A man of God challenges his devil temptations on the path to self-acceptance

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is not huge, but it is packed with massive crowds lined up to enter a cave-like room full of wailing Russian women throwing themselves on glass over the supposed spot of Christ’s birth. The emotion penetrates the thick old walls whose coverings are rendered invisible in the dim light designed to create an illusion of intimacy. It was in this hyper-suggestive setting that Reverend Ben Gilmour heard the call.

Reverend Gilmour, a big, cheerful man with a bushy beard and broad shoulders, is minister of Paddington Uniting Church in Sydney’s prosperous eastern suburbs. There is an air of the bush about him, which is not surprising as he grew up in Port Macquarie and has spent most of his life in the regions, although he did attend primary school in Canberra he admits laughing.

Ben’s journey to his current role as minister of Paddington Uniting Church was tumultuous and tear-filled, his story of the struggle with his sexuality and the Anglican Church as instructive as a parable.

Ben’s journey to his current role as minister of Paddington Uniting Church was tumultuous and tear-filled, his story of the struggle with his sexuality and the Anglican Church as instructive as a parable.

He was born into religion: his father was a minister and Ben attended an evangelical Christian high school. “I took my faith seriously as a child,” he explains as we sit inside the beautiful sandstone Paddington church, sunshine pouring through the stained-glass windows. “It was my whole world.”

The stresses he saw heaped on his father upset him as a young man.  “Dad ended up burning out and was in a severe depressive state. Even though he was very faithful and wanted to serve the church and his congregation, they weren’t able to see he was only human.”

But the now keen reverend had no thought of following his father into the church. “I wanted to be an inventor like Inspector Gadget,” he chuckles, “but I also had a strong sense that I needed my life to be God-honouring.”

Growing up, Ben loved his local church, enjoying his chance to do lay preaching so much that the local bishop suggested God may be calling him to make a more permanent commitment. But Ben remembered the strains ministry had on his father and didn’t want them along with the increasing tensions of his hidden sexuality.

“When I was 12 I asked my father what happened to gay people and he told me they are cursed by God and going to die of AIDS. There was no place for them in the kingdom of heaven.”

Terrified by what he heard, the young man hid his ‘dark sins’ until he finally felt driven to confess, turning to his local minister for absolution. He was promised he could be cured if he prayed hard enough with his fellow sinners at a controversial program that promised to heal the sexually broken and ‘pray away the gay’.

He was promised he could be cured if he prayed hard enough with his fellow sinners at a controversial program that promised to heal the sexually broken and ‘pray away the gay’.

Living Waters Australia, based in a building in the Sydney suburb of Waterloo that now houses the city campus of Hillsong Church, ran groups Australia-wide that promised ‘change is possible.’ Based on the teachings of American self-proclaimed ‘former’ homosexual Andy Comiskey, the conversion program blamed absent fathers and overbearing mothers for warping their sons’ sexual desires. Ben truly trusted that if he prayed hard enough he would be delivered from his shame, along with his fellow sinners, in the group therapy sessions that brought an unexpected side effect.

“I learned more about sex in those small groups than I had in my entire life. We would compete to see who could confess the worst sins.”

“I learned more about sex in those small groups than I had in my entire life. We would compete to see who could confess the worst sins.”

After three years of prayers and promises, Ben was attending a conference in New Zealand for Living Waters when he met a psychologist who quietly took him aside and said God could not change his sexuality; it was something he must learn to live with.

Rather than feeling relieved, Ben was devastated he wouldn’t be ‘normal’ and able to settle down with a wife and family. He questioned why God would not hear his prayers but soon realised God might have other ideas for how he could serve Him.

When the church again asked Ben to consider joining the ministry he was open about his sexuality and admitted three years of conversion therapy had not worked. The deacon said many ‘wonderful gay priests’ served the church and Ben was relieved to hear the affirmation but needed time to pray and reflect on such a serious commitment. He promised an answer after he returned from a six-month pilgrimage to the Holy Land, a journey that led to Ben’s revelation in the birthplace of Christ.

“While meditating there, I felt time and space stop and I had a real spiritual experience where I realised that my God was a God of inclusion.”

“While meditating there, I felt time and space stop and I had a real spiritual experience where I realised that my God was a God of inclusion.”

Arriving back in Australia, he enthusiastically started training to be an Anglican vicar at St John’s Theological College where he mixed with openly gay students and unmarried couples. It was an exciting new community that embraced inclusion for all and opened the neophyte’s mind to new possibilities.

The freshly trained vicar was in a placement in the Northern NSW town of Ballina where he felt called to join an online community, the ‘Gay Christian Network’, where he started chatting with the man who was the become his life partner. He confided his love for Scott to the local bishop, who advised him to be discreet. “It was definitely ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’,” said Ben.

June 7, 2003, was a momentous moment in the worldwide Anglican communion when Gene Robinson was elected bishop of New Hampshire, the first Anglican bishop to openly declare his homosexuality. The repercussions threatened to wrench the church asunder and the Australian church’s response was to have ramifications for Reverend Gilmour’s career a few years later when the local bishop called the young vicar into his office to bluntly tell him that a new policy meant he would no longer license openly gay clergy. Without a renewal of his licence Ben was effectively dismissed from his job in a church he had devoted his whole life to serving.

Seeking succour in the office of a colleague, Ben sobbed for hours at the unfairness of the decision and the mixed-messages he had received from the church about his sexuality.

He believes the Anglican church took advantage of Bishop Robinson’s consecration to shut down any progress towards inclusion. With delicious irony, Bishop Gene Robinson was to visit Ben in the next chapter of his career.

With delicious irony, Bishop Gene Robinson was to visit Ben in the next chapter of his career.

Ben with Bishop Gene Robinson in Sydney

Ben had previously attended a conference where he met Leonard Chin, chair of the Church Council at Paddington Uniting Church in Sydney, who mentioned they were seeking a new minister and sexuality wasn’t an issue. Ben called to see if the position was still vacant and, on finding it was, started the 18-month process that introduced the young minister to the Byzantine processes of the Uniting Church of Australia. “I wasn’t a Uniting Church minister and to be recognised as a minister of another denomination was actually very complex,” he recalls.

The Uniting Church of Australia, a union of three protestant churches, gives its congregations far greater autonomy than the Anglican and Catholic churches. Importantly, they can choose their own ministers.

“There’s a different culture and different approach. Anglicans are hierarchical, but the Uniting Church are anti-hierarchical and if there’s any sign of it they’ll squash it down,” he said.

Now settled with Scott in the church’s manse – living together openly and proudly – Ben finally feels he has reconciled his sexuality with his vocation.

Now settled with Scott in the church’s manse – living together openly and proudly – Ben finally feels he has reconciled his sexuality with his vocation.

“There is so much richness within Christianity and we can affirm and celebrate all sexuality, not just married heterosexuality.”

He is no longer angry at the Anglican church. “I just feel sorry for them,” he says quietly. “They’ve lost their power and relevance, so they are hurting and lashing out at anything or anyone who challenges them.”

With the motto of Paddington Uniting Church being ‘faith, inclusiveness, justice and creativity’, Reverend Ben Gilmour now leads a congregation that believes in his values and is open to receiving the same message of inclusive Christianity that was revealed to him in that ancient, incense-filled church in Bethlehem.

Paddington Uniting Church in Sydney