Thursday, 15 April 2010

A gay priest's story ...

A friend, when discovering that I was gay and in a relationship, expressed that it was a bit of a shock and asked if others were shocked when they found out.  This was my rather lengthy reply and is another telling of my story, which you may know some of, through previous entries.

"I guess I did shock a few people when I came out, but not really when I started dating. I told a number of friends when I came back to PE after my first year in the UK when I'd had time to come to terms with it, but it wasn't a big surprise for many of them ... the pieces just fell into place I guess.

To be fair, my own journey was so traumatic and took so much of my emotional, physical, spiritual and mental energy, that I can't really worry about how someone will receive the news. At the same time, I don't broadcast it, because I know some would struggle with it, but I can only be who I am, and when they find out, I can't take on their struggles as well ... they need to walk their own journey.

I have always known I was gay, but tried to suppress it for many years (28 of them). I guess I have to admit that my work/life balance was unhealthy, but I poured myself into my youth work as a way of hiding from myself. I frequently worked 18 hour days and believed I was being committed and pious, but occasionally I caught up with myself and despised who I saw. I even tried seeing a psychologist for 2.5 years and putting myself through a "Healing from homosexuality" course that was organised by someone that had been on the Living Waters / Desert Streams courses, with financial support from one of the pastors at Harvest Christian Fellowship.

All that transpired was that the psychologist got me to sever my links with my family, because he believed it was all down to nurture and imperfect family relationships, and the "healing" course left me feeling hopelessly inadequate and guilty, because I wasn't being healed. It was also unhelpful when the guy who ran the course couldn't admit that he was still a gay man struggling with his need for companionship, not a healed straight man, and even less helpful when he became attracted to me and stopped talking to me. LOL.

It was an extremely dark period in my life, where I believed that I could never know love and companionship unless I put myself and some poor woman through the sham of a marriage without intimacy. I couldn't do that to someone else, and I could no longer run from who I was, so I faced a life of loneliness and hiding the real me.

At the same time, I knew that I was called to ministry, but that the institution I worked for would never accept me, so I had to hide from them, too.

My emotions were all over the place and I was an overworked, exhausted, lonely and miserable wreck, who occasionally went from extremely low to manic. I often thought of death as my only escape from the desperate loneliness and used to ponder suicide as a better alternative to an indeterminate number of lonely and unhappy years, and I remember sharing with my friend, Tim, my Methodist friend, that the only thing keeping me alive was the belief that the hell I was in was somehow better than the hell I would go to for being gay.

So, yeah ... not a great place to be. All of this was going on at the time I first met you guys. You were a breath of fresh air and a joy and you energised my ministry at the time, but all of this was going on in the background.

When I moved to St Hugh's in Newton Park, things had become even darker for me and Eddie Daniels who was the Rector at the time, reassured me that I could share anything with him in confidence and he would support me. Against my better judgement I let my guard down and shared some of what was going on inside me with him.

He made all the right noises and promised to support me, but then I discovered he was going to parishioners behind my back and starting rumours that I was sexually involved with a lot of the guys at St. Cuthbert's ... Neal, Dylan, Gregg, Mike ... and Tim, my Methodist friend, and JP, one of the young adults at St Hugh's. Good guys who I was very close to, but they're all straight and just close friends.

They were all very good about it when I told them what rumours were going about, and offered to take the matter to court, but I was too scared of being forced to publicly come out, so I never did. Eddie used this and kept spreading the rumours, and when I eventually plucked up the courage to confront him, hoping he would back down, his defence was, "I am your Rector and I'll do whatever I want."

He then forced me into a relationship with a woman I was close friends with, which ruined our friendship and broke her heart. After that relationship failed, and it broke her heart, he even tried to force us to live together in the parish house, which I think was abominable and - even worse - the leaders in the parish saw no wrong in his actions.
So, I decided the most mature thing would be for me to hand in my resignation and ask Bishop Bethlehem Nopece to move me to another parish, which I did in a perfectly adult way, meeting with the Bishop before resigning and explaining the situation to him, and him agreeing with me and saying he would find me a parish to go to. I wrote to Eddie, explaining honestly that I was saddened we could not work together, but wished him well in his ministry and wished to move on in three month's time (the suggested notice period in the Anglican Church).

He responded by kicking me out of the parish immediately, without any chance to say goodbye to the congregation and without any formal farewell. Obviously, the parish then assumed that I had done something worthy of such banishment, and combined with the rumours, Eddie was making a pretty good job of ruining my reputation and my chance at ministry in Port Elizabeth.  It also didn't help that Terry Beadon, who'd moved parishes, then felt it important for him to post a letter to the congregation on the noticeboard, telling them I was being disciplined for being bad and calling for them to pull together behind Eddie.

