1985 was the year of the Broadwater Farm riots in Tottenham. The disaffected expressed their anger and PC Blakelock was tragically stabbed to death by a mob, becoming the first policeman to be killed in a riot in Britain since 1833. A few months later the Vicar of the parish came to speak in our school chapel. He talked about life and faith in the Broadwater Farm area and ended by inviting anyone who was interested to come and see what it was like to live in that part of London. So four of us who were about to enter our Lower Sixth year got together and chatted to him and as a result put a proposal together to our Headteacher. We said we’d like to do a year-long study of life in inner-city Tottenham to broaden our education. The Head agreed to our plan and so began a fascinating year which involved half a dozen trips to London. Establishing a base in a local Anglican church we spent time with community groups, with police and local business leaders and I recall an interesting day joining in lessons in an inner-city comprehensive school. Whilst in Tottenham we stayed in pairs with local families. Three households stand out.
The first was a couple with two young children. They were poor. They were very kind to us and said we should make ourselves at home and help ourselves to anything we needed from the fridge. The contents of the fridge included just half a pint of milk and some margarine. They had very little possessions or money and were struggling to make ends meet and yet were still willing to welcome us into their home. We were grateful.
Later we stayed with a single woman who was a local teacher. She helped us understand some of the issues that the young people faced as they grew up on a sink estate with very little opportunity in life.
A third household was made up of two gay men in the early thirties, John and Kevin. This was a real eye-opener to me, as I’d never met or spent time with an openly gay couple. They worshipped in the local church who accepted their sexual orientation and didn’t condemn their practice. We spent time getting to know them. John and Kevin were great people.
That year in Tottenham was very formative for me at the age of 16-17. In particular living with a gay couple helped me understand some of the issues facing gay people. It also left me with lots of questions. I’d committed myself to Christ at the age of 14 and immersed myself in the bible, believing it offered not only the way to life beyond the grave but also here on earth. I was trying to follow its teaching which I knew was consistently negative about gay sex. So had God really made John and Kevin gay, as they said? Were they right to dismiss the bible passages that speak against homosexuality as no longer relevant to life and faith today? Was love, expressing itself in a committed relationship, really the highest value, superceding all other biblical commands?
In the end, I wasn’t convinced. And I’m still not, even though since then I’ve continue to meet and get to know other brilliant men and women who are gay. I’ve worked alongside gay people both inside and outside of church who are lovely and warm-hearted. Many have great creative gifts with people like Elton John, George Michael and Keith Haring standing out for me as gay people with outstanding artistic talent.
Nevertheless I still think that followers of Jesus are called to keep sex in a husband-wife marriage relationship and I will write more on that in the future. Despite what some might say, this does not make me ‘anti-gay’. As I blogged yesterday I believe that neither the church nor the wider world should accept homophobic views. In fact, spending time with John and Kevin back in the 1980s made me realise I must take care when speaking about issues of sexuality as I’m talking about issues that relate to real people. These are not just theoretical questions but real-life issues that affect ordinary human beings – people who live on your street, who share an office with you at work, who sit next to you on the train or in church. These are people made by God (Genesis 1:27) and loved by him (John 3:16). They deserve being treated with dignity and grace (Matthew 7:12).
If you’re a follower of Jesus reading this blog and have never got to know people of a different sexual orientation to you, I recommend you broaden your education by doing so. Talk. Listen. Hear their story. You don’t have to agree with their lifestyle but you must treat them with kindness and respect (1 Peter 2:17). Because the basic call of Christ is for you to love your neighbour as yourself (Mark 12:31) – whatever their background or sexual orientation.