Jayne Ozanne, Just Love: A Journey of Self-Acceptance (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2018)
Andrew Atherstone writes: In a remarkable symbiosis, two new autobiographies have hit the shelves from two of the Church of England’s most prominent LGBT campaigners, published within a fortnight of each other. Although born a decade apart – Jayne Ozanne in 1968 and Vicky Beeching in 1979 – their stories have coalesced and display striking parallels. Both were nurtured within charismatic evangelicalism, both experienced deep psychological trauma partly as a result of their conflicted sexuality, and both made a splash in the national press when they first ‘came out’, Vicky in August 2014 and Jayne in February 2015.
Vicky was once an ‘evangelical poster girl’ (U196) who spent a decade touring American megachurches as a peripatetic worship leader with a devoted fan-base, and since the end of her music career has built up an impressive media portfolio. Jayne has also endured a nomadic lifestyle, often ‘living by faith’ without secure employment, though her professional expertise is in marketing and fund-raising with giants such as Proctor and Gamble, BBC Television, Oxfam and the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Both are accomplished media players and expert communicators. Vicky’s book is highly polished, with one clear line of argument prosecuted from beginning to end – more of an extended essay than a full memoir. It will sell briskly, written for the American market, with its references to ‘semesters’ at the University of Oxford and buying ‘cotton candy’ on Eastbourne pier (U86, 94, 184). Jayne’s story contains far more details and tangents, but is equally fascinating and especially important for those interested in the current power dynamics of the Church of England and the General Synod.
Taken together, these autobiographies raise five major themes.
1) Breaking the Mental Health Taboo
Their most positive contribution is the way they both speak frankly about mental illness. By revealing their inner turmoil, Vicky and Jayne have made themselves vulnerable, displaying their mental fragility to public scrutiny. This is an admirable example to the church and to wider society. As Vicky memorably puts it, we need to help people to ‘come out of the mental health closet’ by breaking down the taboo surrounding mental illness (U269).
Their stories make harrowing reading. Vicky identifies as a perfectionist and extreme workaholic, which resulted in excellent exam results as a teenager and place at the University of Oxford. She now sees that this work obsession ‘had deeper roots: I was trying to outrun my own pain’ (U120). Oxford is inundated with workaholic students and the University’s mental health services are always chronically overburdened. After college, Vicky launched into a highly stressful music career in the States, thousands of miles from her family, with a relentless touring schedule, frequent media interviews, constant jet lag, and nightly sleeping tablets. ‘Everyone around me told me I was living the dream’, she writes, ‘but in reality it looked like empty hotel rooms, heavy equipment, and endless pressure to smile, sing, say the right things, and keep quiet about my utter exhaustion, and my sexuality’ (U123). Before long she was ‘running on absolute empty’ (U136). This led to mental and physical collapse, including the onset of scleroderma (a skin condition which can cause disfigurement), often caused by psychological and emotional triggers. Vicky hoped that coming out as gay in 2014 would lead to ‘happily ever after’ (U254) but she was subsequently diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and is currently on anti-depressants. She also suffers with the debilitating effects of fibromyalgia and ME. Most bitter of all, dealing with this mental anguish in secret, without a church environment in which it could be articulated, merely multiplied its effects. As she laments, ‘Much of me existed behind an invisible wall, not able to talk about what I was really dealing with’ (U121). It is a desperately sad, heart-wrenching story, which should be obligatory reading for every evangelical pastor and every evangelical parent.
Jayne has also suffered repeatedly with poor mental health. Sometimes this has been a struggle with depression, with periods when she was ‘completely overwhelmed with sadness’ (JL59). She describes one serious breakdown, which left her in heaps of tears collapsed on the floor and ‘virtually non-functional’. She sought psychiatric treatment at The Priory in Roehampton, including ‘scream therapy’ to ‘get in touch with our inner anger’ (JL102-4). But the most truly awful was Jayne’s experience at a PROMIS rehab clinic in Kent. In Christological terms she interprets it as ‘a version of my own passion – allowing the world to throw at me what it could’ (JL113). It is a distressing, visceral account, showing some of the depths of human brokenness, and Jayne deserves thanks for articulating it. She acknowledges that she was ‘angry with God, very angry’. Rather than bottling it up, she eventually realized that ‘I just needed to connect with the reality of my raw emotions and be one hundred per cent honest about where I was at. Then I realised that God could meet me in that space, and we could walk forward together’ (JL114-5).
