Last weekend the Sunday Times revealed that the Reverend Clive Larsen, 60, had quit his role as parish priest in the diocese of Manchester so that he could marry another man. Had he not resigned, he would probably have faced disciplinary action from the Church of England. Ultimately, he could have been removed from his post – a fate that befell canon Jeremy Pemberton, the first gay clergyman to openly marry.
But not all gay vicars are prepared to leave the Church so that they can marry. One in particular – who has asked to remain anonymous for obvious reasons – refused to make the choice between marriage and employment and has instead married his husband in secret.
He contacted Attitude to tell his story:
I’m a gay vicar. I was called into ministry as a gay man and spent many years unhealthily trying to deny and hide it, to the detriment of my mental health, my ministry and my integrity. Eventually, I decided to be honest with myself and those I ministered to and among; I began exploring how to live a fulfilled life and began dating, finally believing that I could love and be loved. Last year I married my husband in secret to avoid the Church’s disciplinary procedures; only a handful of our close friends are aware and no one in the Church knows.
During the past 20 years I have become increasingly dismayed by the Church’s renewed hostility to the LGBT+ community. It has been transformed into the biggest issue for some, overriding the far more pressing problems of poverty alleviation, social justice issues, peace bringing, offering care and Christian love, to name but a few. This is not the diverse and vibrant Anglican Church that drew me to the faith as a teenager, where the message of welcome was extended to all.
I have been with my husband for nearly a decade, but we converted our civil partnership to marriage in secret. Most of our friends and family viewed our civil partnership as a marriage; it looked like, sounded like and felt like a wedding, so for them it was merely a matter of semantics. For that reason, we didn’t feel the need to make any announcement to them. However, we couldn’t be open about it with the Church, and that feels as if the Church lacks integrity, openness and honesty, and encourages dishonesty.
Various splinter groups in the Church feel justified in actively pursuing the LGBT+ community, using their faith to advocate for the legal exclusion of faith groups or for disciplinary action against LGBT+ clergy who are open about their identity. That is not a faith that speaks of welcome, love, charity, diversity or generosity, and it worries me that their message of exclusion and judgment is the only one that some people will hear and see.
When we celebrated our civil partnership, we were surrounded by friends and family, but at our marriage conversion it was just the two of us with the registrar. Originally, when we were planning our civil partnership, we did wonder about excluding the Church from the ceremony altogether, as it seemed we were not welcome. But then I thought how I had officiated over the weddings of more than 200 couples over the years, and it saddened me that we wouldn’t have our own service in a church. I’ve done hundreds of these and yet I still can’t have my own in a church?
So we decided to look for a church registered with Inclusive Church and enquire if we could have a service of thanksgiving after our civil ceremony (the Church of England official line is that it doesn’t “bless” same-sex unions, so you have to have a thanksgiving or a dedication or a service of prayers). It’s strange; bishops will bless nuclear submarines -– one of the bishops who was anti same-sex marriage has been photographed blessing Trident -– and yet the guidance is that we cannot bless same-sex unions. At most we can call it a thanksgiving.
In one sense, it’s purely an exercise in semantics; you can’t bless a same-sex couple, yet you can have a service where you pray for them, and then, at the end, offer a blessing upon all of those gathered in the congregation. So, we called our service one of thanksgiving, which felt disingenuous, but it offered us a way to include our faith in our commitment to each other. We repeated our vows in front of friends and family gathered around us. We knelt in front of the vicar, who prayed for us and at the end of the service, a blessing was given to all of those gathered, as would take place at the end of any service.
To our friends and family, the service looked, and felt, like a wedding, but we took great care with the use of language so that we didn’t cross any boundaries. At the reception afterwards, many of my husband’s non-church friends came up to us and commented that if Church was like this they would come. That is the sad reality of this whole issue: for many, this whole issue is making the Church into an irrelevant, judgmental place, and turning people away.
We had to keep the conversion secret to avoid any clergy disciplinary measures. When some clergy have been removed from their posts for openly marrying their partners it is obviously a significant concern.
The Church needs to think about the vast difference between being accepting and being inclusive; being accepting implies that there is some reason that that person is otherwise unacceptable, being inclusive means valuing the person for the unique gifts that they bring to the community because of who they are, but going further than that — recruiting them for their uniqueness.
It saddens me that some in the Church of England have prevented us as a denomination from embracing equal marriage, and celebrating — in a faith context — that two people have found love, and are committing to love each other for life. Some want to do that in a Christian setting, with their faith community and their friends gathered around them for support. I thought we as a Christians would want to celebrate everything about that, and encourage that kind of commitment and rejoice when the commitment involves faith.
Unfortunately, though, it seems a minority of people in the Church have become obsessed with sex, and whether or not they approve of it, which seems an odd thing to focus on with any wedding. So the Church finds itself being a model of a double standard where it expects its straight clergy to wait until after marriage to cohabit, but it expects its clergy in same-sex relationships to cohabit outside of marriage.
What is also sad, is that none of the Church’s marriage or relationship support structures are available to LGBT+ people or clergy; for LGBT+ couples, there are no marriage preparation groups, relationship support workshops or groups. Same-sex clergy partners, for the most part, are not included in clergy-spouse support structures. The LGBT+ community is receiving none of the support of their faith communities in their relationships, which they are being encouraged to keep a secret in order to be accepted. That saddens me more than the fact that we have to be secretive about our marriage.
It would be better if the Church was a model of integrity and acceptance, and encouraged honesty without the risk of disciplinary action.
The irony is that many of the Church of England’s lay employees are protected under equality legislation, but clergy aren’t. Many Church of England schools have effective programmes that address homophobia and bullying, but that message often doesn’t apply to its congregations or clergy.
I have been in full-time ministry for decades now, but I often find myself wondering about working in a secular career, where I would be protected by equality legislation. My sense of calling is what keeps me in the ministry, but ministry can be worked out in many ways; it may be possible to pursue that sense of calling by working for a charitable organisation. Unfortunately, it’s a challenge to communicate what your ministry-specific skills and experiences translate into in a secular setting. The time may come when I feel led to work in another organisation, with or without a dog-collar.
I serve God, in the Church, but increasingly I don’t feel I can call the Church of England my spiritual home, because, like many others, I am not being made to feel welcome or valued. Having ministered in several countries and dioceses, I am still often just seen as “the gay priest.” My ministry experience counts for little.
Having said that, there are many welcoming Churches that you can find through many of the inclusive church campaigning groups. I would encourage you to look for those if you’re seeking a spiritual home. The more support the inclusive campaigning groups and congregations receive, the easier it is for them to be a significant voice for change.