A PARISH LEARNS

When the Rev Simon Bailey learnt that he was HIV positive, he thought h is world would fall apart. When he told his parishioners that he had Aids, he t hought theirs would too. But both he and they have found unexpected blessings i n his illness
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DINNINGTON in South Yorkshire is a tough, windswept mining village. Or it was, until the pit closed in 1991. It has a population of 10,000 and unemployment is 17 per cent. Now, like so many similar communities, it must find its identity in new in itiatives such as the local Yorkshire pudding factory, set up after the colliery closed. It is still a real community, though. People are brusque but friendly, greeting each other across the High Street, queueing at the Post Office for pensions and benef its. Harassed young mothers, high-heeled and bare-legged even in the bitterest weather, manoeuvre buggies round the market, while determined old ladies on shopping scooters weave in and out of the morning traffic.

Dinnington has a decent-sized Co-op, lots of bakers and no less than five butchers' shops, stocked with an artery-jamming selection of pork pies, black pudding and pork dripping. There is a library and even a theatre, the Lyric, which at Christmas offered a "Bavarian Knees-Up with Baron Wolfgang's Oompah Band".

Three churches provide for Dinnington's spiritual needs: the Catholic St Joseph's; the Methodist Chapel; and the Anglican church St Leonard's, on the corner facing a pub and a garage and right next to the supermarket. It is a small, squat Victorian building with a clock and belfry, surrounded by eroded tombstones in a grassy churchyard hillocky with mining subsidence. There has been a church on the site for seven centuries.

St Leonard's has just completed a memorial to the miners of Dinnington, a specially commissioned etched glass screen in the church. Below it are inscribed the names of the 74 men who have died in the pit since it opened in 1902, digging coal in a warren of seams hacked out of an area much greater than the town itself. The memorial screen shows a tree of life: its roots buried in coal, its branches blossoming with hope. Back in November they had a special service of dedication. The Bishop came. A specialawning was erected outside the church to accommodate the overflow of people with a video link of the service - just as well, since it was, inevitably, raining.

It was a moving service, packed with miners and their families, and a 40-strong male voice choir. It began in darkness. Then candles were lit for each of the miners who died, and every one of their names was intoned in turn. People wept. A 90-year-old ex-miner, Alan Harvey, came up to the lectern to recall life down the pit. A flute played a slow Celtic lament. School- children performed a mime of the tree of life. Then we all sang "Jerusalem".Everybody seemed to have a role. After the service there was tea and biscuits served by the ladies of the church.

The Bishop of Sheffield, the Right Rev David Lunn, in gold mitre and vestments, joined the Rector to greet everyone crowding the church porch. The Rector, the Rev Simon Bailey, a slight young man with close-cropped brown hair and a face prematurely etched with lines of weariness, wore his brilliant yellow and green cope reserved for ceremonial occasions. The memorial had been his idea, and, typically, he had involved as many of the community as possible in its creation. Now it looks like being his swansong.

There had been a camera crew filming the service, but they weren't really there for the miners. They were making a documentary about the Rector, who is ill with Aids. He is not the first Anglican priest to have developed the disease; he is the first who,instead of slipping discreetly out of the picture, has continued his ministry. He still preaches sermons, celebrates marriages and baptisms and gives communion to his parishioners. And his parishioners have responded in a remarkably positive way, supporting him, encouraging him to stay and caring for him when necessary.

"The obvious answer is to resign, so that all the issues would go away," he says. "But of course they wouldn't. They remain here and they remain in the church. The church's reaction is usually to resign and go away. I'd really rather face the issues."

MY BROTHER Simon was informed that he was HIV positive two weeks before he was due to take up his job in Dinnington, his first living. After taking degrees in English and theology at Oxford and Cambridge, he had become curate of a parish outside Sheffield, where he lived on the run-down housing estate near the church. Even then he transformed an unprepossessing flat into a shrine, a peaceful haven despite the spectacular rows of the neighbours. To me at that time Dinnington looked an equally grim prospect, but it was what he wanted; a small parish and self-contained community where he could get to know most of the people.

