The Church's true colours

After three decades of trying to promote tolerance towards gay and lesbian Christians, the lead advo

It is a favourite mantra among those loyal to new Labour that Britain is a much better place today than it was a decade ago - forward-looking, cosmopolitan and above all tolerant. The evidence often invoked on the last score is the emanci pation of lesbians and gay men. Riding high on law reform, the civil partnerships revolution and steadily increasing visibility from the cabinet to reality TV, many gay campaigners would agree.

But that is not how it appears if you are Reverend Richard Kirker, who is about to step down after nearly 30 years as head of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM). For the first half of that time, he fought a lonely battle to get church leaders to discuss sexuality. Now it's hard to get them to talk about anything else, but not in the way he had in mind. Homosexuality is at the centre of a global struggle for the soul of the Anglican Communion, and as gay people are accused of bestiality and demonic possession, the Church seems to have become a repository for the homophobia unacceptable in the rest of society.

Whereas in the old days the Church's anti-gay faction was led by an obscure "Mary Whitehouse in a dog collar" called Reverend Tony Higton, Kirker's main enemy today is Archbishop Peter Akinola, the powerful Anglican Primate of Nigeria. In open disregard of the 1998 Lambeth Conference resolution to "listen to the experience of homosexual persons" and to "condemn irrational fear of homosexuals", Akinola says homosexuality is as dangerous to mankind as global warming. If Rowan Williams has issued any rebuke, it has been barely audible until recently. Gay-friendly before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, he now reserves his chief condemnation for the North American Episcopalians who have elected an openly gay bishop. Many of the archbishop's former close gay friends have been left reeling by what they call his betrayal.

"The situation is appalling. Life for gay priests is immeasurably worse than when I started doing this job, because of the obsessive scrutiny of those who hate us," says Kirker, a battle-scarred 56-year-old whose shoestring organisation still numbers no more than 2,000 members. "Many people have given up the fight and left the priesthood. Others do not join it because it's not worth putting themselves through the indignity of interviews that intrude into personal morality in a way that was once never considered desirable or necessary. It is now official policy to ensure that gay people who don't give a commitment to celibacy are not selected for ordination."

While he takes issue with the notion that bigotry is crumbling everywhere else - it's a brave soul who tries to be a gay teacher these days, he notes - Kirker is prone, in his darkest moments, to gloom about his own legacy. "I always knew we would excite the animosity of those whose hostility was more dormant than active. But I did not foresee quite how active their hostility would become," he says.

Mixed blessing

That Nigeria is the power base of the anti-gay crusaders is particularly painful to Kirker, because he was born and grew up in that country. His father was a colonial civil servant there, and until Richard was 14 most of his best friends were black Africans. Educated at a minor English public school, he went to theological college in Salisbury. Among the 40 per cent of students and staff whom he reckons were gay (including the headmaster) was his first partner, Michael Harding. Kirker spent a year as a licensed lay worker in Southampton before becoming a curate in Michael's diocese of St Albans. The pair had the blessing of their bishop, the liberal Robert Runcie, who also wrote a warm letter of condolence when tragedy struck, in the form of a motorbike accident that killed Michael and left Richard badly injured.

That did not stop Bishop Runcie sacking him 18 months later. "He made it clear he couldn't continue to support me if I carried on writing to the papers about the Church's position on homosexuality and being a member of gay organisations. That was a compromise I wasn't prepared to make, and he was as good as his word," recalls Kirker, who has now been with his civil partner, Steve Caldwell, a charity worker, for 21 years.

Excluded from formal religious ministry, he threw himself into his work as general secretary of the LGCM, which was initially based in the church of St Botolph's in the City of London (it was evicted by the Diocese of London in the dark days of Section 28). Some of his actions were provocative. "Perhaps we were naive to try and sell The Joy of Gay Sex from the church," he says with a delighted cackle that betrays the instinct for mischief of a man who admits he is "more OutRage! than Stonewall". But that episode, in 1984, was no fun at the time. Customs and Excise had been intercepting Kirker's mail and tried to prosecute him for importing obscene materials; it backed down only when the gay community rallied to his defence.

An even more traumatic experience came at the last Lambeth Conference in 1998. After the debate on sexuality that had dominated the proceedings, a Nigerian bishop laid hands on Kirker in front of a phalanx of television cameras to "exorcise" the demons of homosexuality. He now shrugs the incident off with customary good cheer, but a mutual friend who was with him tells me: "It was a horrible, horrible experience where the symbols of the Church were being abused for the sake of attention-seeking theatricals. Richard could have been crushed by it, but he rose above it and refused to be made a martyr."

