A talk (updated Jan 2021) first given at a Guildford Diocesan Rainbow Service
Tuesday 2nd July 2019, St Mary’s Church, Guildford
As I am rapidly approaching my three score years & ten, from a lifetime that has been eventful and very full, I can only draw a brief sketch of my journey and mention a few headlines. I realise that there are many people who cannot agree with some of the conclusions I have drawn along the way; they protest having strongly held theological objections. But I am no longer of the view that any of us are capable of grasping the great truths of life in their entirety; on the contrary, we each have a viewpoint that can contribute to the lives of others, so that is what I would like to share.
Time doesn’t permit me to go into the story of my early years of spiritual awakening, but C.S. Lewis’s classic children’s novel, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” touched me profoundly as a 7-year old, as I realised it was a story about Christ—and the battle where good ultimately overcomes evil.
In my teens I discovered that I was different from my schoolmates who were all becoming attracted to girls; I was at a loss to understand what their lascivious curiosity was all about. But I also realised intuitively that unlike anyone else I knew, I was attracted to the same sex—a terrifying discovery in a macho and rather bullying teenage school environment. These were the days when people remembered that famous response of King George V, who was reputed to have said, on hearing about a gentleman having been arrested for importuning, “I thought men like that went out and shot themselves!” Clearly in his view this was the only decent thing a gay man could do!
It is interesting to me that George V did not see being gay as a choice; I think that erroneous notion came about when churches that hated being accused of homophobia wanted to move away from a position of total condemnation and did so by suggesting that maybe it is a choice—meaning that you could make “a good choice”—you could choose to live a celibate life!
Curiously perhaps, in those days back in the 1960’s, the Church was possibly one of the safest places to go. The confessional was the one place where confidentiality could be absolutely assured. Gossip was unlikely to be spread from there. Moreover, those were the days when nobody ever talked about accountability; there was no need for it, because in those days we were all taught that God sees absolutely everything that is going on—at the deepest level—and we all knew then that whatever we could hide from the eyes of men we could never conceal from God. That conviction went very deep and has stayed with me all my life. This was far more effective than modern attempts to enforce accountability within our human systems, because human ingenuity and deviousness can always find ways to circumvent strategies to make people accountable.
The trauma of growing up with feelings of attraction towards the same-sex may have been instrumental in my developing nervous twitches which become a part of my life that I’ve never overcome. (”Essential tremor” is the medical term I believe, which doesn’t sounds quite so lame!) But apart from that tell-tale sign of inner tension and conflict, from an early age I became a master at straight-acting and self-control. Because to me there was no way out; absolute self-discipline and self-mastery was, for me, the only way to survive in a hostile anti-gay world.
Indeed in those days I could see no alternative; there was nothing attractive about the gay scene where so many desperately lonely dysfunctional men sought physical contact through brief sexual exchanges to try and meet the deep need for intimacy and connection, whilst at the same time ensuring that there was no ongoing contact or even exchange of names—for fear of discovery. A very impoverished form of relationship indeed.
My early life included a time of boarding at St Paul’s Cathedral Choir School where I was a chorister for almost 4 years. This ensured that the Christian church was always a central part of my life. But my experience of the CofE in those days was that it was a place where an older generation of people would “do God” for an hour on Sundays but gave Him little thought for the rest of the week. I saw its function as merely a social club with onerous rules. But I was desperately hungry to find somewhere that offered some answers to the big questions in Life! So for me, the local evangelical Baptist Church attracted me, with its big congregation of all ages, where people did not mind talking explicitly about their Christian faith and what it meant to them. As a comm unity with its focus on Bible teaching, Christian discipleship and developing a sense of close-knitted Christian fellowship, this seemed very attractive to me, as a fearful and deeply insecure young man. Somehow it didn’t matter too much that I had to agree to a life of celibacy; in my twenties, most of my contemporaries were not married and leading a celibate life was the requirement for everyone. Then my single life didn’t seem so hard, though keeping my true feelings secret was a huge burden.
Moving into my early thirties, inevitably I became increasingly lonely as, one by one, all my friends got married. I was Best Man three times, only to find myself being cut out of the lives of my closest friends from that point onwards. As they pursued their new married life they no longer had much time for single friends like me. This was excruciatingly painful.
