Throughout November, The Huffington Post UK is featuring its Beyond Belief series, chronicling the remarkable lives of Britons who've taken on their faith to create a force for change.
In the lyrics that Christian rock star Vicky Beeching sang at megachurches across the Bible belt, at evangelical festivals and rallies against gay marriage, you can hear she was hiding something.
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“Deliverer, come set me free,
“Break every chain holding me
“Just say the word and I will be changed,
We'll see Your face and we will not be the same.”
Kent-born Beeching, now a sought-after theologian and broadcaster, says she is now able to analyse those lyrics with fresh eyes, though she always knew deep down what she was really writing about - her struggle to accept both that she is devoutly Christian, and that she is gay.
“I do realise how unhappy I was most of the time, you can hear the tension,” she says, “I wrote a lot about the character of God too, from my academic work, because I found contemporary worship songs really quite vacuous.
“But if you look at the songs which are my personal expression to God, there’s a lot of calls for compassion and forgiveness, and healing. That was all part of the journey, praying for freedom from fear, to actually be myself, and also praying for freedom from my sexuality struggles.”
“Brokenness has brought me to my knees,
Face to face with all that's dark in me,
“I can barely see You through my shame,
Jesus come and wash me white again.”
But it took the Oxford University graduate years of hidden misery, and a devastating illness, for her to find acceptance. In August this year, having made a promise to herself to take the plunge by the time she was 35, she contacted the campaigning journalist Patrick Strudwick, and said she wanted to give him a story.
She pushed a piece of paper across the coffee shop table, telling him that she was gay.
Coming out in the national media felt “like detonating a bomb”, she tells me when we meet over cups of tea in the HuffPost UK office. “I was cowering under the duvet pressing refresh, looking at the comments pouring in.”
To look at Beeching now, I can’t imagine her cowering from anything. Bright blonde in a leather jacket with a glowing smile, she opens up from the moment we start to talk, in that clear and considered voice that rings out most weeks on Radio 4’s Thought For The Day.
She is in a new relationship, her first with a woman, and says she has never been so happy, even though her songs are now subject to vicious boycotts in churches across the world. “I was so melancholy before. I didn’t know what to do to lift my spirits. I thought of being on anti-depressants but my psychologist said, you’re not sick, you’re just in pain from hiding something.
“Coming out has felt like a whole load has lifted and I can be me, and love God, and settle down with someone, like anyone else, and that person will happen to be the same gender.”
Beeching is a prolific tweeter, even telling me she is “trying to tweet more”. She takes pictures of the artwork on the office walls, of the birthday cake on the desk and the enormous armchair she settles down in for our talk. But being on social media was torturous in the hours and days after her story was the front page of the Independent, as much as some stories were uplifting.
“I have got about 1,000 emails since I came out and they are still pouring in,” she says. “I have had people say they felt a certain resonance with my music and never knew why, and now they do. They write and say ‘I have always known I was gay, or I’m bisexual and I get the resonance’. They say that my particular songs help them connect with God. And that is really moving.
“My job as a musician was to help connect people with god, now I have a passion to connect LGBT people with God. Most of us have felt very excluded by the church. And I have had gay people contact me and say, and they are coming out as a Christian, they say that’s almost as hard, because the LGBT community historically has seen religion as oppression.”
That has helped her through the abuse, “people writing to say ‘Your songs are worthless now’.” Critics say her music is “polluted” and “like dirt”. “They say ‘the words we enjoyed singing are meaningless. You’re a hypocrite’. It is so hard to see your legacy go up in flames like that.”
Just hours after her coming out hit the headlines, Beeching was on Channel 4 debating firebrand pastor Scott Lively, who said she had "given in to a lie".
Beeching was expecting the vitriol, her songs were subject to boycotts when she first aired her support for equal marriage, without even mentioning her own sexuality. It has had a financial, as well as an emotional cost. “The usage of the songs in churches actually paid most of my salary. That was a real blow,” she says.
One particularly nasty piece insinuated that Beeching had been abused as a child, another said that her feeling of “shame” about her own womanhood and femininity led her to need to “absorb” another woman to compensate.
“It is so offensive to be psychoanalysed by strangers,’ she says. “The amount of angst from the hard right was actually worse than I thought. I have never been abused, I had a very healthy upbringing. I don’t fit their stereotypes.
“Someone made a video saying God would strike me down with a disability, or death, and that the judgment of God was coming.” She laughs at that idea. “I know what my relationship with God is.”
As a child of a deeply religious family in Canterbury who went to church three to four times a week, Beeching has always had a very personal connection with God. “I felt a very genuine, strong religious connection, from being very little, even from looking up at the stars and thinking ‘why are we here? What’s the plan?’," she says.
Throughout her life, Beeching says she has been able to talk to God in a very personal way. “I remember being five or six, walking around the playground at school, and feeling so lonely, and so shy and scared, and having no one to speak to.
“And I just talked to God about my day, and how I didn’t like to be at school, and how I missed my mum and dad. It was very real, from that age, that God was a friend with a caring nature. In my adult life, I still feel it. My relationship with God has always been so honest, I didn’t have qualms about asking him ‘why am I going through this, where are you?’”
