My story spans seven decades as a gay youth, adult, (and later, priest and psychotherapist and activist) in the Church of England. This is the first of four sections.
The context of my story
This account is set in the context LGBTI liberation from the end of the Second World War to the present day. It is also set in the context of changes in secular and religious culture in the UK and the effect of globalisation on the dynamics of the Anglican Communion, the growing visible and vocal presence of LGBTI people and the rise of Christian fundamentalism and conservatism.
I have come to realise that two key evolutionary strands have affected the whole of my life. One is the change from being a person who was criminalized for any sexual ‘gay’ activity until I was 22 and the effect that gay liberation has had on my life. The other is the transformation in my awareness of what it means to be spiritual and Christian.
Part 1: from birth to early teens
My story began in 1945. I was conceived when my parents were confident the Second World War would soon end and born on 17 September. I have lived through the post-war years which have seen a transformation of the status of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in most western societies and a transformation in Western religious and spiritual practice.
I was baptised when I was 6 months old in the octagonal font in St Barnabas church, Southfields, south-west London. From that moment I seem to have been committed to the Church of England. That is different from being a committed Christian, of course. My faith commitment has evolved over the years and continues to evolve and change. Whether I was born gay I can’t say for sure. That’s how it feels. I never ‘became’ gay and I never made a choice to desire men rather than women. My first experience of desire was for another boy in my class at Primary School and I knew that desire was core to my identity. I have never experienced an inner conflict between my faith and my sexual identity. Any conflict I have felt has been created externally, by the prejudiced and judgmental attitudes of other people.
In 1948 the Kinsey reports, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and in 1953 Sexual Behavior in the Human Female were published. Dr. Alfred Kinsey was a zoologist at Indiana University and the founder of the Institute for Sex Research, more widely known as the Kinsey Institute.
The research astounded the general public and was immediately controversial and sensational. The findings caused shock and outrage, both because they challenged conventional beliefs about sexuality and because they discussed subjects that had previously been taboo.
Probably the most widely cited part of the Kinsey Reports regard the prevalence of different sexual orientations — especially to support a claim that 10% of the population is gay. The study reported that 10% of American males surveyed were "more or less exclusively homosexual for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55" (in the 5 to 6 range).
In fact, the findings are not so straightforward, and Kinsey himself avoided and disapproved of using terms like homosexual or heterosexual to describe individuals, asserting that sexuality is prone to change over time, and that sexual behaviour can be understood both as physical contact as well as purely psychological phenomena (desire, sexual attraction, fantasy). Instead of three categories (heterosexual, bisexual and homosexual), a seven-category system was used.
The Kinsey scale ranked sexual behaviour from 0 to 6, with 0 being completely heterosexual and 6 completely homosexual. An additional grade was used for asexuality. Introducing the scale, Kinsey wrote: While emphasising the continuity of the gradations between exclusively heterosexual and exclusively homosexual histories, it has seemed desirable to develop some sort of classification which could be based on the relative amounts of heterosexual and homosexual experience or response in each history... An individual may be assigned a position on this scale, for each period in his life.... A seven-point scale comes nearer to showing the many gradations that actually exist."
The story of my more active involvement with the Church of England also began in 1948. I was sent to a kindergarten Sunday School at the age of three by my parents. It met in the uninspiring environment of the church hall in Acuba Road, Southfields, now demolished. I have no memory of the experience beyond being taken by one of my parents to the bottom of our road each Sunday morning where one of the kindergarten Sunday School teachers lived. She took me to the church hall.
