"It is a fictitious church," insists author Michael Arditti, reclining on a modern chaise longue in his north London flat, looking way too relaxed for a man about to lob a literary incendiary device into the divided ranks of the Church of England.
That reassurance might bring some comfort to little old ladies who pick up Arditti's new novel, Easter, expecting a cosy Christian tale. For after meandering through 140 pages of discursive and humorous prose about a north-London congregation's week-long Easter celebrations, they will discover that the central figure, curate Blair Ashley, is a modern-day Christ figure and that he is not only gay, but HIV-positive.
And the notion that Blair's church - St Mary-in-the-Vale, Hampstead - exists only in Arditti's imagination might be all that's left to cling to when the old dears reach the mock crucifixion of Alfred Courtney, the self-loathing, closet-gay Archdeacon of Highgate, by a rent boy - or Blair's night on Hampstead Heath, mirroring Christ's descent into hell, where he witnesses, andtakes part in, all manner of graphically described gay sex.
Your average Church of England diocese, then? Whatever Arditti says, newspapers have claimed that Edmonton diocese in north London, the setting for the book, was no random choice by Arditti. They have claimed events in the book are "uncomfortably" close to things that have actually taken place there.
Arditti admits that he wondered if his mock-crucifixion scene might not be over the top. But he feels that several church scandals and a lot of inside information - he interviewed more than 20 members of the clergy for the book - suggest the opposite. "Apparently, my fiction is fairly tame," he says.
Arditti is in his late thirties, gay and Anglican. He is a regular attender at St Mark's church in Primrose Hill. St Mark's, he says, is "very supportive - otherwise I would not go there". And he is at pains to point out that Easter is about more than homosexual priests. The book is also a portrait of the modern Church of England, with all its complexities, and explores big philosophical questions about the nature of faith, Church and God, and the meaning of suffering.
The big questions - whose God? whose Church? - gain added relevance when placed in the context of the religious establishment's bitter divisions over gay sexuality. This, after all, is a Church which insists that homosexual sex is a sin, and which, under the evangelical leadership of George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, takes an increasingly fundamentalist line.
Carey, Arditti reveals, asked to see a copy of the book once it was finished. But Arditti has decided that to send him a copy would probably not be a good idea. He says, rather politely, that he thinks Carey would find it "challenging".
Arditti is dismayed at the swing against gays under Carey. "Fundamentalism is the greatest threat facing the world today," he says, "whether Muslim, Sikh, ultra-orthodox Jew or southern Baptists attending funerals of men killed by queer-bashers with placards that read 'God Hates Fags'. In the Church of England no one is bombing - but the attitudes are there."
And he's scathing about those who seek easy answers and fight to keep the Church a cosy little club that reinforces their own limited view of the world. He has no truck with people who use the Bible to back prejudices against gays. "God didn't create the world to be straitjacketed by the Bible," he says.
What many will dispute, of course, is that the establishment represented in Easter is anything like the modern Church of England. "It's a work of fiction and it will be received as such," says a Church of England spokesman. But Richard Holloway, the Bishop of Edinburgh and a critic of the Anglican hierarchy's stance on gays, defends Arditti. "The contemporary Church is an anxious institution that is in a state of complex denial about the reality of its own life," he says. "This book uncovers the truth about the Church and does so with wit and power."
While the Church will say there is no evidence that it has a disproportionate number of gays within its ranks, gay clergy say it has always been a special haven. Richard Kirker, the general secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christians Movement, says that gay men were always attracted to the all-male Church. The misogynists among them, never guessing that women would one day be ordained, also gravitated to an institution where women were at priests' beck and call.
The Church's official position is that gays can be ordained but should not have sex. But in Easter, married priests pursue gay priests, while gay priests lead double lives. So Blair rejects the man he loves and is celibate for years, while Archdeacon Alf, an old-school Catholic homosexual, retreats into sado-masochism with rent boys and, warped by misogyny, bitches about women priests and the advancement of married priests at the expense of celibates.
The Reverend Colin Coward, an openly gay priest in Southwark diocese, south London, says emotional and sexual repression has created a "sordid underbelly" in the Anglican Church. Repression leads to sadomasochism, he argues.
Kirker believes Carey's leadership has damaged the Church and says the Church should not be surprised if lesbians and gays leave." Arditti, though, shows no signs of leaving. He serves on his parish church council and says that even in his "blackest moments", he has not lost faith with God. He seems to be in for the long haul, fighting for an inclusive God and Church.
'Easter' is published by Arcadia on 7 April, priced £11.99.Reuse content