Thursday, June 28, 2018


I have just finished reading Undivided by Vicky Beeching, her memoir of struggling with the tension between her evangelical faith and her secret attraction to women, and finally her coming out as a lesbian and the ruptures it caused between her and the church tradition she loves.  It is a powerful book, and a book that will be widely read.  It deserves to be widely read, perhaps especially by conservative evangelicals.  It ought to ring alarm bells for us on so many levels.  This is not really a review so much as a series of thoughts and reflections, relatively unprocessed (I have literally just put the book down, having read it in a few hours - it's a page-turner).  My thoughts roughly group themselves under three headings: how should we read this book?  what do we need to change as a result of reading it?  what is the implicit theology at work within this book (and therefore presumably within Vicky Beeching's life)?  Then I just have a concluding reflection.

Firstly, how to engage with this book?  I've read reviews suggesting that it is a mistake to treat it as a polemic or apologetic, a mistake to expect theology, because this is a memoir, a personal reflection.  This is, I humbly submit, to completely misunderstand this cultural moment.  Everything is now autobiography: philosophy, politics, theology.  Everything is personal.  The way in which polemic, apologetic, and yes, even theology, are now conducted with most success is precisely through the medium of self-reflection and self-presentation.  Vicky Beeching has written a powerful apologetic for a revisionist position on Christian sexual ethics.  And there is a theology contained and taught therein.  The problem is, we're not yet used to engaging critically with this sort of writing: we've been educated to think that somebody's experience is not open to debate.  Of course there is some truth in that: if this is the way it seemed to you, then this is the way it seemed to you, and I have no right or reason to question that.  But it is easy to smuggle in the assumption that if this is the way it seemed then this is the way it was.  In that way, a memoir gets behind our defences and makes us agree without ever having to argue.  So, engage critically.  And yet...  It is still a memoir.  This is a real person's life, and empathy is called for.  Critical thought, compassionate heart.  Engage both to the maximum setting.

Second, what does the church need to learn from this memoir?  Oh, so many things.  There are parts of this book that grieve me deeply.  The subculture of shame which Glynn Harrison talks about in his excellent book A Better Story is evident throughout: the church culture in which Vicky Beeching grew up was apparently one in which sex was shameful, and homosexual feelings were particularly shameful.  (See chapter 29 especially for the appalling ways in which this affects people of all sexual orientations, and page 13 for a desperately sad recollection of Beeching's own first sense of shame).  If only the gospel has been applied at this point!  If only it had been possible to be open about what was going on, without the sense of shame!  But that clearly wasn't possible.  Would it be better today, in our churches - in my church?

The book also presents a church culture in which asking hard questions was discouraged.  One of the most telling passages in the book for me came early on, when Beeching describes her childhood struggle with various stories from the Old Testament.  It seems like this was the beginning of a period of repressing the tough questions, and therefore of maintaining a distorted picture of God (because how can you not have a distorted picture of God if you repress aspects of himself which he has revealed?).  Churches need to get much better at seeing doubts and questions, not as threats to faith, but as opportunities to deepen faith through tough engagement with God's word.

There is so much other stuff.  Dealing with hypocrisy - openly and clearly - and applying discipline (56 - there is a lot to be disturbed about in Beeching's description of her time at Wycliffe Hall).  Not relying on big conferences and events, but rather on the regular ministry of word and sacrament (see chapter 5).  Getting rid of a bad theology of easy change.  Thinking carefully about mental health issues (163).  Banishing a triumphalist theology.  All of this and more.  I would like every church leader to read this book and think about our weaknesses as they are exposed in this memoir.  We can and must do better.

Third, what about that implicit theology and apologetic?  Well, this is a conversion story.  It turns on a  reading of Acts 10: Peter is taught that God has called Gentiles clean, and this is then applied to gay people. (See pages 168-172).  That doesn't work as a reading or application of the story, to be honest.  The Lord is not berating Peter for being a religious bigot who needs to liberalise here; he is announcing to Peter a new stage in salvation history.  But that doesn't matter, because Beeching felt God himself make the application to her (171).  "God had spoken" (172).  This sort of subjectivism is not uncommon, of course, in evangelical circles - maybe I should have included it as one of the things the church needs to learn to lose.  For Beeching, this is the scales-falling-from-eyes moment; from here on, she is an undivided person.