The underlying causes of poor mental health are, of course, highly complex and difficult to discern. In her own situation, Vicky identifies her struggles with sexuality as the root problem, a form of fragmentation: ‘Inside, I felt as though I was psychologically being ripped in two’ (U150). This single message comes across in every chapter – hence the title Undivided – and by the end we are left wondering whether there is any manifestation of stress and anxiety which cannot be attributed to evangelical doctrine. Jayne is more nuanced. She speaks of herself as ‘broken on the inside’, but acknowledges, ‘My issues around sexuality were just part of a large complex jigsaw’ (JL116). Whatever the diagnosis, both these books nonetheless set a positive example by helping us to talk frankly about the turmoil of mental illness and to break the great taboo. They sit helpfully alongside a growing body of similar literature, often from pioneering women, such as Katharine Welby-Roberts’ I Thought There Would Be Cake (2017) and Emma Scrivener’s A New Day (2017). Here are brave voices the church needs to hear.
2) Loneliness and Singleness
Both Vicky and Jayne identify loneliness as a major part of their mental anguish. Perhaps with a deliberate nod to the title of Radclyffe Hall’s famous novel, Jayne writes of ‘the deep well of aloneness … endless isolated nothingness filled with continual pain’ (JLl7). She calls loneliness ‘a beast that has stalked me for a very significant part of my life, and still does. … True friends are hard to find’ (JL38). Even as a school child she felt ‘incredibly alienated and isolated’, with little self-confidence and bullied for being bright (JL40). Reflecting on her struggles over gay identity, she recalls: ‘But if the days were lonely, the nights were even more so. I yearned for love. My longing formed a gaping hole that would swallow me up at times. Try as I might, no amount of prayer would fill it’ (JL133).
Vicky also felt ‘the icy grip of loneliness’ and contemplated ending it all by throwing herself under a London Underground train (U7). She had made her career ‘the sole focus of my life’, but it was ‘no longer filling the hole in my heart that it once had. Behind all the busyness, my loneliness grew and grew’ (U117). Her workaholism – ‘the next gig, the next plane ride, the next hotel, the next rehearsal’ – was a ‘lifestyle I’d created to drown out my inner sadness and loneliness’ (U152). This sense of dislocation was heightened by living as a Brit abroad, in a foreign culture, ‘feeling less and less as though I belonged anywhere’. In a tragic development, she was happiest when on aeroplanes: ‘It felt like a strange limbo, but up there, in the in-between, where no one quite belonged to the people around them, I experienced the closest thing to peace that I had’ (U122-3). She describes herself as ‘anxious, lonely, full of shame, and constantly on edge’ (U142).
And worst of all, the church often feels the loneliest place to be. Listening to some of the most egregious examples of evangelical preaching and crass pastoral insensitivity, Vicky exclaims: ‘Everything in me wanted to interrupt those awful sermons and shout that LGBTQ+ people aren’t just out there, but in here as well – within the church – and that I was one of them’ (U150). Why is the church so slow to model deep community, honesty and loyal friendship? As Jayne protests, ‘True friends are hard to find’, but that ought never to be the case among Christians. So Vicky asks the killer question, ‘could I face a life of lonely singleness for ever?’ (U112), as if the only plausible solution to loneliness is to find a sexual partner. The complaint is well made in a marriage-obsessed church. Ed Shaw navigates a better way in The Plausibility Problem (2015) and Sam Allberry’s Seven Myths about Singleness (2019) will help us further, but the church needs to tackle the loneliness epidemic as a matter of urgency by offering a better story—one that is explored in Kate Wharton’s Single Minded.
3) Guilt, Shame and Sexual Purity
One of Vicky’s strongest words – picked up by the subtitle of her autobiography – is ‘shame’. It falls from her pen again and again. Her memoir is about ‘the battle I’ve fought to make peace with who I am and to unlearn a lifetime of shame and fear’ (Uix). As a teenager, homosexual desire ‘caused waves of shame to crash over me’ (U3). Her feelings were ‘laced with anxiety and left me feeling dirty and ashamed … as always, nagging shame and fear plagued me as I thought about my orientation’ (U22-4). When she was romantically attracted to a girl, ‘I shut the feelings down at once, as guilt and shame rushed in’ (U33). She was ‘breaking under the weight of shame and anxiety, believing I had to keep this secret forever’, surrounded by ‘a wall of shame and fear’. ‘Shame swallowed me up like a rising tide’, ‘I felt more ashamed than ever’ (U36-40). ‘How fearful and ashamed I was about being gay’, overshadowed by ‘a cloud of worries and old shame’ (U192-3). And much more of a similar nature.
