Anthony Venn-Brown was born in 1951 and raised in a family with a strong Anglican Church background (Anglo-Catholic). His family were very committed to church life during his early years but as a teenager Anthony felt that the rituals, language and beliefs were irrelevant not only to him but also the generation of the 60’s. It was at this time he ceased all involvement in the church. It was also at this time the awareness of his homosexuality increased. Australian society in the 60’s viewed homosexuality as a mental illness/perversion and it was a criminal offence. Internal torment about his sexuality led to deep depression and a suicide attempt. Anthony was looking for a way to change, to be ‘normal’ and to be ‘acceptable’ to his family and friends and through contact with evangelically minded Anglicans in the Sydney Diocese, Anthony turned to God for help.
After his conversion in 1969, Anthony continued to be involved in evangelism and was baptised in a Baptist church. Many times he felt that God had answered his prayer and that he had been set free of his attraction to the same sex. However, although these moments were spiritually exhilarating they did not have a lasting impact on his life. Believing that ‘more faith and more power’ was needed to overcome his ‘problem’, Anthony began to explore his Christianity in the Charismatic renewal, which had just commenced in Sydney, and also traditional Pentecostal contexts.
In 1971, after feeling a strong call to ministry, Anthony attended Faith Bible College, a pastoral and missionary training centre in New Zealand. After confessing to the leadership of the college that he still struggled with homosexuality, he underwent several weeks of exorcisms through the ministry of Pastor Neville Johnson at Queen Street Assemblies of God in Auckland.
However, on returning to Australia, Anthony was still troubled by his sexuality, and believing that he could never serve God until this part of his life was overcome, he signed himself into in a ‘live-in’ ex-gay program for six months at Moombara and Bundeena Christian Fellowship (a rehabilitation centre that claimed success for drug addicts, prostitutes and homosexuals).
Anthony then moved to Orange New South Wales in 1972 and began youth work for the local Assemblies of God Church. It was the next year as youth pastor he met Helen and they were married in1974.
Whilst Helen was pregnant with their second child, they left Orange in a caravan they had purchased and with only two invitations to preach, began travelling as a faith-based itinerant evangelist. Two months was spent working with St. Thomas’s Church of England in Port Macquarie, New South Wales. This was Anthony’s first taste of revival through his ministry with many people experiencing conversion and healing. Over the next four years he pioneered churches for the Assemblies of God (New South Wales) in Gunnedah, Wauchope, Laurieton and Port Macquarie.
After five years of church planting, Anthony felt called to commence a national evangelistic ministry that would be involved not only in crusades, but also in training Christians and churches in personal evangelism. In 1983 Anthony and the family moved to Sydney and Anthony launched Every Believer Evangelism. In 1984 he was approached by the Assemblies of God (New South Wales) to take over the flagging youth movement of the denomination known as Christ’s Ambassadors.
Anthony founded Youth Alive New South Wales and took the youth in a new direction musically and culturally. Youth Alive reached out to young people using new and contemporary methods such as rock concert style youth rallies and culturally relevant preaching. Whilst this proved instantly effective, it was not without controversy and Anthony regularly found himself in conflict with some of the more conservative leaders within the denomination. There was even opposition from youth leaders who believed that contemporary music was demonic and satanic. Despite this opposition, the organisation grew substantially and in 1985 Youth Alive held its first mega rally which filled Sydney Town Hall and saw many young people encounter God in fresh and new ways.
The next year Anthony resigned as Youth Director to focus solely on developing his ministry, Every Believer Evangelism.
From 1986 to 1991 Anthony’s credibility and influence grew and his preaching and training seminars Effective Witnessing and The Confidence Builder became well known throughout Australia. He became a leader in the Assemblies of God denomination (now Australian Christian Churches) and was a regular preacher in the mega Pentecostal churches of Australia, such as Christian Life Centres in Sydney (now Hillsong), Paradise Assemblies of God Adelaide, Garden City Brisbane, City Life Church Melbourne, speaking to audiences of up to 5,000. As an evangelist, Anthony preached a passionate message of hope to those who didn’t know Christ personally but also challenged the church to leave their ‘comfort zone’ and reach out to the community. He called the church to meet the needs of people, rather than just preach at them. The Assemblies of God and Pentecostal churches in Australia as whole were experiencing unprecedented growth during this period and Anthony was a significant voice in the movement at that time.
