‘Forced out’: Lesbian told being openly gay did not meet church’s behaviour rules
Exclusive: Investigation at Kentish Town church as vicar says group leader dating another woman would be sinful
04 February, 2021 — By Harry Taylor
Rachel Gillingham led bible study groups at the St Luke’s Church – before she was forced to leave the church
A WOMAN has said she was forced out of a church congregation after coming out as a lesbian. Rachel Gillingham’s case left her needing three years of counselling.
An investigation into St Luke’s Church in Oseney Crescent and its vicar has since taken place. She had been a regular at the church – part of the Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) network – but was frozen out after coming out to Reverend Jon March in 2019.
Rev March told her that openly backing equal marriage within the Church of England (CofE) was unacceptable for someone in her position as a bible study leader, and that if she was gay she could not have sex with another woman as he believed it was a sin.
Ms Gillingham, 35, who now suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, told the New Journal: “I’m attending church services and I am shaking and I am having nightmares the night before, and bursting into tears in the middle of the service. “I have had to stop attending church […] because my body is like: ‘get the hell out of here, what are you doing?’
“It was a huge part of my life. I have lost [that] and I have lost a huge sense of belonging and community. That has been incredibly tough in terms of loneliness and losing friendships.”
An investigation was conducted by an adviser to the Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, who met Ms Gillingham earlier this year.
Initially, Rev March had said she could continue to attend and lead groups, but went on to back a system of strict behaviour rules for church leaders so that they would be “beyond reproach”.
According to the investigation report, Ms Gillingham’s sexuality and backing for gay marriage within the CofE was included with living with partners while unmarried and posting on social media after drinking in newly prohibited behaviour to encourage “consistency in living out their values publicly and privately”.
Rev March later told the investigation that “sex outside of marriage, if it is not acknowledged as sin and repented, is equally a bar to lay leadership for those who identify as straight as to those who identify as LGBTQIA.”
But Ms Gillingham said: “It’s just a incredibly poor understanding with what it means in terms of the LGBT+ community.
“Someone making a choice to have a few drinks on a Saturday night is not the same as you denying my choice of marriage in your church. They are not the same thing.”
St Luke’s is part of the Holy Trinity Brompton network – which also runs the Alpha courses
Ms Gillingham and a friend were then invited to a meeting with Rev March and other members of the church leadership in mid-January last year, where he told her that church leaders needed to be “beyond reproach”.
Ms Gillingham asked what this meant in terms of her sexuality, to which Rev March responded that he did not realise she “would be so visible and open as a gay person, that he was unhappy she had refused to have a discussion about this with him […] and thirdly that he was accountable to his bishop and the Church of England” – and therefore she was accountable to him.
He then told her that he had hoped they would have had a discussion on the subject of her sexuality and whether she could date another woman, “in the hope that if they discussed the matter [she] would change her mind”.
His testimony to the investigation added he found Ms Gillingham’s unwillingness to talk and change her mind “challenging”.
When she repeatedly asked Rev March whether this new stance meant she could not lead groups, he stayed silent. Ms Gillingham told the meeting that she would not be able to carry on at the church as she was not prepared to compromise her sexuality, and left upset.
She also criticised a lack of aftercare, as nobody from the church contacted her for weeks afterwards. “The challenge with that is that he knows that if he comes out and says ‘yes, because you’re a lesbian you are unable to lead the bible study group’, immediately I can then say, ‘well that’s discrimination’,” she said. “So he doesn’t say yes, but he doesn’t say no either, he just leaves this chasm.
“The outcome of the meeting is that I say ‘what I’m hearing is that if I’m openly gay, which I’ve told you I am, I’m no longer welcome to lead a group, and obviously if I’m unable to use my gifts and fully belong to this church, what you’re saying is I’m not welcome here’. He just stayed silent. It was this incredibly horrible meeting.”
After the incident and investigation, Ms Gillingham was able to address the Parochial Church Council (PCC), which is in charge of the church’s governance, and but was stunned to find out they had not been informed of the incident.
St Luke’s Church in Oseney Crescent
St Luke’s is part of the HTB network.The evangelical church has partly extended its network by taking over redundant churches and “planting”. A vicar may bring their congregation with them and encourage young people in their 20s and 30s to attend. It is seen as a success story by the CofE and attracts millions of pounds in funding each year.
