Lizzie Lowe suicide: What help can churches offer teens struggling with sexual identity?

Lizzie Lowe was 14 when she committed suicide

The suicide of a Christian teenager who, it is thought, feared telling her parents that she might be gay could prompt the Church to think about how it deals with issues of sexuality, particularly among young people.

Elizabeth Lowe, known as Lizzie, was 14 when she hanged herself in a park near her home in Didsbury, Manchester in September this year.

At the inquest reported yesterday it became clear that she had spoken to friends about her struggles with her sexuality and told them that she had self-harmed as a coping mechanism, the Manchester Evening News reports.

Her father, Kevin Lowe, said at the inquest that had he and his wife known that Lizzie thought she might be gay, they would not have been surprised and would have been "very supportive".

"It couldn't have been more of a loving and supportive and affirming church," Debra Green, a friend of the family and director of Manchester based charity Redeeming our Communities, told Christian Today. "And the parents themselves... say they would have welcomed her with open arms if she had been able to talk to them, they would have been supportive of her decision about her sexuality, and I know that to be true."

Rev Ben Edson, the associate rector at Lizzie's church, told Christian Today: "We didn't know that Lizzie was struggling with depression and we didn't know that she was struggling with the challenges that she was facing as a young person.

"If she had come to the clergy team to talk about the struggle she would have found welcome, inclusion and love from us, so we are just saddened that she didn't feel that she could share her news with us.

"Lizzie was a much loved member of the school, our church and the local community church and we are utterly devastated at her loss," Edson said.

The response to the story on social media has been particularly difficult for the family.

"The level of comments that are going on social media... people who don't know the family, don't know the church, are on some kind of campaign, this is on the one side vilifying religion... which is very unhelpful," said Green.

"But on the other side equally concerning me is people wanting to make this as a case to say 'Well churches are homophobic and the only way young people can respond is to self-harm or take their own lives'.'"

Theologian and blogger Rev Dr Ian Paul responded to online reaction, saying: "There's a lot of comment on social media claiming that this sort of event is an 'inevitable' result of the Church's teaching and that the 'only way' to prevent this is to change the Church's teaching. I think that is unfair and unhelpful for several reasons.

"This kind of comment in effect blames Lizzie's parents for her death – which is the last thing they need as they face this tragedy in their family. It is clear that Lizzie was loved and cared for by those in her church family, who had no idea that she was wrestling with such feelings.

"Such comments ignore the wide range of pressures that contemporary culture imposes on teenagers. Sexualisation and the creation of a premature need to 'declare' one's sexuality just contribute to this. Sexual identity is complex and continues to develop over many years."

What Lizzie's case does show is that even in a loving family and church environment, young people can still find these issues difficult to talk about.

According to the Manchester Evening News, Lizzie had told her friends that she was 'finding it hard to connect with God as she thought she was lying to him'.

"People can have a particular sense of shame and wanting to hide this from God," said Rev Dr Sean Doherty, an assistant minister at a London church who experiences same-sex attraction, but is married to a woman.

"For a lot of people, part of the journey that they need is to show that to God, to let God see that is who you are, obviously he knows anyway, because then you realise that God does know and he does completely accept me. That's always the basis for hope, always being open with God and honest with yourself," Doherty said.

Theologian Vicky Beeching, who came out earlier this year, told Christian Today that isolation in church can be an issue for gay teenagers.

"There are so many people who have been in [this] position as a teenager, myself included, where you grow up in a Christian community wondering if you will be rejected if people know about your sexuality and many of us have faced a real bleakness and isolation internally because of that," Beeching said.

Speaking of her own experience as a teenager, she added: "It was not something anybody spoke about. I think that's slightly better now, but there's still a huge amount of shame associated with even contemplating that you might be gay within a church setting and there's a huge lack of role models. So when you don't see anyone else living it and being affirmed for that you assume that it's not an option for you."

Edson described St James and Emmanuel Church as a diverse church, with members who are in long-term committed same-sex relationships as well as those who are gay but choose to be celibate.

"Like most churches, we don't have a policy, but obviously Lizzie's death will cause us as a church to reflect and pray and explore where we think God is leading us," he said.

Edson also said that the wider Church needed to create an open environment. "I think we need to be open to talk about sexuality. I think we need to create an environment where people who come out know they will be loved an accepted as children of God," he said.

Regarding the wider issue of how churches approach issues of sexuality with teenagers, Beeching said: "My hope is that this will lead to more openness in dialogue and conversation, that this is a topic that Christian children can raise confidently with both their parents, and their vicars and youth groups... because it's the hiding it inside that brings the sense of terror and despair."

Beeching obviously takes a particular theological stance, which is not shared by all Christians. For those evangelicals who have a traditional view on sexuality, there are concerns about how you teach these issues in a pastoral setting, particularly among young people.

Doherty is one of the founders of Living Out, an organisation that provides resources for same-sex attracted Christians from a traditional stance. He said it's important to have proactive love and support in place, regardless of theology.

"I think secrecy is common in lots of parts of the church," he said. "That's the thing that needs tackling. So often it's the devil who wants things to be kept secret – when it's a secret he can lie to you and say: 'That's something to be so ashamed of... it's a problem with you'.

"We need to accept people unconditionally if they come out to us, but we actually need something more proactive than that – parents, youth leaders, pastors, saying particularly to young people, 'If this is an issue for you, we will be accepting, we really want to hear from you, please don't suffer in silence'. We don't know much about this story and maybe people did say that to Lizzie... that's not to criticise in this case at all."

The overwhelming message for those who are struggling with their sexual orientation, is to find an appropriate person to confide in. "Regardless of your position on issues of sexuality we have to acknowledge that these issues cause a great deal of distress to people," said Dr Rob Waller, one of the directors of Premier Mind and Soul. "The important thing is to be listening to what people are saying, and to be doing that more loudly than having a position."

The Living Out website provides resources on Christianity and same-sex attraction from a conservative evangelical perspective. Vicky Beeching also recommended that anyone struggling with their sexuality and faith could contact the lesbian, gay and bisexual charity Stonewall to be put in touch with someone with a similar experience. Premier Mind and Soul is a charity working to raise the profile of mental health issues in the church.