Vicky’s basic line of argument is that evangelical teaching about sexual intimacy binds young people into a culture of shame, from which they need to break free. After coming out, when she began to date women, she found it difficult to express physical intimacy because too many evangelical sermons had ‘lodged deep in my psyche, creating a Pavlovian connection’. She could not ‘shake off the feelings of shame’ and was ‘overshadowed by guilt’. But it was not just shame about being gay, but ‘fear and anxiety connected with sexual attraction in general’ after ‘three decades of indoctrination’ (U241-3). Vicky’s protest is not only at evangelical views of homosexual relationships, but evangelical views of sexual expression more broadly. She offers a catalogue of straight couples whose marriages have fallen apart because of their sexual inhibitions and hang-ups learnt from the church youth group.
It is undoubtedly the case that many evangelical churches need to teach about sex more positively, and that the topic has been badly handled by many a youth leader. The American ‘purity organizations’ like True Love Waits come in for particular criticism, not only from Vicky but also other insiders such as Linda Kay Klein in her new book Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free (2018). Of course these movements have a long history, as shown in Sara Moslener’s Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence (2015). On the other hand, evangelicals have also led the way in teaching very frankly about the importance of satisfying sex lives for married couples, as analysed in Kelsey Burke’s Christians Under Covers (2016).
Vicky complains that for evangelicals to teach young people that sex is for marriage damages them psychologically. And here we come to the nub of the issue. These autobiographies reveal that what is at stake is not simply ‘equal marriage’, but the whole fabric of sexual purity as taught in the Scriptures. Jayne frankly confesses that in her view sex before marriage is allowable for Christians, provided they are truly ‘committed to each other’. Her non-Christian boyfriend Geoff was naturally ‘stunned but delighted’ when she suggested they begin sleeping together (JL98). She argues that only ‘a rare few’ are given ‘the gift of celibacy’ (JL243). Vicky put is more starkly, telling her grandfather: ‘I believe the Bible says celibacy is always a choice, never a demand’ (U228). In her opinion, Living Out’s call to celibacy is ‘extremely damaging’ (U178). These accounts give the clear impression that neither Jayne nor Vicky believes that sexual intimacy with their girlfriends should be reserved for marriage.
So where does that leave us? This is far broader than a debate about same-sex relations or LGBT inclusion. How would our two authors counsel a young Christian couple, seriously dating and keen to have sex? Or what would they say to a couple who have had sex, outside marriage, and come to them for pastoral advice, feeling burdened with guilt and shame? The ethic appears to be, fear not, live free. So what then are the God-given parameters for sexual expression? We need an answer from Vicky and Jayne. The Scriptures teach, of course, that a sense of guilt and conviction of sin is a fruit of the Holy Spirit’s ministry (John 16:8). And the only true remedy for ‘living free from shame’ is to run to the cross of Christ and to lay down our burdens there. The gospel always provides the answers to our deepest human needs and longings, and the church has wonderful news to tell of God’s gracious dealing with our hidden fears and shame. Here is a real pastoral and evangelistic opportunity.
4) Hearing God’s Voice
A fourth question, underlying both autobiographies, is how we hear God speak. Vicky writes: ‘I needed to step out and be my authentic self. … I knew God’s voice was the one I must follow’ (U182). And again, on coming out to her parents: ‘I’d just take a very significant step toward greater authenticity as I trusted God’s leading and moved forward in obedience’ (U202). But how do we discern God’s voice and how do we measure godly obedience? Vicky’s love for the Bible comes across consistently through her story, and she is explicit in her desire to process these questions ‘with God, not without him, asking for answers and listening for his voice’ (U166). She attempts to build a case for the holiness of same-sex relationships based on Acts 10, where Peter in his vision was ‘asked to follow heaven’s inclusive agenda’ (U169). Vicky concludes: ‘only one voice ultimately matters in time and eternity – God’s voice. … God was letting me in on a new perspective, one of radical acceptance and inclusion. … God had spoken’ (U171-2). Her exegesis is superficial and her conclusions are wrong-headed, but her basic methodology is sound – only by rigorous and prayerful wrestling together with the Scriptures can we hear God’s directions for godly living in the church.
