'I’m a Jew. I’m small. I’m a homosexual. And I live in Sheffield. I’m fu**ed.’ Posner’s heartfelt cry in The History Boys, Alan Bennett’s rites of passage play about Northern grammar school boys taking the Oxbridge history exam in the 1980s, expresses the twin distress of his faith and sexuality in an oppressive culture.1 I was a Christian in Stoke, not a Jew in Sheffield, but I too was a small, gay 1980s grammar school boy, who took Oxbridge history classes. And I felt the same way as Posner about my life.

Public policy on LGBT+ rights has moved on enormously since the days when Section 28 enforced silence at school. But, as Christian rock star and theologian Vicky Beeching’s Undivided recounts, there remains much psychological (and thereby physiological) pain from past and present fear and shame for those of us who grew up gay and Christian (or in another homophobic faith culture).2 What role does counselling play in helping us to integrate our whole selves, our faith or spiritual identity and our sexual identity?

In this article, I conduct a brief exploration of my understanding and experience of person-centred counselling as both client and counsellor in my identity as a gay Christian. I also review, for counsellors, the practical integration of person-centred psychotherapy with Christian spirituality and gay sexuality.

Growth, distress and therapeutic conditions for the gay Christian

Influenced perhaps by theories of personal growth (both psychological and spiritual) in the Western Judaeo-Christian tradition, which informed his own fundamentalist Christian upbringing, Carl Rogers argued that we all have an innate actualising tendency. While unconditional positive regard (UPR) from others yields our sense of worth, taking on judgments by other people may lead to incongruence, his sole cause of psychological distress.

This resonates with my experience as a gay Christian: psychological and spiritual growth, yet distress from the judgments of church and wider society (whose legal and moral roots are in that Western Judaeo-Christian tradition). I am living at a time of positive but painful change: gay men of my parents’ generation were subject to imprisonment, castration; even, in Europe, the gas chamber. I grew up in the era of Section 28 censorship and fear of AIDS, I reached my 40s before I could marry. By contrast, many younger students on my MSc course at Keele were unaware that I chose a civil ceremony (and thanksgiving service) because I could not marry in the Church of England. In a world of populism on the march, which often claims religious support for its cause (for example, Putin and Trump), there is no guarantee that such minority rights will continue. This is a source of anxiety.

In my faith background, there was and remains much talk of unconditional love, but the reality is too often, at best, love that is conditional on adherence to others’ interpretations of specific verses of the Bible – conditions of worth. For a gay Christian, the reality is often judgment, condemnation and overwhelming feelings of shame. Christians are encouraged to seek forgiveness of their guilt. Yet, shame must be hidden, even from God (Adam and Eve, naked in the garden, expressed this after succumbing to temptation – Genesis 3:7). But how do you hide something from an all-knowing God? We see the tragic impact in shocking levels of teenage LGBT+ self-harm and suicide rates, exemplified in the case of Lizzie Lowe, whose death in 2014 shook her evangelical St James and Emmanuel church, Didsbury and led to a change of heart and soul there, and to my own decision to be wholly out at church. Didsbury church recently hosted a Pride event and is part of the first inclusive deanery in the Church of England. My own church has not yet had a suicide and is yet to make that journey to inclusion.

Christiane Sanderson summarises the impact of shame: ‘although guilt prompts feelings of remorse or regret, it does not necessarily affect the core identity or self as it does in shame’.3 Too often, this is treated as guilt: the solution offered to many gay Christians is to seek repentance and forgiveness through ‘reparative therapy’. Indeed, the very term ‘same-sex-attracted’ used by many conservative (especially evangelical) Christians, is taken from the name of a disorder, now discredited in scientific circles. The tragic irony is that it is this very oppression by such a culture that makes us ill, even suicidal. Beeching, who dedicated her memoir to Lowe’s memory, documents her experience of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, her physical suffering with fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and the autoimmune disorder scleroderma (all associated with trauma or extreme stress), but also of the vital role of therapy in healing and integrating herself.2

In integrating person-centred counselling (not just theory) with my Christian spirituality, it is central that both are a ‘way of being’. Just as faith is not a once-aweek ritual, the person-centred approach, especially if we are to be sincere or ‘congruent’, demands we try to offer the core conditions not as a professional technique but as a deeply lived embodiment. As a therapist who pioneered work in the field of spirituality and counselling, Brian Thorne sees himself as a companion in life to those in pain, in empathy with Jesus’ sufferings.4

Dori Yusef’s sense of ‘attunement’ or ‘transcendent warmth’ in empathic understanding speaks to my sense of God within.5 When counselling students and hospice clients, I have journeyed with several people whose own bruising encounters with church and religion have led them to a very different faith viewpoint from mine, or who have been tentative about mentioning faith, yet have expressed a strong sense of being held. I am conscious that in spiritual matters we can as clients feel most vulnerable. William West quotes a counselling client: ‘when I was ill, I certainly learned very quickly to keep my spiritual side of myself separate from the rest of myself whenever I met with any of the “professionals”.’6 Chris Jenkins cites a client who withheld spiritual experiences from a therapist, who had indicated several positive messages about spirituality, concerned that his own might not be ‘the right kind of spirituality’ and his experiences might be ‘analysed and explained away even by such a therapist’.7 As a gay Christian, I know that sense of wariness of disclosure, when faith positions can be firmly and intolerantly held. It is much more important to me as a client that my counsellor accepts and ‘gets’ me than that she shares my faith standpoint (she doesn’t, nor does Beeching’s therapist). Conversely and sadly, I am wary of any counsellor who chooses the tag ‘Christian counsellor’, for fear of a judgmental approach to my sexuality, even though I identify both as a Christian and a counsellor. For me, self-disclosure of either a sense of spirituality or understanding what it is to be gay, is client led, if made at all, and made in such a way as to get back into their frame of reference.