In 1950 at the age of 5 I transferred to the main Sunday school which met in St Barnabas Church, an Edwardian gothic building with a simple plan of nave and aisles, tall and austere, dedicated in 1908. It had large windows in the aisles and east and west ends filled with green glass and high clerestory windows filled with yellow/orange glass. It was rather like being in a gloomy fish tank. I remember being intimidated by the size and austerity of the building. Girls and boys were taught in separate classes, boys in the north and girls in the south aisles. We met together at the beginning for introductory worship, divided by the central aisle. The class for 5 year olds met at the front of the nave, confronted by a flight of 6 white marble steps rising to the choir stalls and beyond them, another flight of broad steps rising to the plinth on which the high altar with riddle posts and candles stood, far out of reach. The top girls class met in the Lady Chapel at the east end of the south aisle, an oak panelled area even more gloomy than the rest of the church. The blessed sacrament was reserved there which entailed reverential genuflecting by the adults, and especially by Miss Harley who took the top girls class and was thereby granted by me an especially holy status. Young males like me were not allowed in the vicinity of the Lady Chapel. I developed the idea that God or Jesus lived in the dark space under or behind the altar which explained why the area was particularly taboo. I was the kind of young person seeking conformity and adult approval and almost always succeeded in attending every Sunday of the year (with a letter excusing me when the family was on holiday) to ensure that I always had a full book of stamps. Ohhh, the pride of it. Being issued with the stamp each week was one of the highlights of attending Sunday School. Indeed, I think it must have been the only highlight because I remember little else.
Few members of the British Government or bishops of the Church of England would have heard of, let alone read, the Kinsey report in 1954. For the young me, aged 9, it was still two years before I became aware of my sexuality. How did the Government and church arrive at a point in that year when reform of the law was put on the national agenda? Astonishingly (given the House of Bishops stance since 1991) the first initiative was taken by the Church of England. In 1954, the Church of England Moral Welfare Council produced a pamphlet, The Problem of Homosexuality, supporting the legalisation of “homosexualism” between adults. The prime reason given was to minimise harm, claiming that “homosexualism“ was a social problem and was not, as a rule, as far reaching or devastating in its consequences as ordinary pre-marital or extra-marital sexual relations. The Moral Welfare Council recognised that the rights of homosexuals were being violated, and this needed to be addressed. It provided important conceptual guidelines for subsequent discussions about homosexuality, not only in the Church of England but in many other denominations.
The pamphlet was produced by a group of clergy, doctors and lawyers under the guidance of the Rev. Dr. Derrick Sherwin Bailey. They studied the existing material on homosexuality and produced the first twentieth-century extended treatment of homosexuality by a church body. Not only did it examine the current medical, psychological, and sociological literature, but it also sought to address the role of the Church of England in the issue of reforming the law.
While working on the pamphlet, Bailey independently completed Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition, published in 1955. The book was criticized for exonerating the Church for persecuting homosexuals, yet it was a landmark work on the topic. The pamphlet and the book both helped the Church of England to think about and respond to the issue of homosexuality at a critical moment, when the government had initiated a review of the law. They paved the way for the production of the 1957 Wolfenden Report and for the decriminalization of homosexuality in England and Wales a decade later.
The pamphlet was strongly condemned by Earl Winterton, a traditionalist, in a May 1954 debate on the setting up of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution. Earl Winterton stated that the “filthy, disgusting, unnatural vice of homosexuality is more evil and more harmful to the individual and community.” The Bishop of Southwell, Frank Russell Barry, responded to Earl Winterton by saying that “Society – our society, at any rate – reacts very violently against it (homosexuality) because it feels, and rightly feels, that such practices are injecting poison into the bloodstream.”
On 24 August 1954 the Conservative government appointed a Departmental Committee to look into aspects of British sex laws. The committee of 14 (three women and 11 men) included the Rev Canon V A Demant, Canon of Christ Church, Oxford and Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford (an Anglo-Catholic).
At the age of 11, I left the Sunday School and joined a new group for those who had left Sunday School but were not yet old enough to be confirmed. It was led by the vicar, Peter Hand, and met in the second church hall, the Lawrence Hall in Standen Road, but a stone’s throw from the staunchly conservative evangelical parish church of St Michael’s. (At the other end of St Barnabas parish was St Luke’s Wimbledon Park, the parish in which I lived, also evangelical – and now, staunchly so)
I was in the scouts then, lasting a year before opting out, long enough to have attended my first and last camp. This was in a field near Ogborne St George in Wiltshire and Peter Hand must have driven from London to spend time at the camp. There were barn owls roosting in a derelict barn on the site and I remember walking with Peter and exploring the countryside.
