Keeping it all in the family

Naughtily I had thought of heading this post ‘Archbishop of Canterbury’s gay wife and children’. I’m sure many would have read it then, thinking that Changing Attitude had reversed its policy and started to do some ‘outing’.

But the gay wife and children I’m referring to are those of Archbishop Edward White Benson (1829-1896) and it’s hardly news. That Minnie/Mary Sidgwick Benson was a lesbian and lived, after Edward’s death, with Lucy Tait, the daughter of her husband’s predecessor as Primate, has been known for some time. Likewise the fact that some, if not all, of their brilliant children – sons E.F. Benson, A.C. Benson, R.H. Benson, and daughter, Margaret Benson – were also gay.

The subject has become a talking point again this week as the broadsheets review Rodney Bolt’s latest telling of the story, As Good as God, Clever as the Devil

To have four gay children and a lesbian wife must be unusual. On the other hand if genetics play a significant role in sexual orientation then the two are probably connected; while Benson himself – like Archbishop Tait: both former public school headmasters and energetic leaders of men – preferred to wear his hair long, though that was fashionable then (and done, perhaps, to resemble the Episcopal wig which had fallen out of fashion).

Still, Archbishop Benson’s gay household seems a fitting symbol for the Church of England, which has long been known to have a high percentage of gay adherents, including gay clergy, and, like the Benson family, this ‘secret’  has become, in recent decades, an increasingly open one.

In my darker moments I wonder, sadly, if it was, and still is, the Church’s secrecy about sexuality that makes it attractive to those who are unwilling to publicly – and sometimes even privately – acknowledge their sexual orientation, but then again, even if that were so, I recognise that it would be largely unconscious, and that people are not deliberately hiding aspects of themselves.

It was John Cleese, and his analyst, Robin Skynner, who popularized the notion that couples are often unconsciously attracted to one another because their families share a similar unspoken or unacknowledged ‘secret’, something that is dangerously but alluringly off-limits.

Minnie Benson, very much her husband’s junior – he was 29 and she 18 when they married – were also cousins, so whatever he saw in Minnie, apart from her sparkling intelligence, (and masculinity?) would definitely be kept in the family.

If the existence of homosexual laity and clergy in the Church of England, and the Anglican Communion, was once a well-kept family secret it is so  no longer. The Church has spent years and years going on about it, but in England at least, one still has the impression of denial, as if  ‘the problem’ (and it is presented as one) existed over there (in other Provinces) rather than over here.

Minnie’s latest biographer makes the household of Archbishop Benson sound fairly dysfunctional (‘divinely damaged’ as John Cleese might say – not for nothing is his book with Skynner entitled Families & How to Survive Them) but there is no doubt, for all that he gave his sons a hard time, that he was proud of, and loved, his talented gay wife and children, and it’s high time that our Bishops and Archbishops began to acknowledge and affirm the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people who dwell in their household of faith.


  1. Kate says

    I only came across this story yesterday for the first time and I am still amazed not only at how things turned out, but that the documentary evidence survives. Now we know where the lavender marriage in the Lucia books comes from!

  2. says

    I read E. W. Benson’s papers as a research student, and they exude a sincere intensity that borders on weirdness. At the age of 18, as a young wife of the first Master of Wellington, Mary’s job was to stand at the head of the stairs and kiss each boy goodnight every evening! Breakdowns and all kinds of darkly alluded to storms follow, and it’s a fascinating tale. It did strike me at the time that people wriggled inside their Victorian straitjackets with more anguish, but also more personal freedom, in some respects, than a more intrusive age would allow them. Whatever else I felt about the Bensons they seemed to be brilliant people, and more free of moral self-deception and hypocrisy than clichés about Victorian culture would lead us to expect; thus the existence of the records on which this book can be based. The bits of Benson’s diary that he suppressed were not about sex, but about death, especially notes on the anniversaries of the death of his son Martin…

  3. says

    Thanks Kate & Bishop Alan for these observations. Yes, interesting isn’t it that we are supposedly more ‘confessional’ than the Victorians – I stumbled in on the Jeremy Kyle Show on a visit this afternoon (!) – but the Victorians kept copious records of their affairs of the heart; quite rightly,because they were about the important subject of love. As you will know I find it helpful to view the present against the background of the past and so am prompted to wonder about today’s ‘lavender marriages’ and, as I said, about the gay ‘sons and daughters’ in the household of faith that is the current Church of England – how can we ensure that they are able to flourish as creatively as Minnie & Ed’s offspring obviously did?

    • Christina Beardsley says

      That’s great Laurence. At the moment I’m reading ‘Jubilate’ by Michael Arditti & AN Wilson’s ‘Dante in Love’ – much inspiration for blogging in those two.

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