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11 July 2018

Undivided: thoughts on Vicky Beeching’s new book

Peter Lynas is director of Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland.

Undivided will almost certainly divide people. In the book, Vicky Beeching tells of her journey from Christian singer-songwriter to LGBT advocate. The key for Vicky is that she has made this journey while remaining in the church, rather than leaving it. After years of hiding her sexual orientation she 'came out' and now campaigns for the church to accept the redefinition of marriage.

The book is well written and a powerful memoir. The church behaved in ways that were unhelpful and at times deeply hurtful. Sometimes this was individual Christians, sometimes the views of a denomination, sometimes it was a particular movement or season, and at times it was the view of much of the evangelical church.

It was sad and even distressing to read some of the abuse Vicky was subjected to. Some of it from individuals who made vile threats, which were rightly reported to the police, and, as Beeching notes, one person got the help he needed and moved location to start over. Other passages highlight the naivety of someone sharing their testimony before they are ready, or spontaneous prayers that could have undoubtedly been worded better.

I recognise parts of the church that Vicky is describing and grew up in very similar circles. I remember the rumour that too much masturbation could make you blind or infertile, though I can't remember anyone actually saying it from the stage. I agree there was a great deal of misinformation at Christian youth events. I remember the purity movement and talks on the dangers of 'heavy petting' at university. It seemed there was a shift from not talking about sex, to talking about nothing else. I too heard talks on kissing dating goodbye, but I can't say that I followed through!

I felt Vicky's pain as she told her story. It helped me see the unhelpful way the church had approached sexual orientation. The Christian music industry also comes out of the book badly; it is portrayed as unsupportive, fake and money driven.

But as I read the book I was struck by two things. The first was that this story is not new. I had heard very similar accounts from Sean Doherty and Ed Shaw, who are both involved in Living Out. Their experience of church was similar to that of Vicky's: they too did not know where to turn as they realised they were attracted to people of the same sex. They too experienced unhelpful prayer from well-meaning people and the loneliness of not dating. I thought of Vaughan Roberts, a conservative pastor and speaker (also involved in Living Out) who risked it all to 'come out' and explain that he was same-sex attracted but had chosen a life of celibacy. He was a pioneer in helping evangelicals understand that people could be same-sex attracted, filled with the Spirit and serve God. Living Out has moved the conversation beyond the previously simplistic message that being gay is bad. The desires, attractions and even orientation (not their preferred term) are not wrong in and of themselves, but the result of living in a fallen world. It is our response to those desires and the practice that follows that are important.

The second point that struck me was that this book isn't just a memoir. Vicky is clear in the preface that this book is her attempt to "show that LGBTQ+ people of faith, and same sex marriage, should be fully affirmed". As a memoir is it an engaging, often helpful read.

But Undivided is also a campaign document, advocating for change. As a tool of advocacy, it is much more problematic. It leads with feeling over facts and will undoubtedly persuade many. It follows a classic narrative arc. The problem is set up early on, the tension builds, and the action rises over a series obstacles and struggles. Finally, we reach a climax as our reluctant hero has a moment of revelation – she does not have to choose between her sexuality and her faith, she can have both. The conflict is resolved, there is a happy ending for now, but our hero has also set herself up for the bigger battle ahead – to change the whole church. She concludes, "I knew someday that church would unanimously support same-sex marriage; it was just a question of time." This is powerful and persuasive stuff.

But at some point, questions must be asked. Her current authenticity jars with the 15 years of touring and playing in churches that Vicky knew held opposing views. This is particularly striking when she came back to the UK and had decided to come out but continued to play festivals while making her preparations. It is difficult to reconcile the apparent contradiction that the Christian music scene she describes left her with no money in the bank, with talk of giving up a glittering music career.  

For her coming out piece, Vicky spoke to the activist and campaigner Patrick Strudwick. I had a debate with Patrick for a TV show once, following which, in the green room, he tried to persuade me that the church should change its view on gay people to be more appealing. I tried to explain that it was a matter of biblical teaching not simply people changing their minds. Then he turned and said something like, actually I don't care, I want to see the end of Christianity. When the story originally came out I thought Vicky's decision to use Patrick and Stonewall was telling; these were not neutral choices.

Ultimately, Vicky has decided that rather than change her own views, she wants to change the church, and not just the church she grew up in. Her new position is at odds with the historic and global church, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. Vicky quotes CS Lewis frequently, but I fear she is guilty of what Lewis called "chronological snobbery" – the idea that her new progressive ideas are superior to the old established ideas, simply because they are new.

There is lots more that could be said about Undivided. The theology is limited, which Vicky acknowledges, but it is a shame considering she studied theology. She bases much of her arguments on Acts 10 and Peter's dream to go to the Gentiles. By her own admission, her interpretation is about her feelings on the passage rather than good exegesis. A more robust engagement would have been helpful.

She doesn't explicitly mention Living Out, but seems to hint at their work in negative terms. Her view seems to be that Sean, Ed and Vaughan are entitled to their choices but, it's a problem if they "teach that the only option for gay people is celibacy or opposite-sex marriage." The book comes very close to silencing them and others like Dr Rosaria Butterfield, formerly a lesbian professor of queer theory who was radically converted to Christ. Vicky complains that telling any young person that sex is for marriage is damaging psychologically. She isn't simply challenging teachings on same sex relationships, but the entire Christian sex ethic. In her conclusion, Vicky says that "God longs for us to simply be ourselves." Any ideas of repentance, transformation and Jesus' command to be born again are gone, leaving an empty gospel.

The book also says that Steve Chalke was kicked out the Evangelical Alliance and branded a "heretic" for sticking his neck out on this issue. Oasis Trust, an organisation Steve leads, did have their membership discontinued because of a relationship breakdown, triggered around the subject of human sexuality. But no-one was branded a heretic and Steve Chalke remains an individual member of the Alliance. Steve Clifford, general director of the Evangelical Alliance, has written at some length about this in his own book One, and this type of simple factual error raises concerns for me about the integrity of the book. And when it comes to her one-sided version of church history on slavery, women and the civil rights movement, I wish she had listened to Tim Keller's excellent address at this year's National Prayer Breakfast in Westminster.

In the end I felt sad finishing the book. Sad for the experiences Vicky has had and how she has chosen to respond. Sad that in order to avoid wrestling with God and the Bible, Vicky had gone after the church. Sad that it seems everyone else, including her grandfather, is on a journey and must move, but she has arrived. Sad that the space for good disagreement had been shut down and that she sees holding the biblically, historically orthodox view as harmful rather than different. And sad that this is ultimately a book with very little hope.

St Augustine's quote seems apt: "If you believe in the gospel that you like, and leave out what you don't like, it's not the gospel you believe, but yourself." I understand the Bible very differently from Vicky. Her book is worth reading, but do remember its purpose and that a different response is possible and preferable. I find the biblical engagement and sacrificial story of those involved in Living Out much more persuasive, honest, helpful and ultimately hopeful.

This review first appeared on reimaginingfaith.com

This article was edited on Monday, 16 July.