That same year I reached the age of 12 and was prepared for confirmation by Miss Gates, the parish worker, a single lady who must have taken us through the catechism. I remember nothing of the content of her classes. In fact, I remember nothing of what I was taught in Sunday School or confirmation classes or sermons apart from one memory. For a brief period I attended an independent Sunday School in a local hall. One lesson was based on Acts 9.25, Paul escaping from Damascus, lowered in a basket over the wall. I still have memories of the fuzzy-felt pictures. I know that I was taught Bible stories but I don’t think I was taught much, directly, about the essentials of being a Christian.
Being confirmed was simply what happened next in the routine of church life and practice, a somewhat automatic, routine procedure. My abiding memory of the confirmation by the bishop of Kingston (who was a steam engine enthusiast) is sitting in the front row on what had been the girl’s side in Sunday School and experiencing severe pain on my chest – I wondered if I was having a heart attack – but nevertheless managed to move from my seat to kneel before the bishop and have hands laid on me. I was given a copy of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the English Hymnal in one pocket-sized combined volume by my grandparents and a traditional Communion Manual. It contained, as these manuals did, a form of preparation to be used before attending communion, together with other prayers and forms of advice deemed to be essential to those in the catholic tradition who had recently been admitted to the holy mysteries. I dutifully used the manual for some weeks or months, but abandoned it within a year as unworkable for me.
Having been confirmed I left Peter Hand’s class at the end of the school year and started attending 9.15am parish communion. I became an acolyte on the server’s rota for the parish communion and started serving for him at the 7.30am said communion on Saturday morning.
A strong emotional connection with Peter Hand must have developed for me, and as I look back on that period of my life now, he must have become attached to me in some way. I had become aware of my sexual identity in my eleventh year. A boy had joined the final year class of my Primary School before we moved to secondary school. Ian was slim and blond and I felt powerful, emotional desire for him. I knew then that in the core of my being I was different from my peers, although I didn’t describe it to myself in those terms. This awareness has never changed or wavered. I am a healthy, holy human being and I am gay.
My birthday is in September. I persuaded my parents that I wanted to invite Ian to my twelfth birthday party. My father drove me to his house up the hill in Wimbledon village. . I can’t now think why Ian travelled such a long distance to school. We lived in Wimbledon Park on the border with Wandsworth and Earlsfield and the school, Wimbledon Park County Primary, was adjacent to the mainline railway to the West Country from Waterloo
Ian came to the party and brought me a present, a Dinky toy lorry whose design disappointed me, and we played with my model railway. We went to different grammar schools, he to Tiffins boys in Kingston and me to Raynes Park. I never saw him again, but don’t remember being sad as a result. Perhaps starting at Raynes Park and meeting a whole new set of boys opened a new world of potential desire.
Thirteen days before my twelfth birthday, on 3 September 1957, the Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (better known as the Wolfenden report, after Lord Wolfenden, the chairman of the committee) was published - not that I was aware of this at the time.
Disregarding the conventional ideas of the day, the committee recommended that "homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence". All but James Adair were in favour of this and, contrary to some medical and psychiatric witnesses' evidence at that time, found that "homosexuality cannot legitimately be regarded as a disease, because in many cases it is the only symptom and is compatible with full mental health in other respects." The report added, "The law's function is to preserve public order and decency, to protect the citizen from what is offensive or injurious, and to provide sufficient safeguards against exploitation and corruption of others ... It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour." The recommended age of consent was 21, then the age of majority and age of consent for heterosexuals in the UK.
The bishops of the Church of England were divided on the recommendations of the Wolfenden report. The Bishop of St Albans, Edward Michael Greshford Jones, chairman of the Church of England Moral Welfare Council, was pleased that the recommendations of the report were similar to the proposals made by the Council. The Bishop of Rochester, Christopher Chavasse, however, opposed decriminalisation. In his speech to the Lords he said:
“There is no more baneful or contagious an influence in the world than that which emanates from homosexual practice. It makes a life of leprosy. The most revered Primate was quite right: there are such things as sodomy clubs. There was one in Oxford between the wars and I was informed that there was another in Cambridge which even shamelessly sported a tie. And these are plague spots wherever they exist … the emotion and moral indignation and horror which are aroused in the human heart by the thought and contemplation of unnatural vice and which find expression in the Holy Scriptures, both in the Old and New Testaments, are probably more right in teaching us our attitude toward unnatural vice than academic discussion divorced from reality.” (Hansard, House of Lords, 4 December 1957, vol 206, col 797 and 798)
Geoffrey Fisher, the Archbishop of Canterbury, tried to find a compromise between the views expressed by the two bishops. In the same debate he said:
“… if proved legally possible – I do not know whether it is – to separate … the extreme offence (sodomy), and to leave that still a crime, I should wish to leave as a crime still… I believe that this crime does stand in a class by itself and is almost different in kind from other homosexual offences. I believe personally that that opinion can be upheld on moral grounds.”