He had been ill with hepatitis - he hadn't made a deliberate decision to take an HIV test. So the news, when it came in 1985, was devastating. News of the "gay plague" was only just beginning to get through to Britain. It was only around this time that Simon even told me he was gay, and that he had reconciled his homosexuality with his vocation as a priest. It seems ironic now. I was so pleased then that he would be happy, that he wasn't lonely, that he wasn't a frustrated heterosexual but glad to be gay.

He had been on a retreat to Holy Island off the coast of Northumberland to prepare for his new post. "To return home to the sudden possibility - I don't think I'm being melodramatic - of death . . . I'm terribly self-conscious, self-aware, febrile, shaking . . ." he wrote in his journal. "The lust to live is incredibly strong - an angry strength: I have just too much, too many people, to live for . . ."

He had always been determined not to become a "single issue" priest, as he calls it, which is one reason he gives for not coming out openly as gay at that time. "It is an important part of my life but certainly not the main part. Being an openly gay priest in the Church of England would inevitably attract the kind of attention that would make it the major feature of your life." It is ironic that now he seems destined to be "the Vicar with Aids".

From 1985 until 1992 he told no one about his diagnosis other than his spiritual director, Margaret Selby, a diocesan worker responsible during that period for pastoral training. Simon says now, "I suppose I assumed I was going to be one of the ones who didn't develop Aids. Of course, we know now, it's more about the length of time the thing incubates . . . I knew that fact about myself, but it was unreal, intangible. I hardly ever thought or wrote about it for a long, long time."

By l992 he started to get ill, first a throat infection that wouldn't go away, then gradual weight loss over a period of months - and all the time the family didn't quite understand, although we'd begun to wonder. I asked him a few years before whether he had considered having an Aids test. The delicate way I phrased my question meant that he could (honestly) reply, "I'd rather not . . ."

Simon told the immediate family at the end of 1992, beginning with our mother, just before she came to visit me in London. Our father, a fundamentalist Baptist minister, had died suddenly of a heart attack only a few months earlier; an old-fashioned Socialist, he was an indefatigable campaigner, and died distributing leaflets for the Labour Party. For my father homosexuality was at best an affliction, at worst a sin. Simon's sexuality was never discussed, and I'm sure his illness would have prompted moral outrage at first, as well as, ultimately, profound compassion. As it was, Simon delivered the eulogy at Dad's funeral. If we are honest, we all agree it is better this way round.

The first few days after Simon told us were the worst so far. It was terrible. Mum was in despair, and there was so little one could say in comfort. After Mum told me, Simon arrived at my house, and I greeted him with a hug and a cup of tea. I said thin g s which now seem so pompous - I said how sorry I was, and what a full life he had already had, and how life expectancy until recently was only 37 or so anyway. As if he was already dead. He said that for him it felt as if he was growing old very quickly.

Sitting together, there was so much more under the surface, not expressed. I was acutely conscious of Simon's physical contact with my son Theo (then two years old), knowing with my rational mind that there was no danger. Simon seemed to be making a deliberate point about it as well, offering Theo a drink from his glass of water.

We then had to tell the rest of the family, my two sisters and younger brother. Telling people is hard; the bearer of the news inevitably has to provide emotional support. For Simon there was an added dimension: "There is inevitably still always this lurking shadow deep deep down about Aids as a self-inflicted wound, something I could have avoided, something I've brought on myself rather than a straightforward disease for which one can't be held responsible. Whilst no one says it, it must lurk in the background for a lot of people that . . . this is my own fault."

Simon didn't know then how his own church would react, or the Bishop and local clergy. And we wondered even then how to handle the media, since it was clear that at some point the story would come out, and could be treated in very different ways.

