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.”

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood