is a lecturer in media at a further education college in Bath and has over 15 years of youth work experience, including lecturing for the Institute for Children, Youth and Mission in Bristol. She holds an affirming theological position on same-sex relationships and lives near Bath with her wife Sara.
works in creative direction and film-making, working on a range of projects including the production of national youth work resources. He has been involved in voluntary youth work for many years and spoken at youth events around the country. Luke embraces a traditional theological position in regards to marriage and sexuality.
Could you share some of your own story and how you landed on the position you’ve taken?
Jo Dolby: I became a Christian when I was 12 and grew up in a fairly evangelical youth group; it was just sort of an unspoken thing that if you were a Christian you couldn’t be gay. I had no idea of my own sexuality until I was in my 20s.
During my degree with CYM (the Institute for Children, Youth and Mission) people talked about homosexuality from different angles and it was the first time I had sought other views on it. At the same time, through my youth work I was encountering young people who were struggling with this. I realised that my view was inherited and that I needed to develop my own view. After my CYM degree, I did a masters in theology which helped me go back to some of those ‘clobber scriptures’ [verses traditionally interpreted as condemning homosexuality] and I realised maybe they don’t really mean what I was told they mean.
After some more study I knew that this was about me now as well as my youth work. That was when I went towards an affirming view. Then I met my now wife and we both were like: “God, if you want us to be together, you need to make that really clear.” Both of us had reached an affirming view but we just wanted to be really honest about whether that was right. Everything we asked of God, in terms of making it clear whether we were to be together or not, was done beyond our wildest imaginations - we clearly felt God wanted us to be together.
Luke Aylen: I grew up in a rural church which never spoke about sexuality. We left when I was about 9 so I wasn’t in church as a teenager. From about 11 I knew that I was gay and by about 16 I was seeing that as the most important part of who I was.
A friend invited me to church and I became a Christian. Naively I never thought that Christianity might have something to say about sexuality but I read a passage in Leviticus that took me by surprise - a man lying with a man is an abomination - I didn’t know how to process that. I spoke to two friends in my youth group. One said: “God wants you to be happy it doesn’t matter what you do. If he’s made you that way then live like that”. The other said: “My parents turn off the TV when a gay person comes on, I don’t think I can be friends with you.” I didn’t know what to think. I started to research and very quickly I adopted an affirming view.
My job as a youth worker is not to tell anybody to think a certain thing, it’s to point people to Jesus
Over a couple of years I met with a youth worker to talk about my sexuality and he was very patient and listened lots and we looked at some of the scriptures together. I was in a relationship with a guy and was loving it and thanking God for it. Then one night, it was the first charismatic experience I’d ever had, I felt a sense that the Holy Spirit was challenging me on something and as I prayed, I felt God saying: “I don’t want you to be in this relationship, I want you to be single.” I very much disagreed with God, so argued with him for a while but I felt that persistent and strong sense that this was the case. It was the first time I’ve felt God clearly seem to prompt me towards something so I wanted to make sure I went along with that. So, I felt called to singleness before I theologically had any issue with being in a gay relationship and I quite reluctantly followed singleness.
My newfound sense of call to celibacy freed me up to examine in depth what I really felt scripture was saying. Ultimately this lead me to study a BA in theology. My dissertation at theological college was around sexuality and identity. In the lead up to my degree my view shifted and my studies seemed to confirm my new-found view. I ended up being convinced that the Bible seems to promote both marriage and singleness equally, but also that the image of marriage I see in the Bible is between a man and a woman. So for me, my theology has been shaped not by a theology of homosexuality and the ‘clobber’ passages, but by a theology of marriage and the big meta-narrative of marriage throughout the Bible of opposite-sex marriage as a
reflection of Christ and his Church and the distinct relationships within the Trinity. Within my family I am the only person who holds that view. For some of them, me being evangelical is more of a challenge than me being gay!
What are the impacts of these approaches on youth ministry?
LA: These ‘controversial’ issues are probably not the primary things that are going to impact our youth work. I want young people to meet Jesus, fall in love with him and give their lives to him in every area. But some young people might believe Christians are homophobic and the Church is bigoted, or it might be an experience that they’re going through themselves and therefore you need to support them.
