Greenbelt festival's creative director says they're not the same...
Justin Brierley caught up with singer-songwriter-turned-media-commentator Vicky Beeching just 48 hours after she told the world she is gay via an interview in The Independent.
I’m sitting in a cafe at Broadcasting House with Vicky Beeching. She has just been on BBC London with Vanessa Feltz and is set to go on air with Jeremy Vine on Radio 2. It’s less than 48 hours since she publicly announced she is gay, and the ensuing media whirlwind has generated multiple headlines and hours of radio and TV interviews.
Yet the former worship leader confesses to being more nervous about doing this interview than any of the others. Speaking to the evangelical Christian community about her decision is like ‘talking to family’, she explains. And she does not want to be misunderstood.
Growing up in the evangelical charismatic church, Beeching started writing worship songs aged ten. She became a mainstay of the contemporary Christian music scene in both the US and the UK. With her theological training and musicianship, she produced catchy songs that also have depth. Churches across the country sang ‘Yesterday, Today and Forever’ and ‘The Wonder of the Cross’, and she was a regular worship leader at Spring Harvest and many other Christian events.
I WAS QUITE JOHN WESLEY-ESQUE IN TERMS OF REAL PASSION FOR HOLINESS; IT FELT LIKE SUCH A STRANGE COLLISION
Then, a few years ago, she stopped leading worship and writing music, and underwent a transformation of sorts. While pursuing a theology PhD at Durham University, she started to appear regularly as a media commentator on outlets such as Sky News and the BBC. She gained more than 50,000 Twitter followers and began a popular blog. Online, she championed technology and the Church, but also became a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage, swapping her doctoral thesis to that subject.
Her newly voiced support of gay relationships left many of her followers feeling confused and even betrayed. She had come to occupy an uncharted middle ground, continuing to affirm her evangelical roots, only with many new-found secular and progressive friends.
A number of questions have effectively been answered by her recent announcement. For 30 years she kept her orientation private; even her family and closest friends knew nothing of it. Then in 2009 she was diagnosed with a rare disease after red marks began to appear on her forehead.
‘The body turns on itself and your soft tissue begins to turn to scar tissue,’ she explains to me. The exact causes of the life-threatening condition are unknown, but Beeching believes the stress of her silent struggle with homosexuality was a key factor. While undergoing chemotherapy to combat the disease, she made a commitment to herself to go public about her sexuality by the age of 35 (by July of this year).
She knew the decision could mean that her future as a worship leader would be over. Understandably, she decided to plan for the future and diversify. As her media career took off, her music royalties dropped as American churches stopped singing her songs in light of her support for gay marriage. None of this came as a surprise to Beeching (although the number of angry responses from some of her former fan base may have done).
Beeching is at her most emotional when discussing the fact that she is unlikely ever to lead thousands in worship again. ‘It is the most heartbreaking thing that I might never get to do that again; to lay that down feels like a death and a grief process,’ she divulges. But she’s not bitter. She is keen to stress that she is as strong a supporter of the Church (and evangelicals) as she ever was. She just wants to see a bigger conversation emerge.
Her coming out was greeted by many well-wishers online and prompted a standing ovation at the Greenbelt festival, where she recently led a seminar discussion on sexuality. She also says that many theological conservatives have been charitable: ‘They’ve said: “We might not agree, but we respect your journey and your choice.”’
Beeching’s announcement has poured more fuel on the fire of the current debate, stoked by Steve Chalke, Rob Bell and others about how evangelicals should respond to Christians who find themselves on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) spectrum. In the end, wherever Christians stand on the issue, Beeching hopes that her contribution will enable the Church to better help those who struggle with issues concerning sexuality.
She says: ‘My passion is to have my journey help people. That is the only way you can redeem all those broken pieces and make them into something useful. I hope that my story helps others not to go through the same thing, carrying it silently without seeking help – whatever they conclude about what the Bible says.’
Your parents are committed Christians. Was that a strong factor in your journey to faith?
It was, yes…My mum is a worship leader, so she taught me to play the guitar and piano. When I was seven she led me through a prayer committing my life to God, which was quite a sweet memory. I remember kneeling down with her by the piano and praying a little prayer, giving my life to God and saying I wanted to be a Christian.
Do you remember the first time you led worship?
It was at a youth group weekend away with St Mary Bredin, Canterbury. I was so terrified…my face felt like it was on fire. I was so shy. People were quite taken by how red my face could go; probably more than by the way I sang.
When did you start to experience same-sex attraction?
Growing up is quite confusing, isn’t it, anyway? You’re dealing with a lot of feelings and thoughts. It was probably when I was 12 or 13. I was at a girls’ school, so I wondered whether it was just a phase because there weren’t enough boys around. I didn’t really know what to do about it. It was something I couldn’t talk about.
How did you make sense of it in your own mind?
You just think: ‘This is too much for me to process.’ It can short-circuit your emotions. I was such an earnest Christian and it mattered so much to me what God thought. I have journals that I kept from a very young age…I used to score myself on the fruits of the Holy Spirit. I was quite John Wesley-esque in terms of real passion for holiness; it felt like such a strange collision. I wanted to honour God and please him, and yet I was experiencing these feelings that I thought were completely the opposite of that.
Responses to Vicky Beeching’s announcement
To those who don’t agree with Vicky Beeching’s views on sex, as I don’t, fair enough. But that doesn’t change the courage in what she has done. Sean Doherty, Living Out
We’re not at liberty to change what the Bible says about the morality of gay sex. Vicky Beeching is sadly wrong to change her mind on that. Ed Shaw, Emmanuel City Centre Church, Bristol
Standing ovation for Vicky Beeching at the start of a discussion about marriage at Greenbelt. Rebecca Onderstal, Cothen Protestant Church, Netherlands
I feel bewildered as to why Christians who are same-sex attracted but are anti same-sex marriage don’t get the same airtime. This group of people is quite large in number within the Church. Dean Roberts, Anglican ordinand
Vicky Beeching is brave and incredible. She speaks the truth of herself and liberates others to know they’re loved as they are. Charlie Mackesy, Holy Trinity Brompton
Did you just bury the feelings?
I didn’t feel there was any way forwards for me to ever act on them or acknowledge them as a good thing. But they did weigh on me very heavily, so I would pray about it a lot. If you look at the words of my early song lyrics, most of them are prayers for forgiveness. The very first song I ever had published was on the Soul Survivor [The] People’s Album. It’s a song that Beth Redman recorded the vocal for.
It was called ‘Search Me O God’ and was based on David’s prayer that God would take away anything in him that was not right and would give him a heart after God’s own heart. That was a prayer I kept coming back to again and again.
In your interview for The Independent, you talked about a negative experience of receiving ministry to deliver you from homosexuality as a teenager at a summer festival. Some have speculated that the event was Soul Survivor.
It is important for me to say that it wasn’t Soul Survivor. I don’t feel comfortable naming the event, but Soul Survivor is very dear to my heart. I love those guys and I love Mike [Pilavachi]. I think Soul Survivor would have handled that situation a lot better.
I don’t regret having that experience; it helps me understand what other young people have gone through. Labelling same-sex feelings as something demonic is really damaging; it affected me psychologically. In my teenage years I thought, ‘Gosh, every time I have one of these feelings, there must be like a literal demon inside of me, rearing its head. Maybe I am out of control.’ It was quite frightening.
Conferences like Soul Survivor continue to take a traditional stance on sexuality. Are you happy to agree to disagree on their approach?
It would be great if conferences like that could present both sides of the argument. Kids need to be free to make up their own minds…There will be people who through matters of conscience feel like they want to identify as gay but stay celibate. You need people to model that. The other side should be modelled too.
Mainly what I want is to break the silence around the topic and see people able to voice their questions, whether it is about them or their loved ones or their theology. We need to get a lot more comfortable talking about this quite uncomfortable stuff.
THE NIGHT BEFORE THIS THING CAME OUT IN THE INDEPENDENT, I WONDERED IF I WOULD EVEN BE ALIVE THE NEXT DAY
Did you think about all this when you were touring, leading worship and recording?
I had to focus on my passion for God. That was easy because it was very real and genuine. But there was always this nagging thought in the back of my head; what if they knew?
So you started to take a few people into your confidence after you turned 30?
