TWENTY YEARS ON

THE ROBBIE LOW INTERVIEW





Robbie Low visits the LGCM celebrations in Southwark Cathedral



The celebration of the 20th anniversary of LGCM in Southwark Cathedral on 16th November 1996 was a milestone. Whichever side of the argument you are on, let there be no doubt about that.

It was always going to be controversial. The only irony was that it took the clumsy outrage of the Church Communications Department at Anne Atkins Thought for the Day, to get the media interested in the story.

From the earliest days traditionalist critics of the Cathedral decision to host the service determined on a course of action which they believed to be scripturally obedient and gracious. It would, if private counsel failed, necessarily involve orderly public debate with the proponents but would centre on prayer and fasting in churches up and down the country on the day in question. That is what happened.

It is important to note that of those protesters filmed outside the Cathedral, the better behaved pamphleteers belonged to a small “continuing” church and the noisy banner bearers blaming Dunblane, inter alia, on sodomy, members of a protestant sect.

Amongst the Anglicans, so deeply divided by this, the day was marked by an extraordinary grace and courtesy shown to the bishops and homosexuals who visited the nearby traditionalist vigil and extended to me by the organisers and participants in the LGCM day.

It is a great pity that whoever wrote the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon for the following day castigating “our own bullying loud-mouthed controversialist” was unwilling to let the facts interfere with his prejudice. Such careless drafting will not have strengthened the Archbishop’s hand in an area which requires careful attention to reality and painstaking pastoring.

My reason for being at Southwark was simple. It seemed to me important that our readers should have an accurate first hand account of the event and that a representative of “the other view” should be there throughout to listen and, where asked, to discuss the issues. I went openly, in uniform, wearing a press badge and abiding by the rules. I asked permission of workshop leaders to attend and report. Over and above that I have taken it upon myself not to quote from anybody by name except were they have been an advertised spokesman or leader and therefore clearly, in the jargon, “out”.

The day began in the Glaziers Hall, next to the Cathedral. I was welcomed on the door by a man who had taught me a great deal about prayer in my first year at college.

Along one wall was a display of the 20 year history of LGCM, on the other the famous Teddy Bear Stall and low key organisational stalls. Upstairs were the bookstalls. When the Provost breezed in with a cheery “Come and show me the porn. Richard” he can only have been disappointed. Whatever the pre-publicity had suggested there was almost entirely “gay” and feminist theology here plus, of course, “Gay Times”.

The atmosphere amongst those attending was cordial, relaxed, discreet. Such physical demonstrations as there were extended to pats on the back and an occasional peck on the cheek. People were glad to be there and quietly excited.

My first stop was the talks given by a series of folk about their personal journeys. For the most part they were intriguing and often moving centring all the time around the restless quest for identity - is it given or chosen? - and the need for love.

One Christian man longed “for beyond the rainbow world where gayness won’t matter anymore” while an atheist lesbian girl confirmed that she had chosen lesbianism. This was good for heterosexual women because, she joked, the more lesbians there were the more men would have to compete for their women!

Another lesbian seemed to sum up a common belief that this was a critical time for the movement. There are, she said, three distinct stages. One when everyone thinks you’re mad, two when they say you’re bad and three when they suddenly say “This is common sense. I’ve always agreed with it.” “We are”, she continued, “on the cusp of the third stage”.

This process was seen to be following much the same pattern as the women priest issues progress. Indeed not only were there a good number of women priests present but the link between the two issues was emphasized in many contributions. The substitution of complementarity for interchangeability has inevitable consequences for our understanding of gender and sexuality and the subsequent decisions or determinations of identity.

It was curious to hear an argument so recently rubbished by one liberalising lobby group now regarded as axiomatic by another.

Only a week before, at the Evangelical Alliance Conference, Bishop Michael Baughen had told me that he was well aware of the direct connection between the two but because you acted on one it didn’t mean you had to act on the other.

You don’t have to agree with LGCM to understand their frustration at the untenable position of the bishops.

I went on to a workshop on the history of LGCM run by a neighbour of mine from my first parish. He was a founder member. Michael took us back to the Open Church Group founded by an “Evangelical Methodist”, Catholic involvement, Campaign for Homosexuality Equality, The Presidency of Peter Ellers. The great decision - whether to be a support group for homosexual Anglo-Catholic clergy or a wider movement?. The milestones - the defeat of Higton, the blessings of single sex unions, the expulsion from St. Botolph's and then the extraordinary rejuvenation brought by the Aids crisis as the homosexual community rallied to care for its own and others were drawn in. Homosexuals were no long “them” but sons, brothers, friends in need.

“We asked for bread” he remarked sadly “the church gives us stones. But at least they’ve stopped throwing the stones”

What about the patterns of promiscuity?

“Promiscuity comes out of no Christian role model. We are offered only a miserable celibacy. Right at the heart of our humanity - our ability to love - we are counted as flawed. No wonder so much of gay society is “shockingly deformed”.

It is quietly said but passionate. Michael’s previously most quoted utterance was on his partnership of many years saying, that the relationship was “much more about” (the simple companionship of) “going to Safeways than sex!”

I paused, in between worship, to debrief a passing friend who had been to the Bible Study. Nothing that you wouldn’t find in the books upstairs, he thought, but he felt very hopeful because the workshop leader had assured them that, because homosexuality was “a second order issue”, it needn’t divide the church. This had a tragically familiar ring to it.