In those days I did have a most interesting career as a professional photographer which took me all over the country photographing cathedrals, stately homes, museums & galleries and royal events. But a photographer’s life can also be a very isolated one of endless travelling and working alone, so this was a mixed blessing.
By the early 1980’s, a new ray of hope emerged in the form of so-called ‘ex-gay’ ministry: these were specialised ministries apparently offering a way out of homosexuality through prayer and uncompromisingly devoted Christian discipleship. The untested pop-psychology of the day taught that absent fathers and domineering mothers were the cause of homosexuality. And abusive men were the problem for lesbians. The assumed corollary of such theories was that Christian homosexual people like me could at least start to believe that there might be some sense of legitimacy about our longings for same-sex intimacy— perhaps that this might even be the answer! The danger would be looking for answers to legitimate needs in illegitimate ways. Now we could say “yes” to close same-sex friendships, just as long as they were strictly non-sexual. This theory, and others that came along, such as seeing the need for inner healing of past hurts, or even deliverance from demonic spirits, all contributed to what then was a ground-breaking new outlook, that brought an end to the popular notion amongst many church leaders that all gays are destined for hell. These ideas brought hope for a more promising outcome. In fact, with hindsight, ‘ex-gay’ ministries did offer an important and positive stepping stone for those of us coming from deeply conservative Christian backgrounds . . . but not a solution.
These ideas all became part of ex-gay ministry in a package that today we would call conversion therapy. I have an exceptional level of experience with this kind of ministry and consequently have been invited to work with Jayne Ozanne and others to advise the government on how to develop policy that would outlaw conversion therapy.
This new hope was sufficient to motivate me to give up my job, train for ministry, and set up a specialised pastoral work for LGBTI folk called Courage, fully supported by my local evangelical Church! Amongst other things for the first few years this offered a residential Christian discipleship course based on the ‘ex-gay’ ministry approach—because we knew nothing else! And from the start in 1987, we were inundated with people seeking help—and this was before the internet, before mobile phones. Somehow people just got to hear about us and wanted to come. It was actually a very exciting time; most of us involved made deep lasting friendships that are still strong today over 30 years later. And by devoting ourselves to the ‘ex-gay’ ideal, nobody could say that we hadn’t really given it our best try.
But within 5-7 years it became really clear to us—that for all its strengths, the ministry didn’t achieve the kind of change any of us hoped for. And as many of you will know, Courage was to become the first such ministry in the world to change its approach and become fully LGBTI affirming, although we were then written off immediately by the evangelical world as apostate.
Of course it is common today to judge all such ‘ex-gay’ ministry as misguided, damaging and wrong, and I would agree. But for those of us who stayed the course we have grown immeasurably¼ and now we are confident out gay men and women who can speak about our journey with integrity, because we really did try the conservative Christian approach over many years … but found it wanting. Since then, we’ve moved on with our lives, spiritually, psychologically and emotionally and have become well adjusted LGBTI people.
Indeed over the remaining years of the Courage Ministry, we continued to be inundated with new people, mainly from evangelical backgrounds, coming to find refuge in a Christian gay-affirming environment.
One other very important aspect of my own journey is that in 1991 I married Bren Robson, at that time the first woman to lead a house church in this country— before the CofE started ordaining women. We thought we would make a good team; both working in controversial areas of ministry. And the little matter of me being a celibate gay man seemed not to be a stumbling block because, in our naivety, we just believed that Marriage was given first for companionship, not just sex! It all seemed a very credible proposition at the time and we believed that we were taking a courageous step of faith that God would reward—by granting us a happy satisfying marriage. It also conveniently fitted the prevailing evangelical view at the time—that all a gay man really needed to sort him out was to marry a good woman!
Unfortunately, we had failed altogether to understand that an essential part of marriage is mutual desire! But desire in evangelical Christian circles is a highly dodgy commodity, best avoided if at all possible! So I could not understand why, in spite of being a model husband in terms of being kind, considerate, a good listener and in all kinds of other ways, the fact that I hadn’t the least idea of what it meant to desire a woman, left my wife feeling deeply unhappy; unsurprisingly when you think of it. We separated in 2012, after 21 years together: then my wife could see that the effect for her, of being married to a gay man, was that she was left feeling like a ‘non-person’. Terribly painful and bewildering for her; a great struggle for us both.
In spite of being treated like a pariah by the churches which had been my former spiritual home, I must pay tribute to the fact that along the way I’ve had some truly wonderful Christian friends who have supported me through the most difficult periods in my life. Occasionally, when I felt most alone, support came from some surprising and unexpected quarters..
More recently, I have been exceptionally fortunate in meeting an extremely personable, handsome young man who came into my life just a few years ago. We had been introduced by a mutual friend. He announced to me—in a Skype call— that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me! He’d first become really interested in me after seeing my mugshot on FaceBook! I just didn’t believe him for a long time; and I was very resistant to the idea! However, fortunately for me, he would not take no for an answer, and patiently waited for absolutely ages before I agreed to meet up and get to know him. We have now been together for over six years—very happily (that was in 2019).
It just goes to show that we all need the freedom to be our authentic selves, if we are to find contentment in life and be enabled to be fruitful in what God has given us to do.
My one remaining sadness is that I have never been able to find a Christian community outside the evangelical wing that has that vibrant sense of community and mutual commitment that I so enjoyed in those early days. The kind of church I would most easily feel at home in doesn’t want me because I am deemed to be a heretic leading people down the slippery slope to an eternal destiny in hell!
In conclusion, I am reminded of Jesus’ words about false prophets, in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 7. Jesus said that we should judge by the fruit you see in people’s lives, as to whether they are true or false prophets.
As far as my life and ministry are concerned, I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.
Thanks for listening.
Jeremy Marks, July 2019
Update January 2021:
Around the time I first shared this story, my former wife Bren met and began to get to know a lovely (heterosexual) man (Tim). It was too soon for me to say anything at the time of giving this talk (July 2019) but within a few months, they knew they wanted to get married—a very happy event that took place in August 2020. Having resisted divorce until she felt ready and sufficiently settled in her own mind and heart to agree to that, we finally ended our marriage in legal terms early in January 2020.
It was wonderful to see Bren grow in confidence and find such happiness with a new man in her life—one who had married before but had been bereaved for about 8 years.
When their wedding day arrived, I had the honour to take part by walking her down the aisle of her local church and “giving her away” to her new husband. I also signed the Marriage Certificate as her witness. And my Italian partner, Paolo, made a video of the service, so that this could be shared with the many friends who were unable to attend, due to the COVID restrictions.
This was rather a wonderful way, I thought, to bring closure to a marriage of almost 30 years, one that we had entered into in good faith. But the marriage was clearly wrong for both of us, as I never experienced the hoped-for change of orientation that we believed God would accomplish, if I walked in obedience to God. Moreover, only when my wife re-married, did it become absolutely clear how very much happier she became, immediately, being with a heterosexual man who is attracted to a woman. I could be the most gentlemanly fellow but I never had the least idea what a wife needs to give her fulfilment as a woman.
In turn, this freed us to consider our future… We did not wait around too long! Taking advantage of the brief window of opportunity between lockdowns, Paolo and I got married in October 2020 in the local Guildford United Reformed Church, and my former wife was my witness. That church had just agreed amongst themselves a couple of summers before to conduct same-sex weddings but we were their first—so a happy occasion for that progressive welcoming church too!
In the revised edition of my book (2008), “Exchanging the truth of God for a Lie” I explained that Bren & I had a commitment to one another that we would not break unilaterally. And in a bit of a throw-away remark, I observed that in any case neither of us had found our “knight in shining armour”! But in the end our knights in shining armour came, for both of us! Thanks be to God.
It is wonderful to be able to share such a very happy conclusion—that all four of us (pictured here at our wedding: Paolo & Jeremy, Bren & Tim) have found happiness and fulfilment and are the best of friends without acrimony or regret.
Also in this story we have seen the fulfilment of the “ministry of reconciliation” that St Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians 5:18,19:
18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.
Jeremy Marks, January 2021