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What makes a gay vicar stay in the Church of England?

He smokes roll-ups, his ring tone is Abba, and he is passionately in favour of gay marriage; what’s "Father Ray" doing in a church which won't recognise his relationship?

Just opposite Borough tube stands Southwark's St George the Martyr Church, its eighteenth-century spire mirrored by the apex of The Shard that stands half a mile to the north. The saint from whom the church takes its name was killed in the year 303 for refusing to persecute Christians, and admitting he himself was one. Over a millennium later St George's Priest-in-Charge, Reverend Ray Andrews, has been fighting his own battle against discrimination.

Meeting me at the church door, the man known to his parishioners as "Father Ray" greets me with a warm handshake and an affectionate arm-squeeze. As the interview begins, we are interrupted by Andrews' mobile going off, blaring out the first few bars of Abba's "Dancing Queen". When I compliment him on a brilliant ring-tone he replies drily “it is very gay, though...".

Two years ago, when Andrews was approached to star in a documentary about an inner London clergyman, the filming process became a catalyst for him going public about his sexual preference for men, which he had hidden for decades. The documentary became Channel 4's cult hit Father Ray Comes Out.

The clergyman was originally reluctant to make the programme on the grounds that he did not wish to “hurt or alienate” anyone in his congregation, but his decision, he says, was vindicated by the reaction he received. He tells me that his revelation has only made his parish community “closer and warmer”.

Fuelled by this response, and encouraged by the fact that the church authorities didn't “find a way of getting rid of me or silencing me” - as he had feared - he is now uncompromising in expressing his disdain for homophobia.

I cannot help wondering why a man with such progressive views would choose to remain at the heart of a church whose leaders refuse to legitimise gay relationships. He explains that, for him, homosexuality and Christianity are not only compatible, but he thinks a belief in Jesus should preclude any kind of homophobia. "The Jesus I understand and experience defends the oppressed, tries to free the imprisoned, and feeds the hungry and the thirsty, and above all loves and includes. And so I can't claim to follow the teachings of that man, of God expressed in that way, and collude with the discrimination of homosexuality."

He says he has “no problem being in contradiction with scripture”, pointing out that scripture is not obeyed when it comes to the church marrying straight couples. “I have never married a heterosexual couple who have not either been living together beforehand, or been involved in a sexual relationship for quite a while. Never.”

This considered, how does he feel about the fact that current church law, soon to be underpinned by Maria Miller's "quadruple lock", will prevent him from blessing same-sex unions?

"If I am approached by two people who have encountered the gift of love and wish to affirm that before God, I would find that very hard to resist. I think if it comes to the point where I am directed to respond differently to two people of the same sex, to the way that I respond when heterosexual people marry, that will raise very serious questions about the future ”

Andrews is hopeful that it still might not come to this. As Maria Miller triumphantly points out in a blog for The Huffington Post, the decision regarding gay marriage is now out of the government's hands and rests with those responsible for canon law. Andrews feels that the church authorities will eventually have to change their stance, even if the motivation would be pragmatic rather than ethical.

He is keen to stress that the Church authorities' position on homosexuality, and the conception of a “judging, with-holding” God that it entails, does not reflect his ideas about his own faith. “For me, as I continue to grow older, I'm less convinced that when I hear the Church speak, I hear God speak.”

He is frustrated by the conservative image that the Church, with a capital 'c', is presenting in opposing gay marriage, and in November's synod vote against allowing women to become bishops, a decision which he says makes the institution look “rather ridiculous”. Does he think the Church is risking becoming irrelevant to contemporary life?

"We're doing a great job of that at the moment. We're losing credibility, we're not making sense. We should be leading the way. Where we see oppression, where we see injustice, where we see discrimination, we should be the ones who are leading the way.”

Why then, does he stay in an institution whose moral values seem to be so diametrically opposed to his own? He is conflicted, but says that ultimately he stays in the Church of England because he wants to “remain effective, making changes from within”.

And for Andrews, there remains a great deal to be done – he says he is still hearing the kind of homophobic rhetoric that frightened him in to self-denial for so much of his life. He expresses indignation at public figures like Baroness Warsi who suggested that speaking to children about homosexuality in schools might be dangerous. "The permission that people take to talk in this way is based on a huge lie, that homosexuality is a chosen behaviour, something we can teach and promote and undermine society with - rubbish, absolute rubbish!"

Ray tells me that many of his colleagues are in favour of gay marriage, and there are also a good number who have same-sex partners. However, they feel that being open with their relationships might put their careers in jeopardy, especially if they have ambitions to rise through the ranks of the Church. "There is a lot of pressure on senior clerics to conceal what might be a pro-gay position.”

Clearly drawing from his own experience, he expresses his will for those people to come forward and start breaking the silence. "It's the truth that sets you free. It might not be comfortable, it might not be easy, it involves risk, but it's the truth that sets you free.”

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.