The event which triggered my inertia was the moment the news of my planned civil partnership, originally scheduled to take place on 9 October, hit the national press followed swiftly by international web reports. The CP won’t happen on that day for two reasons. We haven’t yet received approval from the UK Border Agency to register (my partner being a Nigerian national) and the fact that we most definitely do not want a media circus surrounding the communion service which will follow the CP.
News of the CP and celebration with friends in church went global when the Daily Mail posted a story from the Western Daily Press on their web site. It was picked up by the Sun, the Telegraph and the Press Association (who at least did me the courtesy of phoning and going through every detail to check accuracy). It spread swiftly on the internet with the result that my partner’s family in Nigeria were informed via the Nigerian daily papers and weekly magazines. The Primates and bishops meeting in Entebbe, Uganda for the All Africa Bishops Conference were also well-briefed – with misinformation, of course, because the Daily Mail headline alone contained 5 errors. This was partly my mistake – I didn’t take time to correct errors in the original June BBC Wiltshire interview on which subsequent reports were based. I’ve reported the Mail to the Press Complaints Commission.
Reactions to the news have been broadly predictable. Comments online ranged from warmly supportive to viciously bigoted and prejudiced. We received a number of hate mail letters which we reported to the police. They have been taken away for forensic examination. Yesterday morning I made a statement about the one letter containing a name and address and someone in Liverpool will be getting a visit from the local police. Anti-gay graffiti was scrawled in the porch of our church in Devizes (a C12th listed building, so delicate cleaning was required) following a news item about us in the Devizes Gazette. The local Anglo-catholic church (which opposes the ordination of women, claims to adhere to the 39 Articles, but uses the Roman Missal and has weekly benediction) wrote to the paper strongly opposing our intention of celebrating our friendship with a Communion service. They claimed that this is “not just inappropriate but disgraceful - even blasphemous” and that we are attacking “the Christian faith at its very foundation.” Three other priests in the deanery have said they want to be invited to the service!
Less expected for me was what happened in church Sunday morning a week ago when I presided at the 10.30 Communion. One person walked out during the first hymn and at least 3 members of the choir didn’t receive communion and refused to acknowledge me after the service (and have refused to acknowledge my partner in town). These are people I have come to know during the 6 years I have been worshipping in Devizes, key people in the congregation who have heard me preach, entertained me to supper, received communion from me, an openly gay man worshipping each Sunday with my partner. What has changed for them? They won’t speak to me so I haven’t been able to ask them.
The majority of the congregation have been affirming and supportive, many of them enthusiastically so. But it’s the minority who refuse to acknowledge us who create the pain and raise bigger questions. Who did they think I was prior to discovering that we are proposing to contract a civil partnership followed by a service in church? What Christian values and principles do they live by? What divisions has this created in the congregation? Do they reflect the fault lines in the Anglican Communion? I’ve found it hard to answer the last question as I’ve tried to process the events and experience of the last three weeks. There are, of course, various fault lines and ingredients that create the divisions.
Fault lines in the Anglican Communion were revealed on a recent visit to Nigeria by seven members of Guildford Diocese, including the diocesan bishop, the Rt Rev Christopher Hill and his wife Hilary. They met the Primate of all Nigeria, the Most Rev Nicholas Okoh.
The Archbishop re-iterated his assurance of unalloyed cooperation and partnership with people who have complete faith and confidence in the undiluted word of God. He said the challenge the communion is facing at the moment is that of a section of the West who are promoting homosexuality, lesbianism and approving liturgies for same sex marriage. He said this is an issue that must be seriously addressed if the communion is to sustain the unity and oneness that has existed over the years. So, homosexuality is the fault line, the issue which creates schism.
I live with my Nigerian partner, an Anglican, so in one respect the world of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) and the Church of England are not worlds apart but intimately intertwined. Members of the Church of Nigeria co-habit and form or plan to form Civil Partnerships with members of the Church of England. My partner and I are not alone in this.
I suspect (though I may be wrong) that Archbishop Nicholas (whom I met notwithstanding his attempt to avoid me in Dar es Salaam) thinks this reality of gay people and gay relationships doesn’t exist. In his world there are no gay Nigerians, or no gay Anglican Nigerians, so the reality in which I live can’t in truth be real. In our interpretation of God’s word in the Bible and the place of power and authority in the church, we couldn’t be more worlds apart. Archbishop Nicholas thinks I am living a mistaken category of being – there is no such thing as a homosexual Christian, and I can’t be a true Anglican priest if I live with a gay partner.
A dogmatic allegiance to the undiluted Word of God could be said to identify those lying on one side of the Anglican fault line. The primacy of loving, open, generous, truthful human relationships might be said to lie broadly on the other, relationships which are sometimes confusing, vulnerable and tentative, not only with other people but with God, in prayer lives and with the Bible. I don’t dilute the Bible but I do interrogate it and mine it for truth and wisdom.
When you are being bashed about by strongly-opinionated people, some with deeply held prejudices and an intolerance of difference, it can be hard to remember that building relationships not only with the like-minded but more vitally with those of an opposite mind-set is the Christian task of Changing Attitude. I believe it is the vocation given to all by God who calls us to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, wherever he leads us.
There is no escape for me from trying to build relationships across the divide with all in the Anglican Communion. The vision we have is of a radically inclusive church, here in Devizes and across the dioceses of Nigeria. The changes we seek will only come about by crossing boundaries and creating radically transgressive relationships.
That’s a tough challenge when organists, choristers and readers refuse to acknowledge the presence and ministry of partnered gay priests at a local level and when on the international stage, a Nigerian bishop runs away from a gay activist priest, bishops refuse to attend the Lambeth Conference, others are refused admittance for being gay and partnered and Primates refuse to attend communion at which the Archbishop of Canterbury presides.
There are times when behaviour and attitudes to LGBT people in the Communion are not only intolerable but become almost evil. I hate it when people deliberately distort our reality and truth and link our campaign for dignified recognition of our place in God’s creation and the church with secular campaigns claiming acceptance for paedophiles, those drawn to bestiality and those advocating polyandrous relationships. This happened repeatedly in a recent interview I participated in on Radio 5 Live.
So, calm down, Colin, breathe deeply and slowly, keep praying, consult widely, remember who you are and to what God has called you, and keep the faith.
I bought a newly-published book last week by Verena Schiller, A Simplified Life. Verena is an Anglican religious sister of the Community of the Holy Name who for the last 25 years has lived as a hermit on the Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales, close to Aberdaron where Jim Cotter is the priest. She writes:
“Unless we begin to know ourselves with greater honesty and truth, how can we relate to God and through him to the entire world? The masks that we wear and the defences that we erect all distance us from one another, let alone from God. No life or relationship that is not built on honesty and truth can develop wholesomely. Inevitably it will founder. Yet paradoxically it is the very search for God that opens the way to self-knowledge and the possibility of a growing honesty and truth of our whole being.”