I still remember it clearly; I was sandwiched in a row full of loud and proud religious folk dressed in their Sunday’s finest at our weekly church service.
Our respected pastor, as passionate as ever, gave us a firm reminder that we should not be deceived by Satan or our desires of the flesh – ‘the fornicators, the adulterers, the gays and lesbians surely will not inherit the kingdom of God.’
And while the rest of the congregation shouted ‘yes’ and ‘amen’ I shrank in my seat hoping they didn’t notice that, this time, I wasn’t joining in.
I used to be just as passionate as the congregation in showing that I am a devout Christian but there was something different about this service. I knew that I would be refused at the gates of heaven and I wasn’t prepared to pray for my salvation anymore.
Deciding to leave the church
In the months leading up to this service I had experienced a slow and creeping acceptance of who I am and I knew that this would be the last time I put myself in this situation – I had to choose.
At this point I knew I couldn’t choose being straight, so my only option was to leave the church.
And so, ten years later, when I was at an event for the LGBTIQ+ community I was struck by a man in the audience wearing a dog collar.
I was trying not to look at him but couldn’t help but wonder what he was doing there, if he was there to make this safe space unsafe and remind us of the narrow path that leads to the gates of heaven.
After the event I watched him joyously saunter across the room as he handed out flyers and told people that God loves them, I could feel my blood boiling. I felt the subtext of judgement, of being reminded that this wasn’t the life for us.
I desperately wanted to tell him that he is not welcomed in this space, I eagerly waited for him to approach me and then he did. He told me that God loved me and just as I was about to respond he held my gaze and said with a serene certainty ‘I call myself a Happy Holy Homosexual and I know that God loves us just the way we are’.
These words took the wind out of my lungs. My angst and anger dissipated – he was one of ‘them’ but he was also one of us.
Reverend Jide Macaulay
By the next week I found myself in Reverend Jide Macaulay’s office in the middle of a three-hour conversation on Christianity and whether someone could truly reconcile their sexuality with this religion.
At one point, Rev. Jide pulled his bible from his desk and read me the passages that people use to condemn LGBTIQ+ people and he showed me how he reinterpreted it. Explaining that these texts were open to interpretation and not only can they be reinterpreted, they can be reclaimed.
I found my salvation in this conversation. I had never heard these words spoken, especially by a clergy member.
Rev. Jide told me that his congregation knew that he’s gay, which blew my mind. I was stunned that things had changed so much in the ten years since I had last been to church. And then, Rev Jide explained what being an openly gay Reverend in the Church of England actually meant for him.
He explained that he must remain celibate and could never get married. And just like that, the glimmer of hope I felt bubbling inside of me was dampened – especially since Rev. Jide had told me that he was in love with someone and dreamed of marrying him one day.
The Church of England occupies a unique position
The Church of England is the Church of State: 26 bishops of the Church of England sit in the House of Lords.
However, despite the criminalization of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in the UK, the Church of England seems to be exempt from this law in treating LGBTIQ+ clergy differently to straight clergy.
Too Gay for God? Is a documentary that follows Rev. Jide as he explores what it will take for the Church to change its stance on LGBTIQ+ inclusion. It is my first broadcast documentary on terrestrial television and made for Britain’s national broadcaster, BBC One.
Despite this being a deeply personal film for me, it also needed to be told with impartiality which meant that, as well as listening to the moving and personal accounts of LGBTIQ+ clergy members who have either been forced out of the church or decided to leave, this documentary also gives voice to people who firmly agree with the Church’s current position.
The quest for love and acceptance
At a time when marginalized communities are still fighting to have their stories told and heard by mainstream audiences, it is commendable that the BBC made space for such a deeply personal and specific story.
However, as we journeyed to make this film, it became clearer that this story isn’t so specific or niche at all. Too Gay for God? Is ultimately about the universal quest for love and acceptance.
Although the Church of England is amongst the most inclusive denominations for LGBTIQ+ people, they still have a long way to go. This means that, just like I did ten years ago, people are still being forced to choose between their church or their heart.
Cherish Oteka’s documentary, Too Gay for God? Is on BBC One, Thursday 11 July at 10.35pm. It will subsequently be available on BBC iPlayer.