The truth will out, Ronald

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What do you do if you are a gay man who has been in a happy relationship with another man for 15 or 20 years? And you then find out that your partner is leading a secret life? That he is also a clergyman? And that he has been a closet clergyman all the time he has been living with you?

That is what happened to Jim. Jim has been living with Ronald for 17 years. It has been a happy partnership. There have never been any major infidelities. There have never been any serious difficulties. Jim thought they did not have any secrets from each other.

And then one day Jim discovered that Ronald was a practising clergyman.

"I couldn't believe it," says Jim. "Everything seemed so happy and above board. And now I find out he has been going off every weekend and seeing these ... these people! Without ever telling me!"

Ronald says that he always meant to tell Jim but that the longer he left it, the harder it became.

"If I had said right at the beginning that I was a reverend, I was afraid that Jim would have laughed at me - even worse, he might have left me. Jim has certain very strong principles, and I was just so very worried that he might not have taken me seriously if he had found out that I had an urge to dress up in robes and preach to people."

And so the double life began. Ronald always gave the impression that he went away at weekends to see folks up north, and in a way this was true, as he was going to see his parishioners in Hertfordshire.

"Things got better as I got promotion in the church and I was able to get more time off," says Ronald, "but it was never easy, and there must have been times when Jim became very suspicious. Quite often I was on the verge of going to him and saying: `Look, Jim, there's something I have to tell you - I have been ordained and there is someone else in my life and it's God, and please don't be jealous!' but I never quite had the courage.

"When I became a bishop, I found it impossible to tell him ... I mean, you can just about get away with saying: `Oh, by the way, I've been given this sweet little weekend church in Hertfordshire and I am conducting a service on Sunday - care to come?' but with the best will in the world it's almost impossible to say to your loved one: `I forgot to tell you, but I'm being installed in the cathedral on Sunday', at least, not without a little spadework."

Things might have gone on indefinitely like this had Jim not discovered Ronald's secret wardrobe full of cloaks and robes and gowns. At first he thought Ronald was a secret cross-dresser. Then he stumbled on the awful truth when he came across a drawer full of religious magazines.

"Actually, it's not so much the deception," says Jim, "though that's bad enough. It's the crowd of people that I now find he's got mixed up with. All these sanctimonious, soft-faced, hard-hearted men and these middle-aged women looking for emotional compensation ... Ronald says they're a good bunch deep down and they mean well, but I don't get very positive feedback from them. An overpowering odour of sanctity, rather like too much aftershave ...

"Of course, Ronald thinks I'm being intolerant and dismissive, but I suppose that's what he's paid to think. Personally, I think the Church of England is far too ghettoised to be effective. As a gay person, I know a bit about the ghetto mentality and the closet way of thinking, but believe me, the church is way ahead of us. The private language they've got, the signs, the rituals, the dressing up - it's unbelievable!

"And it's not just the doctrine I'm talking about! Want my opinion? My opinion is that it's not natural being a member of the Church of England. It's ... a bit kinky, somehow."

Perhaps what Jim can't come to terms with is the discovery that his partner belongs to such a very small minority.

"Homosexual men and women form perhaps 10 per cent of the population," he says. "That's a big minority. It's a big, powerful minority, as big and powerful in its own way as blacks or old-age pensioners. But the practising members of the Church of England form a tiny percentage of the population, maybe not even 1 per cent. I can't understand why Ronald should want to be so marginalised. Don't throw yourself away on the Church of England, I tell him. Stay with the gay community! There are many more of us!" There is a pause.

"Oh, well," sighs Jim. "We'll work it out somehow. And at least there's one consolation."

Oh? What's that?

"At least he hasn't turned out to be a secret mason."