On the whole, opinions of his prospects were bleak. Simon Watney, a writer and academic who has written on Aids and the media, warned that vicars and Aids were still considered good copy. I also talked then to Father Bill Kirkpatrick, a priest who works with Aids sufferers. But Simon was a different case - a priest who needed help himself. It highlighted the whole issue of who cares for the carers, and how they have to learn to allow themselves to be cared for, too.

AS SIMON'S condition worsened, it became clear that it was time to ask for support, to tell his church and especially the dedicated team of pastoral workers he had helped to train. It was also imperative for him to talk to the Bishop.

Mike Cameron, the curate, found out soon after the family. In fact, poor Mike got it all on the same day. ("I'm gay and by the way I'm HIV as well," Simon told him. Or more or less.)

"No, I wasn't shocked," he says. "I'd never thought about it - whether someone is homosexual or heterosexual isn't something that seems important to me. My main concern was for Simon and to help him carry on here."

Cameron, a man of great warmth and maturity, is in his fifties. He previously worked as an executive in the steel industry and is training part-time for the priesthood. He is a great contrast to Simon: more outgoing, less cerebral, and a bit impatient with the smells and bells and "mumbo jumbo" that Simon adores.

Simon considers his support absolutely crucial; the situation was one which would have been very difficult for a callow young curate to handle. For Cameron, Simon's illness has been a great challenge, an unprecedented pastoral opportunity. He says he knew Dinnington was the right place for him when he saw their request for a curate which included the motto worked out by lay people at a Parish Life conference: "Unlimited, unconditional, unquestioning love, freely given with no expectation of return; withcomradeship and equality for all." The parish had the motto embroidered on his chasuble as a surprise when he was ordained. "I threaten to take it off if folk don't live up to what they said."

Mike Cameron shouldered much of the burden of telling the rest of the parish about Simon's illness. Simon had already talked to the Archdeacon, Stephen Lowe, who was responsible for the pastoral care of the clergy in the diocese, and he had expressed hissupport. Margaret Selby had spoken to the Bishop on his behalf.Although personally upset by the news, he was prepared to accept whatever approach Simon, Mike and the parish decided to follow.

Mike and Simon chose to do it slowly, always to talk to people individually. Both maintain that it was the only way it could be done; this was not something that could suddenly be announced to a large group all at the same time.

"People really needed time to adapt to the knowledge," says Mike. "But after being here for a year I had a great belief in the compassion of these people. I could not have imagined any other response from Dinnington folk." But it meant some difficult months for those who knew first, and although they respected Simon's approach they were not comfortable with the need to prevaricate about the cause of Simon's illness.

Others who were not told until later seem hurt that perhaps they were not trusted. One of the church wardens, Steven Kohut, a peripatetic music teacher for Rotherham Education Authority, said, "It would have been nice to have known that he could have trusted more people earlier on. He's getting a lot of support, and I'm sure he would have got it earlier had more people known."

I first got to know the Dinnington parish workers in the autumn of 1992, when I joined them for a Frugal Lunch, part of a worldwide hunger project. It was a simple repast of bread and cheese; a sacrifice for those used to a traditional Yorkshire Sunday roast, the cost of which is donated to the hungry. Simon ate little. He was pale and gaunt, his thin frame masked by his heavy clerical robes. But though it was clear he was ill, he had not yet confided the real cause to anyone.

Around the table sat the loyal stalwarts of the parish. Jim and Sylvia Fairhurst, both mainstays of the choir despite frequent illness; Sylvia, a trained nurse, often visits and sits with sick people in the parish. Joyce and Sam Robinson, who used to runa shop in the village; Joyce, a motherly woman, has spent the past 10 years as a volunteer at St Luke's Hospice in Sheffield, working with Aids patients among others. Kath Graham, a quiet, dedicated spinster, always the first to get up and wash the dishes. Walter Hawley, an ex-pit electrician, used to get up every morning to light fires for all the old people in the village. Now still slim and spry at nearly 70, he makes himself and his car available as a parish ambulance service, shuttling old and disabled people to hospital and doctors when they need it. His wife Margaret is a churchwarden and verger, responsible for all the flowers, and in attendance at every funeral and wedding. All good ordinary folk: not lottery-dazzled Sun readers, but the kindof people who give you hope for humanity.

