Anti-LGBTQ+ Hardliners AreSplitting the Baptist Church
Fundamentalist Christians with links to religious right actors in the US are seeking to prevent change on LGBTIQ+ rights in the Baptist Church, Sian Norris reports
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There is a growing split in the Baptist Church over LGBTQ+ rights, an investigation by Byline Times can reveal today, with those supporting an affirmative approach to LGBTQ+ congregants increasingly at odds with more hardline members of the church – often with links to US Christian nationalists and far-right US conspiracists.
The Baptist Union of Great Britain – otherwise known as Baptists Together – is a movement representing the interests of nearly 2,000 independent churches, its ministers and congregations. It has been under increasing pressure to adopt an affirmative approach to LGBTQ+ people, including by allowing LGBTQ+ church members in same-sex marriages to become ministers.
Currently, LGBTQ+ people can be part of the church but cannot become ministers if they are in same-sex marriages as that is considered “gross misconduct”.
Groups such as OneBodyOneFaith have been advocating for this to change, arguing that human sexuality and gender identity are recognised as “gifts from God”.
However, hard-line Christian fundamentalists are seeking to prevent progress on LGBTQ+ rights within the church, arguing that any changes to the current ministerial rules would redefine “Christian marriage” and promote homosexual “practice”, which they believe is a “sin.”
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An organisation named Evangelical Baptists is pushing for what it calls an “orthodox” view of marriage – i.e. heterosexual, and against inclusion. The movement has links to anti-LGBTQ+, anti-gender figures in the US, causing concerns that arguments around equal marriage are the first frontier in a much broader pushback against rights for LGBTQ+ people, women, and diverse families.
“I do not think this is about same-sex marriage, this kind of pursuit is about changing the way people can be Baptist,” Luke Dowding, Executive Director of OneBodyOneFaith, tells Byline Times. “It is about wanting a different kind of Baptist Union, one that is more Evangelical, which has a more conservative view on divorce and remarriage, women in ministry, and reproductive rights”.
“The current conversation and forthcoming consultation with local churches centre around whether accredited Baptist ministers can be in a same sex marriage,” Revd Diana Watts, Team Leader for Faith And Society at Baptists Together, told Byline Times. “This conversation has arisen from the grassroots and is now being considered across our peer movement”.
“We are aware that the conversation about accredited ministers and marriage is being held in the context of changing cultural understanding of sexuality,” she continued. “A number have contributed thus far and two particular groupings have gathered to represent different viewpoints. The purpose of this consultation is to hear from the many ministers and churches who have not contributed to the conversation so far. The consultation will take place next year, and all our churches, ministers and colleges are invited to share their responses”.
The Evangelical Push
Leading the charge against LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church is the Evangelical Baptist group.
In January, the Evangelical Baptists plan to host an event titled Baptist Ministers for Orthodox Marriage in support of a petition to the Baptist Union of Great Britain asking “its council to hold to the traditional biblical view that marriage is between a man and a woman” and to affirm “that anything outside of this is unscriptural”.
The Evangelical Baptist Group is co-run by Yinka Oyekan, a minister who established The Turning ministry. The latter is a movement designed to bring large numbers of people to the church similar to the evangelical movements run by US ministers such as Billy Graham.
A script published by The Turning encourages members to go out and talk to people in the community, telling them that “God loves you and has an awesome plan for your life”.
The Turning was heavily influenced by Tommy Zito, an American evangelist who came to Oyekan’s church in Reading to support a Christian revival in the city, with the ultimate aim to bring the movement to other towns and cities across the UK and the European Union.
Zito, credited by The Turning’s manifesto as “the evangelist we invited” was a “disciple” of the US minister Dr Rodney Howard Browne – a controversial figure with links to far-right conspiracists and Christian Nationalists. Oyekan describes The Turning’s script as “virtually identical” to the one written by Howard Browne in his book, The Great Awakening, Power Evangelism Manual.
“Some capital-E Evangelist movements do look to aspects of the church in the US as kind of champions of the true faith,” says Dowding. “Although in the UK that is less prevalent than elsewhere in Europe”.
