence and changed my meds. Which is when stuff started to improve.

And it’s against this backdrop that I met a guy I’ll call Larry. His name is not Larry, but I’ve picked it because I think it’s a name that would annoy him, and because it tastes of… I think it’s actually condensed milk sandwiches? Are those a thing? Is that something that anyone has ever eaten? Because I think that’s what the name Larry tastes of. (2)

A note here: it’s not difficult for someone to take the information in this post and figure out who Larry is. I don’t really care if you do that, but I do choose not to keep updated on him for a reason, so please don’t share any information about him with me. Or indeed me with him (assuming he’s still alive) although fuck knows why anyone would want to do that. I also want to make it clear that although I now think my friendship with Larry was unhealthy, it was not sexual or romantic and there was no pull from either of us in that direction. Okay. 

Who the hell is Larry? Larry was the university chaplain. I met him after the disastrous rehearsal in which we established that the very amateur university choir was simply not capable of managing B9. The rehearsal had been held in the university chaplaincy. I was reading items on the noticeboard when he happened to come out of his office, and we got into a conversation. He asked about the choir. He was also a classical singer, so we chatted a bit about that. Then I went on my way.

A few days later, for reasons I still don’t fully understand, I emailed Larry. I poured out my doubts and fears. He replied with a lovely email that was full of compassion. He was clever, funny and eloquent. I was immediately dazzled by him. So we started emailing back and forth. 

I was raised within a staunchly atheist family, whose attitude towards religion was basically: look, be nice to the idiots, but thank fuck we’re too smart to believe any of that. The fact is that… well, some religious people really are idiots. They’re low-hanging fruit for atheists. Others, however, are not. This is more important than you might think. If you present a logically-minded person with the hypothesis: “All religious people are idiots” it’s very falsifiable. 

I flirted with Christianity while I was at university, committing only after I’d graduated. I continued flirting with denominations. I hung out with some evangelicals in order to learn their perspective, which turned out to be pretty much what I expected. It was incompatible with my perspective for several reasons, but boy were they ever eager to get me on board. They gave me a book to read about atheism, which was hilarious. It was obviously written by someone who’d never met an atheist, and primarily read by others who’d never met any atheists, but wanted additional reasons why they were right.

What I have learned many times in the last two decades is that theists and atheists habitually underestimate each other:

“Yes, but by definition they’re idiots” 

“Yes, well, the smart and compassionate ones aren’t really Christians/Muslims. The real Christians/Muslims reject evolution / oppress women / blow things up….” (very Dawkins)

“They do really know that Jesus is the living God, but reject him because they don’t want to stop sinning.”

This is particularly a problem when one group thinks they understand the other group better than that group understands themselves.

Anyway, I lost interest in the evangelicals pretty quickly. I checked out the local Baptist church – not for me – the local Anglo-Catholic church (friendly enough but the ritual was bewildering to a newcomer) and eventually settled down at a MOR Anglican church that was a fair distance from my house. I still don’t really know why, other than that they had a choir. I didn’t join the choir. The rector at the church, Rick (not his real name but it tastes of stroopwafels) kept putting off any talk of my being baptised, for fairly transparently bullshit reasons. In the end I went behind his back and asked Larry to do it. I was baptised and confirmed by Larry while Rick fumed about it but refused to do it. Looking back, I suspect that there was some homophobia there, and Rick was putting off the talk about it. 

So this is the thing that amazes me now. I threw myself into the midst of massively homophobic Christianity (there’s no doubt that many of the above Christians were homophobic as fuck) without a care in the world, and challenged them to show me why I should be a part of their “life-transforming” religion. Their homophobia frustrated me a little, but largely bounced off me. It was so patently ridiculous, born of echo chambers and ignorance. The constant in all of this was Larry, who was a reassuring indicator that Christianity didn’t have to be that way. I had become hungry for more information on everything related to this religion. I continued to commute, once a week, to choir rehearsals in the town where I had studied. I used my alumni library card to study on campus for the rest of that day, often attending the fairly cosy discussion group which Larry ran, and which held no pressure towards any particular viewpoint. Then I started an MA in Philosophy and Religion at a different HEI which sadly is no more. I met a lot more thoughtful and compassionate religious people, many of whom were extremely clever.

