On 26 December 1986 I set off around the world on a three-and-a-half-month sabbatical from my ministry at St Faith’s Wandsworth. I had been given one task to fulfil on the sabbatical – to keep a journal, solely for my own use.
Two months into the sabbatical found me in Australia, at Wynnum North on the edge of Brisbane. I stayed with the Roman Catholic Capuchin Friars where Peter Hand, the parish priest at St Barnabas Southfields when I was confirmed, aged 12, was now resident and in the process of being admitted to the Catholic Church from the Anglican Franciscans in Australia.
I was 13 when Peter left Southfields for the Torres Straights, north of Australia. I was emotionally devastated by his departure. My body, heart and soul knew I was losing a presence, a person of depth, playfulness, wisdom and truth. What I didn’t know at the time (though I knew I was gay) was that he also was gay (or homosexual, the word he used when we met in 1986).
I have been revisiting my journal recently, and am amazed at the reflections I wrote at the end of the four days I spent with Peter at Wynnum North. Here are a few excerpts:
“This place is somehow forcing me to relax the questioning and searching and take on board once again the church’s tradition and dogma. I found myself asking, what is it in me that wants to keep on searching, pulling down, criticising, stretching, for ever unsatisfied? Is it some psychological sickness, or some prophetic instinct? Why can’t I settle for the inheritance and for the way things are as the way God has made them? The best is yet to come. And partly all I have to do is wait. And partly it will only come insofar as I live passionately for its inauguration. What spirit is it that drives me so restlessly? An unhealthy spirit of perfectionism, as well as a conviction that God’s word, alive and sharp as a two-edged sword, is so often dulled and emasculated by an unimaginative, visionless, spiritually underpowered church?
“I should be content with simple things. The desire to acquire and achieve breeds unhappiness. Pain and suffering are great teachers but what a hard lesson that has been to learn. But somehow the discovery that God loves me unreservedly is even harder to assimilate. I have to work at it daily from now on, because I realise that this awareness alone will give me freedom and courage.”
The Capuchin friars were trying to put labels on me after breakfast the morning I wrote this entry, or perhaps it was Peter Hand trying to place me. I wrote:
“Radical? Liberal? Progressive? A searcher? Somebody on a journey? Changing? Hopefully growing. On a spiritual and emotional quest? Coming alive? I think all these things are there in the scriptures and the pattern and teaching of Jesus. But they are not what conservative evangelicals or Anglo-Catholics would identify, or even such liberals as the Anglican Franciscans who are often tackling modernist issues. So where do I stand? Less with St Paul these days, more with Christ. But which Christ?! We can only be true to ourselves and allow others to be true to themselves.
“If coming to Brisbane has taught me anything, it is that now is the time to stop delving back into the past. For the moment I must leave what can’t be changed or remembered behind me, and become absorbed in my new-found confidence and peace, living for the present, enjoying being alive, relaxing, and affirming above all God’s unconditional goodness and love for us all.”
On rereading the journal, I was astonished to discover that thirty years ago I was already aware that God’s love and goodness has to be unconditional. In the more recent years of conversation and exploration with the trustees of Changing Attitude, I thought unconditional, infinite, intimate love was a newly-minted idea.
Where had such a radical idea emerged from thirty years ago, an idea that seems foreign and subversively dangerous to the awareness of the institutional church? It must have developed this dangerous idea from books I was reading, the people I had conversations with, not least Fr Bill Kirkpatrick, my spiritual director, from my circle of friends with whom deep conversation was common, from within the institution itself, and most subversively and subtly of all, from the practice of meditation that Westcott House had begun to instil in me ten years previously.
But I had forgotten the wisdom recorded in my journal thirty years ago. Re-appropriating it now seems a more dangerous act. The church in institutional mode is a much less adventurous, far less open place now.
Thirty years ago I had managed to select, integrate, internalise and begin to make sense of my beliefs and lack of belief about the God and the Christian faith I had reluctantly subscribed to when I was ordained deacon in 1978. Last Sunday morning in Winchester cathedral I wondered what constructs of faith those being ordained deacon held, and how open they had been in their theological training and conversations with DDOs and bishops. The taboos are more problematic now, bishops less adventurous, the church still dulled and unimaginative, and spiritually underpowered.
Current initiatives are aimed at energising and transforming the church but they are going to be ineffective for as long as the church continues to be paralysed by anxieties about and opposition to differences based on gender, sexuality, and ideas about God.
Extreme conservative voices are holding the Church of England to ransom. On Christian Today Ruth Gledhill reports that Evangelicals are preparing to block what they believe is an attempt to introduce same-sex blessings to the Church of England. “One leading evangelical, with an open mind on this issue, said: "I'm worried that there is a terrific battle ahead. If they try and force it through, it will be a bloodbath." With attitudes such as this being expressed in advance of the ‘Shared Conversations’ being held for the General Synod members meeting in York this weekend, the hierarchy will need unusual courage if they are to break through the paralysis and achieve even modest progress towards a church that unconditionally welcomes LGBTI people and lives into the infinite, intimate, unconditional love of God revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus the Christ.