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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.”

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.