As New Zealand increasingly backs queer rights, are our Christian churches evolving or standing firm that homosexuality is sinful? Max Towle investigates.
When he was young, every week Ryan Curran would step forward and silently beg and plead at the altar. "God please take this disease from me," he thought, as his pastor prayed. Behind him there was singing and hands raised towards the sky; some worshippers in a state of trance. Curran kept his eyes and mouth shut. "Please, please God cure me of this. End this pain." His pain was his sexuality. He would rather die than accept himself.
When Curran was 11, he decided to start going to a Pentecostal church that was a short walk from his Dunedin home. "There was a lot of love in my home life, but it definitely wasn't the squeaky clean life you might imagine a Christian family would have. There was drug abuse, alcoholism and violence, and religion was a way of coping."
As a teenager, Curran became devoted to Christianity, leaving school at 15 to take up an internship at church, preaching to, and counselling other young Christians. Yet increasingly he found himself in need of counselling. He figured he was gay, but tried to ignore his feelings. "I knew if I told the church it wouldn't be my family anymore. That was because of the way people talked about homosexuality." What the pastor said went, says Curran. "I don't think they meant to be hateful, it was just something they never tried to understand."
And so most weeks at the altar, he would ask God to cure him. Eventually the pain became too great and at 19 he confided in a church leader, who sent him to a counsellor. He was told to pray more, eat right and read the bible more often, and God would "heal" him. He was desperate but still felt the treatment was wrong. He decided to move to Wellington where he would explore his sexuality in secret, which led to more inner turmoil. He resigned from his new role at church, bought some pills and three bottles of wine, and gave up on life. "I had always been told homosexuality is a sin and I believed I was going to hell. I tried to change myself, but I couldn't, so I decided suicide would be a faster way to get there."
While recovering in hospital, mental health professionals did their best to get through to him, but he rejected their help. After a few weeks he broke down, wept and released "all of the bad stuff". In its place, he says, he began to feel worthiness and love. He began to believe God could be accepting of him. Now 26, and an online minister who posts his sermons and blog posts on his website, he tells people he has been created this way for a reason. "My homosexuality is a God-given gift."
Welcoming, but not affirming?
Ryan Curran has grappled with his very self, and so has Christianity. Society has gradually become more inclusive and affirming of queer rights, yet many churches have not. Others are slowly adjusting, while only a minority have become completely open and inclusive.
Christianity once defined New Zealand's identity. In 1853, 93 percent of the country identified as Christian. A steady decline since the 1960s means that figure has now almost halved. Now, almost 50 percent of young people don't identify with any faith. Christianity in New Zealand is not dying, but it is facing a generational problem.
Pentecostal leaders would reject that accusation. The denomination is growing and churches like Arise and Elim are attracting swathes of young people attracted to their energy, modern music and active community. These churches encourage members to have a "personal relationship" with God, rather than via traditional rituals.
Yet Pentecostalism, like several other Christian denominations, has always been seen to be at odds with the queer community. Its churches teach that the bible denounces same-sex relationships - and the bible is sacrosanct. Peter Lineham, a Massey professor of religion and society and a regular churchgoer, sums it up like this: "I would describe our Pentecostal churches as welcoming but not affirming, and in some cases they're not even welcoming." He says there is still a lingering hostility. Some church leaders continue to refer people to the types of therapies that try to "knock the gay out of you".
Lineham, who created a "Gay and Christian" support group at his local church, says there has been discussion at the highest levels of Pentecostal churches, but those in favour of inclusivity remain in the minority. "You would think there would be a natural accommodation of a variety of views in these youth-orientated churches, and a willingness to relate to contemporary society, and if you were to poll individual members of these churches you would find a diverse range of opinion, but these churches are based on a staunchly conservative type of evangelical theology."
Pentecostalism is far from alone in this. Both the Baptist and Catholic churches generally teach that homosexuality is incompatible with God's word. When Pope Francis was elected in 2013, it seemed the Catholic position was evolving. "If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?" he asked. Yet this past December he called homosexuality a "serious issue" and described it as a "fashionable … mentality". Internationally there has been a conservative pushback in the United Methodist Church, which just this week voted to uphold and strengthen its ban on same-sex marriage.
Lineham says it's views like this that are out of fashion. "The public attitude towards the LGBT community is no longer about tolerance, but protecting their welfare. The majority of people are concerned about the safety and wellbeing of its young people." He says the mindset that homosexuality is sinful is no longer seen to be acceptable, which is putting churches in a quandary. "When the wider community views them as out-of-line and unhealthy for young people, that's potentially disastrous. Churches claim to be the complete opposite."
