Eddie Mair interviewed the Revds David Page and Howard Norton for iPM on BBC R4 this evening. They were interviewed about the Clergy Discipline Measure procedure take against David by Bishop Wallace Benn following David’s honesty in applying for a PTO 5 years after Wallace had refused David a PTO because David wouldn’t answer questions about the intimacies of his relationship with Howard.
David and Howard have been partners for nearly 40 years. I remember the meeting of the Southwark Lesbian and Gay Support Network when Bishop Tom Butler had been invited to meet the group soon after his arrival in Southwark with a mission to suppress the uppity gay clergy in the diocese. Bishop Tom made it clear to the group that he wasn’t going to ask questions about relationships and definitely didn’t want to be told. Early in the meeting I said that contrary to what I’d told him in his study, I wasn’t celibate. “I don’t want to know that” he blustered. Fifteen minutes later David Page told him that the following day he would be celebrating the 25th anniversary of his relationship with his partner. “I DON’T WANT TO KNOW” he repeated, but it was too late, the cat was publicly out of the bag.
Bishop Wallace Benn is one of those bishops who does want to know. According to Canon Law and the House of Bishops Statement on Civil Partnerships he is perfectly within his rights to ask. Every bishop should ask the question – are you sexually active? The problem is, at least 50% of the bishops either don’t ask or fudge the question.
As David pointed out in the Eddie Mair interview it’s a post code lottery in the Church of England. It would have been easy to retire to a diocese where the bishop would have given David a PTO, no questions asked, because the rules are not observed consistently.
Two things are making the Church look ridiculous, its prejudiced attitude to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in ministry, lay and ordained, and the inconsistency of the House of Bishops, where some follow the rules rigidly and others very deliberately ignore them.
The people of Winchelsea, conservative with a small c and very open to the ministry of two transparently loving, faithful gay Christian priests, were absolutely outraged that the bishop should act against David. To compound matters, although Wallace Benn may have been unaware that the parish had ignored the bishop and had invited David to lead services and preach, lots of senior people in the diocese knew and were turning a blind eye.
David and Howard hope the publicity they are receiving may help to change attitudes in the Church. It would be an achievement, said Howard, if bishops never again asked intrusive questions so that the next generation doesn’t have to go through what so many of my generation have endured.
Howard talked about his gay contemporaries in the Church, many of whom got married, marriages which worked for some and ended in divorce for others. Gay Christian relationships have been battered by church attitudes. Howard said their spiritual lives had been damaged; the impact of church attitudes on non-Christians has been appalling.
If everyone who was gay came out and declared their sexuality, how different would the Church appear, asked Eddie Mair? It would said Howard, make an enormous difference, clearing away a cloud and making the Church more accessible. At the same time, it would bring on a big international crisis in the Anglican Communion.
But even that assumption might not be entirely true. The Revd Michael Kimindu, one of the leaders of Changing Attitude Kenya has been in Mombasa this weekend for a seminar of 20 LGBTI people attended by the Bishop, Julius Kalu. The Bishop had been reported in the media as having said that homosexuals were worse than Al-shabaab. When Michael contacted him on the telephone, the bishop claimed to have been misquoted and even gave Michael the bible text he had preached from on the relevant day (Eph:, 6:10-20).
When Michael asked him whether he had seen or met any Kenyan LGBTI people, he wondered, ” are they in Kenya really?” Michael told him there were and asked if he would be willing to meet me with some of them, hence his trip to Mombasa with Gideon and Pascal, partners and committed Christians whom I met when I was there in March.
Michael sent me a text this afternoon to say he had just escorted Bishop Julius from the meeting, full of joy. The bishop assured Michael of his support after listening to the testimonies from thirteen of the LGBTI people who were present. The bishop specifically asked that his presence and his positive response should be publicly reported to counter the earlier false reports of his sermon.