‘Some Day I’ll Find You’ by H.A. Williams C.R. (London: Mitchell Beazley, 1982)

Fr Harry Williams was a Cambridge don, tutor to the Prince of Wales, who, aged 50, entered an Anglican religious community. This is his autobiography. It is fair to say that it caused a stir when published. He was very much an establishment figure, and the frank tone doubtless shocked. That said, little would be shocking now, but back in 1982 it was not common for priests of the Church of England to publically declare that they were gay.

It is not really necessary to give a complete review of this book. It is an easy read. It has often been criticised for name dropping, and Harry Williams has been called a snob. I did not really notice that. He was well connected, but most of the names he drops are now forgotten. Sic transit gloria mundi and all that, I suppose.

The real story of this book is how Harry Williams fell for a false god, how he “mixed up God and the devil, not knowing which was which. It was a muddle which needed a severe breakdown before it could be slowly sorted out. The sorting out led me to discover that in order to love God I often had to hate religion and I began to catch glimpses of God’s glory in places where, on any ecclesiastical estimate, that glory had no right to be.” [p. ix] In this he discovered that “what passes for virtue has been a far more destructive force than what passes for vice.” [pp. 44-5]

His family was what would probably be called upper middle class, though not wealthy. His mother was neurotic and that neuroticism found a focus in an intolerant and joyless Protestantism. He notes that “one of the important functions of religion is to give people something to do with their lunacy.” [p. 81] That holds true for other brands of religion as well, not just the Protestant variety. Lunacy can take many forms, and there is a religion for each one of those forms.

Despite all this he became a clergyman, though naturally of a higher church disposition than his mother’s religion. As a curate at S Barnabas, Pimlico, London, during the Second World War he came to see that goodness, and God, could be found in all sorts and conditions, and often more clearly outside church than in it.

A curacy at the famous Anglo-Catholic church of All Saints, Margaret Street followed. It was here that he started to realise that the god he served was a false god, a god who demanded constant propitiation, an idol of his own creating:

“It was with the idol that I conceived my relationship to be one of contract. Keeping his back scratched was not at all a labour of love. It had nothing about it of a free, loving, joyful obedience. It was a disagreeable and exhausting chore which made me in my heart of hearts hate the taskmaster who imposed it – that is God, my idol.

“For my idol-God was a neurotic. How could he help being that? For a projection cannot be more healthy than the projecting agent. So my God felt unloved and insecure unless he was constantly the centre of attention. And when he felt insecure he would take it out on you by refusing to speak to you until you had formally apologised by going to confession, and sometimes not even then. So to prevent his feeling insecure you had to jabber at him at regular intervals.” [p. 130]

It is sadly true that if God has made human beings in his image, since that time human beings have been remaking God in their own fractured image. In this they (we) have been aided by a Church which has often been in the hands of the most fractured and neurotic.

But for Fr Harry Williams, now at Cambridge as a fellow of Trinity, this all came to a head. And, needless to say, the issue was his sexuality.

“Thus it was that my deepest, most tender, and strongest feelings were felt by me to be monstrously horrible, something to be utterly condemned, as well as being, I felt, the legitimate target of ridicule deserving to bring down on me the cackle of Cambridge. Had I not been in thrall to my idol I might have been able to liberate myself from these conventional estimates. But with the stranglehold upon me of the god the priests had encouraged me to believe in, even the smallest degree of liberation was quite impossible. I was little more than the puppet of the savage hypnotist I had dreamt about, little more than the dupe and slave of my own guilt-feelings.

“… I fell in love with a colleague; totally, hopelessly and catastrophically in love. The sexuality which the savage hypnotist [the false god] had so far compelled me to ignore, at last exploded. It was, as I saw later, the victory of my humanity over the forces bent on destroying it, the victory of health over sickness, of good over evil, of the true God over the idol.” [p. 164]

Grace, we are told, builds on nature. And Irenaeus of Lyons tells us that “the glory of God is humanity alive” [Ad. Haer. 4. 34. 5-7]. How can a denial of humanity get one anywhere, least of all closer to God?

This is a lesson which many of us have to find for ourselves. Often it is painful. Often it means the rejection of false (but comforting) certainties. Often it leads to charges of self-indulgence, of taking the easy option. But as Harry Williams notes, it is about integrity. The alternative is not just continuing unhappiness, but often self-destruction. How many gay Christians seeks solace in the bottle? Or guilt-ridden casual sex? Or it can destroy others, when projected onto them.

God is love. That we know. But so often love is replaced with rules. The Religion of the Scribes and the Pharisees is easier, in some ways, than the Religion of love and perfect freedom which Christ offers us. For all its destructiveness it gives one a sense of belonging. And as Williams quotes, “as Benjamin Jowett remarked, what is truth compared with an espirit de corps?” [p. 196]

Harry Williams dies in 2006, aged 86. His Church Times obituary noted that in the 1960s and 1970s his message – “Be yourself, meet and love your Creator and Father, don’t think that you need be orthodox or perfect but live joyfully and abundantly.” – was greeted as Good News. That is because it was Good News. And it was, and still is, needed today.

