Being gay, being a bishop and being out or in the closet

The Anglican persecution of LGBTI people

Kelvin Holdsworth, the Provost of St Mary’s cathedral, Glasgow, was in conversation with Peter Tatchell on 20 July 2014. In the course of the conversation Kelvin asked Peter about outing gay bishops and wrote a blog about this part of the conversation which has received a lot of attention in the press and online, including on Thinking Anglicans (27 July)  and the Changing Attitude England Facebook group .

Discussion has focused on whether it is right to out bishops who are gay, with people reflecting on how this might affect both the bishop and his extended family and friends. More conservative commentators have questioned whether there are any gay bishops and how people like me can claim so confidently that there are.

I know there are gay bishops because at least one tried to seduce me in the distant past, because other gay friends have reported intimacy with gay bishops and because from earlier years it was clear both at theological college and in my 17 years of ministry in the diocese of Southwark who was gay – and some of those who later became bishops were very actively gay. There is plenty of evidence to name a significant number of bishops as gay.

This shouldn’t be a problem in 2014. It isn’t an issue in most other parts of UK society. Lord Browne, CEO of BP until his resignation in 2007, tried to suppress information about his sexuality but earlier this year published The Glass Closet describing his experience since being open about his sexuality. I was going to write ‘since admitting that he was gay’ and that word ‘admitting’ identifies the problem for gay bishops. Being gay is seen in the Church as something to be admitted to, a shameful secret or sin, something to feel guilty about.

I want to reflect on the problem any bishop who is gay has in coming out now by going back four decades.

Being ‘out’ as ‘gay’ is a comparatively recent phenomenon. The use of the word gay rather than homosexual was current by the 1960s. GLF, the Gay Liberation Front, was named as such when formed in 1970.

In the 1960s, Mervyn Stockwood and Michael Marshall and any number of priests in the diocese of Southwark weren’t ‘out’, they were simply known to be gay. The press knew, most clergy in the diocese knew, and because of the culture of the times, it wasn’t proclaimed but neither was it a particularly shameful secret.

From their experiences in theological college and in their dioceses and from conversations with friends and colleagues, gay clergy knew who was gay in the Church and often who was active or in a relationship. It was an open secret even though very few people were openly gay.

When the Gay Christian Movement was formed in April 1976 and the Gay Clergy Consultation in May 1976, two new networks came into being. One of the topics of conversation at those early meetings was, of course, who was known to be gay in the Church of England. The members of both groups held a lot of personal knowledge about gay priests and bishops. Some of those known personally by me to be gay in the 1970s and 80s went on to become bishops. I knew them to be gay either because of direct personal experience or because of conversations with other clergy who had direct experience.

Malcolm Johnson, who has recently published The Tightrope Walker: Diary of a Gay Priest, was for years the only openly gay member of General Synod. Now there are several – though many others are still discrete or in the closet. That Malcolm was the only openly gay member of Synod allowed people to think that Synod had just one gay member among 550 and that gay people were an insignificant proportion in Church and society.

When Malcolm sat down in December 1976 to write down the names of all the gay clergy he could think of, he listed 100 people. In 1979 the number of names on the Clergy Consultation list had grown to 280. Given that most gay clergy then were hidden from other gay clergy, this number was clearly the tip of the iceberg.

In 1987 active persecution began. Malcolm and Richard Kirker, the General Secretary of LGCM were both attacked because the office was in the tower of St Botolph’s Aldgate. It was alleged that LGCM stocked inappropriate books. In November 1987 Tony Higton’s persecutory motion against gay people was debated in General Synod. The period of confident development for LGCM and the Clergy Consultation had lasted just 11 years.

Since 1987 there has been growing opposition to the place of LGBTI people in the Church, and particular opposition to LGBTI clergy. The published reports, Issues in Human Sexuality published in 1991 and Some Issues in Human Sexuality published in 1993 and all subsequent Church of England reports, including the Pilling Report, have been deeply compromised by having to respond to the growing hostility of a minority in England and a vociferous anti-gay movement in the Anglican Communion.

Since 1987 LGBTI people in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion have been subjected to increasing hostility, prejudice and persecution.

In these circumstances it is not surprising that a small minority have dealt with their sexuality and the conflict they have experienced in their faith by adopting a number of strategies – suppressing their sexuality; engaging in ex-gay ministries; identifying as post-gay;

All these are tactics for dealing with the shocking levels of abuse, manipulation, prejudice and persecution which typifies conservative Anglican attitudes to LGBTI people and varieties of sexual and gender identity.

It is no surprise that bishops who are gay have become bishops by carefully hiding their sexuality and constructing an identity which is asexual and celibate. The problem we are dealing with is not that bishops are in the closet and need to be outed.

The problem we are dealing with is the level of abuse and persecution which characterises the attitude of some Christians to LGBTI people. This is where the problem lies. It can only be changed by creating healthier, more honest, trusting, open attitudes in the Church. The movement for change would be transformed if some of those bishops who are gay were able to be open, but I fully understand the intense difficulty they have in taking the risk. I’ve witnessed the sheer terror such a possibility can create.

We have to take responsibility ourselves, those of us who are confident in our gender and sexuality and comfortably open about who we are. We have to tell the story and confront the hypocrisy and bigotry and end the persecution.


  1. Fr. Jay L. Tillitt says

    Smiling as I read this article, i recall when those of us came out in spite of the closeted times and how we paid for it dearly. It took me 43 years to be granted my MDiv here in the States. I had been expelled from seminary with 2 months left till graduation.

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