I can now express what Sanderson terms ‘authentic pride’ in my identity as both gay and Christian. Experienced in coming out, I can be open about both. Like Beeching, I can find strength in authenticity and vulnerability. I know where I stand, even as I have faced the ongoing ordeal of being dismissed from a voluntary pastoral role in my own church for marrying my husband. For Jonathan Wyatt, the counsellor’s aim for themselves in this field is what I might term ‘spiritual congruence’: ‘when I am clear about my faith and comfortable with it – whatever it looks like – then that is good. I know what I think. I know what I believe and I know what I do not believe. I know what my values are, or I know that I don’t know. Then, when I am like that, I can listen to clients.’8

St Paul writes (in 1 Corinthians 13) of the need for love above all else. Rogers himself linked this concept of love to his idea of UPR. As counsellors, we need to be able to accept what the client cannot accept about themselves, before they can begin to move towards accepting it too, and that includes whatever they express their spirituality and sexuality to be.

Where words fail: spiritual practices

Fevronia Christodoulidi advocates that counsellors should develop ‘spiritual competencies’: to be able to describe to their client religious, spiritual and transpersonal expressions from culturally diverse perspectives.9 West cites yoga, retreat, religious services and spiritual friendships as spiritual practices forming part of his personal development.6 For me, I should add spiritual expression through mindfulness or meditation, the sound of the sea, walking and belonging to a welcoming community. Part of my support network in facing homophobic discrimination, even bullying, in my local church, is through workplace chaplaincy and spiritual retreat, both rooted in the Celtic tradition, which I find both welcoming and non-judgmental.

For me, as I have found as both client and counsellor, sometimes words fail us and we can access both our feelings and our spirituality more readily through creative arts. Music, poetry, journaling and other creative writing; collage, drawing and painting – I have witnessed myself or through clients how each of these can unlock deep-seated pain and bring healing.

In my own case, it allowed me to express a long-suppressed longing to become an adoptive Dad. For others, I have seen it help to express deeply held feelings about their gender or relationship status in a judgmental faith setting.

Prayer is a means by which we can integrate spirituality into counselling. It is one thing to pray for one’s clients when away from the therapy room. Thorne writes of holding the absent client: calling the client to mind each day (which seems very disciplined!). To pray in person with clients, in my view, has to be strongly led by the client. Peter Gubi notes the prevalence of prayer (59 per cent of counsellors questioned in a quantitative study used prayer to support their work, 12 per cent actually prayed with clients) and the ethical question whether to do it at all (which I haven’t).10 He suggests a tentative, deferential approach (‘some clients feel it may help... ‘), starting with silence and, if proceeding to any words, to keep it brief and simple, so as not to interrupt the client’s experience, and to do so after the client has explored their feelings. I should add that any prayer would have to abide by agency protocols, especially working in a hospice or the NHS, which lend themselves to asking the deepest of life questions, but also to profound vulnerability. Of course, chaplaincy support can be brought in here, but conversely the fear of rejection and judgment can be an issue for gay clients. 

My experience is that chaplaincy in a healthcare setting often attracts empathic, LGBT+ or affirming people; indeed, it was the chaplaincy at the hospital where I worked who pulled out all the stops to arrange our first (civil) same-sex wedding on a ward for a dying patient.

Does prayer work? West states that ‘the healing that occurs at the heart of effective therapy remains something of a mystery’, and experience says the same for prayer. Why are some so profoundly healed, some only partly, some for good, some briefly, some not at all? The counselling contracting leaflet at the hospice where I work says, ‘counsellors believe that people have the capacity to change if they really want to’. I question how that could be read: as if failure to experience therapeutic change is the client’s fault, just as failure to see answer to healing prayer has often been attributed to the individual’s lack of faith. Katharine Welby-Roberts has spoken movingly about this in the context of her experience of severe depression within a prominent church family (as daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury). Yet Dennis Lines notes that there is a correlation (however inconvenient to social scientists) between religious practice and good mental health.11

In the end, my prayers were answered in a wholly unexpected and transformative way: law and society changed, I came to accept and embrace my faith and sexuality and to use both ‘rainbows’ as integral parts of who and what I bring to the therapy room as counsellor and client. For me, and I suspect for some others, it is unfinished business.

This article is adapted from Andrew Smith’s conference paper, I trace the rainbow through the rain: how person-centred counselling speaks to me as a gay Christian, presented in 2018 at Keele University’s 12th annual counselling (research and practice) conference: spirituality, faith and religion in the therapeutic space.

Andrew Smith is a person-centred counsellor engaged in private practice, hospice and youth work, while embarking on a PhD on the psychotherapeutic role of Celtic spirituality.


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