When I got into my relationship with Esteemed Ex, I started to take homophobia in Christendom a bit more seriously, since she had been hurt by it. We went back and forth between a couple of churches: Metropolitan Community Church (a church founded, run and largely attended by LGBTQ+ people), and the local Anglo-Catholic church which I mentioned above. I came to love the rituals and incense and all that jam, and they turned out to be very inclusive and affirming.

I met a lot of people who’d been hurt by the homophobia in the church. Badly hurt, to the point of PTSD in many cases. It became a more sombre thing. I respected them for sticking with Christianity, bruised reeds that they were, and I was grateful that my own mentor wasn’t such a dick. His own flock were also bruised and broken people, many of them LGBTQ+ themselves. 

I was fully committed. When I temped, I often went to morning prayer at a local church. When I didn’t, I often went to morning prayer at the Anglo-Catholic church, usually with Esteemed Ex. The vicar had to come out and unlock the church so that we could do this, and nobody else ever came. I think he was a little bewildered that we showed up for it. I was lucky to have outstanding preachers at both churches I attended. But I never overcame all of my issues with Christianity. I didn’t develop any great love for the Bible, for one thing. I studied it and the love never showed up, except for the gospels, which I found almost unbearably moving – especially Luke (tastes of Rose’s lime cordial which, while not the most delicious thing, makes it better than a great many boy names). Larry was more into John (spinach). We actually argued about this. 

Over time, my religion drifted more towards “monotheist not otherwise specified” and a more mystical approach based on prayer and conscience. I considered becoming a Quaker(3). Larry advised me against it, saying that “Quakers make me think of someone who’d rather starve to death than pick something from a menu.” We remained close. As I’ve mentioned before, I am prone to depression. Depression puts a pane of blue glass between you and the world. You can see everything on the other side, but you are always kept apart from it, on your own. You can be surrounded by people having a great time, on the other side of the blue glass, and it’s like watching them on a screen. To this day, Larry is the only person who sometimes, somehow, managed to come and sit with me on the other side of the blue glass, not saying anything, just quietly acknowledging: “well, here we are. This sucks.” I’ve known a great many wonderful, loving people who have been supportive during my worst times. I don’t want to minimise what that means to me. But this is simply a fact.

I really don’t know when things started to change. Perhaps 2007? I was aware that he was taking on a quantity of work that would break many people. He was still chaplain at the university, he had a school-aged child, and in addition to working on a couple of different books in the background, he took on writing/presenting a three hour weekly radio programme for the BBC. I always knew that Larry was fiercely ambitious. He was irate that the university hadn’t made him a professor. He became a Queen’s Chaplain around this time, but he would have liked to be a bishop(4) I joked with him that, since he was already The Rev Canon Dr Larry McLarryface he didn’t need any more titles. But he definitely wanted them.

Things started to fall apart. 

The two of us interacted mostly through Facebook at this point. I noticed that his posts were becoming different in tone. He’d started to sound arrogant and brash. He was inordinately proud of his privilege, wealth and career (5). Then he started to express different opinions. He didn’t agree with women becoming bishops, all of a sudden. That was a left turn.

Then the homophobia really hit, in November 2009.

It started with a lot of enthusiastic posts about people like Nicky Gumbel, modern day evangelist and damp-but-pious lettuce, who you may know from his founding the vacuous Alpha course. Then he linked to an article by Gore Vidal. In this article, Vidal turned his nose up at the idea of gay marriage. Some gay people hold that the community has always been countercultural, and that buying into an inherently conservative institution like marriage is a betrayal of that history. This was basically the gist of the article. Vidal is of course perfectly entitled to hold that opinion himself. It’s valid. The problem is that homophobes jump onto this, and say “See? The gays never really wanted marriage anyway. It was just the woke brigade that insisted on it.” 