My next workshop was on Homosexuals and the Internet. Being computer illiterate I was intrigued to discover the growing importance of this tool to the community. The leader estimated a vastly disproportionate number of “gays in cyberspace”. Apart from the opportunity to download and print out images - no-one was prepared to say that the priest with the equivalent of 23 vols. Encyclopaedia Britannica of downloaded porn, was obsessive - it opened many other opportunities.

Gay chat channels enabled “verbal cruising” and the opportunity to “cross dress”. This latter is, basically, pretending to be someone else e.g. a woman and “experiment with your identity endlessly”. We were told that “gay people are aware that identity is a choice and we indulge in extravagant behaviour to construct the reality”. It is also a marvellous way for young people “to gain self understanding in privacy”.

One man thought there was “a danger of wanting to get hold of other people without revealing yourself”, another used it as a “confessional” with the advantage of “fluid identity” and another enjoyed it because “full rich human relationships were not that frequent and they were very demanding”.

We broke for lunch and I caught up with friends and acquaintances - none of whom I was surprised to see though many of them did a double take at me.

Two of the best laymen from a previous parish., a former ordinand, the only liberal dignitary whose friendship and just dealing has never wavered since the division of November 1992, a celibate aids worker priest who taught me key pastoral practice and so on.

It is a strange business to be with people you are fond of as they celebrate a massive and central area of disagreement. Late on in the day one young priest bounced up to me and challenged me. “Why don’t you like us? We’re very lovable people.” I thought of the friends met and made during the day. It would, of course, be so much easier if we were not fond of each other. But you learn over the years that truth and love have to work together or integrity and mutual respect disappear. If affection changed the truth we would never discipline our children or go to confession.

The afternoon was given over to an audience with Bp. Walter Righter - the US Bishop who survived a heresy trial for ordaining a practising homosexual. Righter took us through his version of events. Bp. Spong “a conservative southern gent who embraces causes”, had asked Righter to “wait till the bishops meeting was over” and then ordain Barry, his candidate. This was a direct “response to lay pressure” because of “a new understanding of sexuality” and proof of that was the Barry’s church had grown by 30% - all “heteros who wanted their children to have an inclusive experience”.

The heresy trial failed because, of the 9 bishop judges, most of the others on the court “would have done it”. Conservatives have always maintained that the court was rigged.

Righter argued the shift in mood was such that in 1989 Spong got 80 letters a day - 75% against him. In 1995/6 Righter received 3,000 letters - only 4 opposed.

The upshot of this case is that the church declared no “core teaching” was opposed to homosexual practice. This view will carry General Convention and already 70 bishops have said they are now free to act on it and ordain. Plans are going ahead for a “gay presence at Lambeth `98.”

Righter directly made the connection between the ordination of women and homosexuals on several occasions. His wife, Nancy, agreed but added that the ordination of women had been “very complicated by lesbianism in the US”

They both encouraged the organization of “significant parishes” i.e. known to be open to and supportive of homosexuality.

Righter was dismissive of the conservatives accusing them of “fear of the future”, “trying to lock the church into the past as a way of dealing with their own marginalisation and alienation”. He talked passionately about the need for “a new social contract”, “the old codes are unthinkable now”. The Ten Commandments were dismissed as a “property code” for oppressing women and he advocated “changing paradigms”.

When asked why they thought people objected to homosexual intercourse, Nancy saw it as a disgust for women and therefore men who acted as women. Righter though it was more to do with being offended at “the waste of male seed”. Indeed, he went on, “a lot of the fuss about abortion is not about saving life, it is about not wanting to waste male seed.”

This scarcely needs comment but it is an indication of where things have got to in the States.

Righter faithfully trotted out the “genetic” argument until challenged by a man who said it was his moral choice to be gay whereupon Righter agreed it was “a cop out” and it had “a lack of scientific credibility at the moment”.

He thought they could all “have a relationship like Nancy and I, faithful, monogamous, lasting” (They have been married 4 years. Righter is Nancy’s second husband, she is his third wife.) LGCM may be grateful to Righter but they must be aware after this that he can only be a terrible liability.

Philip Crowe, chairing, crowned a very disturbing afternoon by asserting that “women priests have changed the priesthood and gay priests will lead to a rethinking of morality right through in a very positive way” and concluded by dismissing opponents as “humourless and constipated” (Not guilty, your honour!)

And so to the evening, the great service itself. A full Cathedral. St. Patrick’s Breastplate, beautiful choral work, symbolic dance, Exodus liberation theology, shared cups of milk and honey, poetic prayers, the list of the dead, the songs of triumph.

A sermon by the Bishop of Guildford - the agenda is formed by the tension between the tradition of the church and the experience of what homosexuals find to be good - our dilemma cannot be solved by turning same sex relationships into marriage - the need for honesty in the church.

People will analyse what he said. What most people I spoke to at the party afterwards said was “It didn’t really matter what he said. He came.”

Unless you were there it is difficult to understand just how important that was.

During the day any number of clergy and ordinands told me that their bishops knew they were homosexual, knew they had partners, had often met and dined with the couple yet never once had been able to publicly acknowledge that reality.

What LGCM is fighting for is not the right for practising homosexuals to be ordained - that is clearly already massively and knowingly the case. What they would like is a little truth.

Robbie Low is the Vicar of St. Peter's Bushey Heath in diocese of St. Alban's

 

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