Why I blessed gay clergymen's relationship

The rector of St Bartholomew the Great in the City of London, in the eye of storm over gay 'marriage

Robustly heterosexual since early adolescence, unable to see that any love surpasses the love of women, and once branded by the odious Daily Mail as 'Dud the Stud', I may seem miscast in the role into which I have now been thrust, that of the turbulent rebellious priest who defies bishop and archbishop to bless two gay men, also priests, in their civil partnership.

Yet there is a sense in which I have been moving towards this point for more than thirty years. The 1970s shaped my thinking. Many factors were combined, among them existential philosophy, the campus war against American involvement in Vietnam, the challenge to apartheid and to discrimination based on race, colour and gender, and the sexual liberation provided by the contraceptive pill.

The Sunday Times in its golden age under Harry Evans was a major influence, creating a critical mindset that no longer accepted authority without question and the blue-back Penguin books provided a theoretical underpinning for future action.

On the bottom shelf of my bookshelf is one such fundamental text, The Death of the Family by existentialist psychiatrist David Cooper. The study of theology at King’s College, London, was rigorous, critical, comprehensive, and above all engaged with a rapidly changing world. As Dean Sydney Evans posed the existential “Who am I?” he taught us not to accept the “I” as a fixed point but a point in motion, always becoming.

For today’s Church of England it is as if the 1970s never existed; the lessons have been forgotten. There has been a retreat from exploring the depths, pushing the boundaries to the point where words strain, crack and sometimes break as we struggle to express in a suffering world the foolishness of God and the all-embracing love found in Jesus Christ.

There has been a return to uncritical fundamentalist use of biblical “proof texts”, ripping verses from their theological and literary contexts. There has been a flight to the safety of rigid law and inflexible dogma and a consequent desire to unchurch those who will not conform.

So on a day late in 2007 when my friend and colleague Peter Cowell asked me to bless the civil partnership that he was to contract with David Lord in May this year I was ready to answer “yes”. I did so not to provoke the so-called traditionalists and to deliberately disregard the guidelines published by the English House of Bishops, not to defy the Bishop of London, whose sagacity I respect, or Archbishop Rowan, who I have known and admired for 25 years, but because to respond in any other way would have been a negation of everything I believe, of everything that makes me who I am, as a man and as a priest.

We were in unchartered territory, seeking to find the words that would express the love of Peter and David and their commitment to each other. New words could not carry the burden and we turned to the old, to words shaped by centuries of use, redolent with meaning.

This bringing together of two men would be like a marriage but not a marriage, for I am clear that marriage is between a man and a woman, and the words I will say must be said with integrity. The words, vow and covenant, binding and union, were put under tension, slipping, sliding, perishing. They were imprecise, transferred from one relationship to another. We could not speak of procreation but we could speak of “the mutual, society, help, and comfort” that the one could have of the other, of loving, comforting, honouring and keeping, for these are good words and not limited to or by marriage.

On 31 May, my birthday and the feast of the Visitation, when Mary said “My soul doth magnify the Lord”, 300 people gathered in St Bartholomew the Great to celebrate the Eucharist, to witness Peter and David commit themselves to each other in an exclusive loving relationship.

Amazing flowers, fabulous music, a ceremony both solemn and oddly homely, familiar words reordered and reconfigured, carrying new meanings. Nothing jarred, nothing felt even vaguely inappropriate. New and untried but not wrong. Not a gay rally or demonstration, but a truly joyful celebration.

It is not we who have whipped up the whirlwind, replacing words of love and inclusion with those of hatred and exclusion. We set out to express, experimentally, pushing at boundaries, a love of a type which is not unusual or perverse but which is perfectly ordinary and accepted outside the Church. Why, then, can it not be accepted inside the community that is based, not on law, but on the loving presence of God in Jesus Christ?

Those who cannot ever accept same-sex unions and would rather divide from those who do, branding them as blasphemous and unchristian, have inevitably turned on us, and especially on me. I am clearly not naïve, so I must have been malicious, politically-motivated, intent on pushing forward my ungodly agenda. Every aspect of my life and ministry is being raked over, the Daily Mail’s old allegations of sexual impropriety, my failure to be elected as an alderman, my writing a book on clergy discipline, even the complaint from neighbouring flats that I will not silence the church clock which chimes at midnight and again at seven as it has for centuries. First discredit your opponent, then defrock him, and, as he is Rector of Smithfield, why not the stake?

I did not seek the role, the interviews, the publicity, but more than thirty years ago I began a journey, a process of becoming, that focuses on Jesus the Christ, not as lawgiver and judge but as the one who loves us and holds us and will not let us go until we know ourselves as loved by him despite our foolishness and imperfections, and because of that, when Peter Cowell asked me, I did not hesitate, not even for a moment to answer “Yes, I will.”