I did. It was getting ill that forced my hand. People will disagree with this passionately, but I would say that I see God’s hand at work in it…I felt like he really stopped me in my tracks with this autoimmune condition. I wasn’t really able to do that much work.
Many evangelicals love your music and some may be feeling betrayed. How would you respond to them?
During those years leading worship, not only did I not talk about my sexuality, but I didn’t do anything about it, so there isn’t any sense that they should feel betrayed, like I have had a life behind closed doors.
I can understand why people would feel surprised, but I am exactly the same person I was yesterday. I am just someone who is voicing something about who they would like to end up with in terms of a life partner. I know why it matters, because I know the Church so well, but my hope is that people will be able to separate the songs and their usefulness from me and the choices I am making.
MY GOAL IS TO FIND A SOULMATE AND GET MARRIED
The Independent interview was quite negative about the Church. How does that make you feel?
Any negativity about the Church in there is not mine. That would be the journalist who wrote the piece. He does have some very passionate thoughts about the Church…I can’t control what he writes.
I have been trying to take every opportunity I can to say how much I love the Church and that, for me, making this announcement is not damning the Church, it is simply saying that we need to make it acceptable for people to talk about this, whatever their views are.
Are you open to the possibility of being in a gay relationship yourself?
My goal is to find a soulmate and get married; that is what most of us are made to do. God said it is not good that people are alone. Obviously, that is rooted in a passage that most people would think defends heterosexual marriage only, but for me it is a principle that God wants us to be in community. He has made us – unless we are called to celibacy – to find that other person.
I would want to find a person to marry in a way that Paul describes: someone that loves God, that has a strong Christian faith; laying down our lives for one another. I have always missed having that kind of comrade and partner to run through life with.
A lot of theologians would say that the biblical pattern from Genesis through to Revelation is of marriage between a man and a woman. What is your response to that view?
We need to take a similar approach to the one that many of us in the evangelical charismatic Church have taken towards women. If you look superficially at what Paul said about women in the New Testament, women should be silent, remain at home, ask their husbands and abstain from teaching.
We owe the verses about women as well as the relevant verses in Leviticus [18:22 and 20:13] and Romans [1:26-27], and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah [Genesis 19] a deeper look…
In Matthew 22:30 it says there is no marriage in heaven. Gender may also play a different, lesser role in our heavenly bodies. So we need to look at things eschatologically. I always come back to Galatians 3:28: “There is no Jew or gentile, slave or free, male or female for all are one in Christ Jesus”. The resurrection of Christ has impacted those old, dividing lines, so we need to look at what that means for sexuality from an AD rather than just a BC paradigm.
MAKING THIS ANNOUNCEMENT IS NOT DAMNING THE CHURCH
Do you still uphold your ‘evangelical’ label?
I do. People have told me that I don’t have the right to that name any more as I’ve spoken in support of same-sex marriage, but for me evangelicalism is rooted in many things: loving the Bible; having a high view of scripture; a passion for social justice; wanting to share the good news about Jesus.
These are all things I hold true to. So I don’t see why there should be a black and white issue that casts me out. We found room within evangelicalism for people that disagree about women in leadership. Even within the Evangelical Alliance, for example, you can hold differing views about women.
Where do you hope to be ten years from now?
The night before this thing came out in The Independent, I wondered if I would even be alive the next day. I just thought the sky might fall on my head. You know when you just can’t see beyond something because it just feels so difficult to do.
My passion is to have my journey help people. That is the only way you can redeem all those broken pieces and make them into something useful. I hope that my story helps others not to have to go through the same thing, carrying it silently without seeking help – whatever they conclude about what the Bible says.
I would love to continue leading worship in some places. The most amazing moment for me is standing in front of a room full of 10,000 Christians, hearing them raising their voices. It is the most heartbreaking thing that I might never get to do that again.
To lay that down…feels like a death and a grief process. Whatever it is that I do in the future I will be doing it as a person who loves Jesus as much as they have ever done and still very much lives the lyric: ‘Above all else (Jesus), give me yourself.’
You can follow Vicky @vickybeeching
Want to comment on this article? Email Justin.Brierley@premier.org.uk or tweet @christianitymag