A bible passage that Beeching often references is the passage in Genesis where Jacob physically wrestles with God. “Faith is often seen as quite a passive thing, you swallow the tablet. But I think there is a wrestling, the fear I felt, meant I was always having to confront my faith.”
Only twice did she share with others that she was having feelings for female friends, once with a Catholic priest at confession, another time at a Christian youth camp, where participants performed an exorcism, and prayed for her release from “demonic” homosexuality.
“That really threw me. It was so frightening for a child to be told that, and you are still a child at 16,” she says. But she will not blame them. “I know that some people from the camps and festivals have been in touch saying they are reconsidering what they do. People come up to the front of the room, saying ‘I’m gay, help me’ and there’s no formula for what happens next, the people praying are teenagers. They aren’t psychologists. None of them are equipped to know what to do.“
Beeching says that she still “grieves” for those lost years, that there was no one to place a hand on her shoulder, to tell her that she should not be ashamed. “There was no one at all, and that’s what motivates me now,” she says. “Having someone say ‘this is ok’ and be a role model, was what I needed so badly. My life would have been so different, just a book or an article about what the bible really says about sexuality would have been gold dust. But it didn’t exist.”
There was one night, aged 13, where Beeching found herself crying out to God for salvation, weeping into her bedroom carpet. “It was a prayer of tears, not a prayer of words, but I was saying ‘I give up, I can’t carry the weight of this, I can be true to You or my sexuality but not both’. It was so completely overwhelming.
“But something about that night did feel like a turning point, if not a sign directly. I did get off the floor, wipe my face, get into bed and carry on the next morning. I think sometimes God just gives us enough light to see the next step. He never gives you the cheat sheet. He is real enough that I would never doubt him, but there are things you don’t know and that means that it’s faith.”
She threw herself into the two things that meant she did not have to confront her personal struggles, music and academic work. Having adored life at Oxford, and wanting to pursue a career in academia, her world was turned upside down by the offer of a contract with a Christian label in Nashville, a branch of mega music label EMI.
Aged 22, Beeching packed her guitar, with her recording contract in her pocket, and got on a plane to America's country music capital, a place about which she “knew nothing”.
Her bass player Simon Francis recalls someone who was "warm and quiet, with deep theological knowledge and understanding, and an enthusiastic energy that lit up whilst sharing stories or geeking out on 'muso-chat'" when they met in Nashville. "She had an infectious positivity and tangible faith that inspired me greatly."
But Nashville was a culture shock. “I landed and there were billboards offering ‘reparative therapy’, saying God can save you from your homosexuality, call this number. Westboro Baptist Church was picketing gay funerals.”
But there was one moment that really stood out. One of her labelmates was Christian artist Jennifer Knapp, who was then taking a leave of absence from music and touring. She was known to be gay by the label, and has since come out, but at the time Beeching said it was hinted at in the offices.
“We were walking past a wall full of [Knapp’s] gold records, and someone made a throwaway comment to me: ‘Oh, you’re a girl with a guitar, we hope you’re straight’. “Those moments stop you dead, and you realise it was never something you could talk about.”
Beeching’s contract had a “morality” clause but even now she's not sure if that covered coming out as a lesbian. “I was living in another country, on a work visa, and if I’d lost that contract I would have been sent home, to no job. It felt very scary.”
No one suspected, she said, though she politely declined all offers of blind dates with potential boyfriends. “I threw myself very unhealthily into work,” she admits. “I was on a plane every other day across America and Europe, but I was incredibly lonely. I booked as many gigs as I could on my birthday, on New Year, around Christmas, just to avoid the holidays. Every birthday and Christmas I would feel a huge sense of sadness. I felt I was no closer to finding a life partner, or being myself.”
Those who were close to her during that time sensed she had something more to give. Rob Bell, the famous American pastor named one of TIME's 100 Most Influential People In The World, hosted Beeching at his church: "When I first met Vicky I had the strong sense that her future lay way beyond the narrow confines of the music and subculture she was in at the time.
"Anyone could see that her depth and intelligence and courage would take her into all sorts of new territory."
Francis said Beeching's calling was plain, even though she kept her motivation hidden. "She was passionate about issues of injustice and equality, and had a vibrant intellect and creative spark. She was one of the first and few Christian artists I encountered who never seemed to let fear of acceptance or expectation govern her creative decisions, and yet was always accessible, approachable, and always inclusive."
Beeching moved from Nashville to California in the heat over the passage of Proposition 8 in 2008, which banned same-sex marriage in the state. Instead of a more liberal atmosphere she thought she would find on the West Coast, Beeching found herself booked to sing at the most uncomfortable places.
“I always felt I was invited to sing, but couldn’t speak. So much was going on in my heart that I wanted to share, but I couldn’t. I had to sing from the songsheet. I found myself bookended between people ranting about gay people needing to be saved and going to hell. And I wasn’t allowed to say anything, even though I thought 'I shouldn’t be the soundtrack to this'.”
The pain of secrecy could have quite literally killed her. She noticed an inflamed scar-like mark across her forehead, and doctors gave her the horrifying news that the problem was an auto-immune disease, linear scleroderma morphea, which turns soft tissue to scar tissue, and can affect the entire body. She flew home to start the brutal treatment, which includes chemotherapy.
