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'I was a gay priest'

Church with rainbow banner
Rows and acrimony dominate in the media, but what is it like to actually be a gay priest in the Church of England? Philosopher Mark Vernon, who left his job as a clergyman, gives his view.

One of the paradoxes of the row over homosexuality in the Anglican church is that there have been, are, and always will be gay priests. Many gay priests. I know. I was one.

But that paradox - or better, absurdity - shouldn't detract from the seriousness of the message being championed by Bishop Gene Robinson. He is the first openly gay and "partnered" bishop in the Anglican communion and is in the news because he has been barred from attending the Lambeth Conference as a bishop.

It was only after leaving that being gay got me into serious trouble
Mark Vernon

What Bishop Robinson is declaring is that gay people are not an "abomination". This is the most important thing that he has to say, much more so than what he thinks about his fellow bishops, or the conference, or even Christianity. With luck, it will be heard by gay men and women worldwide. For even today, many in the church and the world still say that we are.

I was ordained in 1993 and worked for three years as a curate in the North East of England. I had a liberal bishop and so long as I was discreet, I met no ecclesiastical barriers for being gay. And I was content to be discreet.

Keeping tabs

At the time it seemed that it was only a question of time until the church embraced rainbow dog-collars, and maybe even a pinker hue of purple shirt.

That said, there was another, more complicated, reason why I was content to be discreet. One of the things about being gay is that you learn, from a very early age, to keep tabs on who knows. You can never be sure how people will react to that most intimate of personal details - who you love.

Mark Vernon
Mark Vernon left his job after three years of living a lie

A priest, though, is called to preach a gospel of love. So when you are gay, this gospel traps you. You must keep tabs on who knows about the most immediate way that God's love comes to you, which is to say with someone of the same sex.

This means that you internalise the charge of being an abomination. You live a lie. And like any lived lie, insidious psychological damage is the price.

After three years, I couldn't handle the pretence any longer. I left, even though I had ostensibly had an easy ride in the church. Moreover, I left an atheist, a loss of faith that came about for a number of reasons, though the pretence played a major part.

Ironically enough, it was only after leaving that being gay got me into serious trouble. I had run a website for the Lesbian and Gay Christian (LGCM) movement. We'd put up a link to an American website, on which could be found a poem that had been banned in the 1970s when Mary Whitehouse brought a successful action for blasphemy against the magazine Gay News.

A conservative evangelical group, Reform, found out. They made a complaint to the police. Over a period of 18 months, I was questioned under caution twice. Computers were seized. Questions were asked in the House of Commons.

The case fell apart, which in retrospect is hardly surprising. However, the incident was personally unnerving, and it demonstrates the anxiety that conservative Christians can bring to bear upon gay people.

So it is wrong that Gene Robinson has been barred from attending Lambeth. The church has missed a chance to undo some of the damage it does to gay people. I only hope gay people are listening not to the ranks of episcopal dignitaries, but to the one, thankfully troublesome, gay bishop.

Mark Vernon is the author of After Atheism.


Send us your comments using the form below.

The Anglican communion doesn't need to agree on same-sex desire, but if there are groups of people within the communion who refuse to labour with their colleagues towards an understanding, they really ought to have the honesty to walk away. What this situation is doing is not simply "loving the sinner and hating the sin", it's actively creating an atmosphere in which people who aren't straight feel everything from unwelcome to terrified (and, in certain parts of the world, in fear for their very lives). It's insidious, this fear that if the parts of the Bible you've cherry-picked might not be absolute, then all is lost.
Kaz, Macclesfield, UK

If Gene Robinson is a legitimate bishop he should be allowed to attend the conference. Simple as. To bar him on the basis of his sexual orientation is a violation of anti-discrimination laws. Oh, wait! The church is EXEMPT from the laws that govern the rest of us. That is the fundamental problem.
Stephanie, Bristol

Many years ago I discussed this issue with a priest who fobbed me off when I quoted the verse that says "man should not lie with a man", saying that I couldn't argue on the basis of one line in the scriptures. On reflection, I can think of ten one liners, the ten commandments, are we to ignore those too?
Peter, Covina, US

How can you say that sexual attraction of any kind is "the most immediate way that God's love comes to you"? Erotic love is a God-given expression of human love, not divine. When God touches your heart, it's better than sex. I don't think you should blame Christians for making you "internalise the charge" of being an abomination - somewhere deep down, your soul is telling you something. It must be a truly horrible place to be. I pray you find the truth.
JEH, London

I'm fed up of people complaining, not just gay people but many other groups, about how churches are wrong simply because they do not adopt a modern way of thinking. They have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years and have long established their right to believe in what they want to. If you are gay and want to be a member of an organisation where the majority of existing members believe your sexual preference is wrong, then you are asking for trouble. In my opinion it is best to leave them alone and worship with people who share your beliefs. I am neither gay or Christian myself, but it seems very unfair to force the church to accept something like this if it doesn't want to.
John B, Kidderminster UK

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