Disagreeing well: Women priests and flying bishops

Recently we have heard a lot about ‘disagreeing well’. This is in relation to the shared conversations, and the debate in general, about sexuality. It is important to disagree well. It is important, not just because we shouldn’t be trying to hurt our fellow Christians (or our fellow humans, for that matter) who disagree with us; or because we need to preserve unity at all costs (which maybe we do, maybe we don’t); but also because we may just be wrong. Humility demands that we recognise that. Even in my most dearly held beliefs, I may be wrong. Totally, completely 180 degrees facing the wrong way wrong.

How do I know this? Well, I have been wrong in the past. I have misinterpreted situations. I have told myself that I have thought things through rationally, without emotion, and reached a position based on the facts.

And then my views have changed. I have seen through myself.

That doesn’t worry me. As Roger Scruton has said, changing your mind is proof that you’ve got one. And I may be wrong now. No doubt I will change my mind again on some things.

And I don’t think I am unique here. Or even unusual.

So let’s look at a situation in the past where the Church of England has attempted to disagree well: the ordination of Women to the Priesthood.

In 1993, after the November 1992 General Synod vote on the Ordination of Women, I went to a meeting at which the then Bishop of London, Dr David Hope, spoke. He outlined what became the London Plan, with the Bishop of Fulham providing Episcopal Oversight of parishes who could not accept women priests. This was taken up nationally, with the Act of Synod that established Provincial Episcopal Visitors, or ‘Flying Bishops’, as they came to be known. Dr Hope’s point was that the General Synod decision to proceed with the ordination of women to the priesthood could only be provisional for as long as it was contested. Thus both the pro-women priest people and the anti-women priest positions had equal integrity. There where, as he suggested, two integrities in the Church of England. At some point the ordination of women would either be received by the Church at large, or rejected. At that point, the matter could be said to be settled.

Now this caused, and continued to cause, a lot of hurt. It is hurtful to women who are priests to have their ministry rejected in some places. It is hurtful to those who hold to what they believe in all sincerity to be the Apostolic faith to have their church taken from them (as they see it). We should not minimise the sense of hurt on either side. And that pain continues, a quarter of a decade later.

But what causes that pain? I would suggest that, to a great extent, it is the lack of charity on either side. When and if charity does exist, the pain is minimised. It is not the disagreement itself which causes the pain, but the lack of charity. It is when disagreeing well breaks down.

I hope the ministry of women who are priests and bishops will be universally received before too long. I think we are on the way there. But it may take a long time, maybe a century, before it is fully received.

And so it is with human sexuality. Much of the pain can be avoided if we accept that those with whom we disagree don’t wish us ill. Their motives are not wicked. They may even be right, and we may be wrong (it is not impossible). We need to disagree well. Righteous anger is all very well, but self-righteous anger is never necessary. In my humble opinion.

Mr Murdoch, Miss Hall and the evolution of marriage

This weekend gone Rupert Murdoch, the Australian press baron and Knight of the Papal Order of St Gregory the Great, married his fourth wife. Jerry Hall, his new wife, has been married before, though the marriage was declared invalid by the British Courts. All ten children from the happy couple’s previous marriages attended the subsequent blessing of this civil marriage, which was performed by a Priest of the Church of England in the Church of St Bride, Fleet Street, London.

Marriage is a universal institution. It is not specific to the Christian faith. It is also, clearly, and evolving institution. In the Roman Republic kinship ties were easily created (by adoption) and easily dissolved (by divorce). Like many Roman institutions, marriage (and the family) was profoundly changed by Christianity. Adoption and divorce became practically unknown until the modern period. By the Sixth century, the Church was blessing marriages in the context of the Eucharist. A whole theology of marriage, which saw it as a representation between Christ and the Church, was developed.

In England the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act was finally passed in 1907, and the Deceased Brother’s Widow’s Marriage Act in 1921. These followed almost a century of opposition from the Church of England over what the Table of Kindred and Affinity in the Book of Common Prayer regarded as marriage within the prohibited degrees.

So the question may reasonably, I think, be asked: Given that no one, seemingly, within the Church of England, regards marriage as a static institution, and given that the Church of England is willing to bless a union such as that of the new Mr and Mrs Murdoch, why should a monogamous life-long union between two people of the same sex be beyond the Church’s blessing?

Evangelicals, affirming or otherwise

As a Recovering Anglican, I have a lot of catching up to do on debates, publications, all that sort of things. I will make brief comments on some things which may seem rather dated.

The first is a press release dated 19th November 2014 (so just over a year old) from the Westminster faith Debates. Headed ‘Why unity eludes the Church of England’ it reports an opinion poll of attitudes of Church of England clergy. The bottom line is that about one third of the clergy polled identify as evangelical, and these clergy, especially if they are men, hold not only far less progressive views on matters like LGBT issues, but they are far less willing to compromise, or ‘disagree well’. Professor Linda Woodhead comments:

These findings are both good and bad news for the Archbishop [of Canterbury] – good in that his battle is won with most of the clergy and almost certainly an overwhelming majority of lay Anglicans. Bad, in that there is a significant group of male clergy who do not share his vision for the CofE and the Anglican Communion.

