A prayer in the dark

The Church of England is split over the question of whether it should ordain gay priests. Nathan Foster, an Anglican curate who is gay, explains why he needs the church - and why his church needs him
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Advent is the season of four weeks in the Church's year leading up to Christmas; it has always been my favourite. The evenings get progressively darker and a good year for Advent is when autumn comes late, so that the trees are still covered in copper-and-iron leaves and there is some warmth to the early evening. Churches in Advent become dark, warm places: the liturgical colour is purple and traditionally preachers would take death, judgement, heaven and hell as their themes for the four Sundays; the harmonies of Advent hymns are almost a genre of their own, brooding, mellow, rich and most of all dark. It all makes for a bittersweet concoction of words and images as the year winds to its end.

As a boy I fell in love with Advent, and at the same time fell in love with God and the church. But my love affair with darkness had a much longer history. At nine or 10 I was becoming aware of myself. At night I would close my eyes as tightly as I could manage until all I could see was the fluorescent tracer fire that tumbles around the inside of eyelids. Then I would open the "Blue Book" in my mind, my young metaphor for a repertoire of fantasy, and live out fantasies so masochistic that they now make me uncomfortable. They were nearly always solo fantasies, always naked but never genital; the one thing I know with utter certainty though is that they were sexual. In one, which would become important to me later on, I was standing naked on a gravel path beside a stream. The water was dark and the trees on the other side of the water formed an impenetrable screen. In front of me on the path was an open backed truck and my hands were tied to it with twine. The fantasy consisted of being dragged along the path by the truck, the gravel skinning the top of my feet. It was a great thrill at the time.

My first attempt at seduction was in the dark; seduction became an art always practised at night. Not in the deep of night but in the first night of evening and in twilight, in the time before curfew and, "It's time to come in now!" from mum. Seduction was practised outside in the woods and fields surrounding my home, even in the run-down riding stable at the top of my road. Among the straw, the horse sweat and the smell of leather tackle, my school friends and I would enjoy our bodies. It was not horseplay: it was too subtle, too kind, too exploratory. In the dark places of seduction it was safe to touch, to explore and encounter someone else's body. To touch in a way that was not having your arm twisted behind your back or face pressed into the mud for being a poof.

So I was in love with the dark; not a dark which was cold or menacing, not a dark in which nasty things lurked but rather a dark where I could begin to feel. The dark was nurturing, it was where, in church, I was connected to everyone else; living, dead, present or not, mentally disturbed, outcast, old, young, poor, rich, intelligent, of the establishment, or criminal - in fact, everyone gathered around that table. All Eucharists are like that for me but Advent held special mystery.

At the end of Advent the church plunges itself into a tiny stable and all the church throughout the world stands crowded into a small and dangerously revolutionary room in Bethlehem. All watching as God acknowledges that God has a body too.

Is it any wonder that so many other gay people, and particularly men, are attracted by the images of the divine which Christianity presents? A divine human being who suffered the ultimate vulnerability. Someone who spoke the truth about his life and so suffered insults and beatings to the point of the ultimate vulnerability of death. The scapegoating of Jesus, the one who takes upon himself the sins of the world, makes the ultimate role model of the passive, receptive, open male. I would not want to labour the point, but there is no doubting the fact that the vulnerability of being penetrated in any way or of defining yourself in such a way that society makes you outcast means that for the gay man there is a tangible link between the pain-bearing and the life-giving side of making love. Straight men perhaps forget this because much of the pain and vulnerability of their love-making is born for them by women in pregnancy and labour. Look to artistic images of Jesus and always there is the pain of death and the joy of resurrection and always Jesus transcends them both to create something new, something glorious. That was the Christ that I was following when I offered myself for ordination at the age of 14.

In the light two men cannot come together; they need the dark for protection. Two men cannot embrace and still be thought to be real men. You can only hope to become a man if you are separate, not if you are connected to each other, certainly not if you are coupled or copulating. Nothing must go into a man's body in the light because then we would all see that we all have holes. That there are holes in the bodies of boys and men, that we can receive and be vulnerable.

It is clearly not possible to remain in the dark for ever. It is common for those who do not have to do it to think of a gay person's "coming out" as a once and for all act of coming into the light. In reality, gay people, like everyone else, exist somewhere in between the public and the private. In every situation we make our judgement and take our chance about what to reveal and what to conceal; everyone does. For gay people, though, the stakes are much higher. I risk my job, my house, my car, and my vocation by making the wrong judgement about how much light to throw on myself. Something to be learnt about God perhaps; a God who both reveals and is a mystery, of course I am attracted to a God who is also coming out. But that process is unlikely to be acknowledged in the debate in the Church of England: anyone who is gay in the church and speaks of their experience will as always be negated by the label activist. Activist, in this context though, meaning "someone who has sex and talks about it".

In a superb poem by Maya Angelou called "Still I Rise" she taunts the reader, "Does my sexiness upset you, does it come as a surprise/ That I dance like I've got diamonds at the meeting of my thighs." Having sex is something that I do and I love it. It is part of what makes me who I am. I am also aware that when I make love with my partner it is an expression of many other things about our relationship. It is about our commitment, our jokes, our living together and our eating together. It is about our struggling to find justice together and about our efforts to be creative together through my writing, his art, our making a home together. The often-heard cry when gay people take the risk of coming out is that they are "shoving it down our throats" (notice again how much people hate the language of being receptive and open). This is usually not the case.

When I come out, to any degree, I do so to make a relationship more real, not in order to talk about my sex life. It may be painful yes, may be a relief, may be at the risk of violence, but coming out shines a very intense light on our relationships. The person I am talking with has a chance to get to know who I am.

For too long the church's ministry has been done to people, not with people: the priest as patron, wanting to help, not realising the need to learn. When I come out I make that situation or relationship more mutual. It is the same thing that I strive for in all my relationships, professional or otherwise. It may well be that there is something here for the church to learn from the gay community.

Perhaps Holy Orders are God's great experiment in freeing people to enter in to right relationships. Being a gay man in holy orders I feel that I have a rich base of source material in my own life to help further that experimentn

Nathan Foster (not his real name) is a young gay priest of the Church of England working in a southern diocese.