All now acknowledge how Simon has changed them. "He's a wonderful priest," says Joyce. "He opened up our minds to lots of things." She appreciates the more spiritual dimension Simon has introduced. "He is a deep, loving, spiritual person. He opened up our minds to lots of things. We began to do things like going on retreats which we had never done before."

Simon seems to have the ability to take the quietest, shiest people and help them develop their potential. Kath Graham, for example, now takes her turn in preparing and leading the church prayers on a Sunday morning. She says she has always known Simon was gay. It doesn't bother her, why should it?

Not everybody in the town shares her liberal view. Derek Norbury is a lay reader of the church, which means he preaches, takes funerals and helps at communion. He has lived all his life openly gay in Dinnington, and, he says, "I've experienced a terribletime . . . You get the sniggers and people laughing at you behind your back." There had been some opposition to the idea of Derek becoming lay reader. "Some people didn't think it was right for me to be in the sanctuary, giving communion." He offered toresign. "I said to Simon if it was going to cause any trouble in the church that I should resign. But Simon said no, the church is for everyone, it's there f or you and if you resign on this point, I shall resign also.

"I've met quite a few priests in my time but I don't think I know any that's as devoted and concerned with people as Simon Bailey is."

As the months progressed and Simon grew weaker, more and more people got to know that he had Aids, often confirming what they had feared. As Walter says, "Folk aren't daft. They had begun to put two and two together."

Joyce Robinson feels strongly that they needed more counselling. "There were times when we felt as though we were drowning in Aids." But others feel the opposite. Margaret Hawley, for example: "It was better we handled it ourselves, really. We didn't want anybody else telling us what to do."

None of Simon's closest allies seems to have had any doubts about whether Simon should stay; instinct (or godliness) prevailed. But some parishioners reckon that they could have had explicit direction rather than just tacit acceptance from the diocese. Kohut says, "The Archdeacon made it perfectly clear that this is new territory. There's been gay vicars before, there have even been priests with HIV before, but they've all been put out to pasture. This was the first instance of a priest wanting to die in office as a gay priest with Aids . . . It was basically get on with it, sort it out, we'll monitor the situation."

Although his church superiors accepted Simon's decision to stay in the parish, they have stayed well behind the scenes. But Mike Cameron insists that they have always been very concerned that he felt able to cope with any increased work load - he stresses how much work Simon is still able to do - as well as with the emotional turmoil that many of his flock were experiencing. There is undoubtedly a great deal of a ambivalence within the parish about homosexuality in general, especially about gay clergy. There have been some stormy parish council meetings, and a few people have left the church. For some, especially older people like Walter Hawley, the idea of gay sex in particular is difficult to accept. "How could they do it, you know? This is horrible.I don't agree with it . . . but this is what it's all about for the church - to love everybody."

But although a few people have left, attendance at church has actually gone up and people are more openly supportive. Simon says people now make a special point of shaking his hand. Perhaps surprisingly, nobody has balked at drinking from the shared chalice. More and more people in Dinnington sport red ribbons. (Aids is still far from a fashionable cause in the real world.)

Like Sam Robinson, many of them would undoubtedly prefer to go back to a conventional married vicar with children (and had Simon said he was gay when he applied for the job, they would probably have said, not in Dinnington, thank you very much). But, as

Kohut says, there is hardly a clear lead from the church. "The church should decide whether homosexuality is acceptable or not. You cannot have homosexuality that is acceptable but without sexual contact. So it's either all right or it isn't. It can't b e partially all right."

