How Liverpool’s Frontline church ‘struggles’ with homosexuality

[Originally published on The Guardian‘s Comment is free in 2011]

If you’re a Pentecostal or charismatic Christian in Merseyside, you’ll know that Frontline Church, in the Wavertree area of Liverpool, is pretty much the hip place to be. But a thought-provoking Guardian video report by John Harris last month reveals there’s more to Frontline than just trendy worship and dynamic preaching. Its volunteers are reaching out to sex workers, drug addicts and people in poverty, sometimes with traditional methods, such as food banks, and sometimes in quite progressive ways you might not expect from a conservative church, such as distributing condoms to prostitutes.

Harris asked if Frontline could be “the church to calm our secularist outrage.” And I can’t muster up any outrage about feeding the poor and offering genuine friendship to the vulnerable, even when it’s motivated by the kind of evangelical faith I’ve long since abandoned.

But I do have some major concerns about a side of Frontline Church that has gone unreported. Frontline runs a ministry called LIFE, a group connected to a larger, US-based organization “called and ordained to set people free from homosexuality through the truth and power of God and His Son, Jesus Christ.”

Details of the Liverpool ministry are difficult to find online. There are a few non-specific references to LIFE on the Frontline website. As recently as February, a blog entry on the Frontline site asks, “Do you have any muddled thinking or feelings about gender or sexuality issues?” and provides the LIFE Liverpool email address for answers.

A Frontline Homosexuality Fact Sheet reveals that homosexuality is not inborn but results from “childhood pain.” It states that homosexual relationships “are characterised by emotional dependency. An all consuming, unhealthy attachment is made with the other person. The relationship is not based on love but on finding security in another person.”

Frontline is coy about promoting the LIFE ministry publicly. In 2006, however, I talked to a Frontline pastor for a feature I was writing about “ex-gay” ministries. Dan believed that homosexuality was “inherently disordered,” and he had issues with Christian ministries that encouraged gay men and women to accept their orientation while living celibate lives – his expectation was for psychological counseling to result in a full reversal of homosexual orientation.

“People come through the programme, and typically within two to three years they’ve successfully changed and often they’re getting married,” he told me.

I also spoke to a young lesbian who attended Frontline, although she never took part in LIFE. When she told fellow Christians at the church about her sexuality, they “treated it like a disease and wanted to pray over me to get rid of the illness,” she confided. “It just felt like those people in church would have preferred if I had stayed as the person in intense physical and mental pain rather than being happy and in love. It felt so twisted.”

Things get more troubling when we look more deeply at LIFE and how the Liverpool ministry began. It was founded in 2000 when the leaders of LIFE, Ron and Joanne Highley, visited Frontline from New York. According to LIFE’s official website, it was one of “many visits” the couple made to Wavertree to establish the ministry.

Ron has since passed away, but Joanne Highley, an “ex-lesbian,” appears always to have been the main force behind the ministry and its teaching, and she continues to be. And her teachings are extreme. In a video clip from 1993, Highley asks:

Why wouldn’t it be reasonable that if people crawl around on the floor of bars and have homosexual sex, that they would pick up demonic power?

She continues, describing an extreme form of exorcism:

We definitely cleanse and bind demonic powers out of females’ uterus cavities, out of genitals and, of course, out of anal canals and out of intestines, out of throats and mouths if there’s been ungodly deposit of semen in those areas. We cleanse with the blood of Jesus and we cast out the demonic powers of lust, lasciviousness, of all sorts of filth, and cleanse the person and cast out demonic powers. That’s the way we do it.

Still today, the website recommends casting out demons as a means of being freed from homosexuality:

Have someone pray over you to break the demonic oppression that keeps you from getting in touch with your emotions and which seems to make resisting [homosexual] sin impossible. As you renounce the homosexual sin that you are practicing as evil, the other person can command the demons to leave you so that you can choose a godly response to temptation. 

Highley confirmed, via email, that she still believes in “cleansing” bodily areas penetrated during “ungodly sex,” adding that having an abortion would fill a woman’s uterus with a “spirit of death.”

In a 2007 article, Highley makes it clear that homosexual desires themselves are sinful, and that the true Christian must seek complete healing of the orientation. Once you’ve left homosexuality, retaining friendships with gay friends and former partners is a sin, too, since homosexuality is “idolatry, hardly friendship.”

I spoke to Frontline about the LIFE connection. They said they were “relationally connected,” rather than “formally affiliated” to the New York ministry, which had no official authority over the Liverpool ministry. They have a “positive, ongoing friendship” with Highley’s organization, and they adapt LIFE materials, combining them with their own resources, to reflect Frontline’s own beliefs.

Questioned about specific statements made by Highley, Frontline said as they were not aware of everything LIFE publishes, they couldn’t say for sure they agreed with all the teaching. Demonic influence can play a part in homosexuality, but not always, and Frontline discourages members and leaders from identifying themselves as “gay,” preferring the descriptor “Christian who struggles with homosexual feelings.”

Pastor Dan moved on two years ago, and Frontline would not comment directly on the statements he made to me in 2006, although they said they supported celibacy as an option. The Homosexuality Fact Sheet, speaking of gay relationships in very disparaging terms, was removed from Frontline website following last month’s Guardian article. Frontline says it and other pastoral fact sheets will be reviewed by senior leadership in the coming months.

But let’s be clear that concern over the LIFE connection is not a simple matter of guilt by association. Joanne Highley, a woman who teaches that homosexual orientation is a sin that can be cured by a combination of psychological therapy and prayer, personally visited Frontline multiple times to help establish an ex-gay ministry based explicitly on her teachings and methods. The church runs that ministry to this day, although it says very little about it publicly.

I asked US gay activist Peterson Toscano, who spent 17 years in ex-gay ministries, including LIFE New York, his thoughts on this. “I feel concerned when I hear about American-based anti-gay programs exporting their theories and practices to the UK and beyond,” he said. “Posing as experts on sexuality and faith, ex-gay leaders like Joanne Highley have provided misleading ‘treatment plans’ that have caused some of us significant harm.”

John Harris asked Frontline’s Pastor Nic Harding about the church’s stance on homosexuality and received the reply: “To me, those issues are right on the margin of the things we should be focusing on. … The real issues are how we should express and find love for the outcasts and the downtrodden.”

It’s clear Harding’s reply gave only half the story. What happens when gay outcasts come to Frontline for help? Joanne Highley’s strange love tells gay men and women their desires are due to satanic influence, psychological disordering and disobedience to God, and although Frontline says it doesn’t promote every aspect of Highley’s teaching, that they would foster an ongoing association with the LIFE ministry and build their own ex-gay program explicitly around it is troubling. Highley was not incidental to LIFE Liverpool’s origins, but a key player.

The gays, lesbians and bisexuals who come to Frontline may be only a very small percentage. But it’s not unreasonable – in fact, it’s imperative – to ask serious questions, in a society increasingly tolerant and understanding of sexual diversity, about the church’s approach to treating homosexuality.

By all means, let’s commend the church’s work in helping the poor, the abused and the disadvantaged, But let’s not turn a blind eye to Frontline Church’s troubling attitude towards gay men and women, and the accompanying unproven and potentially harmful methods to change them.

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