“I was in a hospital bed, with an IV drip in my arm, and I thought, you need to ‘woman up’. My own theological studies had led me to the point where I thought that being gay and Christian was compatible. But I needed to be stronger.”
That was when she made a promise to herself to come out at the age of 35, with a bedrock of theological knowledge, psychological support and the wisdom gained from so many years suffering.
“It was worth waiting for,” she insists. “People ask if I am angry at the church, but I waited until I wasn’t any more. When I was ill, I was so disappointed and frustrated, and I wanted to get past that and be able to speak out of love, to say God loves me the way I am, and all LGBT people the way they are.”
She came out to her parents at Easter, who took it hard. Hardest, they said, was how distant she had been over the years. “It was such a shock, they really hadn’t thought of it before. But they said the really devastating part was me not being able to talk to them. And that wasn’t a reflection on them, they are great parents, but I would not have know how to begin to talk about it with them.”
One of the most overwhelmingly welcoming reaction has been from the LGBT community, which Beeching says has “blown me away”.
“A minority have said if you are truly going to embrace your sexuality, then you need to discard your patriarchal, misogynistic old school religion. But very few. Mostly, people have found the theology very empowering.” Her current project is a book - one she says she wished she could have had as a child or teenager - on faith and sexuality.
Strikingly pretty, and fast becoming a familiar face on Sky News and the BBC, Beeching admits she has had an “influx” of interested women. “I think they think I’m much cooler than I am. It is crazy,” she laughs, reddening slightly.
She is in a relationship now and is “really happy.”
“It feels like one of those things that makes coming out worthwhile. I am really loving getting to know her, and she is so great. When you are 35, you know the kind of person you are looking for. I have never been interested in random dating, I am not that kind of person. I am so pleased to be dating someone now who makes me so happy.”
Others have noticed the change in her. "I'm honored to be her friend," says pastor Bell. "She's that rare combination of heart and mind and fearlessness that I find so inspiring. We will be hearing great wisdom from her for a long time."
Finding love has been surprisingly easier than finding a church that feels like a place she can belong. “The churches that feel like home, with music and drums and singing, their theology is not my theology. It actually tends to be the most traditional, high church, places which have a more liberal outlook. I have yet to find a guitar and drums church which aligns with my theology.
"There are places that will say, you can worship here if you are gay and be welcome but you can’t preach, you can’t get up and sing, you can’t lead. That feels patronising, I need to be fully accepted or not at all.”
Beeching says she is encouraged by the pace of change in British society, and in the church. “Who would have thought it would be a Conservative government to introduce an equal marriage bill? Pope Francis comments at the synod last week were an unbelievable shift. Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple just spoke about being gay. This is a domino effect, I am hopeful that change will happen fast.”
I ask her to predict when we’ll see a lesbian Archbishop of Canterbury. She laughs. “That would be something. I think we will see a female archbishop in our lifetime. There are definitely women in the CofE with the calibre to do that.”
Though many would shrink from crafting a future career path that involved reliving such a painful past daily, or having ones persona defined by sexuality, Beeching says that she wants know to throw herself into LGBT activism and finding a way to be a “translator” for both the church and for the gay community. “I do think the way my journey makes sense is to use it to help others. Within religion, there has not been real role models before, and I think that is crucial. There are lots of people faithfully serving god, and living their sexuality in a way that’s compatible with their religion. That is what will change it.”
“I have looked back and asked if the last 35 years have been wasted but actually I have a platform now where I can make a difference. People know me so well; it is difficult then to ignore me.
“They sing my songs in churches across the globe. They know my heart through my lyrics. So now the message I bring isn’t from a stranger. Some of the messages I receive have said ‘we thought we knew what being gay was, until it was you. Now we have to rethink'.
“People often bring up something that Jesus says about ‘knowing a tree by its fruit, that a bad tree can’t bear good fruit, or vice versa.’ You look at a someone’s life, and it’s borne good spiritual fruit, well, it can’t be a bad tree."
"I cannot comprehend what it has taken for Vicky to build the courage to tackle all that she has in recent months - to have such a burden that was manifested in such physical ways must have been a huge thing to overcome," her former bass player Francis says. "It saddens me that she felt the need to hide it and carry it alone for so long, and am blown away by the grace and forgiveness she has handled this all with.
"I am both challenged and inspired by her bravery, and am excited to see her grow as a really necessary voice in areas that have brought so much pain and division, I eagerly anticipate the progression and healing that I pray her leadership will help usher in. She seems to me, uniquely positioned and equipped with the knowledge, tact, and empathy to continue to be a huge force for good."
Beeching cannot stop herself from grinning when she talks about her own future. “I have never been so happy, I keep smiling just walking down the street. I am myself, more so than ever.”
As part of the Huffington Post Beyond Belief series we want to know how your religion goes beyond just a faith in a God or Gods, or a cultural association. How do you incorporate or use faith in modern life? Tweet us with the hashtag #HPBeyondBelief to tell us in 140 characters and we'll feature the best contributions.
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