Through Anthony’s ministry, thousands were brought into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and thousands more lay Christians trained in personal evangelism. Anthony’s ministry also developed annual Adventure in Evangelism training weekends in seven locations around Australia, organising church study tours to churches in the USA that were experiencing exponential growth, introducing Pastor Bill Hybels (Willow Creek Community Church, Chicago) ministry and concepts to Australian Pentecostalism and founding the Australian Evangelists Association.
Anthony was keen to cross denominational barriers and in 1990 was the first Pentecostal to be appointed to the Australian Committee of the Lausanne Congress for World Evangelism. His ministry was not limited to Australia and he travelled regularly to preach in Papua New Guinea, Asia, Africa, the United States of America and parts of Europe. Anthony also represented Australia at several international conferences such as Billy Graham’s Evangelists Conference in Amsterdam (1986) and the Second Lausanne Congress on Word Evangelism in Manila (1989).
By the end of the 1990’s, Anthony had successfully achieved that which had eluded many within the Australian Christian context; he had survived as a full-time, financially-supported, independent evangelist for over eight years. Others had previously attempted this, but after financial hardship and personal strain, they had eventually been forced to return to the security of a church pastorate. Anthony’s success encouraged others to take steps of faith into full time evangelism.
However, behind the enormous ministry success, Anthony continued to undergo his own personal struggle as he tried to reconcile his outward success with his inward failure to see ‘victory’ over his sexual orientation.
The ‘tipping point’ came at the beginning of 1991 when Anthony fell in love with a man and was finally confronted with a reality he had tried to deny for many years; he was and always would be a gay man. Up until this point Anthony had always felt that even though was not always victorious over his homosexuality, he was willing to keep fighting and holding on to the belief that one day God would answer his daily prayer. With this new reality, Anthony could no longer deny the fact that he was gay and as such, knew that he could no longer preach. Anthony planned to extricate himself from the ministry over the next 12 months.
In April 1991 he confessed his struggle to the leaders of the Assemblies and then made a public resignation to the congregation of Central Coast Christian Life Centre, the church where he and his family had called home for the last 5 years.
Over the next 12 months, it became increasing obvious that the previous 22 years of attempting to change his sexual orientation had been futile and for him to continue living as a married heterosexual male was actually living a lie. In 1992 Anthony separated from his wife and began to live as an openly gay man. For many people, the act of putting the past behind them and coming out can be an empowering decision motivated by pride and a new identity. But for Anthony, the decision to end his marriage was an extremely difficult one and was more of a reluctant acceptance of the inevitable than a cause for celebration. He not only separated from his marriage and family, but believing that being gay and being a Christian were irreconcilable, he also walked away from his faith and church. Over the years Anthony had been told repeatedly that all homosexuals become old and lonely so Anthony intended on cutting that short by committing suicide at age 50.
Unexpectedly in 1998, through a personal development course, Anthony found faith and a relationship with God. No one was more surprised than him to rediscover a profound experience of God which he has often described as being born again…again! Anthony became Australia’s first openly gay Pentecostal and began attending Hillsong Church as a member of the congregation.
Resolution and New Calling
It was from this strong sense of God moving afresh in his life that another calling came; According to Anthony the words we clear and concise. Tell your story. Be completely honest. It will help lots of people. And don’t worry about a publisher. I will organise everything. He began writing his autobiography.
Having a desire to help others find resolution as he had, in 2000, Anthony began reaching out by commencing an online support group call ex-ex-gays which quickly grew to 300. This group was at first a support network for people who had been through ‘ex-gay’ ministries like Exodus, Living Waters, Liberty Christian Ministries and others, but soon it began to have a much wider impact including people struggling to reconcile their faith and sexuality.
