The Gospel According to Rob
‘After a life in church, it dawned on me that it was time to leave.’
Maybe there are times when a person has to give up church for their own good. I was part of this church for nine years but I had to leave.
I first came along after meeting Tracy and Brian on the island of Iona. They were living in a flat St Luke’s had on a local estate. I moved in with Geoff; we were joined by Angela and later Rick. When the Australian Peter Thomson came to be the new vicar he chose to live on the estate so Geoff and I moved into St Luke’s vicarage. You can get quite a few people in that house. There was Jonathan and Denise - that’s where they got together - Jacqui, Helen, David, Frances, Jenny, Karen and, for a while, Ben and Abi. We had a kind of commune.
I’d been a youth group leader in a free evangelical church but then they discovered I was gay and I discovered they weren’t so free. Was I going to be having a relationship? It was against their policies. When I couldn’t give them assurances they revoked my membership. I was all set to help lead the youth club summer holiday but suddenly they told me I had to leave.
Finding St Luke’s was a godsend and I’d also come across Holy Joe’s, a church in a pub run by Pat and Dave Tomlinson. And then there was this festival, Greenbelt, which felt like coming home, meeting other gay Christians, being able to openly discuss sexuality. After painful rejection by one church family, I felt accepted again at St Luke’s. There was no sense of judgement, I no longer had to be careful about what I said and who I said it to.
Church was always in my life. Mum and Dad ran the children's work in a Brethren Assembly in Tottenham. Being Brethren was a whole world on a Sunday - sometimes on a Saturday too. It was austere, very black and white, this was right, this was wrong. In the Breaking of Bread, there was a mournful, melancholy atmosphere, with everything focussed on the death of Jesus.
Growing up I was a classic sissy: gentle, sensitive, interested in dolls, reading and music rather than playing football or cricket as my Dad would have liked. Close to my Mum and my Aunt, not so much to my Dad and brother. The family knew about my sexuality but they also didn’t want to know they knew. I discovered much later that my uncle in the Army had offered his services to straighten me out. I’m grateful they declined his generous offer.
But there was a growing conflict in my life between my sexual identity and my Christian faith. I found one of those groups that called themselves ex-gay ministries, where they said you could change. The counsellor I saw was later discredited for crossing the line with clients. He was actually a little too intimate with me, but he didn’t go that far and at the time, to be honest, I quite enjoyed it. What he did was wrong but it reminds me of how I’ve always been looking for intimacy. I still am.
I always felt I was being forced to make a choice until one day God spoke to me, saying ‘Don’t ignore me, don’t leave me out’. And that’s how I ended up leaving the Brethren but joining the evangelical church – it was a decision not to abandon God and faith. Years later, when I was ostracised by the evangelical church, it was the same decision – not to abandon God – that led me to St Luke’s.
For nine years I made so many great friends at St Luke’s, shared homes and lives, but somehow I couldn’t find that depth of relationship I craved. People were busy: running things, organising things. Drinking coffee after services it could feel like people were looking over my shoulder for the person they really needed to speak with. I'm sure I've done the same. I needed something deeper.
I’d also begun to dislike all the words a church is made up of, all the talking and believing. I was tired of all these words: the hymns, the liturgy, the Bible. I wanted to be known in silence not just in talking, in touch as well as sight. Looking back I suppose I just wanted to be held, to have that physical contact beyond words, something which I don’t have on a daily basis like many people.
I’m crying now, talking to you, I still feel this stuff deeply.
After a life in church, it dawned on me that it was time to leave. From this distance I can see the anger underlying the decision: anger with God that I didn’t have what I wanted when I’d kept my side of the bargain. I’d been faithful, I’d been true to what I thought was the truth. 'Well fuck you God, enough is enough, I played my part, I did the best I could but I’m still single and I’m tired of it.'
Leaving church was like leaving my life behind. It was disorientating. I went into a kind of freefall, as if I had no solid ground to stand on. For a long time - months, years - I felt as if I was drifting. At times I was very low. But I knew I had had to leave church to find myself, to be true to myself.
Ten years on I call myself an agnostic. To say I’m a Christian wouldn’t express how I understand the world. Now the questions are more important than the answers, now it’s about meaning not faith. I cherish many friendships from St Luke’s - I live with Karen, Harry, Maddy and Benny, I’m godfather to Rosa and Evan and Hazel - but when I dropped in to see the Stations of the Cross at Easter I noticed how the passage of time changes a community, how few people I knew.
For years I no longer engaged with formal religion, but something in me was still seeking and one day I was drawn to a Quaker Meeting House. To my surprise I found a place where I could sit in silence, a place where it didn’t matter if no-one spoke.
It connected with something deep inside me - being in silence but also in company - and I was repeatedly drawn back there. In a Quaker meeting I found I was able to switch my head off. I noticed my thoughts but I could let them go.
I arrive, sit down, take a deep breath, maybe even let out a sigh and sometimes I find I travel to a place of deep interior stillness. Now there are no words to get in the way of going deeper, no hymns or liturgy which prevent me connecting with myself or what once I would have called God. Sometimes I reach a place beyond words, beyond thought, a place of utter peace where time stands still. It’s faith stripped bare and it renews me.
In their hearts of hearts I think Mum and Dad still wish I was straight but I’m not and they haven’t cut me off, they still love me. They know I now go to Quaker meeting but I doubt they think of Quakers as proper Christians. As I look back on a life in different kinds of church and the years after leaving church, I see a journey that makes sense for who I am.
I look at myself, half way to ninety, and ask how did I arrive here and I understand it was the choices I made. And my search for intimacy continues, a quest to find someone to share my life with. I’m in awe of how easily some people seem to be able to begin relationships and I hope I’m open to that person when they arrive for me. I hope I recognise them.
I love moments of synchronicity, when two disconnected things happen to coincide in my life: that person who arrives just as I was thinking about them, those two paths that collide.
I smile to myself when that happens. I feel as if there is a gentle hand on my shoulder. It’s as if I hear a voice saying, ‘You’re OK, it will all work out.’
I hope that if I stay open my time will come.