The pamphlet Homosexuals and the Law was sent to MPs in preparation for their first debate on the Wolfenden Report. The first parliamentary debate was initiated on 4 December 1957 by Frank Pakenham, (Baron Pakenham, later known as Lord Longford). However, it had become clear that the government had shelved the report and was not planning to implement any reform. The Lord Chancellor, Viscount Kilmuir, had said "I am not going down in history as the man who made sodomy legal." The parliamentary debates on the Bill show that the relaxing of the law in relation to buggery between consenting adult males in private was not due to a lessening of disapproval of such behaviour but rather to the idea that gay men were suffering from a disability and as such should not be subject to the rigour of the criminal law.
A year later, when I was 13, Peter Hand announced that he was to leave the parish and the UK to found a Christian college training lay adults (I think) on Thursday Island in the Torres Straights, north of Queensland, Australia. It was the other side of the world and I was emotionally distraught. I had clearly become deeply attached to him as a safe, surrogate emotional presence when my family life was insecure, with a depressed mother and emotionally distant father. Peter visited our home from time to time, playing duets on the piano with my mother and brother. His appearance and character reminded me of Yehudi Menhuin. He was artistic, independent, playful, creative, warm, with sparkling eyes that radiated energy and interest. His presence was a lifeline in my life which was otherwise safe, conformist, and south-London suburban.
At the time, all these events, the school boy amour, confirmation, the encounter with Peter Hand and his departure a year later, were disconnected. Looking back now, I can see that in the period of one year, I went through key formative experiences which marked me for life. Awareness of my sexual attraction was of far more interest and far more searingly intense than events in church and that continued to be the case. My Christian journey and formation has always taken place in the background against the awareness of my sexuality. I didn’t struggle in the same way as Peter Hand had with guilt about being homosexual (as I learnt much later) but it was the dominant theme of my adolescence and has shaded all subsequent experience.
On 5th March 1958, the academic A E (Tony) Dyson wrote a letter to The Times calling for reform of the law by the implementation of the Wolfenden Committee's recommendations. The letter was signed by many distinguished people including Trevor Huddleston and Donald Soper. Trevor Huddleston had returned to England from South Africa in 1956. He worked as the Master of Novices at the Community of the Resurrection's mother house at Mirfield before returning to Africa to be consecrated Bishop of Masasi (Tanzania) in 1960. Eight years later he returned to the UK to become Bishop of Stepney.
The correspondence that the letter generated helped bring together supporters of the Wolfenden Report and this led to the Homosexual Law Reform Society being founded on 12 May 1958 to work for changes in the laws that criminalized homosexual relations between men. Most of the founders were not homosexual.
Peter Hand left St Barnabas Southfields in 1958. When his final weekend arrived, he invited the parish worker and myself to the vicarage on the Friday evening. He was disposing of most of his possessions, unable to take them all the way to the Torres Straights, and wanted to hand something over to each of us. To me he gave a small silver gilt crucifix mounted on ivory and his collection of railway tickets, knowing of my obsession with trains. One gift was deeply religious and one totally prosaic. I valued the prosaic gift of the tickets more, not being at all interested in traditional religious iconography even then.
On the Saturday morning I served at his final low mass. I was emotionally devastated as I left the church after the service, my body heaving with sobs and tears flowing as I walked home. I was losing a presence in my life, a person who had revealed something of profound importance to me, though it is only as I have come to record the memory in writing for the first time that I realise the intensity that Peter’s presence had on me. He walked out on me at a time when I was a vulnerable adolescent coming to terms with my sexuality in the context of a society, a congregation and a family where to be gay was filled both with the potential of who I was becoming and the danger of being rejected and humiliated for who I was.