The Revd Gareth Wardell worked in the field of overseas aid and development for many years. He is now a Vicar in the Diocese of London. (Photo: “Two dog collars for the price of one!” Gareth with his Pastoral Assistant, Libby!)
These words, spoken about Jesus at his baptism, are ones I have clung to over the years as God’s word to all who experience exclusion simply for being themselves.
Most LGBTI+ people experience rejection early in their lives. Starting school on a tough local council estate in the 1970s, I learned quickly to blend-in and not attract attention. In the family home we spoke received pronunciation, but within weeks, I’d learnt to speak with a fluent ‘saaff-east London’ accent. This wasn’t affectation, it was an essential survival technique!
I think it’s also a metaphor for the way many gay people live their lives in a straight person’s world. Changing to be acceptable to others is a daily experience, especially for those growing up evangelical. I vividly remember hearing a preacher describe gay people as “a stench in the nostrils of God” (I was longing to tell him it was just my aftershave, but thought better of it!)
In my final year at university, I was shocked to read in the small-print of my application forms for the Diplomatic Service ‘Homosexuals are deemed to be a security risk and need not apply’. I didn’t, obviously! As I grew older, I tried my best to fit-in, praying earnestly that God would change me so that I could become acceptable.
What a difference three decades makes!
Today, overt discrimination against LGBTI+ people is illegal and those employers once seen as bastions of homophobia (the police, the armed services etc.) now compete with each other to win Stonewall diversity awards. Not so the Church. As a Vicar I work for one of the few organisations still allowed to discriminate against its LGBTI+ employees or office holders.
Change is coming, but not fast enough. When I’m feeling low, the temptation is to believe the lie that who I am is unacceptable; that I’m ‘intrinsically dis-ordered’. At such times I hold on to God’s words: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’
Almighty God, thank you for your great love for all your children. Your son Jesus was despised and rejected by others. Draw close today to all who feel demeaned and belittled simply for being the people you have made them. During this season of Lent help us to be especially mindful of those on the margins and teach us afresh what it means to take up our cross and follow in the way of Christ. Amen.