Rev. Ecclesia de Lange: “I Lived in Denial of Who I Am and I Settled for a Life of Celibacy and Secrecy”

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Rev. Ecclesia de Lange: “I Lived in Denial of Who I Am and I Settled for a Life of Celibacy and Secrecy”

Suspended Methodist minister and current director of Inclusive and Affirming Ministries reflects on a journey of becoming vulnerable and courageous

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Glen Jackson/Unsplash

Sep 22, 2020
"The photo of a swinging bridge for me depicts a path into the unknown. Not everyone is comfortable to cross this kind of bridge as it moves with every step. Life is in constant movement which asks of us to move with it to bring harmony between one’s sexuality and spirituality." - Ecclesia de Lange

My journey to serve Jesus and be true to myself has been a complex one of full of learning, disappointment, frustration, and ultimately of hope and love.

During my late teens I came to the conclusion that I am a lesbian. I realized that this discovery would not be acceptable to my family or church and so I concealed it. I tried to fit in by being in heterosexual relationships, appearing to be “normal” and acceptable to the community. However, my ability to pretend to be heterosexual did not last and it wasn’t long before others found out about my sexual orientation. I was told in no uncertain terms that I cannot be Christian and lesbian. My family relationships and support system were shattered. The Church’s stance on homosexuality sent a clear message of rejection to me, which forced me to leave the Church. The pain and loss were immense.

As my faith is very important to me, I tried to conform by attending support groups and going for counselling. I was also part of an ex-gay ministry (for recovering gay people) for several years. However, none of these efforts changed my sexual orientation. In order to obey the Church’s teaching, I lived in denial of who I am, and I settled for a life of celibacy and secrecy. 

With much research and self-evaluation, I discovered new ways of interpreting scripture and coming to terms with who I am as a child of God. By God’s grace, I met a wonderful person and entered into a committed, faithful relationship. In our desire to honor God, we celebrated our love and relationship by getting married in December 2009. 

No longer able to bear the soul-destroying silence, I eventually announced my intended marriage to the congregation. I was overwhelmed by their support and good wishes. I came to see that it is better to be rejected for who I am than to be accepted for who I am not. My wish to marry a person of the same sex led to firstly my suspension as a Methodist minister, then a finding of insubordination against me, and finally the discontinuation of my ministry in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA). I then decided to take the matter to the courts. This brought huge stress and tension to my marriage, which we eventually had to take the painful decision to end.

Today, I lead an organization called Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (IAM) which is a faith-based NGO based in Cape Town, South Africa, founded in 1995. Since 2009, we have expanded our network regionally to Southern and East Africa.  

Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (IAM) has played a pivotal role, not only in my healing, but also in the formation of my spirituality, capacity to dialogue with clergy, to manage diversity and to hold the tension between those that oppose inclusivity (particularly based on Biblical text) and those who stand for inclusion of all. It has indeed been an intense journey of experiencing God in a new way.

Through my work with IAM I continue to use my experience to work toward removing the barriers between the church and LGBT* people of faith. 

How do we remove barriers between the church and LGBT people of faith?

Over the past 25 years, IAM has worked closely with clergy and faith communities by introducing and providing training on issues around contextual bible reading/study,  integrating sexuality and spirituality and sexual orientation, gender identity and sexual characteristics.  

We promote diversity awareness that underlines the ideals of an open, inclusive and equal society. IAM strives to be the alternative religious voice that raises awareness about the detrimental effects that religion can have on the lives of LGBT people. As one can imagine, this has been a journey of constant learning, specifically how best to work intersectionally, focusing not only LGBT, but also on gender, race, health, faith & poverty.

Over the years we have developed a theory of action called “the wheel of change.” Our theory moves people to a place of “ready making,” which prepares people for the conversation in order to move them to a place of opening their minds, hearts and religious communities’ doors to advocate for the inclusion of all people and /or to do as little harm.  

We use an authentic embodied dialogue approach which calls for a creative brave/safe space where the voice of the oppressed can be heard. The importance of this cannot be overemphasized. Creating safe spaces for voice, words, song, ritual, and the silence of solidarity to express the trauma experienced might assist in the reclaiming of agency and the development of a vocabulary of embodied resistance. 

Such dialogue takes place where there is an awareness of the people in the room (power, status etc.), the content (access to info and understanding etc.), the context (culture, values, politics etc.), and remembering that it is a process that takes time. 

There are tendencies, to rush too quickly through what is a slow and complex process. Slow it down in order to take people with you on the journey. Important to the dialogue process is to ensure that LGBT people and their theology are present in the conversation. Nothing about us, without us! 

We have developed a “Best Practices In Training Clergy & Other Religious Leaders” to assist and guide this complex journey of inclusion:   

  • Be willing to interrogate your own sexuality and spirituality. This requires authenticity, vulnerability and courage to lead by example.
  • Avoid the debate of right and wrong. Introduce a dialogue/conversational process. 
  • Clarify terminology. Debunk the myths around LGBT people and develop inclusive language. 
  • Engage with the Bible and other sacred texts by introducing the Contextual Bible Reading approach, diverse interpretation of the Bible and the experience of LGBT people. This will also involve presenting new theologies like Indecent Theology, Body Theology, Queer Theology and People’s Theology. 
  • Link the similarities between the system of slavery and the system of homophobia; identify, for example, that both are constructed on the desire to control and oppress the bodies of vilified others. This can be helpful as it shifts the theological discourse in ways that can be very insightful and productive. Queer sexuality then becomes a matter of social justice not personal morality.
  • Build the capacity and agency of congregants becomes a important tool for transformation and inclusion 
  • Utilize and develop resources for people who are resistant to transformation.
  • Be creative in making your inclusive faith community visible from the outside and on social media.  
  • Don’t underestimate the one-on-one conversations with co-leaders and congregants.  

For my part, I survived the most difficult part of the journey – self-acceptance – and made it through not broken but more confident and complete than I ever was. It has become my lifework to continue to stay in dialogue and fervent prayer that will lead to healing, reconciliation and inclusivity of all God’s people. God has been faithful – through all the pain and trauma I found new love.

It is my sincere prayer that the church will be an active participant in spreading the belief that all are equal before the eyes of God.

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Rev Ecclesia de Lange is an ordained minister of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA), but was suspended and discontinued as a Methodist minister in February 2010 after announcing to her congregation that she was going to marry her same-sex partner. Ecclesia is director of Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (IAM), South Africa. 

As part of our program on LGBT* and Faith, we are inviting Fellows of the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum of different sexual orientations and gender identities and of different faith communities to address the questions of what is needed for religious communities and leaders to be instrumental in promoting the wellbeing, equality and inclusion of LGBT people in faith communities and society and how do LGBT people, today and throughout history, enrich and change the religious communities of which they are a part? 

The articles and comments represent opinions of the authors and commenters, and do not necessarily represent the views of their organization or institutions, nor of Salzburg Global Seminar. We thank our blog contributors for their generosity in sharing their personal stories.

* LGBT: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. We are using this term as it is currently widely used in human rights conversations on sexual orientation and gender identity in many parts of the world, and we would wish it to be read as inclusive of other cultural concepts, contemporary or historical, to express sexuality and gender, intersex and gender non-conforming identities.

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