When the matter went to the Bishop, I presented evidence to him and two of his advisors.  None of them knew my side of the story (not that they asked) and they agreed that Eddie was acting irresponsibly and irrationally. However, I also discovered that rank is more important than honesty and justice, and the Bishop didn't challenge Eddie's rapid removal of me, and also didn't keep to his promise to find me another parish, so I was left without a parish to work in, without a way to publicly clear my name (unless I took the matter to court and made it public knowledge that I was gay - something I wasn't ready for). So I was left to deal with it, in silence and on my own.

Robbie, a friend of mine, took me into his parish in Walmer, where I worked for 6 months.  However, I had no desire to remain in the Diocese of Port Elizabeth anymore and told Rob that before I made any rash decisions, I needed a year out overseas, maybe at a Theological College, maybe even a monastery. Coincidentally (God-incedentally!), 48 hours later Rob had a phonecall from a monk he'd never spoken with before, asking if he knew of any young clergy who were available to do a year's exchange in the UK at a Theological College - owned by a monastery!!

Obviously, I jumped at the chance, and that's how I ended up in the UK in 2002. It was at Mirfield that I first encountered Christians in ministry who were gay and not ashamed about it, and began gently being honest with myself and others about who I was.

I realised that I couldn't fight the fact that I was called to ministry and I couldn't renounce my faith. But I had also spent a long time trying to run from who I was and change who I was, and I couldn't do that either. So I had to realise that I was both Christian who was called AND gay. Not easy, but unavoidable.

So I would have to try my best to be faithful to both. To practise my faith in a way that was inclusive and to share that inclusive faith with others who were being told that their faith would not accept them. At the same time, I needed to live my life as a gay person who was being true to my faith.  I have to recognise that I'm gay - I can't hide it, I can't pretend to be anything else and I don't need to be. I didn't choose to be gay and given the choice I probably wouldn't have, but it's who I was and I needed to be honest in my relationship with God as much as with other people. So I need to responsible about that and represent gay people to my faith as much as the other way round.

It's a difficult gap to bridge ... on one side, gay people are extremely hurt by the Church (global, not just Anglican) and are forced away from it and it's alleged good intentions ("loving the sinner not the sin" is really just another way of saying, "you can belong as long as you act like one of us") and there's a lot of bitter feeling. On the other side, the Church is very distrusting of gay people and operating with loads of misconceptions, such as gay people are somehow straight people who choose to have sex with people of the same sex, or that all gays are paedophiles (when, in fact, paedophiles are paedophiles, and they may be straight or gay), or even that gay people are somehow trying to recruit straight people (if it was that easy to change orientation, then gay people could become straight and save themselves a lot of grief!).  I also operates under the misconception that being gay is purely about genital intercourse, and not about falling in love and sharing your life with someone you love, where physical attraction MAY form part of the story, but is not the whole. So, sitting between the two camps can be difficult ... I have a lot of Christian friends who don't like gay people and I have a lot of gay friends who don't like Christians. I try to be frank and unashamed of who I am to both of them.

So I've reached a place of finding a purpose in who I am, rather than trying to hide it or run from it. At the same time, I'm alarmed that the Church as an institution is become increasingly hateful, exclusive and alarmist when it comes to it's dealings with the gay community, and I need to recognise that I may not always be able to be in ministry, but as a wise friend of mine once told me, "always remember that you were called to serve God, but not necessarily with a dog collar."

I am still in ordained ministry, but work as a University Chaplain. That enables me to work in an institution which is inclusive and in which I can be myself, but also to do a lot of good work with the LGBT students and the students of faith, and with students who struggle with either or both. I find it very diverse, challenging and interesting. For now, I'm happy in Chaplaincy.

We'll have to wait and see how long I remain in full-time ministry. If anything, what I went through in Port Elizabeth broke my love affair with it. I love ministry, but I don't need to be a part of an institution that deals with people in that way.

So, my work/life balance has improved remarkably. I now spend time investing in me as well, which is nice.

I also decided to start dating in 2003, as I couldn't continue living life miserably and lonely. I was nervous at first, and was probably damaged goods, but met some great guys who are still friends, broke one or two hearts and had mine broken once or twice along the way. How very normal. ;o)

I met Mike in 2008, and we hit it off straight away. He's absolutely lovely, and we've both had an interesting time, learning to trust someone else with our deepest emotions. I'm very lucky to have met him, and I'm not letting go anytime soon. Obviously, we have our abrasive moments, but that's relationships.

I'm saddened that I can't share that joy with everyone ... and that I need to watch what I say and how we act in public. We can't hold hands, we have to watch eye contact. We can't even sit too close. There are some functions I can't take him to and I sometimes feel I've betrayed him when I introduce him as a friend, rather than my partner, but sadly, that's the way things go from time to time.

Thankfully, however, there are places and friends with whom we can be ourselves and just be normal, which is great.

It's been a helluva rollercoaster ride, but I'm thankful for where I am now and for the opportunities I get to just be me, and the opportunity to finally have someone who loves me for me and not the me I think they want to see."

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