It’s not an easy decision to be single and choose celibacy. But I have experienced a huge amount of grace from God and my view feels like it sits within that broader picture of what is it to develop disciples who are sacrificial in all areas of life. It impacts my youth ministry in that I want young people to live completely sold-out lives. The distinctiveness and counter-cultural aspect of a more traditional view isn’t something we need to be terrified of. It can help our young people be great witnesses by standing out from the crowd.
JD: A common criticism of contemporary youth ministry is that we fail to communicate the cost of discipleship so I can totally see the positive impact that has on your youth work, Luke.
There will be positives and negatives about both of our viewpoints on this and how that impacts our youth ministry. We all bring different things to the table, not just about sexuality, but on a whole bunch of stuff. Youth ministry is a very personal ministry. It’s an expression, a lot of the time, of who you are.
I always go back to that massively over-quoted Vincent J Donovan quote about not taking young people to a place where you or they have been before but having the courage to go with them somewhere new. That’s underpinned my view of what youth ministry should be. My job as a youth worker is not to tell anybody to think a certain thing, it’s to point people to Jesus, and what people think about stuff hopefully comes from a relationship with him.
Do you think it’s possible for young people to feel fully included in churches that take a traditional position?
JD: Jesus didn’t say: “People will know you’re my disciples because you agree with each other”; it’s because we love each other. I don’t want the Church to be more affirming, but more inclusive. If I want the freedom to interpret the Bible in the way I have, I have to give others the same freedom.
In theory it’s possible, but I think it would be very difficult for somebody who is non-affirming to fully include somebody who is gay and in a relationship. I would describe my church as not-affirming and partially inclusive, in the sense that my wife and I are really welcome, they love us being part of the church and we have a really great relationship with our pastors, but we have a lot of restrictions on our involvement. By not affirming us, it means they can’t let us be fully involved and therefore we’re excluded. For me, that’s where the damage comes.
In my view, homosexuality is a secondary issue, not a primary issue. It becomes a condition of involvement and leadership, when I don’t necessarily see why it should be. I think we can think different things about this and still be included and fully involved.
LA: As a young person I went to a church with a conservative view on this subject. I disagreed with them for a number of years. When I told my youth worker what I was going through he told me I would always be welcome whatever choice I made. Because they explained their position to me, lovingly, and openly, it made sense that if I wasn’t in alignment with what they believed on that issue, they probably wouldn’t put me in a position of leadership. To me, that wasn’t a lack of inclusiveness - it was common sense. So I think inclusivity can happen in a church.
I think of the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. Jesus is always inclusive. He is the most loving, welcoming, grace-filled person and he didn’t respond to the woman in the way people expected, by stoning her. He responded in love, even though he didn’t affirm what she was doing.
For some of my family, me being evangelical is more of a challenge than me being gay
There has sadly been homophobia and mistreatment of gay people in church, which has led to people perceiving the traditional view as being bigoted or non-inclusive. That’s something we really do need to challenge. So often it’s not necessarily the view itself that people struggle with, it’s the way it’s presented.
What’s the best way to support parents if their young people are exploring their sexual identity?
LA: I think one of the key things is to be proactive rather than reactive. Let’s help parents think about how they might talk to their young person before the situation happens. Some of the heartbreaking stories of people who have been really hurt in this area are when they’ve told someone who has not really known what to say.
JD: When a young person comes out, the parent’s reaction is not necessarily what will end up being the response. Give parents space and time to process it. Diverse Church have a really great parents group with parents who have very different views. It’s really supportive and they have meet ups which is brilliant, because you need other parents.
LA: I think it’s really important to try and avoid clichés like: “they’ll grow out of it”. One of the most helpful things we can do as youth workers is to say that we don’t need to define ourselves by labels. I think we’ve got to acknowledge that people do have different experiences, different sexual orientations, but all of us are so much more than just a label.
JD: Something that I have had to watch, as someone who is probably quite liberal in other areas too, is that I don’t become too: “Just do whatever you want, if that’s who you are”. One of the things I say in training on how to support LGBT young people is: “Don’t be afraid to call young people to holiness.” There is a way to pursue and explore sexuality that honours God. It’s important to have that voice of challenge but let the challenge be about fruit - does someone’s sexuality produce good or bad fruit? Give them space but also protect them and challenge them to explore that in a way that is not going to damage them or other people.