Rev. Nick Bundock, a Church of England priest from the Manchester area, once held conservative views about queer relationships. The priest, who is part of a denomination that is still heavily split about same-sex marriages, told the BBC that he has been reluctant to broach the topic in the past.
“I felt, wrongly as it turned out, it was better not to stir up a hornet’s nest about sexuality,” Bundock said in a BBC documentary released on Monday. “If we don’t talk about it, people can have their progressive or traditional views, and that’s fine and we won’t do anything to upset the apple cart. We won’t talk about it.”
All of that changed four years ago when a 14-year-old girl in his own congregation died by suicide while struggling to come to terms with her own sexuality.
Elizabeth Lowe, known as Lizzie, died on Sept. 10, 2014, the Telegraph reported. Her friends told investigators that shortly before her death, Lizzie had confessed to them that she was fearful of telling her devout Christian parents that she might be a lesbian. She also reportedly told her friends that she was finding it hard to connect with God.
The teen’s parents, Kevin and Hilary Lowe, claim they would have been supportive of their daughter’s sexual orientation.
“Absolutely not would it have made any difference at all,” Hilary told the BBC. “And that’s the sad part. The really sad part. We would have tried to talk to her and help her through.”
Years later, Lizzie’s priest says he regrets that he didn’t speak up sooner. Losing the teen put everything in perspective, he said.
“I wish we could turn the clock back,” Bundock said. “I wish we could have done something ahead of that decision Lizzie took that would have given her the slightest chance to open up, to find a safe place to talk and a way of making a decision that would have saved her life.”
After Lizzie’s suicide, Bundock’s church, the Parish of St James and Emmanuel, has gone through a radical transformation. Within four years, the church has gone from one that avoided the topic of homosexuality to a congregation that has made preaching a message of inclusion a top priority.
“We had to change,” Bundock said. “We had to make sure this never happens to anyone else.”
Months after listening to the coroner’s report on Lizzie’s death, the church adopted a statement of inclusion, pledging not to discriminate against anyone based on economic status, gender, mental or physical health, race or sexuality.
The church now speaks openly about the importance of diversity. Their inclusive stance is displayed prominently on their website. While the Church of England still prohibits same-sex marriages, the parish has developed a special “service of celebration” for civilly married congregants to use inside the church building.
As a result of all this change, Bundock claims worship in the church has never been “more vibrant and alive.”
“Personally, I have crossed the Rubicon: There is no way back,” he wrote in a Church Times article back in 2016. “When I do look back, I do so with horror at what a passively homophobic priest I have been.”
The church decided this year to hold a Pride event on its premises, featuring food, dancing and performers in drag. It has also gained new members from the queer community ― including couples who attend with their children.
It’s not uncommon for churches that want to publicly present as progressive to be ambiguous around the topic of sexuality while having non-affirming policies, according to Church Clarity. The organization created an online database that scores churches based on how clearly the institutions articulate views on sexuality and women in leadership. So far, Church Clarity has scored 1,984 predominantly American churches.
The organization has found that pastors ― both progressive and conservative ― are often ambiguous about these issues when their personal convictions don’t align with their church’s official policies. Some pastors also worry that by being up front, they may make donors upset and lose financial contributions.
Sarah Ngu, Church Clarity’s database director, said that it’s important to note that although Lizzie’s church held traditional views about sexuality, it hadn’t been preaching “hellfire and brimstone” like the notoriously homophobic Westboro Baptist Church.
However, Ngu said, Lizzie’s story makes it clear that a “polite and friendly” approach can potentially create just as much damage.
“Taking no official stance isn’t good enough either,” Ngu told HuffPost in an email. “If you’re going to be affirming, be loud and clear about it.”
″’No position” is still a position, especially if your church exists within a non-affirming denomination like the Church of England,” she added. “To take ‘no stance’ is to let people assume that your church has the default stance of your denomination. Kids like Lizzie will, in general, receive a non-affirming message from the church, unless a church chooses to speak up against the current.”
Soon after the Parish of St James and Emmanuel became more openly affirming, some parishioners started voicing their disapproval. Bundock told the BBC that at least 25 members have left the congregation because they don’t agree with the church’s direction.
“It’s sad – I love those people, but the truth is there are plenty of churches ready to welcome them,” Bundock wrote in a blog the church website. “There aren’t as many for the huge numbers of LGBT+ folk who have no spiritual home in the Church of England.”
Lizzie’s parents have been supportive of the radical changes at their church. They told the BBC they don’t want anyone else to go through what they’ve been through.
“If this could happen to us, it could easily happen to anyone else. Your daughter, your son, your grandchild. And I know people struggle with inclusion, it does take courage,” Lizzie’s father said. “I know people struggle with inclusion, it does take courage. But it’s the ability to be able to do what’s right even when you are afraid.”
“It’s about accepting people for who they are, not who we want them to be,” he said.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.