“Attending the second wedding of a friend, I was seated near my former church youth minister. I hadn’t seen him for over ten years. He was drunk. I asked if he knew that my husband had come out. ‘Oh yes’, he told me, enthused. ‘We knew that he was gay all along. We just hoped that you could straighten him out.’ When the leadership endorsed our relationship with the intention that somehow, my heterosexuality could ‘straighten out’ my gay husband, I was seventeen years old.”
I grew up in a friendly Anglican church, a benign and comforting world. I loved its faded prayer mats and green and red books with their deliciously scrunching pages. Just before I entered my teenage years, however, everything changed. My mother was convinced to shift her allegiance to a fundamentalist Pentecostal church, where the proof of salvation was demonstrated by ‘speaking in tongues.’
Every part of our life was now determined by the church leadership, who claimed to hear directly from God in ‘words of knowledge’ or ‘prophecy’. In this church was a minister who practiced exorcisms. Popular music was forbidden, as it contained backmasking (secret messages inserted by demons). The Devil and his demons –whom I’d hardly heard about before – were everywhere, seeking to thwart the will of God and ensnare Christians in myriad ways.
Objects from other countries or religions were conduits for possession: they required burning, when demons would be seen, escaping in the curling smoke, screaming. The Bible was fact, and the book of Revelation showed the ‘End Times’ – we were altered to the dangers of bar codes, a forerunner of the ‘mark of the Beast’. Only our lack of evangelism delayed the literal return of Jesus in the clouds. We were regularly warned that we’d be ‘cut off the vine’ (lose our salvation) if we weren’t fruitful, or we were cursed for our failure to give ten percent of our earnings to the church.
In our church, we were told most people went to a literal hell that God had made for the wicked, where they burned forever. This was, of course, anyone who didn’t get ‘born again’, accepting the substitution of Jesus in place of their deserved separation from God because of sin. Among those who experienced ‘the wrath of God’ were, the Bible warned, people who were gay, greedy, envious, liars, gossips, slanderers, disobedient to their parents, unloving and unmerciful (Romans 1).
Naturally, homosexuals were zeroed in on. If the society outside our church was homophobic, inside, it was magnified. In the many evangelism courses I attended, we were told to emphasise our own sin, as if this would make it more palatable when we told homosexual people that they were going to burn in hell for eternity unless they repented. All friendships with non-Christians, unless for the purpose of conversion, were discouraged. Education was scorned: our minister boasted that no ministers from our denomination had attended University.
After a number of years in this cultish system, both my sister and I were told God had made his will known to the leadership, and both of us, inexperienced in relationships, unknowingly married gay men. My husband was in the church, hoping the shame he felt about his sexuality, coming from a conservative farming family of many generations, could be relieved by a miraculous encounter with God.