Frills and thrills: high Camp at the high altar

New Statesman  April 2000

Christian Churches condemn homosexuality. So why, asks Michael Arditti, are so many priests gay?

My new novel, Easter, set largely within the Church, has just been published. Its lay characters include a property developer, a Holocaust survivor, a Nigerian girl with Aids, an admiral’s widow and the Queen. Its clerical characters include two who are heterosexual (an evangelical bishop and a liberal vicar) and two who are gay (a reactionary archdeacon and a progressive curate). So far, the latter have attracted a disproportionate amount of attention.

The reasons for this are clear. Within a Church tradition that has done its best to disincarnate Christ, it is hard for many to accept a priest who is sexually active let alone sexually deviant. To Brandon Lynch, a lapsed Catholic doctor in Easter, gay clergy are an anomaly: “The love that dare not speak its name meeting the love that passes understanding.” Others have more primitive objections. Just as the hostility to women priests rests on a (largely unacknowledged) fear of menstruation at the altar, so the hostility to gay priests rests on a suspicion that someone holding the body of Christ might have been holding another man’s body the night before.

In spite of the tendency of conservatives both inside and outside the Church to attribute all unorthodox sexuality to the reforms of the 1960s, gay priests are not a new phenomenon. John Boswell’s pioneering studies have shown that, throughout the first millennium of Church history, elaborate ceremonies were held to celebrate same-sex unions. In the 11th century, St Peter Damian complained bitterly about the widespread practice of gay priests confessing to each other in order to avoid detection and be given milder penances. This is the first example of the ‘gay collusion’ slur, which persists to this day.

For obvious reasons, it is impossible to place an exact figure on gay clergy, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it is high. One of the most revealing news stories of recent years involved the death of a Roman Catholic priest in a Dublin gay sauna, where several of his fellows were on hand to administer the last rites. The most authoritative calculation for the Church of England comes from Dr Ben Fletcher who, in a 1990 study of stress among clergy, concluded that about 15 per cent were gay.

So what is it that makes gay men remain in an institution which views their sexuality as an “intrinsic moral evil” (Roman Catholic) and one which “falls short of the ideal” (Anglican)? In part, the answer must lie in an affinity for religious experience, described by Carl Jung as “a spiritual receptivity which makes them responsive to revelation”. Mike Way, a gay Anglican priest, confirms that: “Gay men are more likely to have a self- consciousness which prompts questions about identity, meaning and purpose. Awareness of being different means that one does not necessarily mesh with the values and goals of society. So one starts to ask: ‘Who am I? Where am I?’ Some gay men work it out in terms of their politics, others in terms of their spirituality.”

Talking to gay priests, it becomes clear that many feel profoundly hurt and rejected by heterosexual society. In sacramental terms, this translates into a heightened awareness of the woundedness of Christ. It gives them both an ability to identify with others in pain and a desire to improve their lot. According to Richard Kirker of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement: “People who have made some sense of their being, worked through the issues and come out the other end, can probably empathise with those who are dealing with similar or other issues.” Given the number of gay teachers and social workers, as well as gay priests, it seems fair to equate the clerical vocation with those of other caring professions. One gay vicar believes that there is a neuro-chemical process at work. “Just as my brain is wired to fancy men,” he says, “so it’s wired by a sense of vocation. If I hadn’t been a priest, I’d have been a nurse.”

Another attraction of the priesthood for gay men is that it offers them a parental role. Such men, unlikely to have children of their own, are given an alternative family – albeit one with more than its fair share of maiden aunts. The dangers of this were acknowledged by the theology lecturer who asked his class: “Have you ever thought, gentlemen, why you want to dress as mother and be called ‘Father’?”
At worst, according to Colin Coward, a gay Anglican priest, it can foster pederasty: “Unable to form equal relationships with adults in their congregation because of boundaries, their sexuality is expressed in inappropriate ways.”

Gay men can also be drawn to the “Stephen Sondheim” side of the priesthood: the make-up and make-believe – what a character in Easter describes as “high camp at the high altar”. One priest, impatient at my attempts to equate his sexuality and his vocation, claimed: “You might as well try to work out why so many gay men are hairdressers.”  When I suggested “an obsession with style, cosmetics and appearance”, he replied that I had just described the Church of England. This flippancy conceals a kernel of truth, as I myself discovered on staying at a theological college where the ordinands referred to each other by women’s names and their vestments as “S and M drag”.