Now Evangelical Anglicanism is a bit of a mystery to me. But I understand it divides between the Conservative Low Church sort of people and the more charismatic Holy Trinity Brompton sort of people. The latter may be more affirming of LGBT people, but anecdotal evidence suggests that stunning homophobia can also be present in such circles too.

Evangelicalism seems to be in the ascendency. This may be just one of the regular pendulum swings. It may be because the Anglo-Catholics were badly divided and beaten by the Ordination of Women. But other factors may be at play here.

Professor Woodhead has done much good work elsewhere in addressing the changes to British society in terms of attitude to religion, and the way it is becoming ‘spiritual not religious’; that is, not hostile to spiritual things, not atheistic, but hostile to structures and institutions.

I would suggest that Evangelicalism has been very good at being countercultural, meeting people where they are, and bringing them to faith. Anglo-Catholics, on the other hand, have been preoccupied with navel gazing and internal battles, which seem meaningless to the unchurched. A true Evangelical Catholicism would address this. How? I am not quite sure! Something for further reflection.

The New Asceticism: Sexuality, Gender and the Quest for God, by Sarah Coakley (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)

Sarah Coakley is Norris-Hulse professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge and a canon of Ely Cathedral. This book is a collection of essays which have previously appeared elsewhere, and are now ‘lightly revised’. The overarching theme is gender and sexuality – neuralgic issues for Anglicans and other Christians. But I suppose that, unlike Roman Catholics, who, at least officially, bury their heads in the sand about them (which is no cure for neuralgia!), Anglicans are able to have a reasonably mature and sensible debate.

The great thing abbot Professor Coakley’s book is that she takes all strands of Anglican opinion seriously, but is beholden to none of them. Rather she seeks a creative way of cutting through the debates, finding a via media – not so much in terms of a simple midway position between extremes, nor even in terms of a dialectic in the Hegelian sense, using thesis and antithesis to create synthesis 9though there is some of that), but in using new approaches to inject new life into tired old debates. She succeeds marvellously, and I cannot praise this book too much.

Arranged in five chapters – the five original essays – with a substantial introduction, Professor Coakley moves effortlessly and impressively from Gregory of Nyssa to von Balthasar.  A primary aim is to recover the concept of desire. Professor Coakley wants us to understand sexual desire as being really about God and our desire for Him. This enables us to see sex, and God in different tones to those in which Freud painted them. Ultimately it is liberating.

We tend, from our human perspective, to judge that things in heaven are live things on earth. Thus we think of the relationship between Christ and the Church as being ‘like’ a marriage, or the relationship within the Trinity as being ‘like’ human friendship and love. But of course we have this exactly the wrong way around. It is the things of God which are the ultimate realities, and the things of the earth which are ‘like’ them. And it is from the perspective of human marriage being ‘like’ the relationship between Christ and the Church that one must consider the ideas of gender and priesthood. It is from the reality of human desire, sexual or otherwise, being like the inner life of the Trinity that one must consider human sexuality.

Professor Coakley’s strongly Patristic and Trinitarian theology invites us to look in new ways at the causes of the Church’s neuralgia, ways which are theocentric; when too often we look at God in ways which are anthropocentric.

I would like to consider each of the chapters of this book in a separate reflection, as it has so much to say on seemingly incidental matters, such as orientation (in the literal sense – facing east) in prayer. I commend the book to you most heartily. It is Anglican theology at its very best.

Return to Old Mother Damnable?

So why? Why, after 25 years away from the Church of England (or Old Mother Damnable, as Ronnie Knox used to call her) think about returning?

There is so much behind that sort of decision. And so much that can only be unpicked over time.

Suffice to say that I have travelled a long way since the early 90s, when, in what I thought was a principled stand for apostolic faith and order, but was really about the feared end of a comfy Anglo-Catholic gay ghetto, stamped my feet over women priests and flounced off to the Church of Rome.

I guess I was looking for certainty.

Now I am older. I am probably not much wiser, but I am more tolerant. I see through Roman Catholic ‘natural law’. I see that the arguments used against women priests (the male priest represents the male Christ, married to the female Church) are based on the same outmoded ideas of sexuality and gender that are used to condemn gay people.

The Catholic Church makes victims of women and gay men (and others). But ironically, or hypocritically if you like, it makes use of women and gay men. Without women, the churches would be empty. Without gay men, the priesthood would be, shall we say, much reduced.

But women and gay men are made complicit in their victimhood. They are even told that being a victim (ie being a 2nd class citizen) somehow helps them to mystically share in Christ’s sufferings.

Well it won’t wash anymore.

Now the Anglican position on LGBTI people may be confused. But at least it is an honest confusion. And at least there is an acceptance that there is a debate which needs to take place.

Today the LGBTI Mission has been established in the Church of England to campaign for full inclusion of us LGBTI people in the life of our Church. And that seems reason enough to start this blog, as a place to muse on faith – in the context of being gay.