How Different My Life Would Have Been If……..
‘Claiming our Space – Celebrating Our Diversity’
Pitt St Uniting Church, Sydney. Sunday July 13, 2008
(Eve of World Youth Day and visit of Pope Benedict XVI)
|1956 Martin Place, Sydney|
I come from a long line of Anglo-Catholics with a great grandfather, grandfathers and uncles who were Anglican priests. My father was the Sunday School Superintendent at All Saints Hunter’s Hill and trained the servers in the church. Attendance at the local Anglican Church was a weekly ritual. As a little boy at Sunday school, I learned the difference between right and wrong, being kind to others and that good people went to heaven to be with their heavenly father and bad people went to hell to be with the devil. I was told religion was a personal thing that people didn’t need to talk about. Did I have a personal relationship with God? It didn’t seem to be important to me but I knew that whenever I was in trouble I could always go to God and if I prayed really really hard then God would intervene. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. But that was okay because he was not Santa Claus he was our heavenly Father and always knew what was best for us.
I’ve heard people say that they realised they were gay in primary school sometimes as young as five but I became aware that I was attracted physically to guys the same time all my mates were becoming interested in girls. It was a slow awakening but a frightening one none the less, knowing that I was not ‘normal’ but even scarier once I had a word for what I was experiencing………..HOMOSEXUAL. There wasn’t the internet, so I had to be careful about my inquires but I did find out that HOMOSEXUALS were perverts who performed gross criminal acts with each other and when the police caught them they were incarcerated for many years in prison. Most people never talked about it. It was just too disgusting.
It was frightening to see two effeminate guys at my high school get bullied so much they took their own lives. One hung himself and the other’s life became so miserable he committed suicide soon after leaving school.
There was really only one way for me to respond to the overt and covert messages around me. I knew, firstly that I should never let another person know my dark, dirty, little secret and secondly I had to do everything possible to not be ‘one of those’, a pansy, a queer. Not just because I’d be rejected but because I didn’t want to be a criminal and go to gaol.
How different my life would have been if……had there been a school counsellor I could talk to about my same sex orientation or an education program to teach myself and fellow students about diversity and acceptance. That heterosexuality was not normal, just more common and that being same sex attracted was normal…..for me.
I believe it was the secrecy, sense of shame and the terrible fear of discovery that created a dark side to my life that eventually developed into a sexual addiction. An addiction that stayed with me till I finally came out nearly 30 years later. I know how dark and unhealthy a closet is. In my final year of High School I became so tormented and depressed, I decided it was better to kill myself at 17, than continue living an unhappy life, risk being arrested, scandalising the family name and being sent to prison. Did I tell you how frightening that was?
My mother found out through a friend about my distraught mental and emotional state and I was sent to a psychiatrist because they could help people with this psychological illness. What made matters worse was this little secret was to be kept between my mother and my friend. My father must never know about my ‘problems’.
How different my life would have been if…..I had a Dad and Mum who told me that, gay or straight, they loved me unconditionally and I didn’t need to change. Or if there was a PFLAG meeting they could have attended.
After visiting the psychiatrist over several months he told me that this ‘problem’ had developed because of my relationship with my parents and that I was probably just going through a confused stage in life.
How different my life would have been if…..the psychiatrist had told me the truth. That parents can’t make their children gay and I was homosexual because of genetic and hormonal influences in the womb. And as a good therapist, reassured me that happiness and fulfilment would come, not by rejecting and hating myself but by loving and accepting the gay me. Of course he could never have said those words because this was 1968 and homosexuality was not taken off the list of mental disorders till 1973.
Where was God at this time? I’d forgotten about all that, because as a teenager I found the church totally irrelevant to me. A group of evangelical Anglicans told me that Jesus came and died for me and if I asked him into my life then he would cleanse me of all my sin (and I knew I was a terrible sinner). Jesus was all powerful and that if I had enough faith then nothing was impossible to him. I gave my life to Jesus believing that finally I’d found the answer and God would change me.
How different my life would have been if I’d been told that God loves everyone equally, gay or straight, and that it was possible to be a gay Christian and live a moral life.
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t change. It must be me, I thought, not enough faith, I must love sin too much. I must keep praying harder and studying the bible for answers. I was obviously missing something.
Soon after becoming a Christian I met some Pentecostals who told me there was another experience still awaiting me………the baptism in the Holy Spirit and when I received that then I’d be empowered as a Christian to not only speak in tongues and heal the sick but also overcome sin. This must be what I was missing. So I received the Holy Spirit into my life and even though I began to see supernatural answers to prayer, one problem never went away, no matter how many hours I prayed in tongues or even after two 40 day fasts, I was still attracted to men, not women.
I felt a strong calling on my life to serve God so I went to Bible College in New Zealand. When I shared my troubles with the Principal he told me that I hadn’t overcome my homosexuality because it was a demonic spirit controlling my life but there was a minister with an excellent deliverance ministry in Auckland who would cast them out of me. For the next 3 weekends I travelled to Auckland and endured hours of exorcisms till all the demons were cast out.
