'Homophobic' C of E blamed as vicar quits

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The Church of England is riddled with "very serious homophobia", according to a new commission set up to investigate the problem.

The Church of England is riddled with "very serious homophobia", according to a new commission set up to investigate the problem.

The gay vicar of an up-market London parish resigned last Sunday, having suffered homophobic harrassment and threats of blackmail. Now, the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement has claimed that other priests are being driven out of their jobs, and members of the laity forced to leave the Church.

"We have received quite startling accounts of very sad and serious things happening," said John Swallow, a former headmaster who set up an independent inquiry for the LGCM in February.

His commission expects to report in November, but has already gathered "very substantial" evidence.

Its findings will not surprise the Rev Neil Follett, who is on extended leave in the West Country after resigning from St Paul's in Knightsbridge. His name has already been painted over on the noticeboard at the church in Wilton Place, around the corner from Harrods.

Anglo-Catholic St Paul's serves one of the wealthiest parishes in the country, including grand terraces, exclusive restaurants and casinos. Even the appeal to restore its bell tower is sponsored by Knight Frank, the top people's estate agent - although the forlorn sign outside the church says only one-tenth of the required £250,000 has so far been raised.

When the previous vicar left, the parochial church council placed an advertisement requesting "a family man" who was "of good social standing". As a 50-year-old former army officer with a wife and four grown-up children, Sandhurst graduate Mr Follett seemed the perfect pastor for what the ad called a "predominantly white population of the higher A/B social group".

He was instituted in April, but rumours began when it emerged that he had separated from his wife. In June, Mr Follett told his flock that he was gay.

Police investigating alleged homophobic harrassment then arrested the churchwarden, Captain Ian Powe, 67, and Maggie Quaile, a member of the congregation aged 63. They were both released without charge, but bailed to return to Belgravia police station next month.

Scotland Yard says that it is waiting for the results of DNA tests on homophobic material sent to Mr Follett before deciding how to proceed.

The Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, held a private meeting with senior members of the congregation after communion last Sunday, and told them of Mr Follett's decision to resign.

A spokeswoman for the Diocese of London said the priest would be free to pursue another parish. "He may do that, or he may not. That is a personal decision that he will have to take."

St Paul's has been placed in the care of the Rev Alan Gyle, 35-year-old chaplain to Imperial College, London, and the Royal College of Art. "I really can't comment," he said on Friday. "Everything is continuing absolutely as normal."

There were expensive cars with personalised number plates in the grounds of the church as evening prayers were said that evening. Guests in dinner jackets arriving by chauffeur-driven limousine at the Berkeley Hotel, a few yards from St Paul's, had no idea of the scandal. Neither did the young man trying to sleep rough under a golf umbrella propped up against the wall of the church.

So far, the LGCM Commission led by Mr Swallow has received more than 100 detailed accounts of discrimination against lesbians and gay men in different denominations.

At least three-quarters of them have come from within the Anglican Church.

The commission expects to publish a full report in November, in time for the first meeting of the newly-elected General Synod, the governing body of the CofE. It will call for churches to adopt a code of practice similar to those used by trade unions.

The report will detail at least six instances of institutional homophobia, said Mr Swallow, including church organisations such as the Christian Institute that have campaigned against the abolition of Section 28.

The "worst piece of hypocrisy", he said, was the position taken by the CofE as a whole - which accepted homosexual relationships between the laity, but insisted that gay priests remained celibate "So they cannot have any kind of practical relationship at all."

Among the individual stories to have been uncovered so far is that of a middle-aged priest in the Home Counties who, like Mr Follett, recently came out as gay to his wife and grown-up children.

"The family were completely accepting of this, and the PCC was not entirely hostile," said Mr Swallow. "But the diocese is. The Bishop is trying to get him to resign his position.

"Of course, he can't dismiss a priest like someone in another job, but he can lean heavily on him. There all sorts of sanctions that can be used: financial; visits from bishops and archdeacons; isolating him from the rest of the organisation. These things hurt."

When ordinary members of the Church suffer discrimination, they "just leave", said Mr Swallow. "There is a tremendous pain in all this. They don't want to leave."

Some of them become "happily ensconsed" in a congregation before their sexuality becomes known, at which point they "come up against an atmosphere of utter hostility.

"Only those with the strength and the will to fight can stay on after that."