Why Rachel Held Evans Matters to Me

Last week, Rachel Held Evans died. She was 37.

I write this to explain why she mattered to me.

My faith journey has been somewhat meandering. I grew up in the Anglican church on a strict diet of the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and the New English Hymnal. I sang in the Church Choir. Our repertoire included the Cathedral Psalter, sung liturgies and the Te Deum. Or the Tedious, as I dubbed it. This instilled in me an enduring love for classical church music and an uncompromising adherence to church doctrine as expressed in the historic creeds. In all my wanderings, wrestlings and questioning over the decades, these beliefs have stood firm.

At university, I was attracted by the bright lights of the Christian Union. The worship band, the enthusiasm for mission and the late night curries after meetings. But I was also in the Labour Club – and this created tensions – particularly on issues of human sexuality – an issue that I would unwittingly find myself returning to over and over again.

I did most of my wandering in my twenties. I sought physical and spiritual sustenance wherever I could find it. Sunday roast at the church minister’s house after the Sunday service could provide me with most of my nutrients for the week. But it also provided family in a very real and tangible way. I hungered to know the bible deeply and feasted on lengthy sermons – and Matthew Henry’s entire commentary on the bible. A meaty tome that runs to several thousand pages. But with meaty sermons sometimes came theology that was more conservative than I was comfortable with. But I was hungry to learn and eager to grow in my Christian faith – and this was manna from heaven.

At 27, I arrived in Cumbria and found myself at the family church – perched on a cliff edge over the Solway Firth. This Anglican church was once described by the Archdeacon as Prayerbook Evangelical – by which I think he meant that it was faithful to Evangelical theology but in quite an old-fashioned way. It’s location on the old West Cumberland Coalfield gave it a distinctively Blue Labour outlook on the world. On so many levels, this church was home – and I threw myself into serving it with everything I had.

But as my evenings filled with church meetings they increasingly filled a gnawing and growing void in my heart. I was approaching thirty, I was single and I was living on the edge of nowhere. I yearned with every part of my being to share my life with someone who shared my faith and with whom I could share a life of ministry. But, given my location, this seemed to require divine intervention.

Evangelical theology – particularly that of a Calvinist persuasion – has a very straightforward solution to this. Trust God to bring someone into your life in His perfect timing. And in the meantime, find contentment in God. My problem was, I couldn’t do this. I wrestled for years but the more I wrestled, the greater the pain grew. And with the pain came a deep and profound shame that I could barely articulate. Whenever I tried to find the words to explain this, I would just bottle it and change the subject. Until one day, it all spilled out. But I was met with precisely judgment I feared. Putting myself back together after this encounter took years – and required completely rebuilding my faith from scratch from the ground up.

Around the same time, I learned that one of my Ulster Presbyterian cousins was gay. He was a prolific blogger and wrote extensively on the subject. As I read his writings, I couldn’t but help see some parallel between his situation and mine. Not completely the same, mind. But I had once heard a sermon that described the “Fact, Faith, Feeling” train. That if something was true then we should have faith that it was true. If we did that, we would eventually feel that it was true. It was Reformed Evangelical theology at its most basic.

But this teaching sought to shove our raging humanity into nice neat boxes so that we could be respectable and presentable to society. It was a form of repression that risked doing serious damage. But I knew the gospel to be life-giving not soul-destroying. There had to be a place within the Whole Counsel of God that acknowledged the rawness of the depth of our being in the way the psalmists did. Not as a way of denying the goodness of God. Quite the opposite. That saw God is right there in the midst of our deepest and most palpitating pain.

It’s more than a decade since my terrible encounter. Looking back, I can now see it as a wonderful turning point where I was able to rebuild my faith into something more beautiful, more life-giving, deeper, richer and more expansive. But during most of those years, my relationship with the institutional church has been somewhat semidetached. I have instead sought sustenance from writers and speakers – many of whom I have come across online. One of those writers was Rachel Held Evans. One of my biggest fears after “that encounter” was that I would lose my faith, or be left with a faith that was a shadow of its former self. What Rachel offered was a way through that instead helped me deepen my faith and my love for God. She offered spiritual sustenance and a vocabulary to those of us who felt on the margins of the church. She did so in a way that asserted the authority of Christ’s teachings, not in a way that sought to undermine them. She wasn’t cowed by the cries of “heresy” from the leading patriarchs of Evangelicalism, but rather, she engaged with them with a disarming directness and courtesy. And she boldly took on Trump when the rest of White Evangelicalism had capitulated.

In my darkest days, I have been cheered on by those heroes of the faith who have really made a difference in our world. William Wilberforce, Keir Hardie, Martin Luther King. Almost without exception, those who have delivered real change have had to challenge the reactionary forces in the Church. Rachel Held Evans did that with boldness, courage and fearlessness. She joins a “great cloud of witnesses”. So, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. Let us not grow weary and lose heart. Because she needs us to carry her flame