"THE IDEA of expecting the clergy to be more holy, more pure than anyone else," says Simon, "makes me extremely uncomfortable. Someone came to the door once when I was in the bath, and persisted in knocking until I got there. When I explained, she said,

`You don't think of priests having baths, do you?' I mean, they really don't think you're human beings."

It is key to the whole issue of homosexuality and the clergy and, in this instance, illness. Can people accept a flawed clergy, learn perhaps to be less dependent on the priest, and more self-sufficient? Here, Simon was being given an opportunity to expose the full extent of his flawed humanity.

Not everyone is supportive, of course. Someone shopped Simon to the Sun a few months ago, and they sent round a reporter. They didn't get the story, though, and grumbled a bit when the Sheffield Star ran it first. Then the rectory was broken into while Simon was in hospital once, and a lot of his clothes were stolen.

Simon saw it as a good opportunity to buy some new clothes, lots of sunny yellow jumpers and cheerful shirts. Colour seems to assume great importance to those living life at this intensity; Derek Jarman wrote an entire book about it, Chroma, as well as making the film Blue. Yellow is Simon's favourite, still; the colour of the sun, the colour of life. Maybe blue comes later. Every time I visit him now there is a new splash of colour; a picture, a new bedspread, a jug of early daffodils.

Dinnington rectory is a big, solidly-built Fifties house with a garden and a pond and lots of room for people to stay. I find myself looking around and thinking of the things I would like to inherit (and wondering if it is very dreadful of me to do so . . .) The house is full of books: lots of poetry, theology, Shakespeare, art, architecture. (Simon is also a writer - sermons, of course, but also books of prayer, short stories, poems and articles. Recently he completed the biography of Dom Gregory Dix, a monk who wrote an influential book on church liturgy.) Every wall is covered in prints, photographs and icons, framed haiku and quotations, a beautiful collection of engravings of waterfalls. There are rainbows and crystals, shells

and stones, dried heather, twisted branches, and earthenware bowls and pots everywhere. My sister asked him why so many bowls, and he wrote a poem about it in answer. Surfaces are crowded with tiny carved wooden boxes, Chinese lacquer boxes, alabaster b o xes, blue glass, bowls full of tiny shells, medallions.

There is even a little wooden box of ashes; apparently saints' ashes. My son Theo, a toddler of three at the time, knocked them over, so I discreetly swept them up and put them back in the box. Then it transpired that other visitors had done the same thing, so there is undoubtedly more house dust than human dust in there by now. It has become something of a family joke; I'm not sure if Simon thinks it is quite so funny.

We have learnt to talk openly. At the beginning, when we had sat together on the sofa in his sitting-room and I'd hugged him, he'd expressed such sadness at Mum's initial reaction to him, drawing her hand away from him. But after that early despair the amazing thing was how we learned to live with it, learn from it even. I no longer felt a terrible burden of responsibility to change things, affect relationships in the family. They are so much further down the road now than I am, I can only

say teach me. I know it will get more difficult, but I feel sometimes so privileged to be part of this, the possibility that we can make something positive out of such a tragedy.

Simon has talked about making a will, even the cost of the funeral - how many funerals must he have taken by now? - making it easy for us to talk about it, to deal with it, and giving us a language with which to cope.

A measure of the way Simon and mother had learnt to communicate and accept each other was the poem Simon wrote for her. She had told me about the moment when she stood by his chair and he simply leaned his head against her. He told me about it too - the moment when she just accepted him, it. He recorded it in a poem, yet neither of them ever spoke to the other about it. Now it is a sacred, enshrined moment. And then for her birthday he gave her a book of his poems, hand-written in the elegant calligraphic script he has, typically, perfected, each poem juxtaposed with a picture or postcard. This book has turned out to be the first of many, for family, god- children and friends, that Simon has produced. I'm sure he had no idea he would have time to writeso many.

SOON after Simon first told me he was HIV positive, we had the first of many conversations, difficult to initiate but very intimate once we got going. Despite being so different, we seemed to be on the same wavelength. I suppose we did have the same input and experiences as children, although when we were young I went outward while he went inward, and I knew nothing about him then.

