I have been asked to reflect on what it means to be an openly gay priest. To give my testimony, as it were—especially in this parish, which offers so much space for the discernment of what is appropriate, and even urgent, in the life of the church.
It is hard for me to spell this out, but I would bear false witness if I didn’t say that the background to my whole life in this area has been one of lies—and the shape of my adulthood a more or less desperate search to winnow out the truth from the lies. As a child I was taught by my parents the absolute importance of Jesus and of love; and by the politically conservative, Evangelical Protestant world in which I was brought up, that “homosexuality” was diametrically opposed to that. When, in 1969, aged nine, I learned what a “queer” was, and knew that I was one, I found myself thrilled that there was a word for people like me, awful though it was, and at the same time lost and abandoned in a world in which I would never be accepted. I couldn’t imagine knowing the guidance and accompanying compassion of the adults in my life—only their rigidity and probable rejection.
Only decades later did I learn the family context of the world into which that nine-year-old was feeling his way: that Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, one of the involuntary protagonists and heroes of the campaign to legalize homosexuality in England, had been a lifelong friend of my father’s, their having been at schools together throughout their childhoods (this fact was confirmed when Montagu introduced himself to me deliberately and with great warmth at my father’s funeral); that my beloved aunt had once been the lover of Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary who had pushed through the legalization of homosexuality in 1967 against her brother’s (my father’s) own vote in Parliament; and that maybe some part of the rigidity of my father’s Evangelical ideology was a result of his having been abused by his housemaster while at Eton in the early 1940s—a memory he recounted casually, the first time that any of us had learned of it, a few weeks before his death.
However, the child I was in the 1960s knew nothing of this other than that my siblings and I were enlisted in my parents’ campaign against the dangerous, anti-Christian agenda of the 1960s—and that, all unwittingly, I was the enemy within. From that time on I knew that I had to hide this reality about myself so as not to damage others with the evil of my desires. I also worked out that the very best thing I could do, knowing that I would forever be deprived of reward or approval, was to be as good, in all ways possible, as the person I could never be, while aware that I would have to become this person as from nothing, with no support or company. In a nutshell: that I should be in every outward respect as good a follower of Jesus as possible, despite Jesus not wanting me. And this I became, over the following ten years: the perfect Pharisee! With uncanny speed I learned to imitate the “normal” responses of those who had real feelings and real lives, while also being aware that I had no right to anything, and could hold on to nothing as my own, there being no “me” there. Thus, although my achievement would in the end, I knew, be a fake, an artificial construct, I would at least have limited the damage that the love of such an evil person might cause to those around them. I also sensed, already at that age, that I would never grow up to be able to hold down a steady job—unworthiness and instability feeding on each other to produce that radical lack of self-confidence that lurks not infrequently behind a boarding schoolboy’s mask. This has unquestionably marked my priesthood.