The churches are a big contrast to the conventional image of the Church of England. Vicars and wardens are often younger, pews are done away with and music is a likely to come from a guitar as it is from the traditional church organ. HTB churches often have active social media presences to market themselves to a younger audience. Rev March reopened St Luke’s in 2011 after two decades of abandonment and has since helped grow its congregation.
However HTB’s policy is that sex outside marriage is a sin, and the Church of England currently does not allow gay marriage. The CofE is currently going through a review that could see a rethink on LGBT+ issues, but the church would still retain its opt-out of the 2010 Equality Act.
A spokesman for HTB said St Luke’s was under a different area of the Diocese of London and operates independently of it. This is despite both St Luke’s and HTB’s website referencing one another as part of its “family of churches”, but the spokesman added: “Therefore it would be inappropriate to comment.”
The issue of homosexuality in the CofE was previously seen in West Hampstead where Andrew Foreshew-Cain quit St James’ Church in Sherriff Road, criticising “institutional homophobia”.
The current reverend Father Robert Thompson is gay. He said: “[Rev March] didn’t have to respond that way. The bishop licensed me and is happy with me being here. It’s not the position of the Church of England and doesn’t have to be in any parish. It seems that this is the position within the clergy team at St Luke’s Kentish Town.”
He said that the requirement for celibacy did not apply to lay people – people who are not ordained – and only to clergy. Rev Thompson said he had not come across the idea of “beyond reproach” elsewhere.
Ms Gillingham, a primary school teacher, said that HTB churches avoid talking about what they term “hot topics” from the pulpit, so as not to frighten off congregation members. “It’s very much that they are liberal in their choice of music and the instruments that they use and the seating that they have. But in terms of their values and theology they are not liberal,” she said.
“So there’s a real contrast between the two and that’s why most HTB churches and church plants have a policy of never talking from the front about ‘hot topics’, so sexuality, women in leadership, things like that that a lot of their congregation would be shocked if they knew their churches’ values on it.
“If you are a part of that church, you have that incredible community, you have an amazing sense of belonging, you are really involved with amazing friendships, but you have got to toe the line with every aspect of your life and that’s the price of belonging to that immersive conservative Christian culture.”
The report found that Rev March’s idea of “beyond reproach” may have excluded Ms Gillingham from her position, and admitted pastoral failings, but cleared him of abuse of power. Among the recommendations from the report are St Luke’s putting together a policy on sex and relationships, but stops short of saying it should be published.
Some of the measures have been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic and others, including a risk assessment for LGBT+ and vulnerable people, have not been carried out.
Ms Gillingham said she was speaking out over the fear of how younger or more vulnerable people might be harmed by St Luke’s and HTB’s current approach. She backed a call for St Luke’s to publish its policy on “sexual identity and practice”, and said she wanted the CofE to define homophobia.
She said: “The biggest challenge is the lack of transparency. As an adult who is out and proud of who they are in all my aspects, I cannot make an informed decision about those churches because nothing on their website tells me about their position on LGBT+ communities. You need it and a risk assessment, so when a young person comes out, that is there to keep them safe and stop them being offered prayer ministry, which is them ‘praying away the gay’.”
Rev March told the investigation that the incident has made him question his ability as a priest. He said: “I’ve been in more crisis as a leader in the church in terms of doubting my calling, my ability to lead, unpicking my theology and I’ve been in tears on regular occasions knowing the impact of my decisions.”
FOLLOW US ON FACEBOOK. CLICK BANNER.
The New Journal made a series of attempts to contact Revd March by email and phone, but no comment was provided. The church gates were locked shut when we visited.
The Diocese of London said: “When the parishioner in this case made their complaint, it was treated extremely seriously and in strict confidence.
“The Bishop of Edmonton commissioned an investigation and a thorough and detailed report was produced and provided to both the complainant and the parish’s senior leadership.
“Although no wrongdoing was found to have taken place that required disciplinary action, the Bishop remains in close contact with the parish regarding progress on implementing the recommendations detailed in the report, and the Diocese is in contact with the complainant and is providing ongoing support.”