How different my life would have been if…..I had known the sensations I was experiencing during deliverances were not the demons of homosexuality but the symptoms of hyperventilation.
When I returned to Australia I shared with my pastor that I was still struggling and he told me that the Holy Spirit would give up on me if I kept returning to my sin. I was desperate to change so I could serve God so I went into Australia’s first ex-gay program. Apparently it would take about two years to make me completely heterosexual. The horrors of the next 6 months in the live-in ex-gay program are detailed in an entire chapter of my book. Read here.
Even though I left the program early I felt I had more control and moved away from the temptations of Sydney to a little Assemblies of God church in Orange. The only other girl in the church was 4 years younger than me and my pastor and his wife encouraged me to go out with her and that marriage would bring the final healing I was after. In 1974 I married genuinely believing this to be true.
How different my life would have been if…..the church leaders had been educated enough to know that the word homosexual didn’t even appear in an English translation of the bible till 1946. And that the 6 passages everyone assumed were talking about homosexuality, when looked at in the light of the historical and cultural contexts, as well as the original languages, were actually talking about idolatrous practices, rape and prostitution; and never same sex love as we know it today.
Fast forward to 1991.
I was one of the most popular preachers in Australia, founder of Youth Alive, a full time evangelist and every weekend preaching to crowds of up to 5000 in the mega-churches of Australia, Hillsong being one of them. I wasn’t preaching for the fame and certainly not for the money as there was none. I genuinely wanted to serve God and make a difference in peoples’ lives. Outwardly my life looked perfect.
But something went drastically wrong.
Falling in love with a man, knocked me out of my cage of denial and forced me to face reality. And even though on the outside I had all the evidences of being a happily married father of two, the 22 years of discipline, crying out to God and quoting bible verses had not achieved anything. I was and always will be a gay man.
I confessed everything to the denominational leaders, resigned from the ministry and publicly confessed my adultery in front of a congregation of 800. Everything I had devoted my life to was now lost. None of my friends in the ministry supported me; in fact most of them totally withdrew and never contacted me again. I was destroyed.
Today I thank God for that day, the day Anthony Venn-Brown, the pretend heterosexual preacher, died and at last I could be honest and live with integrity. I thank God for my friends who deserted me because it was through dealing with the aftermath of rejection; I found how liberating it is to forgive.
When I left my wife, family and church, I really believed there were only two options. Be heterosexual, serve God and go to heaven or be homosexual and go to hell. To accept my homosexuality meant I was obviously turning my back on God. I didn’t really believe I’d be happy or fulfilled being gay and without God in my life. Sadly, I’d planned to live for 8 years as an openly gay man, and then commit suicide at 50.
For the next 6 years I didn’t read my bible or go to church. I didn’t pray, not once, not even when I was bound and gagged and had a knife put to my throat during a home invasion. God and I were not on speaking terms.
Then something happened I’d never expected.
It would take too long to explain, but without any real volition on my part, I had a spiritual experience. The God who I thought had rejected me and I’d said I would never have anything to do with for the rest of my life, became a part of my consciousness again. Something shifted dramatically inside me. I knew everything was okay and God was no more concerned about my sexual orientation any more than he was concerned that people have red hair or are left handed. All that really mattered was the way I lived my life. The most overwhelming sense of peace and resolution overwhelmed me. I didn’t hear any voices but somewhere in the deep inner recesses of my being something told me as clearly as this. “Tell your story, it will help many people. Just be completely honest, and don’t worry about a publisher, I’ll organise everything”.
And so here I stand before you today, a gay man of faith. A faith so strong it believes the Pentecostal world in Australia will change their position on homosexuality and welcome gays and lesbians into their churches. There is evidence this is already happening. I believe this change will happen because in my heart I know two things, 1. God will have his way with his church and 2. For the most part Pentecostal people are good people.
I stand before you as a man who is free because he stepped out of the dark closet of shame and guilt and brought his gay self into the light. A man who counts it a privilege to be something he never dreamed of, that is, being a gay ambassador, proudly representing his community in places where homosexuals fear to go. Who would have thought? Certainly not me!
So if there is a God and he/she/it (choose the personal pronoun that suits your theology) is a God of miracles…..then I’ve had four.
- I’m still alive
- I am not bitter against God, the church or people
- I have no mental health issues
- I still have a faith
And as I look back at how different my life could have been, I see that at every possible turning point, every defining moment, the underlying issue was always ignorance. My own and those I’d allowed to influence my life. We will only win the day when we truly recognise who the enemy is. It’s not church leaders, denominations or politicians. The enemy we fight is ignorance. All injustice, bigotry, prejudice is the result of ignorance. When we attack individuals and organisations we often miss the mark. We should do all we can to educate and inform ourselves and others. Not only by speaking but also living our truth. It’s up to gay Christians to live their faith boldly and honourably. It’s up to our heterosexual friends and supporters to not be silent.
I’m going to quote from the apostle Paul, a man who we all know, because of the day and culture he lived in, was ignorant of many things. But in this passage he got it right.
2 Corinthians 3
“You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”