Initially the few bible verses speaking of same sex activity remained in the background of Anthony’s thinking, overshadowed by his profound sense of knowing he was loved and accepted by God totally. As the question came up so frequently “But what about the bible verses,” Anthony began to research the original languages of those passages as well the historical and cultural contexts. He began to see that everything was not as black and white as many had preached and he had believed himself. He discovered that there were many different interpretations and that not all well-educated scholars agreed with each other on these controversial passages.
In 2004 the first edition of Anthony’s autobiography A Life of Unlearning – coming out of the church one man’s struggle was released. Immediately Anthony began receiving emails from readers who had known him as a preacher and others who related to his journey. Anthony recalls that so many of these emails began with the words “Thanks for your honesty” and “Your story is my story”. And in the rest of the email, people poured out their own heart-wrenching, often tragic stories about their journey. “It was like my inbox became a microscope into what had previously been a hidden world”, Anthony said.
After 12 months of hearing hundreds of stories, Anthony saw a clear pattern of the emotional, psychological and spiritual damage experienced by gays and lesbians who had either left or been thrown out of their churches. Thoughts of suicide and attempts to commit suicide were common. On the 3rd May 2005, Anthony summarised these in a five page letter to the National Executive of the Assemblies of God in Australia requesting a change in attitude and beliefs. (The entire letter is reproduced in the revised second edition of Anthony’s autobiography A Life of Unlearning – a journey to find the truth (2007).
On Wednesday, 16 November 2005, Anthony met with the Assemblies of God National Executive in Sydney. The meeting was cordial and respectful and the executive listened to Anthony’s plea for a new attitude and that they would begin to re-examine previously held beliefs by setting up a committee to look at scientific research on sexuality. No specific outcomes were reached at that time. However, on 7th March 2006 a new position statement on homosexuality was released which was vastly different from the previous one of August 1992. (These two statements can be compared here.) The new statement was less condemning, less judgmental and more compassionate. Whilst still holding to a biblical stand on the issue, apart from the change in tone, one fundamental thing had changed; a recognition of a differentiation between sexual orientation and sexual behaviour. The statement read, We need to distinguish between a person's identity and activity. There is a great deal of difference between a homosexual preference and homosexual practice. The latter is the issue here. People may argue about how easy it is to choose or change our sexual preference but we can definitely choose our sexual behaviour.
With the growing number of people from Pentecostal backgrounds contacting Anthony for help, he realized that there was a great need for these like-minded people to come together to share their stories and offer each other love and support. Therefore, in September 2005, Anthony co-founded Freedom 2 b[e]. Initially Freedom 2 b[e] was a network of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people from Pentecostal and Charismatic backgrounds, but this soon grew to include people from all Christian backgrounds. Over the next six years, Freedom 2 b[e] became the leading organisation of its kind in Australia.
As Anthony’s profile increased, he was approached by various LGBT rights groups to be involved in the cause for equality; particularly gay marriage. After his first protest meeting in Hyde Park Sydney, Anthony felt that he could more effective in other ways, and to take on the role of militant activist would most likely close the door to the church leaders he so desperately felt called to reach. It was at this time Anthony chose to take on the role of an ambassador for the LGBT community and bridge builder; creating dialogues behind the scenes with key people. Anthony developed a model Creating a Space for Change, which proved to be a highly effective, non-confrontational method of breaking down stereotypes and changing preconceived ideas and misconceptions. Many of these dialogues with church leaders take place behind closed doors and the content of the discussions kept confidential so as not to have the important conversations hijacked by right wing Christian groups who have publicly denounced Anthony.
One of the first people Anthony began dialoguing with was Pastor Mike Hercock, who was leading a church in Darlinghurst;the gay centre of Sydney. A friendship developed between Pastor Hercock and Anthony and Anthony relayed the many stories of tragedy and loss experienced by gay and lesbian people who had been rejected by the church. Anthony introduced Mike to the work of Freedom 2 b[e]. He was deeply touched by the stories of those he met. In 2007, Freedom 2 b[e] marched for the first time in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade. Seeing the profound impact this had on those who had lived for so many years in shame, guilt and fear, Pastor Hercock boldly stated that the following year he would encourage 100 Evangelical ministers to sign an apology to the LGBT community for the way the church had mistreated them and march in the parade.
