Priesthood - An Unpredictable Journey

Today I celebrate thirty-one years as a priest in God's Church.

When I set off down the path to ordination, I foolishly made a number of assumptions - principally that I had a working lifetime of parish ministry ahead of me.  But this wasn't to be.

After serving two Curacies - the first of which was a profoundly unhappy and dispiriting experience,  the second of which was a real joy - I faced a major crisis of conscience. It was 1990, and following Tony Higton's notorious Private Member's motion to General Synod in 1987, the Church of England was winding itself up about human sexuality.

Having struggled for years with the realisation that I was gay - and having survived well-meaning but misguided attempts to 'pray the gay away' - I had eventually been convinced by a number of sympathetic clergy (some gay themselves, others not) that my sexuality was totally compatible with being a priest, and that I basically had two options - either to be celibate, or to have a 'discreet' relationship.  The prevailing culture of the time - especially within the Anglo-Catholic tradition - was one of  'Don't ask. Don't tell.' Underlying this was what turned out to be a rather over-optimistic assumption that as society became more relaxed about homosexuality, the onward trajectory of the church would be towards full acceptance and affirmation. However, I remember one wise gay priest friend of mine who dissented from this view, saying, "We will be okay unless someone forces the bishops into a corner. Then it will be a case of God help us."

Those words proved to be remarkably prophetic.

In the aftermath of 'Higton', bishops who had been happy to collude with the conspiracy of silence did indeed feel forced into a corner. Even though many of them - perhaps most - had liberal instincts where sexuality was concerned, and even though it was an 'open secret' that several bishops were themselves gay, they felt unable to express their personal views, and the church began to lurch in a much more conservative direction.

As I neared the end of my time as a Curate, a huge and menacing cloud overshadowed the exploration of  where my ministry should go next.  I knew by now that I didn't possess the gift of celibacy. There are some for whom this is a natural state and a vocation to which they are called; but most human beings - regardless of sexual orientation - have a vocation to share their lives with a significant other. I struggled desperately with feelings of loneliness and isolation, which tend in any case to be amplified in the context of parish ministry. I had periods of profound depression, and too often resorted to 'self-medicating' with alcohol.

My greatest struggle however, was with personal integrity. This had always been an issue, most especially during my time at Theological College. There, a significant number of students were openly gay (with one another at least). Of these, one or two had a clear vocation to celibacy. (Oh how I envied them!) Others struggled to be celibate - with varying degrees of success and regular 'falls from grace' - some were in discreet (or should that be 'furtive'?) relationships, whilst others resorted to promiscuity as a means of allaying their sexual frustration and satisfying the very human need for physical intimacy.

In hindsight, Theological College was a strange world that was full of contradictions. Whilst we were being prepared academically and formed spiritually for the realities of our future ministry, we were also largely living in a make-believe world where everyone (both staff and students) pretended that sexuality wasn't a complex and 'live' issue, and the thing that was most discouraged was being honest  - even with ourselves - about our inner struggles. I remember getting particularly angry with one student - who wasn't known for his self-discipline either sexually or in any other respect - who once pronounced over a gin and tonic that when ordained and hearing confessions, if anyone told him they were gay and in a relationship, he would take a very hard line. I asked him how he squared this with his own (quite promiscuous) gay lifestyle to which he laughingly replied, "I don't need to square it. As an individual, I can choose to act according to my conscience; but as a priest, when it comes to others, it will be my duty to assert the teachings of the church." I was horrified, but he couldn't - or wouldn't - see any lack of integrity in his stance.

So, as the conspiracy of silence was finally broken, I faced a dilemma. Should I continue in parish ministry struggling unsuccessfully with loneliness or should I have a secret relationship, knowing now that this was contrary to what the Church's leaders were saying? An even tougher question was, "Where does Truth come into all this?"  Reluctantly, I came to realise that living a lie and being a priest were incompatible. I also began to realise that whilst God often works through a priest despite that priest's human frailty, He also often works through  the priest's humanity.  I didn't doubt for a second that God could use my brokenness as a channel for his love and care for others, but in order for that to happen, I needed to be truthful with God, with myself, and with those to whom I sought to minister.

It was with a heavy heart that I went to see my bishop to share all this. I believed that the only possible outcome would be that I would have to leave parish ministry, but I suppose I was still secretly hoping that the bishop would have another last-minute solution, or would perhaps suggest some form of chaplaincy where the priest lives in less of a 'goldfish bowl'.  In the event, the bishop was very clear. I must resign as there was no place and no future for people like me in the Church of England. When I tearfully asked (as a genuine question) how to make sense of God's apparent call on my life (which felt as strong and real as ever) and the fact that he had given me a nature seemingly incompatible with that calling,  I was told with a shrug, "You were obviously mistaken in feeling called to be a priest."

