Revd Nick Bundock shares his church’s journey to being an Inclusive Church, born out of tragic circumstances.
Lizzie Lowe took her own life in a forgotten patch of farmland behind the river Mersey on 10 September 2014 while her parents were at a film club run by a small group from St James and Emmanuel , Didsbury. It isn’t possible for me to adequately convey the explosion of grief and dismay that hit the Lowes, the church, her school, and her wider network of family and friends.
Two years on from the tragedy we are all still wrestling with Lizzie’s death. She would be 16 by now and no doubt excelling at her A level studies. The litany of ‘what ifs’ is literally overwhelming.
Lizzie Lowe was gay. Nobody in her family or church knew this, how we wish we had. As a 14-year-old girl she was still exploring her feelings and trying to juggle the many powerful emotions of the teenage years, but it was painfully clear from the coroner’s hearing in December 2014 that her sexuality and her perception of faith were at odds with one another and had become a chasm too wide to cross. Lizzie had become convinced that God couldn’t love her the way she was, a feeling she expressed by text message to the few confidants she had leading up to her fatal decision.
St James and Emmanuel church has undergone a revolution since Lizzie died. It’s not that we were ever ‘hard line’. Actually we’ve always been a pretty broad expression of evangelicalism. But like many similar churches we’ve largely avoided the topic of homosexuality in order to preserve the peace. I now realise, too late, that ignoring the topic of sexuality is by definition exclusive and very unsafe for people who are gay.
In the months following the coroner’s report St James and Emmanuel has been through a revolution. It started with a decision by the PCC to adopt a statement of inclusion. This was followed by three structured ‘listening evenings’, and inclusion is now a regular item on the agenda of the PCC.
We lost some members during the turmoil of 2015. That was immensely painful as a vicar. But we’ve also gained members, including a wonderful gay couple who were told not to play in the worship band of their previous church when they found out about their relationship. I can also say that worship in our church has never been more vibrant and alive. Our paradigm shift has swept a new imminence into our worship and a new honesty into our interactions. Personally, I’ve crossed the Rubicon, there is no way back. When I do look back I do so with horror at what a spineless and passively homophobic priest I have been.
I don’t want anything I’ve written to sound like a hackneyed ‘rags to riches’ story, or even a resurrection after death story. There is no way to erase the horror of Lizzie’s death, or the sheer madness of the wider Church ripping itself apart over this issue. But two years on from Lizzie’s death I hope that we’ve gone some way to amend for our failures and I’m proud to lead a church that is both evangelical and inclusive.