As someone who always wanted gay marriage to be enshrined in British law (which it now is, in case anyone reading this doesn’t know), this argument makes me angry. I’ve still, to this day, not entirely forgiven the British LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall for taking the position that civil partnerships would be enough (6). Bigots are only too happy to take one member of a marginalised group as a spokesperson for the entire group. Marginalised people are always under the pressure of being seen as a monolith, and this is why token figures can become so incredibly damaging. When you have a Candace Owens basically arguing in favour of racism, or a Blaire White basically arguing in favour of transphobia, their voices become magnified. This has become even more of a problem in the years since I fell out with Larry. In the case of Stonewall, bigots wailed: “The homosexuals said they’d be fine with civil partnerships, but are they? Oh no, their demands never stop. Now they want marriage. Next they’ll want to be able to marry their dogs. The homosexual agenda will destroy us all!” It was 100% predictable. It’s what happens when you have someone perceived as a mouthpiece for a large group of people. I’m sure that whoever it was at Stonewall who made the policy decision really was okay with civil partnerships, and still is. All those gay people who consider marriage to be against the spirit of gayness? I’m sure they’re sincere as well. I’m not blaming them for the way their words are twisted. Well, I am blaming Stonewall as an organisation to some extent. But let’s get back to Gore Vidal and Larry.

Baffled by Larry’s sharing of this article, I commented with some version of the above. It ended with a heated argument in which Larry refused to accept that Vidal didn’t speak for all gay people. Or perhaps he thought that Vidal was making some damn good points that all gay people should agree with. I really should have realised where this was going, but I didn’t. After a couple of these arguments, he stopped the conversations and unfriended me. It was the end of our friendship.

I want to say that my response was “oh well. Fuck that guy, then.” But the truth is that I broke into a thousand pieces, as did the troubled remnants of my faith. I spent a week in bed as a tearful, panicked zombie, unable to feed myself, wash or dress. I know now that this was the first of the major depressive episodes that have scattered themselves about in my life ever since. They always last a week. At the time, however, I thought it might be permanent. I begged Esteemed Ex to leave, not because I didn’t need her to look after me, but because I couldn’t bear the guilt of needing her.

When I settled down into moderate depression, and plodded on with my life, I still felt completely lost. A few months later, I contacted him to try to figure out what had happened. He was his usual delightful, charming self, but now with pronounced homophobia. Where had it come from? He claimed that he’d been under attack from demons. There had been a struggle, and he needed to turn to greater orthodoxy in order to prevail. We finished the conversation on bad terms.

In the couple of years that followed, I googled him from time to time, wanting him to return to reason. What I saw was someone going further and further towards a particularly nasty and joyless fundamentalism: homophobic, transphobic and islamophobic. Hate against these groups now seemed to be the main focus of his life. Obviously one cannot have these attitudes and work at a university, so he quit that job and wandered off to be a vicar in a remote location where he was free to do whatever he wanted. It was unbearable but every time I hoped to see some shred of the person I had known. He was gone. I finally realised that and made the decision to stop torturing myself.

I mentioned this to a much-loved gay Christian friend and she said, “Yeah, sounds like some kind of psychological breakdown, to be honest.” Which it was, of course. Interpreted by a deeply religious man in a religious way.  I should have realised this from the start, but for some reason I didn’t. In one of the things I found while googling, I saw an account of what happened to kick things off. He had woken up around 3am, with a sense of great evil in the room and bat-like things swarming around him. Paralysed by utter terror, he prayed for them to go and eventually they did. But that sounds like sleep paralysis, I thought. Why can’t you see that? You’ve always been perfectly reasonable about accepting science. What happened?

In fact, since becoming an amateur neuroscience nerd, I have my own hypothesis. There’s a neurological condition called Geschwind Syndrome, which is caused by low-level epilepsy in the temporal lobe. Temporal lobe epilepsy doesn’t necessarily cause the sort of seizures we expect from epilepsy. It typically causes focal seizures. These can be very subtle: often lasting just a few seconds, they don’t cause loss of consciousness or uncontrolled muscle movements. They can, however, cause sudden and powerful emotional experiences, from terror to euphoria, and hallucinations. When they also cause a dramatic shift in personality, this is Geschwind Syndrome. The key symptoms of Geschwind Syndrome are:

Hypergraphia: the person writes, obsessively. Now, I’m a big writingy wordy sort of person, but writing two books simultaneously, a weekly sermon, teaching materials and a three hour weekly radio show sounds like a lot of writing, even to me.

