Five decades as a gay youth and adult (and later, priest) in the C of E

I drafted this blog intending it to accompany a letter Changing Attitude will be sending to every bishop. That’s why it rehearses five decades of history, as a reminder to them of how the Church has changed around us. Having finished the document, it seem right to place it in the public domain now.

My first encounter with a gay priest (he called himself homosexual when we talked twenty years later) was in 1956, the year I became aware that I was gay, aged 11, the year before I was confirmed. He was my parish priest and his integrity, originality, warmth, humour and quiet friendship were an inspirational presence in my otherwise conformist, south-London suburban family life.

In 1959 Mervyn Stockwood was appointed Bishop of Southwark. Two years later when I was 16 a bisexual curate arrived in the parish where I worshipped and befriended me. In my late teens I knew perfectly well that there were gay priests and bishops in the Church. I also knew about Christian taboos against homosexuality. It was a closeted, secret world.

In my late 20s (the early 1960s) I moved to Basingstoke. The curate at the parish church was gay (much later, he founded Changing Attitude New Zealand). He was followed by another curate who was gay, and who later married.

In 1975 at the age of 30 I arrived at Westcott House to train for ordination. Westcott was the most gay-friendly environment I had encountered until then. There were other gay ordinands and an open, unquestioning atmosphere about people’s sexuality. Mark Santer, the Principal, and Rowan Williams, Tutor, were both positive and affirming. Being gay and being ordained wasn’t an issue. Across Cambridge at Ridley Hall were at least 5 other gay ordinands, where John Sentamu was also in training. Was John aware that he trained alongside gay men?

Mervyn Stockwood ordained me to a title in Camberwell in the company of many other lesbian and gay deacons and priests. My incumbent was gay and the youth worker came out as lesbian in my third year having fallen in love with the lesbian deaconess in the adjoining parish. There were a significant number of gay curates in the post-ordination training group and among the curates and in my deanery who met monthly for supper. Some were partnered, and some are still living faithfully with the same partner thirty five years later. I also knew that some of the gay clergy were sexually promiscuous – two of whom later married and became bishops.

My incumbent introduced me to the Clergy Consultation, a twice-yearly meeting for gay and bisexual (and later, lesbian, and later again, transgender clergy and clergy partners). Around 100 people attended each meeting. At its height, the Consultation had 500 members in the Church of England. Many more who were deeply in the closet were too fearful to join.

LGBTI clergy were and are a significant proportion of the total number of deacons and priests in the Church of England.

As I’ve indicated, some gay clergy were promiscuous. This was in the 60s and 70s when inhibitions were loosened and prior to the devastating effect of HIV and AIDS in the 80s. Other clergy were in committed relationships. Some dated men from time to time. Wise bishops knew their gay clergy and understood their need for partnership. Other bishops were ignorant and naive or punitive.

Over these three decades the UK began to come to terms with the place of lesbian and gay people in society. The first major law reform was enacted in 1967, decriminalising gay sex in private. Social attitudes changed thanks to the conspicuous work of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and other organisations and individuals. Further radical reform was enacted from 1997 onwards leading to the introduction of civil partnerships in 2005 and marriage equality this year.

The Church of England attempted to map a path towards reform, but reports were either ignored (Gloucester) or suppressed (Osborne). In response to the positive changes in social attitudes to homosexuality a vocal anti-gay campaign developed in the Church culminating in Tony Higton’s 1987 General Synod motion.

Since the 1997 Kuala Lumpur declaration and the 1998 Lambeth Conference Resolution 1.10 Anglican discourse has been dominated by an intensely prejudiced anti-gay movement which has sometimes been rampantly homophobic. To put it mildly, this has made life very difficult for those of us in the Church who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex and for those bishops who are supportive of us.

For three decades from 1957 to 1987 I worshipped and later ministered in a Church which quietly accepted and valued me and my sexuality and my desire for intimacy. The mood in the Church darkened considerably after the 1987 Synod debate. Following Lambeth 1998 it became increasingly intolerable, dishonest, dysfunctional – and divorced from appropriate social norms. Lambeth 1.10 introduced a poison to the Church.

In British society LGBTI people have become more integrated and feel increasingly safe and valued.

In the Church of England LGBTI people have become “the major problem” threatening the desecration of the Church and the cause of schism in the Anglican Communion.

In the course of five decades society has tackled prejudice and homophobia and created a safer, more equal and more just environment for sexual and gender minorities. Prior to the introduction of poison in the last two decades, the Church of England was a relatively safe place if you were gay and partnered and knew which dioceses and bishops were affirming and supportive. As society moved to enshrine protection for LGBTI people in law and legalised gay relationships in civil partnerships and marriage, the Church of England has moved in the opposite direction.

Bishops might not think they are persecuting their LGBTI clergy but their failure to provide robust support is exemplified in the action taken by one bishop against a married gay priest. The action taken against Canon Jeremy Pemberton by the acting bishop of Southwell and Nottingham looks to many of us like an act of persecution based on prejudice, legalism and a failure to respect love and intimacy. People are wondering who will be targeted next.

The generous culture of the Church of England I knew as a young adult and into which I was ordained has been steadily eroded. I hate what has happened with a passion. It is no longer safe for anyone who is gay to seek ordination in the C of E. The reports of abuse by bishops against LGBTI clergy are mounting. The environment in the Church and the imposition of so-called Biblical attitudes have become intolerable.

Comments

  1. Sarah Inman says

    I grew up in a staunchly CofE family in the 1960s and have loved my God & neighbour all my life. I can’t begin to tell you how disappointed I am that my lovely, fair, just, broad, warm and welcoming Church has been reduced to this uncomfortable, exclusive, hypocritical, misogynistic and homophobic institution in a wider society that appears to have become more accepting and tolerant. I feel, as a heterosexual, middle aged mother, at odds with the Church I was brought up to trust. If we ask ‘what would Jesus do ?’ we know the answer, don’t we, in our hearts? He chose a motley crew of unlikely disciples then; why not now?

  2. says

    I read your article with great interest, not least because the Anglican church here in Kenya not only persecutes far more than the CoE, but even worse, they take pride in it. Persecuting gay and lesbian people is a validation of their faith, holiness and piety. What I like about your article is that it documents your pain and demonstrates that the ongoing execution by the church is not out of lack of awareness on their part.

    I know you “hate what has happened with a passion” but if this makes you feel any better, the situation is extremely worse for so many others because of the church.

  3. says

    Thank you so much Colin.
    I share your view that the C of E is a very (& increasingly) hostile place for LGBTQI clergy.
    I don’t think people realise that to not be speaking out against homophobia is the same as supporting it, and not actively supporting their LGBTQI clergy is to leave them feeling vulnerable in a hostile world.

  4. Barry A. Orford says

    This reminds me of what was said by Jeffrey John preaching at the funeral of Dean Colin Slee of Southwark. “What upset Colin about the church was that over his time as a priest it seemed to have grown narrower and meaner and less lovable, making God look narrow and mean and unlovable, too – which for Colin was a sort of ultimate blasphemy.” After forty years as a priest, this is my feeling as well. How is it that unrepresentative, strident fundamentalists can reduce our Bench of Bishops to the level of Quivering Brethren, afraid to be honest, afraid to speak out against unjust discrimination, and willing to practice it in an attempt to pacify dogmatic reactionaries? Where is the Good News in this?

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