The next year (2008) 100 ministers signed a statement that declared: As ministers of various churches and denominations we recognise that the churches we belong to, and the church in general, have not been places of welcome for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people. Indeed the church has often been profoundly unloving toward the GLBT community. For these things we apologise, whatever the distinctive of our Christian position on human sexuality – to which we remain committed. We are deeply sorry and ask for the forgiveness of the GLBT community. We long that the church would be a place of welcome for all people and commit ourselves to pursuing this goal.
Some of the 100 who signed the apology and over thirty who marched in the parade did so under the threat of denominational reprimand. The uniqueness of this event gained not only national attention but international media coverage and soon similar apologies where forthcoming in the USA and also the UK.
In early 2009, Anthony began communication with Pastor Rob Buckingham of Bayside Church in Melbourne. Bayside Church is one of Australia’s leading mega-churches and a part of the denomination called Christian City Church, founded by Pastor Phil Pringle. Pastor Buckingham was already changing some of views about homosexuality and contacted Anthony for some information. Over the next six months Anthony and Pastor Buckingham had regular communication which culminated in them meeting together in Melbourne with the Rev. Dr. Rowland Croucher, who formerly pastored the largest Baptist church in Australia, and other church leaders. Soon after that meeting Pastor Buckinghampreached a sermon titled Real Christianity is Accepting and debunked the traditional view of the Sodom and Gomorrah story, many myths about gay and lesbian people and welcomed LGBT people into their church family. After the sermon finished, the church gave Pastor Rob a standing ovation. Bayside Church is the first mega-Pentecostal church in the world to officially welcome and affirm LGBT people.
Bayside Church’s official statement reads: Bayside Church is a place where everyone is welcome. We believe that God loves everyone and that He sent His Son Jesus to bring salvation (through His death and resurrection) to all of humanity. A study of the life of Jesus clearly reveals His love and care towards those who are often marginalized by the rest of society. Bayside Church welcomes GLBT people to find God’s love and grace and to worship Him freely within our community.
In 2010 Anthony was invited to lecture on “An Alternative Approach to Sexual Orientation, Gender Diversity and the Christian Faith” at Tabor College in Melbourne (one of Australia’s leading bible colleges). This was the first time an openly gay man was invited to speak at a Pentecostal/Evangelical bible college in Australia.
In 2011 Anthony resigned as the leader of Freedom 2 b[e] to concentrate further on his bridge-building, ambassadorial and educational activities. Through the new organisation he founded Ambassadors and Bridge Builders International, his focus continues to be the deconstruction of the ‘ex-gay’ myth, educating in the areas of faith sexuality conflict, working with gay and lesbian people in heterosexual marriages and creating respectful, informed dialogues between the LGBT community and the Church.
Anthony uses the Internet and social media extensively to spread his message of reconciliation and continues to promote love, acceptance, and understanding between LGBT and heterosexual Christians. Like Jesus, his deepest prayer is that “they may be one even as We are one” (John 17:11-12) and has an unwavering faith that eventually Australian Pentecostal churches will embrace LGBT people; even possibly leading a global movement of change.
Anthony was twice voted one of Australia’s 25 Most Influential Gay & Lesbian Australians (2007 & 2009).
Anthony’s most well known quotes are:
The enemy is not individuals, churches, denominations or political parties. The enemy is ignorance. And when we attack the former, we reinforce the latter.
My faith and morality are choices. My sexual orientation however isn’t.
When we choose to live authentically, we chip away at others prisons of pretend
(This biographical statement provided by Anthony Venn-Brown.)
“I first met Anthony at the Amplify Conference with LGBTQ Christians in Hong Kong in 2013 and was immediately impressed with his humility and his wisdom gained through life experience. I've since read his book, A Life of Unlearning, through which I was deeply encouraged and inspired.
– as remembered by Daniel Payne on May 4, 2017