Hyperreligiosity: specifically, a sudden and intense interest in religion and philosophy. Often a dramatic change in religious views: the person converts to a new religion out of the blue, becomes much more pious, or becomes an obsessive, strident atheist who wants to tell you EXACTLY WHY.

Atypical (usually reduced) sexuality: I don’t know and don’t want to. But it is on the list.

Circumstantiality: They may be verbose af but they take a long time to get to the point. They drift around it, using lots of disjointed elements and symbolism which may not make sense to the other person. This can come across as otherworldly and clever, rather than disjointed. And they are very happy to talk to you at great length. Especially about religion. 

Irritability: They become very serious and humourless, and do not have time for other people on those people’s terms. They want to spend as much time as possible inside their own heads. They really like rules.

It’s a fascinating condition. I highly recommend Robert Sapolsky’s Stanford lecture on religiosity and neuroscience – the short snippet on Geschwind Syndrome can be found here.

This is pretty-much an exact list of the changes that I saw in Larry. It also sounds a lot like Jordan Bloody Peterson, but it definitely sounds like Larry. Robert Sapolsky also thinks it explains St Paul. Having an explanation (which may not be correct, of course) has helped. I could not have written this post a few years ago. 

I found it impossible to find the words to explain to people how important Larry had been in my life, and how great the loss had been. It was a peculiar kind of grief, and very lonely. Most people understand the loss of a friendship or a relationship because they’ve been there. When it comes to losing a spiritual mentor, and faith, all at the same time, that’s an alien experience to a great many people. There is no shared cultural language about it. People don’t understand what it means or how to support you. This kind of relationship is more than friendship – but within our culture, “more than friends” means romantic. It’s not that. What is it?

My best friend got a little irate with me. “One guy lets you down and you give up on God?” I didn’t give up on God, exactly. But I could no longer trust Christianity, because if it could strip the kindness and compassion out of Larry, it could do this to anyone. Who would be next? I’d seen homophobia in the church, of course, but it was generally from idiots who’d never had a gay friend and had just absorbed whatever rubbish another idiot who’d never had a gay friend had told them. Hell, during my first year at university, I lived in a flat in halls with the guy who ran the university’s Christian Union. He literally avoided speaking to me for the entire year because of my sexual orientation. I shrugged it off. What broke my heart was that I knew Larry knew. He was well aware of what gay Christians go through. He’d known plenty of Muslim students and they hadn’t been murderers. He’d been well-read and thoughtful, and now he made stupid, illogical arguments and fell back on stupid cliches like “why won’t you tolerate my intolerance?” He was credulous to the point of absurdity. There was an obviously bullshit story that appeared in a newspaper column he wrote. According to this story, a single Christian was on a refugee boat with a bunch of Syrian Muslims. He prayed to Jesus to protect the boat, and they responded by beheading him on the spot. How in the world could anyone with any measure of intelligence think for a moment that this really happened? What the hell had happened to him? Or had it been there all along, and I’d just never seen it? Larry had nurtured a group of bruised reeds, and then decided to break them.

I did learn the lesson that allies, however strong they may appear to be, have the luxury of being able to walk away, to change their minds about your value as a person. Queer people cannot walk away from being queer.

I am well aware that many people give up on religion, and it’s a positive thing for them. Sometimes it comes with no regrets, only relief, and I think it’s great when that happens. But I don’t have that triumph, and when I run into smug atheists I don’t have a connection with them. I don’t feel superior because of what happened. When it comes to the question of theism, I’ve met smart and compassionate, and arrogant and hateful, people on both sides.

If you watch a documentary about people leaving – for example – the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, they may relish their new freedom but there’s a palpable desolation about them. I know that desolation. It’s the sense of having your entire understanding of the universe ripped out of every nerve and sinew and bone. I don’t mean something as spurious as young earth creationism (no, I’ve never believed that). It is something much more, and I still don’t have the words for it. 