So what is the theology here?  I've already noted the way in which Beeching struggled as a child with passages in the OT that showed God's judgement (15-17).  It seems more accurate to say she didn't struggle with them: "My simple childhood faith was rooted in God's love and kindness, so I tried to focus on the stories that emphasized those qualities." (17)  Fair enough, you might think, for a child, but when this reminiscence is picked up later, after the coming out story, it's clear that they never have been processed (see page 224 - note that the sort of vitriol Beeching recounts here is indefensible in terms of the passages of Scripture cited).  The practical theology operative here involved denying aspects of the biblical witness to God in order to remake him in more amenable image.  A God totally without wrath - certainly not the God of the Bible.

Along with this, the assumption that what God really wants for us is that we should just be ourselves.  That we are all accepted just the way we are.  I suppose that follows.

A lot of the theological approach involves downplaying the idea of doctrine or of the faith as a deposit of revelation to be received.  Kallistos Ware appears as a catalyst to Beeching's developing feeling that the life of faith is not about knowing, but about pressing further into mystery (96).  This sort of mysticism allows for a sense that we're all on a journey, and that greater knowledge of God lies in the future, not in any past revelation.

That is significant for the apologetic, which has three main prongs.  The first is that the church has historically supported ethically bad things, and has only been dragged out of its moral morass by a few principled crusaders. (This is, I think, the thrust of chapters 9 through 11).  Beeching presents this as a pattern: the church always wrong, with the exception of a few progressives.  It is, of course, the standard story of liberal society (based on and derived from the liberal Christianity of the 19th century).  It won't stand up to historical scrutiny, but it doesn't need to: just the impression that those who remain orthodox on sexuality are on the wrong side of history is enough.

The second prong is to make people aware that there are scholars who read the Bible differently.  I've written about this (in a slightly sarcastic tone...) before.  If it can be shown that someone somewhere, ideally an 'expert', holds a different interpretation, that is enough to throw off the shackles of orthodoxy (see, for example, 86-7).  It is worth noting again that one need not actually decide that the alternative interpretation is the most natural one; that it exists is enough.  In the memoir, it is striking that it is not finally reading liberal approaches to the Bible's teaching on sexuality that brings the breakthrough, but a highly subjective sense of God speaking through Acts 10 whilst sitting in the Brompton Oratory.  The different interpretations just serve to prise one's fingers slightly from orthodoxy.

The third prong is the apologetic of harm.  So much of the book is devoted to showing that the church's teaching on sexuality harms people.  This is powerful, because doing no harm is basically the only value left in our society.  If something makes people unhappy, causes them hurt - then it is morally bad.  I'd want to say three things to that: firstly, that it isn't true - there are other values which also have to be considered; second, that the church clearly has harmed people (not least Vicky Beeching), and we need to both grieve for that and seek to be better; and third. that I do not believe it is orthodox teaching on sexuality which has done the harm but certain caricatures of it coupled to a shame culture.

This has become very long, so briefly a concluding thought.  The saddest thing for me throughout this memoir is that I'm not convinced Vicky Beeching has ever really understood, or at least appropriated, God's grace.  She characterises herself as a perfectionist, desperately aware of her flaws (50), and gives the impression that she's always felt anxious about letting people, and God, down.  She admits having an obsessive need to be theologically right about everything (94).  When she finally sat down in the Brompton Oratory and felt God change her perspective through her reading of Acts 10, "It was hard... to accept a new perspective.  I was offended at the idea of losing the badge of righteousness I had earned by holding to traditional Christian views."  (171)

The impression here is of someone sadly trapped in legalism.  And with that in mind, I can't read this as a story of liberation.  How I would have loved it to have been the story of how that need to establish one's own righteousness was vanquished through the acceptance of God's righteousness freely bestowed!  But there isn't that: just the realisation that she's been righteous all along, because righteousness means self-acceptance.  Maybe I'm wrong.  But that's how it reads to me.

Look, you should read it.  It's important.  I think the conclusions to which Vicky Beeching has been driven are incorrect.  I think there are better ways of reading the Bible, and better ways for all of us to face up to our sexuality in the light of the gospel.  But here is the challenge of a revisionist reading wearing a real human face, the face of someone you instinctively want to like.  Read it, because other people will.  Read it, because painful as it is, it will do you good to think and pray this stuff through properly.


  1. Hi Dan - I appreciate the way you’ve really thought through Vicky’s experience and answer this with a pastoral heart and respect even as you disagree with her theology.