He was about 10 when he first felt that he had a vocation for the ministry, he told me. It was the same time that he knew that sexually he was "different". It took him a very long time to reconcile the two. "It has now become more than acceptance, it ha s become affirmation. My sexuality makes a large contribution to who I am. I do my job the way I do it because I am gay. God made me like this because he likes it, He loves variety, He wants me to celebrate who I am and this is a crucial part of me."

It was not until his mid-twenties that he talked to anyone about his homosexuality. "It took a long time to have the courage to go to gay clubs and discos. It's not really my style, although I've always loved dancing. I miss it now . . ." But as he explains, "It's difficult to meet other gay men. Maybe in California you meet them in the supermarket, but not here." He joined the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, and made a number of close gay friends. "There have been a number of relationships, some long, some short, which have given me confidence and experience, including sexual experience." There were, cruelly, only two or three years between his first tentative sexual experiments and the discovery that he was HIV positive.

He soon discovered that he really did not feel comfortable with a live-in lover, preferring ultimately to live alone. "People who ask me if I'm lonely think of singleness as a problem. It isn't a problem - the problem may be the other way round. Why can '

t you live alone? What are you afraid of?" For himself he says, "I grew to value singleness, independence, self-sufficiency, which could still include deep friendships, close companionship and real but relaxed relationships."

At the beginning I was anxious for Simon to engage with the Aids community, get a buddy, get as much support as possible, but he was always reluctant. Perhaps it was stronger than that. He was determined that this was something ordinary folk could cope with without teams of professionals. Of course they are vital, and play a crucial role in promoting concern about the disease, and caring for many, many people who don't have family or friends to support them. (Simon acknowledges how fortunate he is in his circumstances, tricky as they are.)

A key element of Simon's approach to his illness is to stress that Aids is not special, but sad and ordinary, something people can learn to cope with as part of being ordinary, caring human beings. I really had to change my mind about that, and graduallyaccept Simon's way of doing it. And as his illness developed into full blown Aids, it became clear that Dinnington was determined to cope.

BY THE SUMMER of 1993 his weight had dropped to 6st 7lb, and it really seemed as if he could hardly last much longer. So just over a year ago, after exhausting every other drug treatment, Simon had a catheter inserted permanently in his chest and now - at home - for 12 hours, five nights a week, he is fed intravenously on a white liquid called TPN (Total Parenteral Nutrition) straight into the bloodstream.

His main problem is cryptosporidiosis. (He says one of the problems with Aids is pronouncing the names of the infections that come along). It is a bacterium that lodges in the gut and prevents him from taking nutrition from food, causing excessive diarrhoea and steady weight loss. Basically malnutrition. Simon has always been treated by the GU Med clinic of the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield, and from the beginning had agreed to experimental treatments.The staff who treat him, including h is consultant Dr Kinghorn, all say that Simon's own spirit and determination has made an extraordinary difference to his survival. His belief in the value of his work, in his own value, sustains him.

He now weighs 8st and has enough energy, just, to keep working. He eats almost no regular food, save Ovaltine, tinned fruit and jelly babies. (Theo thinks an uncle who lives on jelly babies is a very special uncle indeed.)

Once he began the regular drip, the hospital insisted he had someone staying with him overnight at home. He has always lived alone and did not initially welcome the idea. For the last year a rota of parishioners, Joyce, Margaret, Kath, Sue Rafferty, a teacher, and Phyllis Marriott, has taken it in turns to stay overnight with him in the rectory. Usually in the evening Simon goes to bed hooked up to the drip machine - so friends sit and chat and watch TV with him.