Ritual plays an important part in the lives of gay men, whether or not they are religious. It can be seen in the way they refer to their heroes and heroines as icons (the etymology of which becomes explicit when the object of their veneration is the pop star, Madonna). In the Church of England, gay men have traditionally been drawn to the Catholic wing, whose historical concern was to lift people in slums out of their misery and squalor by the beauty of the liturgy: a process that one gay priest compares to a drag queen trying to transcend the mundane world with a wig and a song.

Although many gay priests profess a particular attachment to the Virgin, the focus of their devotion is a man. This is an area that few among them – even the most open – are prepared to probe. One exception, Mike Way, expresses surprise that: “Given how they are dedicating their lives to and in a loving relationship with a male figure, more priests are not consciously homosexual or bisexual.” Moreover, most representations of Christ depict Him as a decidedly un-macho figure. It is no accident that painters frequently used female models to convey His sensitive side. In several medieval sculptures, Jesus and St John are portrayed like a courting couple, with St John resting his head on Jesus’s shoulder while Jesus tenderly holds his hand.

That gay men can identify so strongly with Christ underlines a highly significant aspect of their priesthood. Although they appear to be disenfranchised by both the Church and the Bible, the reality is more complex. When, in a dispute about persecution in Easter, Brandon brackets Blair, the curate, with the Church, he replies: “I’m a person, not an organisation. I don’t call you the NHS.”

In fact, as in fiction, gay men survive in the Church precisely because they can dissociate themselves from it. They create an alternative theology. This is not just a case of explaining away the apparently anti-gay verses in Leviticus and Romans, but of re-examining the Bible – its symbolism as well as its narrative.

While even the Old Testament provides support in the stories of the Exodus (a liberation from a hostile society) and of David and Jonathan, it is the New Testament and the figure of Christ that are the main planks of this alternative framework. In 1969, Hugh Montefiore, who was to become Bishop of Birmingham, provoked an uproar when he suggested that Christ might have had same-sex inclinations. The truth is impossible to know but, at the very least, gay priests can take heart from His “outsider” lifestyle. Christ never condemned homosexual relationships: an omission that can no longer be dismissed as an oversight, given the recent excavation of an amphitheatre near Nazareth with its clear implications for His contact with classical culture.

Some theologians lay particular emphasis on His healing the centurion’s servant. In a world where servants were regarded as expendable, the centurion’s concern indicates an intimate relationship and Jesus’s readiness to assist a recognition of its worth.

Gay priests are not a homogenous group. Few could have less in common than the pair in Easter: the Christ-like curate and the self-loathing archdeacon. The latter represents a decreasing, but still prevalent, strand of gay clergy: men who are attracted to the Church because it offers them a safe haven where they need never deal with women on equal terms. In Blair’s words: “Misogyny is the archdeacon’s cardinal virtue. Women are a closed book to him . . . unwelcome except when they are kneeling in the nave; or, better still, embroidering the kneelers.” Such men, as Colin Coward points out, feel at home in the Church because “it offers an abuse structure which is familiar: ‘Beat me up, I love it’ – whether it’s beating one’s heart out before God or being beaten at a club the night before.”

Linked to the question of why so many gay men join the Church has to be why so many gay men remain in it. The answer is best left to the practitioners. For Richard Kirker, the key lies in his relationship with Christ: “With very little support from bishop, archdeacon or PCC [parochial church council], the reality of Christ must play an even more important part in your ministry.”  For Colin Coward, the key lies in the opportunities the Church allows him to push for reform: “The Church provides a very good place for the dynamic that’s in me – my anger and desire for change.”

Those who despair of change should remember that the Church that condemns gay priests is, in essence, the same Church that condemned Galileo for similarly heretical views.

For myself, the reason I have placed a gay priest at the hub of Easter goes way beyond personal affinity. After a week in which he has seen an ex-lover die, learnt his HIV status, attacked the Queen in Westminster Abbey, been locked up with a murderer, suspended by a homophobic bishop, crucified by the press and discovered both Heaven and Hell on Hampstead Heath, there could be no one better equipped to celebrate Mass “in the person of both the crucified and the resurrected Christ”. His sexuality is at the heart of his priesthood and his priesthood at the heart of the Church.

Easter is published by Arcadia (£11.99)