'God's A-plan is for sexual relationships to be between a man and woman'
In a renovated warehouse on Cook St, central Auckland, a projector whirs into action in front of an 8 metre-high screen as a smartly dressed crowd gradually fills the room. There is an excited hum as modern music is pumped into this very modern church. For the past half hour a few dozen volunteers have been serving upmarket coffee to worshippers, the bulk of whom are young professionals. Onstage sit two guitars and a bass, a full drum kit, two keyboards, a violin and a row of microphones. It is Sunday morning at Elim Church and Pastor Mike Griffiths is going over his sermon, or "message" as he calls it, one final time. "We have a saying around here," he says. "We want our message on Sunday to help people on Monday."
There are about 40 Elim churches in New Zealand and more than 9000 worldwide. Sunday services feature the type of upbeat, contemporary music that typifies most Pentecostal churches. The church is particularly popular with youth and young professionals, yet its theology is relatively conservative. Internationally, Elim is often seen as being at odds with queer rights. The church's US website lists homosexuality alongside adultery, fornication and incest as "sexual practices forbidden by scripture". Elim adheres to the Evangelical Alliance's position that "habitual homoerotic sexual activity without repentance" warrants "consideration for church discipline".
Yet tell Griffiths that his church is welcoming but not affirming, and he'll tell a different story. "We're absolutely welcoming and we're certainly affirming. When someone walks in the door, regardless of how many piercings they've got or whatever else is going on, we try to show them they're loved by God." He says his church tries to focus on people rather than sexuality. "We don't necessarily agree with people's lifestyle choices … but we would definitely say we're welcoming and accepting, regardless of whether we agree with where they're at on their journey.
"The bible is relatively clear that God's A-plan is for sexual relationships to be between a man and woman," Griffiths says. Yet while he would be unable to marry a same-sex couple, he says "God's grace is far broader and wider than most of us are comfortable with - certainly what I'm comfortable with." Griffiths says that while there are often "difficult conversations" to be had, he insists everyone at his church is loved by God.
He is often the go-to person for young people to confide in. He says every conversation about sexuality is different. "From experience, some people questioning their sexuality have been heavily influenced by an earlier abuse or a particular sort of pornography they've been exposed to, or for as long as they can remember have always felt an attraction for the same-sex.
"If you've got someone who has suffered some sort of trauma, I'm going to encourage them in their journey to seek counselling and make sure there are no issues that are affecting the way they're feeling. For someone who has always felt a same-sex attraction, the primary responsibility is for us to include them in our community and show them they're loved."
He says there are many happy, regular Elim parishioners who are gay and lesbian, including those in same-sex relationships, "and we love them". Yet he suggests there is another way for people who are attracted to the same-sex. "There are large communities of Christian homosexuals who have chosen to be celibate and the biggest struggle for them is with loneliness. Church can provide a family and a place for people to feel loved and cared for, within whatever their journey looks like."
'Hating people and judging them isn't what Christianity is about'
When Maia* moved from a small-town to Auckland two years ago, she visited and researched the bigger Pentecostal churches. She quickly got the sense that she would be "tolerated," but never accepted. "It was like 'you can come but you'll never be a big part of it'. I can go to a church like that but I think it's important to feel like a part of the community and to positively contribute."
Maia has always been religious. As a child, her family went to a conservative Methodist church before she switched to a Pentecostal church in her 20s. "For so long I think I always knew I was gay, but at the same time I was very homophobic. I had been taught that it was wrong." She remembers countless sermons about "man and wife." She remembers the sermons damning same-sex relationships. But she still loved the community and her church.
Few people in her life knew about her partner, with whom she would often visit Auckland. In the city she felt "out", so decided moving there would help balance her "warped" view of her sexuality. "I just didn't want to carry that pain anymore."
She eventually discovered Ponsonby Baptist, where 13 years ago Peter Lineham setup his Gay and Christian support group. The 139-year-old church fully embraces queer rights, something a senior member says happened organically, rather than following painstaking discussions. During her first Sunday service, Maia immediately felt at home. "I've never felt so accepted, but it's not even about acceptance. My sexuality was never brought up, but it was never hidden. There are just so many more interesting things about people to talk about."
Maia is yet to completely come to terms with her sexuality. She came out to her parents last year, but still hasn't told friends from her old church. "I had been taught for so long that it's wrong, I'm still not 100 percent there." For this reason she doubts wider acceptance within Christianity will happen soon. "In a weird way I can understand why it's taken so many churches so long to change - it's taken me five years and counting to just accept myself."
She knows she isn't the only one suffering. "There are still people at other churches who feel the shame I did and they hate themselves." In coming to terms with her sexuality, she says she came to terms with God. "Homophobia is so counterintuitive to anything we read in the Bible. Hating people and judging them isn't what Christianity is about." She says the most important thing is that people know they're not alone. And if some do, "that's not God's fault, that's the church's fault. They would rather be right and have some people suffer and leave than listen to others and compromise their entire world view."