Howard Browne was a guest on far-right conspiracist theorist Alex Jones’ Infowars channel, where he spread disinformation about bomb attacks in Texas, and claimed that “globalist gremlins” were attempting to overthrow then US President Donald Trump. The use of the word “globalist” in far-right conspiracist circles is generally considered an antisemitic dog-whistle.
This is not the only conspiracy that Howard Browne has spread and promoted. He claimed the 2019 Christchurch mosque attack, when a far-right terrorist murdered 52 Muslim worshippers, was a “false flag” to “blame” conservatives. He has repeated Coronavirus conspiracies, and encouraged his congregation to shake hands in defiance of social distancing precautions.
The minister was subsequently arrested for hosting an unlawful assembly. It was reported that he was offered legal representation by Mathew Staver, the chair of US Christian Nationalist Liberty Counsel, chairman who once said the “Q” in LGBTQ stands for “paedophilia”.
Howard Browne has repeatedly used homophobic language, with his megachurch Revival Ministries International referring to LGBTIQ+ people as “perverts” who “abuse themselves”. A video on his YouTube channel features a young woman who had grown up wanting to be a boy but rejected the gay “lifestyle” and married a man. Although she struggled with her sexuality for a while longer, God helped her accept her husband and “Jesus made me feel like a princess”.
The row comes as religious institutions have been under scrutiny regarding so-called “conversion therapy” – the practice of trying to change someone’s sexuality. A long-promised ban by the UK Government has proven controversial after a draft allowed for “spiritual counselling” around sexuality, and for not including transgender people in the ban.
According to Dowding, who is also Chair of Trustees of Affirm (Baptists Together for LGBTQ+ Inclusion), so-called conversion therapy remains an issue in the Church, although the practice ranges in severity.
“We know it’s occurring in a Baptist context because we have people coming to us and telling us that this is what they have experienced – more often than not using the language of conversion therapy or conversion practices,” Dowding tells Byline Times.
“In the past decade, although less so recently, we have heard of incidents in fringe Baptist Churches – ones with a strong Evangelical heritage but perhaps not so much of a Baptist tradition – with much more obvious signs of what we would consider conversion practices, including physical practices to cast out demons,” he adds.
Part of the issue, Dowding explains, is that there is very weak safeguarding within the Baptist Church, something that Affirm and OneBodyOneFaith is seeking to change. There is also, he says, a culture of silence around LGBTQ+ rights and congregants.
“We hear from people who do not feel safe because they have heard someone talking about LGBTQ+ issues, or they are coming to terms with their gender identity but the minister preached an anti-trans sermon,” Dowding says. “There are problems with bullying in the broadest sense, not just an LGBTQ+ sense. People are afraid that if they come out in this context, they will lose their community and their support network”.
“Baptist Union of Great Britain is committed to resourcing our ministers and churches with policies, procedures, training and support aimed at protecting people from harm,” said Watts. “In 2022 alone we provided safeguarding training for nearly 9,000 staff, trustees and volunteers”.
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Baptists who support LGBTQ+ rights, as well as reproductive choices for women, are concerned that the hard-liners are gaining influence, as evidenced by the decision of the Government to exclude spiritual counselling in its conversion therapy ban.
“The Evangelical Baptist group is made up of college professors, Baptist ministers, and community workers, all of which have influence within our communities,” Revd Joe Haward told Byline Times. “These views do not stay isolated within their own echo chamber, but impact society, especially when amplified by politicians, social media influencers, and the churches these ministers represent”.
He described how religious right churches are gaining a foothold in universities, and increasingly encouraging their congregations to vote on rights-issues, including voting for anti-abortion politicians.
There has also been a growing trend, well-documented by this newspaper, of traditionally anti-abortion organisations moving more into the anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-sex education space, courting right-wing MPs to push anti-gender narratives and policies.
Yinka Oyekan, the Evangelical Baptists, and Dr Howard-Browne’s ministry were all approached for comment.