This is what homophobia in the church can often do to people. It tears us apart. I’ve seen people try to reconcile that pain with their devotion to Jesus. I’ve seen them stumble, broken, into a church set up for them. This is why MCC needs to exist. In any other church, even in an affirming church, it never gets to not be an issue. You may have others on your side, but you will still see lies about people like you, spread about by people who don’t know and don’t really care. To them, your existence is an opinion. You’re a hypothetical, like the hypothetical trans woman of transphobic arguments. She might hurt a cis person one day, but in the meantime she hurts all trans people, because even though she doesn’t exist she’s given as the reason for withholding human rights. 

When I was a devout Anglican, the Anglican Church was shuffling about awkwardly, trying to figure out what in the world to do about gay people. It was “listening.” Serious discussions were being had about whether a gay man in a relationship could possibly be a bishop, since he and his partner promised the world that they never touched each other’s dicks. Imagine having to go into all that on your CV, in order to be considered for a job. That particular gay man had been the vicar of the affirming CofE church I went to, although he left before I arrived. It’s around fifteen years later, and nothing has really changed. There’s still a lot of trite nonsense about needing civil discussions about whether or not gay people can be in the CofE treehouse. Gay people are asked to wait – for what? Where is this going? Nobody is going to change their minds or stop being gay.

Larry sometimes comes out and spews some homophobic venom because he’s a reliable homophobe who wants to talk about it, and for some reason media outlets think he has something worth hearing to say. But he has, as far as I’m aware, retained his seniority within the Anglican communion, despite expressing the kinds of views that actually get people killed – especially Muslims. He wouldn’t be tolerated in my office, but apparently we have higher standards of conduct. 

My view now, and my view even before this friendship ended, is that the only possible route forward for the Church of England is to split. That’s what it should have done years ago, and what it will probably do… eventually. In the meantime, the powers within the Global Anglican Communion have made it clear that they are taking the side of those Anglicans (mostly in Africa) who say loud and proud that they literally want gay people to die. Not taking their side verbally, because that would involve some form of spine. Verbally, they state over and over that LGBTQ+ people are loved and valued, made in the image of God. But we can’t split off and be the bit of the Anglican Communion who actually show that with our actions, because that would involve breaking up… what? The Global Anglican Communion wasn’t put there by Jesus himself. It’s a product of travelling around the world and telling people to be Anglicans, often at the point of a gun. A historical and nominative connection is not worth more than the lives and wellbeing of LGBTQ+ people.

It’s come up recently because the evangelicals within the CofE have once again been agitating about how awful the gays are. Blah blah blah. It’s nothing new. I have seen people get upset about it, and that’s valid. But for me, this view is an irrelevance and an anachronism. I already knew what these people think. As far as the culture wars go, they are the enemy and I expect to hear this from them. What hurts are the people who should be on our side but don’t stand up for us. The people who aren’t in the position of being hurt, but think that they can make decisions about what is an acceptable sacrifice to demand of those who are. Every year the CofE becomes more fragile with the tension of two sides who will not change. One side is blameless and the other, at its worst, is bloodthirsty. The middle needs to grow a spine and pick a side. Every time it is lukewarm, I will spit it out of my mouth.

(1) I can imagine why.

(2) I asked my mum about this, and she confirmed that condensed milk sandwiches were very much a thing when she was growing up. However, she’s pretty sure that I’ve never eaten one, so the mystery remains. Midway through the phone call she asked my dad about his experiences of condensed milk sandwiches so for a time I had him in the background yelling “Condensed milk sandwiches! Bread and dripping! [incomprehensible mumbling] JAAAAAM!”

(3) I am probably the only person who finds Quakers too loud for my liking. Let me unpack that. I find Quaker meetings difficult because you never know when someone is going to speak. I’m fine with an hour of total silence, or an hour of talking, but unpredictable sound puts me on edge.

(4) According to a mutual friend, the probable reason why he was not considered bishop material is that he’d been divorced and remarried. I’m putting a footnote here about the irony of a divorcee (someone whom Jesus himself calls an adulterer) lecturing others on homosexuality (something which Jesus never mentions). But it’s only a footnote, because his hypocrisy is annoying but it’s not the point.

(5) He came from a very wealthy background and did, I think, have a lot of inherited wealth.

(6 ) That and their lacklustre support for trans people, which is painfully ironic since they’re named after a protest that was led by trans people. They’ve got better in recent years, I believe.

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