'Disagreement isn't hate'
Brian Tamaki says he doesn't hate anybody. The charismatic Destiny Church leader has a few spare minutes before he has to shake more hands and pose for more pictures with a swarm of followers. Having driven south from Auckland alongside countless screaming motorbikes and leather jackets, he has just given a passionate and lengthy speech on Parliament's steps urging the government to introduce his rehabilitation programme 'Man Up' into prisons. Two thousand listened and cheered. He seems distracted, yet tries to engage in the conversation about religious freedom over the hum of the crowd.
Tamaki has frequently been criticised for his views on homosexuality. In 2004 he organised a protest against the Civil Union Bill. In 2016 in a Sunday sermon he laid the blame for natural disasters on New Zealand's high murder rate, "sexual perversion" and "homosexuality." Last year he defended Australian rugby player Israel Folau for saying he believed homosexual people were going to hell.
He may face plenty of criticism, yet he remains a hugely influential leader of a church with thousands of members. When he speaks, young and old listen.
Bending his ear to hear the question Tamaki answers yes, he has been accused of hate speech "because of my stand to disagree". But he says he doesn't hate anybody. "Disagreement isn't hate." When asked about his recent defence of Folau and other comments he's made in the past, he says he'll always defend his religious freedom and the "founding values of our Christian country. I don't need to agree with people's interpretations of life."
Folau and Tamaki's statements help perpetuate a false perception that all religious people are intolerant, says Dr Caroline Blyth, a senior lecturer in theological and religious studies at Auckland University. Blyth says there's a fine line between religious freedom and a church causing harm to an already vulnerable group. "I would ask [Folau or Tamaki], where in their faith does it say it's OK to be intolerant, and display the kind of intolerance that can lead to violence?" She says church communities often frame the debate as "love the sinner, hate the sin," which she says is harder to reconcile and debate as the language still includes the words "love" and "acceptance". "How can you argue with that?"
A 'brave' move
In the Bay of Islands close to the coast, where 200 years ago Māori traded food and timber for European goods, a sign proclaims "Christ Church, Russell." A narrow path guides pilgrims past ageing graves with fading names towards a small white building - New Zealand's oldest church. On one of the walls you can just make out where it was struck by a stray musket ball during a battle against the British in 1845. Inside, under stained glass windows, old kauri pews, row by row, lead to a modest altar. Outside an ancient olive tree gently sways in the wind. On a quiet day you can hear the waves.
Last year, Christ Church became a symbol of the future. In May, following more than a decade of debate and discussion, the biennial Anglican Synod voted to allow its churches to bless same-sex relationships. The move allowed for the ordination of the church's first openly gay priest, Chris Swannell.
Swannell, who had been Christ Church's deacon for 14 years, says the Synod made a "huge" and "brave" move, but one that had to eventually happen. "I have seen some very painful moments for the LGBT community, especially those with a strong Christian faith, and that includes myself." He says the Anglican Church is sending a message that it wants to be more inclusive, less judgmental, and open to dialogue. "It's incredibly important that people can talk open and honestly about sexuality."
Swannell says the Anglican church, like any other, resembles a family. "You're going to have varying opinions and people in different camps, and there are going to be some who are louder than others, but ultimately we decided to respect the core message of the Gospel, which is love."
Some people in leadership positions quit after last year's Synod. Four parishes voted to withdraw from the Anglican Church. In explaining his Dunedin parish's decision, its minister called homosexuality an "abomination". Swannell says it repulses him when a church or someone in a leadership role condemns someone because of their sexuality. He admits the church has a way to go; as every company does; every organisation does. "We're not perfect and as soon as we pretend to be - when we pretend we know scripture and God and how people should behave - that's the most dangerous position.
'Religion isn't static'
Religion remains hugely influential in church-goers' lives. As Elim Pastor Mike Griffiths says, the messages that churches teach on Sunday, affect people's lives on Monday. Their intentions may be positive, yet for LGBT people like Ryan Curran, who tried to take his own life in his struggle with sexuality and religion, they can have destructive outcomes.
There is little sign that many will go the way of Ponsonby Baptist any time soon, and as Brian Tamaki says, churches don't have to agree with other people's interpretations of life. Yet Lineham believes change is possible. "Churches are quite heavily influenced by other churches. Perhaps if a major one led by example, more would follow." Religion isn't static, he says, and a younger generation could be hugely influential. "Religious communities are diverse and free-thinking, and as more people question what they're being taught, their leaders could become more and more embarrassed."
Curran hopes change will come when leaders decide to focus on the core message of the Bible - "to act and respond with love" - and the purpose of churches, which is to listen to and support the needs of communities. He says those communities will all, inevitably, include people questioning their sexuality. If they don't change, he believes churches will hurt LGBT people but also themselves. "We're going to end up with Christianity being seen as a hateful institution."
* Not her real name