Imagine being in the following situations:
- Having a job where the boss of the adjacent department is someone who discriminated against you (and you’ve never received an apology).
- Being amongst extended family members who habitually crack jokes that demean an aspect of your identity (and you’re never sure how serious the jokes are).
- Attending a church where the pastor has systematically tried to silence your voice.
- Being in an online forum where its leader states repeatedly and categorically that an experience of yours did not, and does not, happen.
They’re pretty uncomfortable scenarios. The question is: what do you do with them?
At work, my boss is someone who is streets ahead of me in terms of professional experience, organisational nous and interpersonal savvy. I can barely begin to go into how much I’ve learned from him. When it comes to music though, it’s the other way round. Aged in his fifties, he’s struggling through his grade 3 guitar exam, whereas I had grade 8 piano when I was fourteen. It makes for some interesting conversations.
Recently he described how his teacher had been telling him that part of the art of being a performer is learning how to handle an uncomfortable environment. What do you achieve if you go into the room and the lighting is a bit off and someone’s looking at you awkwardly and you say you just can’t play?
Of course you want the environment that welcomes you.
You want the friendly faces, the good lighting, the tuned instrument. You want a place that’s responsive to you in good ways, in the ways you’re searching for. You want an environment where you can show all you can be, where you can truly inspire your audience. But we don’t always get that luxury. And what are we going to do when we don’t? Never play in public? Retreat into our little space? Preclude our ability from touching and shaping the lives of others?
Now, I appreciate that walking into a music exam is different from the scenarios I’ve named above. Assuming that music is a hobby, the pressure of an exam is in part artificial; it is an assessment to mark progress in a bigger journey. It’s not something that’s trying to undercut your dignity or agency. But the four scenarios I listed at the top do have that essence; with a few more exacerbating factors, each of them could have the essence of a full-on daily assault.
There’s another important difference from a music exam too: the stakes. In an exam, it’s about personal achievement and, one would hope, recognition of hard work and skill. In the four scenarios, the stakes are people’s identity and wellbeing.
In other words: being in a hostile environment is way harder than being in uncomfortable music exam; but the stakes matter more.
So do you stick around or do you leave? Do you enter with intentionality or do you retreat?
My workplace has a Christian fellowship and they’re a pretty evangelical bunch, though this the UK so be wary what you read into that. The thing is, even UK evangelicalism can be enough to make me feel profoundly uncomfortable. The repeated mention of our sinful state, the flat interpretation of the Bible, the bias towards conversionism. In our little fellowship, I feel like a resident poltergeist: I’m disruptive, I’m unpredictable and I can’t be got rid of by conventional means. We’re very British, after all.
Oh, I’m trying to be the peaceable, quiet voice of reason who asks searching questions from the corner. But I feel like I’m perceived as someone they would really, really rather not have around. After all, I never seem to have anything positive to say and I only ask questions as a way of pointing out holes in the presentations offered by guest speakers.
In fairness to them, I have been told my contribution is appreciated (though the person who said this has Lily Potter levels of kindness, so I remain sceptical), I have seen many of them to be genuinely good people and all the problems I have with the fellowship are local manifestations of much bigger widespread problems in the church.
Anyway: recently we were having a Bible Study on the book of James and they asked if I’d lead some of the sessions. (Maybe they see me as a knowledgeable poltergeist?) I declined: it was a video series created by Francis Chan who happens to be one of the lead signatories on the appallingly written Nashville Statement. As an ally for the LGBT+ group we have at work, I didn’t want to present anything from a guy who says LGBT+ people are choosing a sinful identity in rebellion against God. Ugh.
Meanwhile, at the end of one of these studies, the leader for the session asked how we as Christians might encourage each other in the fellowship. My fingertips grew sweaty as I debated whether to mention something that was bothering me. It wasn’t to do with my usual gripes about evangelicalism, or indeed the fellowship. Truth be told, it was do with an LGBT+ forum outside of work. I had been discouraged that morning after voicing a minority opinion and given how often I felt a minority in the fellowship, I had thoughts about how I wanted to be encouraged.
I decided to jump in.
“So, when I became an ally for the LGBT group here at work, I wasn’t an affirming Christian…”
“What’s an ally?” someone asked.
I blinked. “Allies are straight people who stand up for LGBT people.” It was a flawed definition, but then I wasn’t prepared for the question.
I went on. “So, I was actually non-affirming…”
“What does ‘non-affirming’ mean?” someone else asked.
