Should a local church start a special group for same-sex attracted members?
By Charlie Skrine, Associate Rector, St. Helen’s Bishopsgate
Our church group for people who experience same-sex attraction started by accident. We were still tortuously discussing the pros and cons as a staff team when an apprentice service-leader made the announcement one Sunday inviting people to join. That’s quite a good way for junior team members to effect real change in a larger church.
The main pro, as we saw it, was that same-sex temptation can be a lonely and secretive struggle. The main con was that, by having a group, we might remove people from normal, God-ordained places of Christian support. We also wanted to avoid any impression that same-sex sin was worse than other sins, which was the opposite of the message we were trying to teach.
Our secular culture is still homophobic to a large degree
Even without the accident I am very glad that we started the group. Our secular culture is still homophobic to a large degree despite the frantic posturing of politicians and the media. And our church culture was an unknown quantity; I knew of no 100% ‘out’ Christians in our congregation, though there were a number who had been quietly telling friends they trusted for many years, and receiving nothing but love, acceptance and help to live for Jesus. We did not know at the time whether a publically same-sex attracted person would be treated well by everyone, and those who told another Christian for the first time found it very difficult, and typically had spent years feeling like they were the only one battling in this way.
Our group met for the first time in 2009. We meet about 5 times a year, with over 10 people each time from an invitation list of about 20.
There are three elements we’ve found essential to the group working well.
It is normal for a bible-study leader (with permission) to give me the name of an interested person a year before they contact me about the group themselves. It is then normal for it to take a further year before they actually come along. Some never join at all. In order to give those people confidence we set very strict rules that go out in an email before someone agrees to join the group, and before their name gets passed to the person who runs the meetings. One member of the group calls it ‘fight club’ – we follow the first and second rule, though not the rest. In particular, we never use the name of someone who isn’t present that evening, and outside the group we don’t reveal that we know someone if we only know them from the group.
People come to the group from very different places on their Christian journey and over the years we have had people close to falling away, some of whom have left church, and others have been wonderfully restored. It’s important that everyone can be honest, but it’s also important that the evening as a whole is an encouragement to those who want to continue living for Jesus and battling temptation.
In our church we are very thankful to have a solid core of godly Christians who have been living with same-sex attraction over many years who have been willing to commit to the group. They set the tone, and if one of them has had a hard few months then there are enough others who can step in and remind us of gospel truths. That also means that I don’t lead the group; I host it at our house, and I’m the person who sends the first email to preserve confidentiality, but the spiritual leadership comes from a senior same-sex attracted Christian in the congregation. If another church was trying to start a group without those people then a church leader might need to take a much greater speaking role in the meetings, or it might be necessary to delay starting until you had people whom you could trust to lead it.
3. Refusal to become a substitute
The New Testament epistles make clear that all struggles and temptations are best helped by regular feeding on God’s word in the context of prayerful Christian friendships. Before joining the same-sex attraction group someone needs to be a committed regular member of a small-group bible study. In addition, we work hard to keep the group deliberately a bit rubbish, so that no one confuses it with their primary place of spiritual support.
For example, when we meet we read Scripture together - but ‘only’ what a member of the group understood from a recent quiet time. After that we have a discussion of a topic related to living with same-sex attraction, normally connected to something sent out to read beforehand. Over the years we have read a number of very good books, including those written by the co-ordinators of this website, but we mix that with deliberately lighter material. We’ve often used non-Christian media, for example Stacey Dooley’s TV programme about conversion therapy, or newspaper articles about growing up gay.
Being same-sex attracted does not make someone different to any other Christian, so any other Christian with a bible and the Holy Spirit can meet their spiritual needs. The group is only an extra meeting place for a particular moment in our culture’s social change when the media loudly asserts that everyone should express their sexual desires, but most churches are still not comfortable talking openly about same-sex attraction.
over the years we have had people close to falling away, some of whom have left church, and others have been wonderfully restored
Over the eight years we’ve been meeting there have been many benefits, including very significant help to me and the church leadership in how we care for and speak about same-sex attracted people. Perhaps the main benefit has been simply that twenty to thirty Christians, who might have thought they were alone in their struggle against temptation, now know others, and have seen examples of a mature godly life with same-sex attraction.
we will continue the group for as long as it is routinely difficult to ask a bible study group to pray for you as a same-sex attracted person, and I would warmly encourage other churches to consider starting one if they recognise the same problem
I don’t know how long the group will run for. In recent years the number of new people wanting to join has reduced. I suspect that’s a good sign. It is now easier to tell a normal bible study group that one of your temptations is sexual desire for those of the same sex. We do now have ten years of good reactions from right across the church every time someone has ‘come out’ to another Christian. We do have members of the group who are public at church about their sexuality, and we have benefitted hugely from the bravery of church-leaders elsewhere. I suspect that having been one of the first churches I know of to start such a group, we might also be one of the first churches to decide that we no longer need it. The accidents of our situation in central London mean that our congregations are drawn from a young, majority single, multi-cultural and progressive demographic. Even with that background we will continue the group for as long as it is routinely difficult to ask a bible study group to pray for you as a same-sex attracted person, and I would warmly encourage other churches to consider starting one if they recognise the same problem in their situation.