His devoted parish team are occasionally relieved by me and other members of the family. Jane Tillier, a newly ordained woman priest, also comes regularly. A gay friend drives from Sheffield when he can, but he, too, is HIV positive, and has a demanding job as a social worker (I think not only the church would collapse without the commitment of gay people, but so would the social services). Despite Simon's preference for living alone, he now says he welcomes company, and misses his carers when they're not there. It is a measure, I suppose, of how much he has learnt to accept help.

LAST SUMMER, the Archdeacon, Stephen Lowe, arrived for a meeting one evening to find the parish group in Simon's sitting-room as usual, but with Simon hooked up to his drip. He was so impressed by the sanguinity of all present at this bizarre situation that he suggested Simon should consider making a television programme. It was a difficult decision, to come out openly about it, both nationally and, more important, locally. By no means everyone in the village knew at that stage, although I think Simon had begun to lose track of who did and didn't know. He said recently, "I did all those christenings on Sunday, nine babies I actually baptised . . . but I did still keep thinking, what would they do if they knew I had Aids?"

In the end Simon decided to make the programme. "I remain an `inward' kind of person and yet I find myself being increasingly public about a profoundly personal situation," he observes. He wanted to show first that you can "live with Aids". "More than anything in the recent media attention, I've resented the description of me as a `dying man'." He wanted also to pay tribute to the support he has received from the local church.

But in the end, he says, the decision was triggered by the continuing hypocrisy of the Church of England on the issue of gay clergy. "It's too important, too central to suppress. Deliberately or not, the church induces so much prejudice and fear and guilt in this area. Deep-seated guilt in those who happen to be `different'; a lurking guilt, destructive and deathly, in those who happen to be ill with this condition. Isn't there enough to carry without this too?"

Most of all, though, he wanted to try and say something about living in the face of dying. "It is of course what we are all doing, but those who live with terminal illness are forced to have, are given perhaps, a special vantage point, maybe even a vocation to live directly in the face of dying and speak - if they can - from there . . .

"I feel like a boat in dock, being built, repaired. The tide is slowly coming in. One by one the props are knocked away, sometimes more than one at once . . . I rock, uncertain, unsteady. It feels destructive, deeply threatening, unstable, unbalancing

. . . But the tide is swirling in and I shall discover that the props have to go if I'm going out into that great swelling ocean in my little boat, into the ocean that I'm made for . . ."

AFTER a year on the drip, Simon decided to give a TPN party, to celebrate a year of surviving on TPN. "A year down the line", said the invitation, though I'm not sure everybody got the joke. They just like to have a party, and there have always been goodparties at the rectory. As usual it was a faith supper, which means you just hope everybody brings something. There was inevitably a prodigious quantity of sausage rolls. Simon had a night off the drip, but Theo and I festooned the stand with balloons anyway. Simon was resplendent in a new apple green chambray shirt. The guests included parishioners, family (mother and three sisters), local clergy, the curate, gay friends from Sheffield, local teachers, ex-miners, social workers, two woman priests, both recently ordained, artists and pensioners.

Since February, Simon has also had viral activity in the eye. Without treatment he could be blind. So now he has an additional two or three hours a day of infusion to control the eye infection. "If you had told me two years ago this would happen," he sa y s, "I'd have said I couldn't cope, I'd rather be dead."

Instead, at an Aids conference in December, he could say: "Living with the prospect of dying, life does take on a vivid intensity. Relationships deepen, family, friends - there isn't time to waste by not saying and showing what you feel. Colours are morereal, beautiful things, places, people are more overwhelming, captivating, alive. Sometimes it does all dissolve into pointlessness and futility and frustration but most of the time - so far - I live as strongly as I can. I don't want to die. I know we all do die, but I passionately don't want to die, so I'm determined to live - really live - until I do."

"We are going through a difficult time," Walter says. "But with God's help, we are going to come through it. And we hope people will realise it's for them as well. We're saying: open your mind, open your heart, open your hands to everybody. We hope that people out there will accept what we've done and Simon and what he has done."

! `Simon's Cross' will be tonight's `Everyman' programme, on BBC1 at 10.30pm.

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