It’s not often you see a Christian singer’s faith headlined in the mainstream press. When you do, it’s often due to a controversy. At first glance, this seems to be the case with the row engulfing 90s pop group Eternal - but the story isn't quite as simple as it seems, explains Heather Tomlinson
90s R&B group Eternal planned to reunite for a tour this year. But last week, one half of the foursome claimed that the plans were scrapped because two members (who are Christian) refused to play at gay-rights supporting Pride events.
The details are disputed, but some headlines imply it’s about faith: The Daily Mail led with “Christian Bennett sisters refused to play LGBTQ gigs” while The Daily Telegraph said people are “trying to get Christian members of Eternal cancelled”.
However it is actually over the increasingly hostile public debate about balancing women’s and transgender rights.
Who are Eternal?
Anyone who remembers the 90s will recognise catchy Eternal songs such as ‘Stay’ and ‘Just a step from heaven’. In 1992, music execs melded Louise Redknapp (nee Nurding), her friend Kéllé Bryan and the two sisters, Vernie and Easther Bennett, to form Eternal. They went on to sell millions of records.
Louise left the band after three years, married footballer Jamie Redknapp and started a TV career. After the four-women group became three, they released the band’s most successful single: 'I wanna be the only one'. Bryan left in 1998, later to be seen on TV soap Hollyoaks and chat show Loose Women. In 2000, the Bennetts called it a day for the group. Vernie trained as a lawyer and featured on Songs of Praise, while Easther was briefly married to Boyzone member Shane Lynch, who later became a Christian. Kéllé, Vernie and Easther reformed briefly for reality TV show The Big Reunion in 2014, but split again shortly after. Like many other 80s and 90s bands, they had planned to reunite for a reunion tour.
What’s the row about?
In mid-September, Louise’s PR man Simon Jones told the media that an email sent by the sisters had led to the tour’s cancellation: “A message was sent to the team putting together the Eternal reunion stating that if it was to go ahead, neither Vernie nor Easther would perform at Pride shows or LGBT festivals.
“This was because the duo felt that the gay community was being hijacked by the trans community and they do not support this.
“Louise is a huge supporter and ally of the LGBTQ+ community and both herself and Kéllé told the duo they would not work with anyone who held these views, and as such the reunion as a four would not be going ahead.”
So are they a Christian band?
The Bennett sisters grew up singing in their church gospel choir, and do seem to have a faith that is important to them. In fact in 1995, the band told Cross Rythms that all four of them were believers. In 2017, Kéllé told iBelieve magazine that faith had been a bone of contention when the group was together, but that she now had a genuine faith and attended church regularly.
In a 2000 interview with The Guardian, Vernie told the paper that she would die for her religion, and that the greatest love of her life was “God and my mum”. In response to the recent row, she posted on Instagram: “Though it is impossible & counterproductive to respond to the overwhelming number of statements & allegations made online recently; I place this moment in God’s hands.”
Are the Bennetts opposed to LGBTQ rights?
This was fiercely denied by the Bennett sisters’ current manager, Dennis Ingoldsby, who said they were “totally appalled” and that the other side had “thrown them under the bus”.
“The girls sent an email to Louise’s camp saying they loved playing Pride, and they loved the ethos of the event. For her camp to go on the record suggesting they are homophobic is utterly outrageous. This is nothing about gay rights. The girls have played numerous LGBTQI venues their entire careers and have been inspired by the love and acceptance they have received.
“This is about the debate about the trans lobby and the erosion of the rights of women and children. Vernie said she had some concerns about the Pride movement being hijacked - and she is not alone - but this has now been weaponised against her.”
Why does he say that transgender rights are opposed to women’s and children’s rights?
In an effort to be more inclusive, some progressives want transgender women (born biological men) to be allowed into traditional female-only spaces such as public toilets, changing rooms, competitive sports and even women’s prisons.
Critics argue this is unfair for a number of reasons. For example, it could make female spaces unsafe as sexual predators can pretend to be transgender for nefarious purposes; and transgender women have a biological advantage in sports.
Ingoldsby said that the Eternal row shows “women are being excluded from the conversation” – a common complaint in the debate. In response, Jones said that Redknapp believes in “equality for everyone.”
The gay community has been split by this acrimonious issue, so while mainstream Pride events might be supportive of modern transgender rights, new groups like the LGB Alliance believe they are in conflict.
So this isn’t about their faith?
Many Christians do share the concerns about the limits of transgender rights and have got into trouble for voicing similar gender critical opinions.
However the main dispute has been nothing to do with religion. For example, Harry Potter author JK Rowling, Father Ted and The IT Crowd writer Graham Linehan, Moloko singer Róisín Murphy, lesbian professor Kathleen Stock and Labour MP Rosie Duffield have all been ‘cancelled’ for gender critical statements. Tax expert, Maya Forstater, and lawyer, Allison Bailey (founder of LGB Alliance) both won legal cases in which they claimed that they were discriminated against at work due to these opinions.
It is an ongoing disagreement that shows no sign of being resolved, but the Church is not the centre of the row.
So we’re not going to see a four-strong Eternal concert any time soon?
The bitterness of the PR statements suggests it is unlikely.