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Back Page: The priest who paints what he preaches

JOHN PELLING'S paintings combine his objects of greatest desire and deepest disgust. For while he loves the naked female form in all its "roundiness", he has a loathing for women priests, or "women-as-priests", as he prefers to call them.

Mr Pelling is an Anglican priest and fiercely opposed to the ordination of women. Being a graduate of the Royal College of Art, he has chosen to use paint not print to make his protest. "Painting is my preaching," as he put it, adding that one bishop congratulated him on his art, saying: "It raises such vital issues in ways which words cannot."

Pointing to an abstract painting of a woman dressed as a bishop, he says: "Instead of crosses on the mitre there are embryos, reminding people of the more female `having babies' role. And notice the church falling down in the background."

He moved past "a fallopian affair" and on to another work, entitled: "Playing with a Mitre". In it, naked women are sprawled in front of the altar, fighting to lay their hands on the mitre; behind, the cross is bent double.

The words: DIES MAGNA ET AMARA - Oh great and bitter day - are inscribed above one painting, a reference to the day in 1992 when General Synod voted in favour of admitting women priests.

Somewhere in every painting there is a cross falling from a tower, and there is often a penitential stole reflecting "something of the sadness of the situation." The women are nearly always naked, thereby "exposing them in a context which looks unnatural", and their faces gleeful, an expression of "the way they are all a bit happy to be changing the Church of England".

Mr Pelling, 67, studied at the Royal College of Art from 1950 to 1954. He was ordained in 1959 and presided over a number of parishes, including Kensington and Hammersmith in west London. He knew Francis Bacon at the Royal College of Art and has always lived by the master's definition of painting as "trying to make a concentration of reality by a shorthand of sensation".

He painted "by night" while practising as a priest, but in 1982 decided to devote himself to art full-time.

Mr Pelling still attends church regularly and would not walk out if a woman was in the pulpit. He would, however, refuse the sacrament from a woman. He blames "the men" for the current situation: They were just "too kind" - "We bent over backwards to please these women."

Mr Pelling, who lives in Chelsea, west London, with his wife, Zoe, is exhibiting his paintings at The Air Gallery in Mayfair, London, from 20 April until 9 May. The paintings, some of which are 12ft long, go for anything up to pounds 15,000. Any money he makes from the exhibition, which is entitled: "The Splitting Image", he will donate to Forward in Faith, an organisation which "helps towards retaining the Catholic tradition of the Church of England".

"I sound a bigoted old buffer," Mr Pelling apologised at the end of the interview. "But at the same time, I do love the company of women. They add so much. They are everything to life." Everything to life, but not, it seems, to the church.