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Gay vicars

Channel 4 website
January 2006

It wasn't a good week for Revd Richard Haggis, a practising homosexual and a priest in the Church of England. On the Monday, the bishops of his church announced that same-sex couples who ‘got married’ in the UK's new civil partnerships ceremony would not be welcome in church for a blessing. Even worse, priests who wanted a same-sex civil partnership would have to get permission from their bishop first. And permission would only be granted if the priests promised not to have sex with their partner.

The next day, Tuesday, Richard wrote a scorching article in a national newspaper, attacking the double standards of the bishops and throwing down a challenge: ‘I very much hope to use the new law. I shall not ask permission and I shall not promise to be celibate,’ he said. On Wednesday, he had a long-scheduled meeting with his boss, the Bishop of London, about the renewal of his contract as parish priest. On Thursday, he received a letter from the bishop, telling him he had lost his job. The newspaper article had been a key factor.

A church at war

Richard is a casualty in the war which is currently tearing the Anglican Church in two. It's not a trivial event: the Anglican Church has been around for over 500 years and numbers some 77 million people around the world. Richard's story is followed in Gay Vicars, alongside the story of Debbie Gaston, a former Anglican priest who has left the Church of England because of her relationship with Elaine.

Hostilities over gay sexuality in the Anglican Church erupted into all-out war in 2003 with the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of the US Diocese of New Hampshire. Robinson, who is in a committed, long-term relationship with his partner, was the first openly gay man to become a bishop anywhere in the Anglican Communion.

The ordination radicalised groups on either side of the debate, and the media was treated to the spectacle of clergy behaving badly. The Archbishop of Nigeria, a leading traditionalist with the authority that comes with running the world's largest Anglican province, called homosexuals ‘lower than beasts’, while another senior church figure accused Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, of ‘theological prostitution’.

North v South

The row has opened up a split between the churches of the developing world, which are more traditional and (some would say) more fundamentalist, and the Churches of England, the US and Canada, which tend to be more liberal and progressive.

The introduction of civil partnerships in the UK just before Christmas brought the threat of schism in the church still closer. Incensed that the British bishops had allowed clergy in Britain to enter into same-sex civil partnerships (even under the proviso that they remain celibate), almost half the world's Anglican Archbishops launched a highly personal attack on Rowan Williams, questioning his leadership and calling on him to act against ‘unrepented sexual immorality’ in the church.

The Bible tells me so

For traditionalists, the issue is clear-cut. Bishop Wallace Benn of Lewes, Sussex, appears in the programme and reads out a passage from St Paul which looms large in the thinking of those who are against homosexual relationships: ‘Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.’

When Bishop Robinson argues that Christians should not be locked in the past, but instead should accept that God is doing new things, Bishop Benn says that he's happy with the idea of God doing new things, but they ought to be things that are consistent with what God has said in the Bible.

Others, such as Revd Philip Giddings, who runs an organisation called Anglican Mainstream, agree with him. ‘I don't accept the categorisation of being gay,’ he says. ‘Experiencing homosexual desires is the category I recognise. That problem might be resolved either by those desires going away, or a Christian resisting those desires, as they would do with greed or whatever.’

For the bishops of the southern hemisphere who recently rebuked Rowan Williams, homosexuality is a cancer, civil partnerships are evil, and Europe is a spiritual desert. The traditionalist position has become tough and uncompromising.

A question of identity

Meanwhile, as ‘churchmen are locked in squabbles about a handful of verses in a 2,000-year-old book,’ as Joan Bakewell put it, gay clergy couples are getting on with their lives, with or without the church.

In December, Revd Debbie Gaston ‘married’ her partner, Elaine, and the pair were whisked off to their honeymoon in an appropriately pink Rolls Royce. Debbie now ministers at a church in Brighton which is inclusive and welcomes people regardless of their sexual orientation. Both she and Elaine spent years struggling with their sexuality; Elaine was previously married and has children.

Elaine strongly disagrees that homosexuality is simply a matter of desire. It's profoundly about her identity as a person. ‘It didn't make me straight, getting married or having children,’ she says. ‘It's no good people saying you can suppress your sexuality. I am 100 per cent certain that God didn't make us to hate us. I wish I'd known that years ago.’

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