The woman priest who wants gay marriages

Geraldine Bedell on the campaigner aiming to convert the synod
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PLUMP and motherly, wearing flat shoes and a cardigan, Cristina Sumners does not look like a troublemaker. She looks like a housewife from Haslemere - which is what, in part, she is. But she is also a priest and a radical gay rights campaigner, and she is about to become the scourge of the Church of England.

The newly-elected General Synod meets this month to preside over a church battered by the long war over women priests. There will not be much time for drawing of breath or consolidation: gay rights campaigners are determined homosexuality will dominate the synod's proceedings for the next five years as women have for the last.

At the forefront of their campaign will be Cristina Sumners, 48, American and straight, who has produced the document which will launch the next phase of the battle to get the church to conduct homosexual marriages and to ordain practising gay priests.

Sumners was not always so generously disposed towards homosexuals: there was a time when her morality was conservative and traditional. Brought up in a Presbyterian, Republican family in south Texas, she was set firmly against sex outside marriage of any kind.

Several things changed her. The first and most significant was contact with gay people when she was training to be a priest and afterwards. (Fastidiously, almost wearisomely politically correct, Sumners ducks the question - though many gays admit it themselves - of whether homosexuals are particularly drawn to the church.) At the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York where she trained, for the first time she came across lesbians and gays who were more or less "out". Her closest friends were gay men. "Their pain was great and memorable. One told me with tears in his eyes that all he really wanted was to get married and have children. They regarded homosexuality as a curse which had been visited upon them. I learned that homosexuality was absolutely not chosen, which was something of a revelation to me."

It is a view from which she has not wavered (though it is by no means universal). "I don't think I was prejudiced, exactly, though I do remember thinking - and it's embarrassing to admit this - that people who claimed to be glad to be gay were a bit over the top, protesting too much."

Later, one of her female friends became a nun. "When I asked why she was doing it, she took a very deep breath and said, 'I finally faced the fact I was a lesbian. And I can't be a lesbian and a Christian. So the only thing I can do is to cut myself off below the waist'. Awful, awful. Appalling. I shall remember the metaphor until I die."

What Sumners calls her "progress, as in Pilgrim's" was aided by the fact that her own sexual history was not as straightforward as it might have been. She has been married twice, the first time when she was 22. "It was a disaster. A nightmare. When I was in anguish and asking how I could possibly leave - I was training to be a priest - a very kind Jesuit said to me, 'Cristina, the laws of the church were not created to make people unhappy'." Her first marriage lasted six years; for the past 10 she has been married to an English scientist, whom she met while she was doing a D.Phil at Oxford.

If this makes it harder to be dogmatic about traditional morality, so, perhaps, does having nearly died. She had cancer when she was 23 and serious heart trouble in her thirties. She is a latent diabetic and suffers from other chronic ailments; and she is sterile, which is one reason she is so angered by the argument that same-sex relationships are somehow less valid than heterosexual ones for not producing children. "I see it as a personal offence. When you gauge the quality of a relationship even in part by an ability to have children you are also insulting sterile heterosexual couples."

Throughout our meeting she blows her nose - "my respiratory system is one of the bits of me that works particularly badly" and sits with her feet in front of an electric fan heater. She believes however, that "if I hadn't been for much of my adult life a full-time patient, I wouldn't know what suffering was about. I am inclined to think it is difficult to be an effective priest if you don't understand suffering first-hand, and in every other respect I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth."

Sumners' father was a prosperous house builder, her mother a housewife who later became an artist (and whose abstract fabric pictures now command five-figure prices). Despite their generally conservative politics, Sumners remembers being instructed, eccentrically for the time and place, always to call black men "sir" rather than "boy". She speaks now at the measured pace and in the soft tones of south Texas, but with energy and decisiveness. She can flare up when provoked, and she is provoked by the question of what should be the church's attitude to those for whom being glad to be gay is partly about not having to live in coupledom, but rather to have promiscuous sexual encounters.

"I am glad you asked me that," she says, through practically gritted teeth. "Promiscuity is not a gay issue. The value of sexual encounters outside permanent stable relationships is a matter for the whole church, gay and straight. And before we have a level playing field, we have no business discussing such matters."

The church, Sumners believes, must go beyond its 1991 statement that lay homosexuals in permanent stable relationships should be welcomed and extend the same warmth to clergy. "The bishops tactfully avoided words like 'inferior', but their document is a piece of theological sophistry, the most elegantly polite way of saying 'you're inferior' that I've ever read."

Her own document is by contrast a thing of effortless clarity. It deals with the scriptural, biological and social objections to homosexuality, and essays by a gay bishop and a lesbian laywoman express a heartfelt sense of having been spiritually crippled by the church's attitude to their sexuality. "To be a lesbian or a gay man in the church," Sumners says, "is to live a continual act of forgiveness."

Of all the arguments, the biblical ones seem to Sumners the most important; they must certainly be won first. This could take 10 years: the gay lobby does not expect any legislative changes from this synod, even though the proportion of pro-gays has risen from 10 per cent to 25 per cent since the recent elections. Realistically, the lobby is looking at 10 years - and, as with women priests, there will be prejudice long after the official position has shifted. There are very few congregations in Sumners' own diocese of Guildford which would stand a woman priest - which is one reason why she is not employed by the Church of England.

Until recently she taught at an independent school, and she occasionally celebrates the Eucharist in her own parish, even though she is not on the staff. "I think I may have closed down one opportunity for future employment. I can't imagine any secondary school wanting to employ me now. Can you imagine the parents ringing up and saying 'Is that woman teaching my son to be gay?' It's an ugly old world out there, and there are a lot of homophobes. Many people now regard me as a radical crank; I feel I've woken up one morning to find myself infamous. So if there are any gay groups wanting a chaplain, or people interested in learning more about homosexuality, I guess I'm their woman."