I had not expected this. I gave another inelegant answer: “It means that you think that being LGBT is not OK.”
My wrist tremored with adrenalin.
“Some places that utterly reject the idea that anyone could be a non-affirming Christian and an ally. And I’m finding pretty this hard to stomach because I thought that’s what I was at one time. And I know that not everyone in this room is affirming… And that is what it is.”
I paused. The session leader interjected, “Well there are primary and secondary issues…”
In retrospect, he could have been going in any number of directions with this comment; he could have been about to say that if LGBT+ affirmation was a secondary issue, then there was no problem if we’re all in the fellowship. But in the heat of the moment, I was convinced he was about to shut me down by saying that this is a primary issue. After all, the Nashville Statement says it is.
So I spoke. “My point is, I think we can get into the mindset of believing you have to be all-in, you have to completely agree before you can be in the same room. So the way I would appreciate being encouraged by people in this fellowship is by being taken as I am, even with my different views.”
No one argued, no one told me to pipe down. They took it quietly in their Britishness. Or was it Christian kindness? I don’t know.
I won’t know.
At least, not to begin with.
Much of the afternoon I was plagued by the thought that the LGBT+ group in my workplace wouldn’t have welcomed me those two years ago if they had asked after my theology. So I asked a colleague if we could have a short time-out. We’d been working together on analysing the Nashville Statement and she respected that I was a Christian, whilst being herself an atheist.
I told her that I’d been non-affirming.
“What does non-affirming mean?” she asked.
The question was less of a jolt this time. I explained and asked her if I’d been wrong to join the workplace LGBT+ group when I did.
“But your thoughts are just thoughts and they belong to you,” she exclaimed. “I can’t know who out there hates me, but that’s just inside their heads. So it doesn’t matter to me what you believe; what matters is what you do.”
I smiled at the irony; she wasn’t the one studying James.
There is no manual for when to stay in and when to leave an uncomfortable place. There is no guarantee that sticking around will pay off. There is just risk assessment and self assessment.
I’ve left some of the situations I’ve been in; there was nothing left for me, no cracks or openings that I could explore. I substantially withdrew from another situation and I palpably felt the loss of influence. Others, I stuck it out in. And you know what – they were worth it.
Yes, there is definitely an art to all this. Recognising positives, learning to speak the language and showing how your goals connect with others’ priorities – these make a big difference. It’s also vital to know what you’re speaking for, not just what you’re speaking against.
And it’s hard; it’s so exhaustingly, wrenchingly hard. You just can’t do it without knowing what boundaries you need to set for yourself.
But there’s a difference between knowing your boundaries and exiting altogether. If you can hold your boundaries whilst also carving out some space for ambiguity, you might be pleasantly surprised by what emerges.
It has struck me repeatedly over the last few months, that what matters is not being in complete agreement. It’s being able to be in the same room. There’s that phrase: don’t build higher walls, build longer tables. We need to be able to gather. Yes, it’s hard work being in the same room as some people, and sometimes you need to let other people carry the conversation for you. But it’s only when we’re in the same room that relationships change.
I can’t tell everyone, or indeed anyone, which situations they should leave or avoid, and which they should stick with or enter. Each person has to make that decision for themselves. For some, the only effective personal strategy will be to get away and stay away. It’s rarely (if ever?) safe for a person to stay in a situation where they can’t hold effective boundaries; it might be they don’t have capacity to set and hold the boundaries, or it might be because others would wilfully violate them with a severity that cannot be endured or tolerated. Either way, it’s not good.
But to everyone who is in a grey zone, wrestling with uncomfortable places, don’t underestimate the power of persisting over time – even in little things. Even your presence may have more of an effect than you realise.
And to those who choose to stick it out, remember: this is not about your struggle today; it’s about when you take the stage tomorrow.
If you want to encourage me, please consider watching my YouTube recording of Vicky Beeching’s song ‘O Precious Sight’ that I made for Good Friday. Vicky was a Christian rock star in the Bible belt for a number of years and came out as a lesbian in 2014. She has persisted in staying inside the Church of England, whilst refusing going into ordained ministry. I respect her so much for holding her boundaries whilst sticking it out in an uncomfortable place and I’m looking forward to reading her book which comes out later this year.
I will be blogging in due course about why even non-affirming Christians should be concerned by the theology set out in the Nashville Statement. Meanwhile, for those who are interested, Christians United wrote a statement of LGBT+ affirmation.