Heartbroken though I was, there was also something incredibly liberating about now being free to be who I truly was, and being able to pursue a relationship without constantly looking over my shoulder or hiding away the most significant person in my life or pretending that he was a mere friend or worse, 'the lodger'.

I was fortunate to find a new job with Social Services, and later numerous jobs in Charities working  with homeless people with mental health problems, older people and people living with dementia respectively. In all of these roles, I was able to see my work as an expression and outworking of my priesthood. I hadn't stopped being a priest, but I was being a priest in a different way. I did, however, miss celebrating the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. Attempts to gain Permission to Officiate from several bishops failed - not on the grounds that I was gay and now living in a relationship, but rather on the grounds that I was (I quote) 'too honest' and that I was therefore too hot for the church to handle! At the time, I was told that such admissions were 'strictly confidential' and not to be shared outside the confines of our meeting, but my growing irritation with such blatant hypocrisy and dishonesty eventually led me to disregard this plea long ago.

It was by now the early 1990s, and the gay community was being ravaged by HIV/AIDS. Not surprisingly, gay men were reluctant to turn to the Church for help or support, still less to trust potentially homophobic clergy - or even closeted gay clergy - to conduct the funerals of their loved ones with appropriate sensitivity. As a gay priest who had also suffered at the hands of an intolerant Church, I was seen by the gay community as being 'safe'. I therefore began to develop - as have so many others - a 'freelance' pastoral ministry to those living with HIV. Sadly in those days, this meant taking a significant number of funerals. Ironically, at this time I felt newly 'alive' as a priest, and I discovered there was something exhilarating and life-giving about ministering on or beyond the margins - the very place where so much of Jesus' own ministry was exercised.

The local bishop disapproved and made it known that I was acting without his authority, not that anyone cared, of course. I still smile to myself when I recall how I did point out in one conversation with him that he was the one who had chosen not to have authority over me by refusing Permission to Officiate. He nearly had apoplexy. I think I was going through my 'firebrand' phase then!

A neighbouring diocese - which was much more forward thinking - actually had its own Chaplain for people living with HIV (although most of the salary came from Social Services and the local Primary Care Trust). She and I shared notes and worked together from time to time, and when it was time for her to retire, I decided to apply for the job.  When I was the interview panel's preferred candidate, I was referred on to the Bishop, who would need to approve the appointment and license me. When we met, he did refer to some 'lively correspondence' on my file, smiled knowingly and said, "Under the circumstances, I think you were remarkably polite."

I continued in the HIV Chaplaincy role for six years, and the work continued to be both challenging and rewarding. I remember with great affection those amongst whom I was privileged to minister. Their courage and strength in living with a difficult and often unpredictable condition and coping with the stigma attached to it was nothing short of inspirational and often positively heroic.

They were some of the happiest and most rewarding years of my life; but I still felt a strong call to parish ministry. In the meantime things had moved on a little. It was now possible for Lesbian and Gay clergy to be more honest about themselves and even to live with a partner, so long as assurances were given that the relationship complied with the report 'Issues in Human Sexuality'. (We are now at least allowed to have love and companionship even if a sexual expression of that love and companionship  is still forbidden.)

So it was that I returned to parish ministry in 2011 and now feel - finally - that I am faithfully answering God's call on my life.  I have always sought to do so, and God has provided the opportunities for me to exercise a ministry of some kind - however unconventional - when the Church has chosen to dismiss or obstruct that call.

The path I have trodden since ordination was not the one I anticipated. There have been many unexpected twists and turns - far more than documented here - and I have certainly often walked through the Valley of the Shadow; but I have no regrets. I've met some wonderful people, had some profoundly challenging but transformative experiences, and have learnt a great deal about myself,  the world,  the Church and, most important of all, about the faithfulness of the God who calls us.

So today I look back and give thanks for thirty-one unpredictable years of priesthood, and look forward joyfully and confidently to the unpredictable future into which God calls all of us.                  


     

Comments

  1. Thanks God for you ministry Trevor, and for you loyalty to God and his Church, when so many would have given up. Thanks you also for your candidness in writing this, and for our discussions in those years when you felt the call back to parish ministry. I am so glad you have found the place where you belong. Sadly the Church still has so much to learn from people like you and, if you can find the strength, keep on trying to show us what an inclusive, loving God looks like.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Mike. Great to hear from you! Thank you for your kind and encouraging words both here and a few years ago when I was struggling to see the way ahead. With prayers for your ministry too, Trevor

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  2. Congratulations on a wonderful ministry exercised in extraordinary adversity ... Rowan Williams once said 'God does not do waste...' and that's written right through your account here.

    But goodness me, the church has missed out ...

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