Andrew Bell/Guardian (Jeremy Corbyn)
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Who’s who in Team Corbyn

Who are the key players in Jeremy Corbyn's team?

Kat Fletcher
Head of strategy and key aide

By coincidence, there are two unrelated Fletchers at the heart of the Corbyn operation (the other one is Simon: see below). Both come with experience of beating the Labour establishment – Kat was elected NUS president in 2004 against opposition from the more centrist Labour Students group. She has been close to Corbyn for close to a decade and was his agent in this year’s election. She is also a power player in Islington politics in her own right, rising to deputy mayor just two years after being elected as a councillor. Outside politics, she runs a small chain of gastropubs called Handmade Pubs.

Photo: Kat Fletcher

 

Seb Corbyn
Bag-carrier

No race for the Labour leadership would be complete without the presence of a Red Prince or two. The second of Corbyn’s three sons is a Cambridge graduate who has been pressed into service as a bag-carrier and all-purpose aide for this election. (His mother is Corbyn’s second wife, Claudia Bracchitta.) Seb, 25, was the author of a touching scene on the campaign trail when he patted his father’s hair down after both were caught in heavy winds in London. Beyond the campaign, he works for John McDonnell, another close ally of his father’s.

Photo: Carmel Nolan, Jeremy Corbyn and his son Seb

Carmel Nolan
Head of press

Corbyn’s press chief is a former radio journalist and veteran campaigner from Liverpool – and, like him, was a leading architect of the Stop the War coalition. She has described the Corbyn team as “a coalition of the willing and the available” and “like Stop the War with bells on”. Nolan, formerly known as Carmel Brown, is respected by Westminster hacks as a serious operator. In her spare time she researches the fates of Liverpool men who served in the Second World War.

Her daughter, Hope, is credited with coming up with the name for George Galloway’s anti-war party in 2004. Then aged just eight, she picked two names: one was the “Give All Your Sweeties to Hope Party”. The other was Respect.

 

Clive Lewis
MP who nominated Corbyn

Star of the distinctly left-wing clutch of 2015 Labour MPs, Lewis was one of Corbyn’s earliest and most vocal backers – Corbyn credited the new MP for Norwich South with getting his nomination “off the ground”.

Lewis, who worked for more than a decade as a journalist with the BBC, is tipped for a shadow cabinet position (Defence or Culture are rumoured briefs) if Corbyn wins the leadership. He called New Labour “dead and buried” in his victory speech in May 2015.

 

Simon Fletcher
Campaign chief

A veteran back-room operative, Fletcher spent eight years as Ken Livingstone’s chief of staff. In 2000, after Tony Blair ensured that Livingstone was not selected as Labour’s candidate for mayor of London, Fletcher took him to victory as an independent, masterminding a “Stand down, Frank” campaign against Frank Dobson.

Photo: Simon Fletcher

Fletcher originally met Livingstone through Socialist Action, the Trotskyist group, and the former mayor’s memoirs record his friend getting the highest First from City of London Poly in its history (he led a student occupation there) before working on Tony Benn’s archives. In 2009 Fletcher denounced Gordon Brown for “pandering to the BNP” over allocation of social housing. More recently, he was an aide to Ed Miliband, working as his trade union liaison officer from 2013 onwards. He is credited with renegotiating the unions’ relationship with Labour after that year’s Falkirk selection row.

 

John McDonnell
Campaign manager in the Parliamentary Labour Party

After two failed attempts at the Labour leadership (he was kept off the ballot both times), the Socialist Campaign Group chair chose not to stand again this year. Instead, having persuaded Corbyn to run, the Hayes and Harlington MP became his campaign manager. Since his election in 1997, McDonnell, 63, has been one of Corbyn’s greatest parliamentary allies – though some MPs see him as abrasive, unlike his endlessly courteous friend. It was recently reported that he has been promised the post of shadow chancellor, a claim Corbyn sources deny.

 

Jon Trickett
Ideas guru

The Yorkshireman is Jeremy Corbyn’s only supporter in the shadow cabinet. Having been a senior adviser to Ed Miliband, the 65-year-old Trickett was pressured by some to stand as the left’s candidate in the leadership contest but declined – leaving the field clear for Corbyn. Although some in Camp Corbyn regard him with suspicion because he served as a PPS to Gordon Brown, the Hemsworth MP and former Leeds City Council leader is in line for a big role in Corbyn’s front-bench team.

Photo: Jon Trickett

Richard Burgon
MP and supporter

Another high-profile left-winger in Labour’s 2015 intake, Burgon is of solid socialist stock: a trade union lawyer and nephew of the former Labour MP Colin Burgon, a long-term champion of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. A dedicated Corbynite, the Leeds East MP might shadow either the Justice Secretary or Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Like Corbyn, he is a republican; he swore an oath to the Queen on taking his seat but describes himself as “someone that believes that the head of state should be elected”.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism