Peter Ould writes: When I look back on my life (I’m coming up to my 45th birthday next year – very middle aged and very middle class) there are two events that more than anything else have shaped who I am today. Both were defining moments in my life, both were experiences of minorities, both were things that unless you’ve experienced them yourself, you cannot really comprehend what they are about.
The first of these things is coming out as gay. It is hard to explain to people who are heterosexual what it is like to be “different”. I remember when I spoke to a group of students about this over 15 years ago the best thing I could think of at the time was to play “Smalltown Boy” by Bronski Beat and ask them to really listen to the lyrics, to understand the pain of being different that was being communicated. When you grow up in a society that is heteronormative (and most straight people simply do not perceive how heteronormative Western society is), being homosexual is very difficult. Throw into that mix being a Christian as well when the predominant assumption, often badly articulated, is that singles will get married and have children and you can see how hard it is to just be honest about who you are. But being honest about who I was was something I attempted to do in my twenties. Slowly I shared the reality of my sexuality with friends in church and then more openly as I endeavoured to explore what it meant to be gay and yet theologically orthodox. Over time I’ve realised that the process of coming out is an ongoing one as new relationships and environments such as the workplace mean that sharing the reality (and complexity) of who you are. I barely had the courage to do it in my adult life (and to be honest the reality of my sexuality really only became apparent to me after University) – how much harder it must be to do it as a teenager?
But this experience pales into comparison against the greatest pain of my life – having to bury my second child. Our son Zachary was diagnosed with Edwards Syndrome in the womb and was stillborn weeks later. Now, almost a decade later, I still have days when the grief overwhelms me. As a priest I had done a few funerals of children, but nothing prepared me for having to sit in my own son’s. Losing a child is something that you simply cannot understand until it happens to you. Yes, you can imagine it, you can picture what it might be like, you can shed the tears in fearful anticipation. But until it happens, you simply do not understand.
It is because of the confluence of these two things in my life that I have taken an interest in the suicide of Lizzie Lowe, the Manchester teenager who hung herself after struggling with the conflict between her sexuality and her Christian faith. It is because of the confluence of these two things in my life that I have also said very little in public, or private, about her death because I know intimately the complexity and pain of these events. In recent days though I have once again become angered by the way that Lizzie Lowe’s death has been politicised by revisionists in the church, including her parish vicar Nick Bundock. One particular aspect that has particularly stirred me to write about this publicly is the way that key facts around the tragic suicide of Lizzie have been omitted in the “official” narrative because they contradict the revisionist political message that is being pushed every time her death is mentioned.
A recent BBC report quotes Nick Bundock as saying the following,
I used to be somebody that would hold a traditional view. But we lost a teenager, at 14, to suicide. And that puts everything else into perspective.
This fits into the story that Nick Bundock tells elsewhere how Lizzie Lowe was afraid to come up because she was in a theologically conservative church where she didn’t feel safe, and that it was the shock of her death that forced the church’s leadership to re-examine their theology and pastorally practice. It’s a compelling, heart-wrenching and challenging message.
It just isn’t the whole truth.
There are five key facts that we should all be aware of before accepting at face value the narrative being propagated around Lizzie Lowe’s death.
- The idea that the church was not talking about sexuality is simply untrue. A previous curate had come out as lesbian to the congregation before Lizzie’s tragic suicide. In the light of this it is hard to argue that the church Lizzie attended was an “unsafe” place to be gay. Churches take a huge amount of their tone and vision from their leaders and for one of them to be open with the congregation about their sexuality (and their liberal theology on the issue) does not fit the picture of a traditional conservative Evangelical church.
- The idea that a conservative church (and leadership) moved to a more liberal position after Lizzie’s death is simply not accurate. The vicar, Nick Bundock, was already preaching liberal theology (and described himself as ‘post-evangelical’) and had already lost some of his congregation over that. I have spoken to more than one former member of the congregation who challenged Nick on his drift into liberalism well before Lizzie Lowe’s death.
- Far from being a home where a homophobic conservative theology was being expounded, Lizzie’s parents would have met their daughter coming out to them with nothing but love. They themselves in the BBC interview affirm this.
- If you read the news reports of Coroner’s findings (rather than relying on the vicar’s report) you can see that the Coroner explicitly absolves the parish church and the national Church of England from any blame in Lizzie’s death. The Coroner is clear that there is no connection to be made between the theology of the church, either at the parish or national level, and Lizzie’s suicide.
- The Coroner’s report also lays out how Lizzie had been talking to fellow students about her sexuality and they had urged her to tell her parents. The Coroner’s report also details how Lizzie had self-harmed in the past.
When you put all this together, the actual story is far more nuanced than the simple narrative of the revisionists makes out. It is simply untrue to claim that Lizzie Lowe committed suicide because her church didn’t talk about homosexuality or if it did only did so in negative terms (it actually had a church leader come out to the congregation), that Lizzie committed suicide because of the conservative theology of her church or her parents (neither is true) or that her death led to a shift in the teaching of the church’s leadership (that shift had been underway well before her death).
This article is difficult to write because I know it will upset and anger many people. I will be accused of dismissing the struggle to come out, whereas actually I understand exactly how hard that internal conflict it. I will be charged with somehow wanting to diminish or even not recognise the real pain that Lizzie’s parents, friends and church family felt at her loss, but as the father of a dead child myself I can assure you that is the last thing I want to do.
But what I do want is truth. If we are going to have a discussion about sexuality and sexual practice in the church, we have to be open and honest when doing so. It is not good enough to just give one side of the story – we owe it to every single person in our pews struggling with reconciling their faith and sexuality to see the whole picture, warts and all.
As we enter a crucial time in our denomination’s discussions in this area, we must make sure we do not weaponise our personal narratives and place emotion above truth. It is saddening enough that one teenager feels that the only way to resolve her internal conflict is to commit suicide and there are definitely lessons to be learnt by all of us in the church about making it clear to our children that this is not a literal life and death issue. At the same time however, it behoves us all to not shape such stories around our own agendas. We deserve more than that. Our churches deserve more than that. The gay people in our pews deserve more than that. Lizzie deserves more than that.
Update: thanks to all who have commented on this. In the first day or so, the comments were helpful, and there was some respectful interchange between very different points of view. David Runcorn has expressed concern below about the conversation becoming ‘toxic’, and I would agree with him that some of the discussion has become very unhelpful. I have therefore closed the option of further comments being made, but will leave the discussion in place. Ian.
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