When I turned eighteen, my lovely aunt gave me a necklace from which a gold cross hung. It was about a year after I had been baptised, and two years after I had first become a Christian. I loved it, and what it represented.
But I stopped wearing it at the end of my first week of university.
In fact, I put it away in a safe, and I didn’t think about it, or God, for years. But when, six months ago, circumstances combined to return me to my home county of Surrey to both live and work, it turned out to be surprisingly difficult to walk past the church that I had once attended and loved. And after finally securing a job and returning to a state of relative normalcy, it turned out that there were no more excuses to hide behind either. It was time to think about why I left my church and my faith, and perhaps explore whether they were things I wanted to return to.
My decision to leave the Church was very tied up with Malta. Not because I hated God, or because I thought he had failed to protect me – free will having played a blinder where my attacker was concerned – but because my failure to admit that I had been raped meant that my radical behavioural shift to alcoholic nymphomaniac was utterly inexplicable to me. All I knew was that I was, almost nightly, doing things that I knew were both totally against my beliefs, and opposed to the beliefs and lifestyles of some of my closest friends – and that I woke up every morning hating myself, and being continually wracked with guilt at how bad a Christian I was being.
An extract from my journal during that unhappy time:
It’s lunchtime and I’m sitting with the most gorgeous view – a stunning lake with mountains in glorious sunshine. I still feel disgusting. I feel on the verge of tears, I have a churning in my stomach, and I feel so guilty.
The simple truth is that I stopped praying and going to church because the guilt became too much for me; I hadn’t ‘behaved like a Christian’ for months, and the daily struggle between my actions and my faith was destroying me. Since it was easier to walk away from the Church than it was to face up to what had happened, I chose to give up my faith.
But what had I really given up? Until recently, I thought I knew. But as I have re-examined the core principles of Christianity in the last few months, I’ve come to realise that five years ago, I walked away from a religion that didn’t actually exist.
I was convinced that I could no longer be a Christian because I was failing to be the kind of person I thought God wanted me to be. But Christianity actually teaches that Jesus helps those who are struggling (and failing), not those who are tootling along just fine. Mark 2:17 quotes Jesus: “Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do.” I had become so obsessed by the ‘rules’ and my guilt that I’d totally lost sight of what my faith was really about – admitting that I was a person making all kinds of mistakes, and that I needed God to help put me right. Had I really understood the faith I declared by the cross around my neck, I would have clung to it as tightly as possible.
Rape isn’t the only thing I’ve come to terms with in the last five years. I finally came out as bisexual to my friends and family, went on dates with women, and slept with women. Being gay is something that forms a real part of my identity, and that I will fiercely defend. I resolutely ignored this truth when I first joined the Church, but it’s not something I can sweep under the carpet now: I love boobs.
Along with the Church’s attitude to women, it was the biggest obstacle to my return to Christianity. I had to confront Christian homophobia, and decide if the Church that caused it was something I could bear to be a part of. I needed to understand the parts of the bible that apparently condemned homosexuality. I needed to confront my Christian friends and ask them if they found me unnatural, or wrong.
Because Christianity does so much damage in this area. In America, one school district’s “Christian” homophobic policy contributed to the suicides of seven students in one year, and in the UK, “Christians” held a seminar on gays titled ‘The Lepers Amongst Us’. This stuff is huge, and it fundamentally damages people.
Well, it took a while, but I did confront it. If you would like to ask me about it then contact me and I will happily have a chat – and if there’s enough interest then I will post something about it – but the upshot is that I have spent months reading, thinking and talking about homosexuality and the Church, and I’m in a place where I’ve figured out my position and I’m happy. Yes, stories like the ones mentioned above make me batshit crazy, but in terms of my personal response to gays and the Church, I’m content.
Getting over theological obstacles is one thing, but actually regaining faith in God is something very different. And it started to return to me a few months ago when a very wise friend asked me the following question:
“Do you want to get your faith back?”
I thought for a beat, and then responded: “Yes”.
He leaned back in his chair, shrugged, and said, with a relaxed smile on his face, “Okay then. God’s in your heart, if he’s what you want. You can get there.”
One of my favourite poems is ‘Little Gidding’ by T.S. Eliot. And the part of that poem that I – literally – carry around with me, in my great-grandmother’s locket, is this:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
I have been forever changed by my rape. It fundamentally changed me. But I’ve spent five years coming to terms with what happened to me, and I feel like for the first time, maybe I have finally arrived back where I started: with self respect and confidence, and with faith. Eliot was right when he wrote that we might truly know the place for the first time.
Last Sunday, I put the gold cross back around my neck.