Ruth Gledhill, the Religion Correspondent of The Times, phoned me late yesterday afternoon and interviewed me at some length. The result is an article in today’s paper which pretty accurately reports what I said.
In the interests of total accuracy, ‘a close friend of the Archbishop’ is pushing it a bit, and I was in parish ministry for 17, not 15 years, 3 as a curate at St George’s Camberwell (where Geoffrey Beaumont and Canon Eric James had previously been incumbents) and 14 years at St Faith’s Wandsworth. I didn’t actually tell Ruth that Bishop Mervyn Stockwood knew I was gay. Lowly curates like me didn’t share that kind of information with Mervyn.
I grew up in Southwark Diocese and at the age of 22 became involved with the cathedral and diocesan networks. Southwark obviously had many gay priests then and still does, despite Bishop Tom Butler’s initial reign of terror, a period now thankfully in the past.
When I returned to Southwark from Cambridge to serve my title, two of the bishops were known to be gay and my post ordination training group (in my memory) was between one third to a half gay. The gay sub-set was divided in two – the camp, closeted, Anglo-catholics who sat clad in black in the back row, giggling, and ‘my’ set, those who were less ashamed of being gay and seemed more mature. There was a good support network in the diocese for those gay priests who wanted to engage with each other, reinforced by the twice-yearly meetings of the Clergy Consultation for gay priests convened by Malcolm Johnson.
I have to confess astonishment that at least one of the gay men I remember sitting in the back row is now married and a bishop in the Church of England, but that’s another story. Well, perhaps it isn’t another story but in truth, THE story. The story of what has happened in England in the 40 plus years since I first became involved with the wider diocese in Southwark.
Then to be gay was to be closeted. It was a widely known semi-open secret to those in the clergy networks, the deanery, POT, the bishops. Let’s list those who were my area bishops in the time I was there – Michael Marshall, Keith Sutton, Peter Selby and Martin Wharton. The diocesans were Mervyn Stockwood, Ronnie Bowlby, Roy Williamson and Tom Butler. I was out to all of them. Bishop Roy was hugely supportive at the time Changing Attitude was being formed. The others were all pastorally affirming.
And now? There are still affirming and supporting bishops, but they are in the closet. Some actively encourage their clergy to contract a Civil Partnership knowing that it is healthier and holier to be in a faithful, loving, committed relationship rather than footloose and cottage-or-sleezy-night-club free. There were and are many clergy in the Anglo-catholic black-cassocked, ‘Father knows best’, misogynistic sets in London and Southwark, Forward in Faith to the core, who lived deeply dishonest and unhealthy lives. And there are gay (or ex-gay) bishops, married, acceptable to the hierarchy and those who compile the potential bishop list.
I feel more angry this week than I have for a long time. Mature, intelligent, totally committed LGBT lay people and priests in the Church of England are totally fed up with the context in which they have to minister. They allow themselves to be compromised by church attitudes driven by conservatives, knowing that they could be more Christian, more true to God and themselves, more integrated and emotionally healthy, were they to give up parochial ministry. Sadly, many are doing just that and the church is achieving by a slow process of erosion a reduction in the percentage of LGBT clergy in ministry.
What would the Church of England be like without her LGBT clergy? She might lose at least 10% of those currently in post. She would lose many of her most dedicated, spiritual, reflective, pastoral clergy - and she would be left in the hands of the spineless or the tyrannical, the dishonest, the closeted, the unhealthy.