Jayne’s narrative paints an altogether different picture. Although she speaks of her ‘passion and respect for scripture’ (JL138), it is almost entirely absent from her account. Much prayer is evident, and testimony to many miraculous God-ordained ‘coincidences’ concerning job offers, gifts of money and unexpected encounters. But for guidance she lays out metaphorical fleeces like Gideon, and often operates on a ‘sense’ or gut-instinct of what God wants her to do. She listens for a ‘very clear internal voice, which I have always associated with Mr God’ (JL130). Much of her life, she explains, has been ‘determined by “the witness in my spirit” of what I believed was the Holy Spirit. I just “knew in my knower” that some things were either right or wrong’ (JL232-3). Sometimes when she feels ‘very hot’ she takes it as ‘a sign of the Holy Spirit at work’ (JL160). On living with her first serious girlfriend (the relationship lasted 5½ years), Jayne reflects: ‘despite what I had been taught – that I was living in the deepest and darkest of sin and walking away from all that God had for me – I felt closer to God than I had ever done before. He was still there in my thoughts, in my dreams, whispering in my inner ear …’ (JL227). This may owe something to charismatic experience, but it is more like the Quaker inner light. That inner voice, in any of us, is no sure guide to God’s desires. Only Scripture, not our guts, can show us God’s will for the Church of England. So it is no surprise to find that our understandings of marriage and sexuality are incompatible if our starting points are so far apart.
5) The Gospel: Be Yourself?
Since coming out, both Vicky and Jayne have experienced a deep freeze in their relationships with the evangelical community. Vicky’s music sales took a nose dive when she was excluded from the megachurch worship circuit. As she puts it, they ‘slammed the door in my face’ and ‘left me out in the cold’ (U224, 226). Others have met with a similar reaction, like fellow evangelical musician and LGBT campaigner Jennifer Knapp, told in Facing the Music (2014). The prominent American ethicist David Gushee discovered after publishing Changing Our Mind (2014) that he had crossed a ‘line in the sand’. He writes in his autobiography that he experienced ‘the ashy chill of evangelical nuclear winter’, having his name deleted from ‘the invitation list of pretty much the entire evangelical world’ (see D.P. Gushee, Still Christian: Following Jesus Out Of American Evangelicalism, 2017). Likewise after coming out, Jayne felt like she was ‘living in exile’, as a leper, excluded from the church. She was eventually nurtured back at Littlemore parish, near Oxford: ‘The church many not have running water, toilets or heating, but it has gallons and gallons of unconditional love’ (JL236). In terms of their relationship with evangelicalism, Vicky has now cut the cord, but Jayne continues to identify herself, and to campaign, as ‘a gay evangelical’ (JL240).
But these church party labels and loyalties are not important. What really matters is the most fundamental question: what is the evangel, the gospel message? What would Vicky and Jayne say to their new secular friends at Stonewall about the call of Jesus Christ? Jayne concludes succinctly: ‘the most important truth we must embrace is that God loves us, unconditionally, just as we are’ (JL242). Amen to that! John 3:16 says something similar. Many gospel sermons begin with that excellent affirmation. But what next? How then should we respond to this God of love and his call on our lives? What does Christian transformation look like? Vicky summarizes her central message in a different way: ‘What is crucial, though, is this: we need to love and accept who we are. It’s about making peace with ourselves’ (Uxi). She concludes, with typical clarity, ‘God longs for us to simply be ourselves’ (U264). That is a remarkable motto, more akin to a pep-talk from a life coach, and shows the theological gulf between her current position and the gospel as she originally received it. Jesus does not say, ‘Be yourself’; he commands us to ‘Be born again.’
These two autobiographies are powerful accounts of personal anguish and compelling stories which deserve wide engagement. They are worth reading in parallel with the personal narratives of women who have moved in the opposite direction, from homosexual lifestyle to evangelical conversion, like Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (2014), while Jackie Hill Perry’s Gay Girl, Good God: The Story of Who I Was and Who God Has Always Been (2018) is eagerly awaited.
Andrew Atherstone is Latimer research fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Church of England’s General Synod
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