    This, though, sounded to me a bit personal and harsh- “The saddest thing for me throughout this memoir is that I'm not convinced Vicky Beeching has ever really understood, or at least appropriated, God's grace.” It sounds very dismissive of her faith, which I know to be real. The thing is, I also struggle with perfectionism, and it’s the default which I always fight. I’m pretty sure vicky would say that too, that she fights it. I’m not sure righteousness is the same as self-acceptance, nor that Vicky would say that. I haven’t had Vicky’s experiences and my faith looks different to hers, but I do know the pressure of being on the outskirts of the church through chronic illness, and the outskirts of ministry because of being female. I know that pressure and desire to be theologically right - and I’m not LGBT. There’s a sense sometimes of having to fight to be heard and taken seriously in church (not so much now for me but at times in certain circles). Anyway, I wanted to say I recognise myself in your description of Vicky at the end, and that it felt a bit harsh on me, let alone her! :-) But I’m really glad that you have read this with an eye on how to pastor people better - I agree with you that people, especially pastors, with a traditional view of sexuality ought to read this book because it is an increasingly common story, and needs to be heard, particularly on the issues of shame.

    1. Thanks Tanya. I hope its not dismissive; at least, it isn't in intention It is, I guess, personal, but that's inevitable when responding to such a personal book... Obviously you have more information than I do - I'm just working from the book. And I guess what I noticed in the book was a sense that if I'm good, God will accept me but if I'm broken or even guilty he probably won't. And of course that's all linked up to the shame stuff... Of course we are all on this treadmill of legalism to a certain extent: it's natural. But I don't find much grace in the book, much reflection on God loving broken and sinful people. That's all, and I found it sad

  2. I really appreciate your clarity of thought Daniel.

  3. Good reflections. I wouldn't be surprised if the strata of the church Beeching comes from (charismatic/moderate evangelical/mainline-connected)follows suit on accepting such practices over the next decade or so. There are a number of covertly subversive voices working from within. Given the importance placed on hearing subjective words from God and the rejection of other scriptural passages (often without any real thought, as your more sarcastic post points out), it's not too hard to see how it can happen.

    1. I think that barring divine intervention this is almost certainly going to happen. The theological resources just aren't there to resist the flow of the culture. It might lead to greater clarity in the long run, or it might not. at the very least, lots of people are going to have to decide whether this is an issue which is definitive of evangelicalism in the future, and that's going to be tough.

  4. I have now finished reading the book, and broadly agree with a lot of what you have written. I have a few observations.

    I was left feeling grateful that I was brought up as a catholic Anglican, and not as an evangelical; which sounds like an odd thing for an evangelical to say. As a child I heard all the difficult bits of the Bible read, but did so in the context of the Eucharist, so there was a hermeneutical context for the ‘harsh bits’, hearing them after confession and absolution and before receiving Christ in holy communion. They were a bracing part of the story, but made a bit more sense in the context of the bigger story. All of this meant when I came across evangelical young people who found the harsh bits of the Bible tricky, I thought they were not seeing the wood for the trees.

    Being a catholic Anglican meant I had been surrounded by extraverted gay men, many of them ordained, and many of them (at least on paper) ethically conservative. The evangelical obsession with sexual morality, punctutating almost every sermon, felt a bit weird, even though I broadly agreed with their stance. When I began to understand my own sexual feelings, the evangelical certainty seemed more appealing, but at least I knew it wasn’t the whole story.

    It isn’t just in Vicky Beeching’s book that justification by grace through faith seems to have been forgotten. Evangelical churches often seem to do a line in moralism that would make Roman Catholics wince. Whatever happened to the gospel?

    So I am left unsurprised that Vicky has sought refuge in more liberal circles. Evangelicalism wasn’t cutting the mustard, and the problem, in a sense, is that evangelicals are not evangelical enough. I suspect were Barth able to comment today, he would pronounce a plague on both houses. I shall pronounce a plague on neither, but hope Vicky realises that you can be conservative, Christian, and gay. I am agnostic on the subject of whether departed saints pray, but perhaps I can piously hope that Michael Vasey is praying for Vicky and for all of us.

    1. Thanks Liam. Interesting to compare our early experiences. My own Reformed Baptist upbringing laid a heavy stress on systematic theology, which meant that in a different way I was also enabled to incorporate the stories of God's wrath into a whole picture of his holy character. I don't remember ever really finding them problematic. On the other hand, far from the 'evangelical obsession with sexual morality', I don't recall sex ever really being mentioned. That was not helpful, and left us ill-equipped.

      My sense is that we need urgently to recover the link between the gospel and Christian ethics. If we can't show that our sexual ethic flows from the gospel itself, what else can it be but self-righteous and powerless moralism? (But on the other hand, if our gospel doesn't imply any sort of sexual ethic, it seems highly likely we are preaching cheap grace).

  5. We have recently covered this topic (as part of a wider series)

    here is a link to a YouTube clip which I found very humbling.

    (I'm not sure why I can't comment with my actual name Claire Thompson-Phiri!)