HE WAS one of the most famous names in Australia’s mega churches. But he was hiding a secret that would lead his parishioners to desert him while he contemplated suicide.
news.com.au October 15, 2015 8:12am
Former preacher Anthony Venn-Brown says Australia’s Pentecostal and evangelical churches will eventually embrace gay and lesbian people. Picture: Danny Aarons
JETTING around Australia, leaving audiences of thousands enraptured by stories of Christ and married with two beautiful daughters, he was the very image of a perfect preacher.
But Anthony Venn-Brown was battling a paralysing secret that would lead to his marriage falling apart, his departure from the churches he loved and seriously contemplating suicide.
A preacher in Australia’s Pentecostal Assemblies of God mega churches, for more than two decades he desperately fought against the reality that he was gay.
In the mid-1970s, at the start of his religious career, even thinking about being anything other than heterosexual was a strict no-no in the Pentecostal church. “You couldn’t even entertain the thought, because the thought is temptation and temptation, as Jesus said, is to sin,” remarked Mr Venn-Brown who this week launched a new edition of his acclaimed book A Life of Unlearning which is focused on his departure from the church.
“I had done everything to change my sexual orientation including conversion therapy, lots of prayer counselling and exorcisms,” he told news.com.au, “it is very heavy stuff for people to think they have a demonic force living within them, it’s really not a good place to be mental health wise.”
Mr Venn-Brown was one of the first Australian subjects of the now discredited ‘ex-gay’ movement which attempted to ‘cure’ people of their homosexuality. He was told that his treatment might take up to two years. Along the way, he took part in therapies that today seem just bizarre such as strenuous outdoor activities to help his “masculinity” and an order to avoid “feminine” tasks including cooking or cleaning.
“It was an abusive culture, it was cultish and I just thought I need to get away from this.”
It wasn’t working but Mr Venn-Brown was unperturbed.
“I just didn’t have enough faith or I wasn’t praying hard enough,” he said. Leaving the city and the sins it contained, the preachers moved to Orange where he met the woman who would become his wife.
His sexuality was under control, he thought, so getting married was a natural next step.
“What I realise now was of course was it wasn’t control, it was total suppression and denial.”
But far from being in the dark, Mr Venn-Brown’s wife was fully aware of his struggle.
“We believed this was what God wanted and she thought this was a bit of a miracle that she was going to be a part of,” he said, “She cried and I cried and we thought it was all going to work out OK.”
Publicly, his name became more well-known in evangelical circles and growing crowds would attend his sermons. But his true self was strictly off limits.
After 16 years of marriage, and following the birth of two daughters, his wife stumbled across a letter in Mr Venn-Brown’s handwriting. It was not OK.
“She discovered a letter I’d written to this guy I’d fallen in love with,” he said, “It was devastating for all of us.”
“I fell in love with a man, love changes everything, that’s what happens,” said Mr Venn-Brown, “I spent 22 years trying to change and now this happened it would never go away.”
In the early ‘90s he went public and the thousands who had previously flocked to his sermons now, just as enthusiastically, rejected him.
“People had this image of me as a married man of god and then it was ‘oh my god he’s a homosexual’.”
He felt forced to step down from his role and, personally, he felt he was a failure.
“My belief was homosexuality is wrong, it’s a sin, I’m giving into it therefore I’m probably going to hell so I’ll plan to commit suicide at 50.”
But that depth of despair was never reached. Mr Venn-Brown realised being honest was nothing to be ashamed of. Today, he continues to have a strong relationship with his family and his consultancy, Ambassadors and Bridge Builders International, educates the leaders of the very churches that rejected him, about LGBTI issues.
He also works to uncover the last vestiges of the ex-gay movement.
The churches will eventually find peace with the gay people in their congregations, says Mr Venn-Brown, even if it’s not a straightforward journey.
“I call it the homosexual hip-hop, there’s a couple of steps forward [by the churches] then the conservatives kick up and they backtrack.
“But eventually it will all break down because the reality is gay and lesbian people are not abominations, they’re ordinary people who have loving relationships and they need to be accepted as equal.”