Good reason as he may have to resent such figures, Kirker blames Anglican liberals for their ascendancy. "Robert Runcie and Rowan Wil liams both betrayed their ideals in exactly the same way - by being supportive in private but not saying so in public. Our enemies, those who hate us, scent this weakness and they exploit it. They have grown in strength and confidence because they are in effect unopposed by liberals who won't stand up for what they claim to believe," he says.

In that context, his biggest regret is not that he dangled a pink rag in front of the evangelical bull, but that he did not wave it vigorously enough. In a dramatic parting gesture that will reopen old wounds for the Church hierarchy, he says he now deeply regrets not expressing explicit support for the "outing" campaign of the mid-Nineties, to which he has never previously acknowledged links.

The campaign was prompted by tabloid revelations in September 1994 that the then newly enthroned bishop of Durham, Michael Turnbull, who had condemned gay clergy in loving relationships, had a conviction for cottaging. An ex-monk called Sebastian Sandys outed three more bishops, including the then bishop of Edmonton, Brian Masters, at a debate at Durham University. Meanwhile, Peter Tatchell's OutRage! issued a list of ten gay bishops who had endorsed anti-gay discrimination within the Church. They included the high-profile bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood (who has since died).

The climax of the campaign came in March 1995 when the then bishop of London, David Hope, was named Archbishop of York - the number two post in the Church of England. Under pressure from Tatchell, Hope - who had endorsed the sacking of gay clergy and backed a Children's Society ban on gay foster parents - acknowledged that his own sexuality was a "grey area".

Some of us who reported on the campaign suspected that the knowledgeable Kirker - "Richard knows where all the condoms are buried," said one of his friends recently - was supporting it from the sidelines. He would not admit it at the time, but now he is breaking his silence to do so here.

He is at pains to clarify. "I was not a conduit for the release of names," he says. "The furthest I went was that, if Peter asked me about someone, I would say 'yes', 'no' or 'I've only heard rumours', which led to some names being taken off his list. But by not making my support explicit, I perhaps gave the impression I had moral qualms about the campaign. I didn't, and it troubles my conscience that I let OutRage! take all the flak. I stand by the principle of outing where hypocrisy and abuse of power is involved. It was right to expose bishops who led deceitful gay lives and who made it difficult for gay clergy in honest and committed relationships. If they had acknowledged they were gay, even if they were celibate, then people like Archbishop Akinola would not have the influence they have today."

One mark of the ascendancy of the anti-gay wing of the Church is the present wave of resignations and dismissals at Wycliffe Hall, the theological college affiliated to Oxford University. This follows the arrival of a conservative evangelical principal who hit the headlines with his professed belief that 95 per cent of the population will go to hell unless they follow the gospel. He also opposes the ordination of women, the irony of which is not lost on Kirker: the LGCM has always supported the cause of female priests, alienating Anglo-Catholic gay priests who might otherwise have been its natural constituency, but the support is not reciprocated by liberals.

"Many of the most ardent advocates of the ordination of women felt it necessary to dis so ciate themselves publicly from our cause, not because they disagreed with it, but because they thought it would do them harm," Kirker says - noting that the late Tablet columnist Monica Furlong was an honourable exception. "It's another example of the ground that the liberals have given to the evangelicals."

The principal of Wycliffe has been backed to the hilt by James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool, who is the head trustee of the college and a vocal opponent of gay law reform. It may discomfort those who trumpet new Labour's legacy of tolerance that Bishop Jones was given his diocese following the personal intervention of Tony Blair, but it does not surprise those who keep up with Church of England appointments. Another of Blair's choices was Graham Dow, Bishop of Carlisle. It was Dow who blamed this year's catastrophic floods in England on God's wrath over gay marriage.

As the government steadily moves religion to the centre of public life, through faith schools and other social initiatives, Kirker finds he has more in common with secularists in his worries over this drift. "Questions need to be asked about what these faith projects are actually preaching, and there is an urgent need for research on the amount of public money being ploughed into homophobia via indiscriminate support for faith institutions," he says.

Yet, somehow, as Kirker prepares to hand over the running of the LGCM to his deputy, Reverend Sharon Ferguson, he remains hopeful. "When I began this job 30 years ago, my instinct was that it was more than a lifetime's work. I was never motivated by the belief that we would be able to achieve everything by the time I retired.

"That's why I am not downhearted now. We could only take our opponents on by allowing them to show their true colours. That is precisely what they have now done, and we owe it to future generations not to let them defeat us."

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obama unmasked