My Story – Jane: “The most unlikely people… Sarah, Lawrence and Esther”

Photo by fietzfotos on Pixabay

This month I return to what has become an occasional series. In earlier months we have heard Don and Sarah tell their stories and this month we hear from Jane. She writes:

I didn’t really come from a Christian home.  I did come from an overcrowded home – five children in a two-up -two-down house on the edge of London.  Sunday mornings we were packed off to Sunday School (until we were old enough to rebel) more to get us out the way, rather than for moral education.

I joined the church choir.  Not to fulfil a ministry call but because we got paid – and extra for weddings!   This was the 1970’s.  Church was dry, formal and the choir wore black cassocks, white surplices, and white ruff collars.

Eventually I left that church and its aging congregation to join one with a youth ministry.  Great church, large congregation, goodbye to “Hymns Ancient and Modern”, hello to “Mission Praise”!  It was here that I sort of drifted into a belief in God.  More a road to Emmaus than a road to Damascus. 

One evening the youth club leaders decided on “boy grab girl” musical chairs.  I so hope it wouldn’t be allowed today!  Only two of us sat out, another young woman, Sarah, and myself.  We ‘found’ each other on the edge and went to the pub (underage drinking no less appropriate than this youth club activity).

She asked why I didn’t want to join in – I said I just thought it was really naff, why didn’t you want to join in, “Well …er … I’m gay, and…er… it’s not really for me.”

I knew I didn’t want to play “boy-grab-girl” musical chairs, but it never occurred to me I might be a lesbian!  I fell madly, deeply in love.  I was 16, she 15.   Our relationship lasted 7 years.

I don’t have a soul-searching story.  I didn’t spend my nights asking God to change me.  I didn’t think I was going to burn in hell.  I never heard an anti-gay sermon.  I was never told that it was a pervasion, a sin, a disease that needed curing.   Until …

The church leadership did not smile upon our adolescent love.  First, they refused us Communion, banned us from the youth club, brought in Martin Hallett co-founder of the recently formed True Freedom Trust, one of the first ex-gay movements in the UK.  (Martin has later, like many in the ex-gay movement, reviewed his theology, then they said if we didn’t renounce our relationship they would denounce us from the pulpit.

(Note to church ministers; if you have young LGBTQ folks in your congregation, affirming or not, be careful what you ask them.  In one of our pastoral sessions the minister said to “Don’t you want children”?  I was 16, did he think the only option for women was motherhood?  Never has a question shown me a more out-of-touch minister.  Don’t be that minister.)

So, we left church, wiping the dust from our feet.  We left; they did not kick us out.  We had agency.  My relationship with God wasn’t deep, and I didn’t miss it.  I filled my days with activism.  My teenage years were joy-filled, fun and fabulous.

I got involved with LGBT politics; I went to Downing Street, I lobbied the Commons, I did radio, I did TV (there is not enough money you can offer to get me to share that link!).  It was the early 80s, the age of consent was still 21 for men and no-one had heard of AIDS yet. 

I vocally spread the lies that there was no room for LGBT people in God’s kingdom.  I told people that as God didn’t love them, they had not obligation to love God back.    I told my story of how the church treated us.  I was good at it too.

Scroll forward a few years, in time and maturity.

Sarah and I had separated after 7 years but remained very firm friends.   I was living alone for the first time in my life, and it felt empty.  The flat, yes, but also an inner emptiness.  I hadn’t given up activism, but it wasn’t fulfilling me the same way that it had.  

I felt a longing, a desire for something more.  I came to realise that what was missing was a relationship with God.   I started reading the Bible; the book of Acts – I remembered that was about the early converts.  I’m really not sure why I didn’t start with a Gospel.

“Do you understand what you are reading?”  The question addressed by Philip to an Ethiopian Eunuch.   I didn’t know then the theology of this passage – that it featured a queer person of colour!  So no, I didn’t understand what I was reading.  So, I prayed.   I prayed that God would show me that I would be welcome back to the flock.   But God was silent.  Which of course is not true – I had forgotten how to listen.

Then I laid my fleece.  If you want me back, send me Christians – five of them.  And let at least three of them be gay.   Quite unexpectedly two work colleagues, part of the works LGBT group started talking about their different churches.  That same weekend I met Nick at a party.  We got on brilliantly, but he had to leave early.  He was reading the lesson in church the next morning. 

Walking home the next evening, I bumped into my new neighbour, Lawrence.  “Been anywhere nice?”  I ask.  Just to church, he answered, I’m the organist.  Four out of five.  This was enough to convince me that God was 1) real, 2) heard me, and 3) was seeking me out.

I however was still reluctant.  My hesitancy was about the nature of God.

There is the stereotype of the loving God who sent Jesus to reconcile us to Godself, and then there is the stereotype of the God who smites everyone.  Which one was I hearing calling in the night?

I didn’t have the confidence (humility?) to talk to those God had sent to me so there was nothing else to do but go to church.  My neighbour was the organist at the local church, so I opted for one some distance away; St Anne’s, Limehouse.    This was a huge, Grade I listed, Hawksmoor building, lovely grounds, enormous high spire.  I thought the congregation would be big enough not to notice me slipping in at the back.

The first time I went (every time I went) I waited till the service had started so no one would see me or greet me.  I was terrified the building would fall on me, or that everyone would know I was a lesbian – I was entering the home of the Smiting God.

But it was okay.  I left during the last hymn.  Repeat week 2.  Repeat.  Repeat. 

Lent came and the minister was doing a sermon series on the letter to the Ephesians.   His words, God’s words, touched my heart.

“Remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

I started to cry.  Was this a message for me?  Was God talking to me?  I was without God and without hope, I was far off.  Could Jesus draw me close again?

As the chords for the last hymn began, I got up to leave.   But someone was blocking my pew.  I saw the minister making his way towards me.  I felt trapped, I panicked, and jumped over the last two rows to get out, with the image of the minister flying down the side aisle towards me, black cassock flowing behind him.   It was a very, very funny sight.

“Christ came to proclaim peace to those who were far off.”

I could do with some peace.  It might sound blasphemous, but God was harassing me.  That’s how I felt.  The peace I wanted was away from God, but everywhere I went, God was there.

The thing with hope is this; whilst you are far off you have hope that God will welcome you home, running to meet you like the parent of a prodigal child.  What you don’t have is certainty.   What if I turn to God, act on the hope, and find that God is really a smiter?  That it was all a trick, I turn to God and God says, “Go away”.  If I don’t turn to God, I still have hope.  If I do and God rejects me, I have nothing – no hope and without God.

On Good Friday I went for a long walk.  I prayed, I recalled the sermons, the Bible study I had done.  

I turned to God.  I sat by the river and prayed.  If You, God will have me back I will give up everything: my sexuality, the activism, my friends.   I will do whatever You ask of me.

I heard God.  Perhaps for the first time my ears and heart were open, I heard God speak.

“I don’t want you to give anything up.  I just want you.”

On Easter Sunday I returned to St Anne’s.  I was still late, but this time, as the minister ran down the aisle I stayed in my pew.  I stayed seated and looked like I was praying – which I was, praying for the courage to speak to someone and praying that no one would speak to me.

“Welcome home, Jane”.  I spun round, that wasn’t God – I’d heard God.  It was Lawrence.  Because the organ was high up at the back of the church, in all these weeks I’d never seen him there.  God really does have a sense of humour.

I never “came out” at that church.  I stayed for 7 months and joined one of their small groups.  At one of the meetings someone asked, “whatever happened to that woman we’ve been praying for?”  The leader answered, “she’s sitting here”.  It was an awesome discovery that this group had been praying for me, loved this stranger they didn’t know, and held me in prayer every week.

Lawrence took me to Elim Pentecostal church.  I was a bit dubious and told him so.  The only Pentecostals I knew had a reputation for snake handling, and I thought they would all know I was a lesbian and start praying in tongues over me.  I was still a bit too fragile to risk rejection by God or God’s family.  That’s why I hadn’t come out at St Anne’s.

I loved Elim.  They were the most authentic Christians I had ever met.  We lived on a council estate in East London.  Prayer requests were about money and bills, about sons in prison, about alcohol addicted husbands, about life.

Prayers were answered (including someone getting a free sample of washing powder in the post when they had run out and their giro wasn’t due for another two days).  These people really loved each other.

The pastor’s wife took me under her wing (even though she was only a couple of years older than me, she was very motherly, mumsy, which I was most certainly not) and I told her I was struggling with my sexuality and my faith.  I told her my story and that God had said I was alright and asked her to pray as well – in case I was just hearing what I wanted to hear.

She was shocked to hear I was a lesbian (really – Doc Martens, short hair, dungarees, I fulfilled every stereotype) I guess she’d never met one before.  She said she and her husband would pray about it, but she was most certain that you couldn’t be gay and Christian and that I could change with the power of prayer.  And that she and her husband would pray for me to be healed.

Three months later she came back to me.  I can’t remember her exact words, but the conversation went like this:

“I really don’t know what to make of it.  Every time I prayed for you to be healed, God told me to change my prayer.  So, I prayed that God would show me what the scriptures say, and I found that the scriptures say nothing.  I don’t understand.  I know you can’t be gay and Christian, but God seems to think you can.  I am not praying for you anymore.  I am praying for me that I may come to understand this truth.” Just wow.

At that time Billy Graham was doing his LIFE crusade and was coming to West Ham football stadium.  Elim hired a coach, and I went with them.  I told God (yes, I was getting my confidence back) that if Billy Graham said anything even remotely anti-gay, I would know God had lied to me about being accepted as I am.

Well, he didn’t.  Not in West Ham stadium and not in Wembley stadium the following week.  What he did talk about was the love of God for all people, that God accepts you as you are and that there is nothing you can do that can separate you from the love of God.  All this I knew to be true. 

Billy Graham talked about the sins of the world, about poverty that drove people to become sex workers.  This would not separate them from the love of God.  He talked about people abusing their bodies with drugs or alcohol.  This would not separate them from the love of God.  Not once, and I was listening very carefully, did he talk about homosexuality.

Reflecting back, I find it interesting that I chose to tell my Elim congregation I was a lesbian, but not the Church of England congregation.  Was that because it was the Church of England that had rejected me as a teenager?

Perhaps it easier to come out as LGBTQ in a church that you have joined rather than in a church that you have grown up in?  No one else was there when I gave my life to Jesus.  No one else was there to hear God speak or witness my floods of tears as Christ accepted me, just as I am.  If a church did not affirm my experience of God, then it would not be the church for me.  Elim were a Spirit led church who never invalidated my experiences, never assumed the answers to prayers and never judged. 

I thought I had found my church home.

And then …

Remember my first girlfriend, Sarah?  I told her about Elim and this great accepting church and how different it was to our teenage experiences.  She was horrified that this vocal LGBTQ activist, and opponent of the church, was now a Christian.  Her words: “If you have to go to church then at least go to that gay church.”

I did have vague memories of a church for the LGBT community, but there was no way I was going to MCC (Metropolitan Community Church), it would just be a bunch of gay men playing at church (did I mention I was, and am, a feminist)?   

She researched it, this before the internet, found out where it met and dragged me along.  We sat outside for an hour watching people go in.  I was not going to go unless I saw women going.  When three women did Sally marched up to an older man going in, demanded if he was going to “that church” (he looked terrified) and said, “take her with you” and ran off!

Well, it was grand.  20 or so men plus the three women.  Wonderful, spirit filled, atmosphere and no one seemed to be “playing” at church nor were they overly camp, not a feather boa in sight.  Good singing – Mission Praise – “Make me a channel of your peace”.   Not an overly interesting hymn, the chorus begins; “O Master, grant that I may never seek.”   But they did not sing this.  It became:

O Saviour, to some
O Teacher, to others
O Jesus, to others, and to some just oooo!

This was a church that had thought about women and feminist theology.  This cacophony of words told me this was a church that wanted me.  And God told me this was the church where I was to stay.

Over fellowship hour the welcoming was effusive.  But weirdly every time I went to approach the women I was intercepted.  I found out a couple of weeks later that Esther and her friends were on a mission from another church.  They came every week, sat at the back and prayed for everyone to be healed of their homosexuality.  The church had a system to stop new people being approached by them.  They had been praying for women to join their church, and I suspect for Esther and co, to leave! But I would not have joined if I hadn’t seen them go in.

I was home.  

Five years later I was ordained as an MCC minister.  I kept my promise to God by the river that if They would have me back, I would do whatever was asked of me.

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Jane is now more formally known as Rev Jane Clarke of the Metropolitan Community Church in Glasgow, but Jane to her friends! If you are living in, or within reach of Glasgow, the church meets at Shawlands URC, every Sunday at 3pm, 111 Moss-Side Road, Glasgow, G41 3TP. Check the website link above for more information.

Rev Jane Clarke – Easter 2022 (extract from video)