Why gays are called to the church

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The Independent Online
WHY are so many gays apparently attracted to Christianity? The Church has always been one of the few careers in which a man can wear a frock, stay unmarried and be accorded a right to preach every week on sexual morality.

But, until recently, the Church seemed an institution full of uncomplicated heterosexuals - pipe-smoking types who lived in rambling houses with several children and a thrifty wife who made the family clothes. This illusion was further punctured last week when yet another Anglican clergyman - the Rt Rev Derek Rawcliffe, retired Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway - decided to "come out" during a television interview.

There are still large areas of Christianity which remain no-go areas for gays. Most evangelical churches are passively hostile to homosexuality, some are actively hostile and many charismatics regard it as an affliction that can be cured by the Holy Spirit.

On the other hand, there are areas, especially of the Church of England, in which gays are hugely over-represented. In the diocese of London, for example, one of the Bishop's advisers once estimated to me that about 200 of the 900 priests in the city are in homosexual relationships. The Bishop, incidentally, once ran St Stephen's House in Oxford, by common consent the campest of all theological colleges, where he was known to his ordinands as Ena the Cruel, since it was a college tradition to give everyone female nicknames.

There are particular sub-cultural reasons for these concentrations of gay men. But to ask why gays are attracted to particular forms of Christianity is less interesting than to ask why they should be attracted to religion at all. The answer appears to be that they have been miserable. Outside the English public schools it is unusual and often thought unnatural to grow up gay. People who find themselves in that position are apt to ask themselves questions about the meaning and purpose of their lives earlier and more often than others; and these are questions that have traditionally had religious answers.

"How else but through a broken heart can the Lord Christ enter in?" Oscar Wilde wrote, after his disgrace. Not all gay poets have had that reaction. AE Housman's view - "The laws of God, the laws of man, / He may keep that will and can. / Not I" - may be a more common way of dealing with the problem. But the fact remains that a significant number of gays have been attracted to Christianity. Any religion which says that the purpose and point of the world is contained in the figure of an innocent man being tortured to death will attract the persecuted, even when their persecutors are fellow Christians.

At first sight the persecutors have a point. The Bible is not a document for the squeamish. Homosexuals are to be killed in the Old Testament, alongside such other grave sexual sinners as the man who spills his seed on the ground and the bestialist (as well as the sheep he does it with). Though it is not entirely clear from the story what the sin of Sodom was originally, the association with homosexuality was early and lasting.

In the New Testament, St Paul was roused to a splendid denunciation of the whole business. "Likewise also, the men, leaving their natural use of women burned in their lust towards one another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves the recompense of their error which was meet." For those who think that he was taking dictation straight from the Holy Spirit, St Paul's opinion closes the matter. Strictly speaking, such people must also believe that women should remain silent in church and that slaves should obey their masters, but plenty of good Christians have believed both without discomfort.

The whole trend of modern Christianity, however, has been against such rigid interpretation of the Bible. The rise of historical and scientific explanations for much that was once taken on faith has circumscribed the theologians' room for manoeuvre. And numerous gay apologists have attempted to argue their way around St Paul's prohibition, mostly on the grounds that he could not possibly have understood homosexuality as we understand it now, but was denouncing ritual prostitution.

These attempts may be found more or less convincing. At best the gay lobby has fought a draw on the texts. A draw is all the result they need, though. If it is reasonable, though unprovable, to suppose St Paul was misinformed, then there will be people to believe him wrong.

Most of the homosexual Christians I have known well enough to discuss the subject with honestly have said that they believe they were made that way; and God would not have made their natures for disuse. Their job as Christians is to be the best people they can be, and their sexuality is part of that attempt. Some believe they are called to celibacy; but none I have known believes that all homosexuals are called to celibacy any more than that all heterosexuals are.

The culmination of this line of argument was probably reached when the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, housed in the tower of St Botolph's in the East End of London, started selling The Joy of Gay Sex as well as more scholarly works. This went too far for the rest of the Church of England. The movement's officers were duly expelled after an acrimonious and expensive trial in a church court.

Yet genuine homophobes are rare in the Church of England. I can only think of one, now deceased: a largely deaf drunk who, by a delicious irony, was employed as press secretary to Graham Leonard when he was Bishop of London and thus patron of the largest collection of ecclesiastical queens in the world.

Otherwise, even the priests who have considerable political capital invested in serious attempts to drive gays out of the Church do not seem to be motivated by any personal dislike of their victims. The great mass of Christians prefer not to think about the subject very much at all. Bishops who are as camp as a row of tents will be treated as celibate unless caught. Perhaps this is because all the Christians involved are English. In the last resort; they believe that sexuality is part of a man's private life, and that is where it should stay.

These attitudes allow a considerable number of gay clergy. They are disproportionately concentrated in London and other urban centres because, once there is a well-established mutual support network among ordained gays, others will be attracted. Other explanations are advanced for why gays are attracted to the priesthood, which are more or less convincing.

But the priesthood may have been especially attractive to the people least suited to it: those who could not come to terms with their own homosexuality, and who hoped it could somehow be magicked away. The loneliness of a gay priest pales into insignificance beside the loneliness of his wife.