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Richard Holloway Opening Address

Good evening, everyone, and thank you for your welcome. What [the organizers] didn’t know was that a Scottish bishop will go anywhere for a free meal. And, in fact, one bishop I know was invited by the local Rotary Club, if he would go and speak. You know, how you get invited, you get a kind of boiled chicken lunch, and you give a wee speech afterwards, and he was a man that didn’t get out much, so he said “Yes.” And, when the local bank manager who ran the Rotary Club said “What are you going to talk about?” he said, “Sex.” And he did. He greatly edified them, and entertained them. He was a modest kind of man, and went home fairly puffed up by the experience of having wowed them at the local Rotary Club. And he met his wife. And she had a certain contempt for him, and she said “Where have you been?” and he said “I’ve been talking at the Rotary.” And she said “What about?” And his nerve failed him, and he said “Flying light aircraft.” And she snorted, and they went into tea. And the next day, she went into the bank, and the bank manager came bustling out, and he said “My, yon was a great talk your husband gave us yesterday,” and she snorted. “I can’t think why,” she said, “he doesn’t know anything about the subject. He’s only tried it twice. The first time he was sick, and the second time his hat blew off.”

Jim Ferry asked me if I would be personally reflective in this short presentation tonight, and so I’ll be kind of autobiographical. I’ll touch, in a chronological way, a number of milestones in my own life and thinking and development that relate to our theme this weekend. I think it was Kierkegaard who said that we live our lives forward, but we understand them backward, and looking back after forty years in the ministry, I can see kinds of meanings that I didn’t understand when I was actually living the events. And in fact, the very thing that introduced me to the ministry, I now see was enormously significant.

I was a poor boy, came from a tough, poor background in a west of Scotland industrial town, and I was taken out of the back streets into the local Episcopal Church by a gay priest. A man called Nigel MacKay. I didn’t know he was gay at the time. He was the first educated man I had met. Within a couple of years of becoming a member of that little church, which I loved because it was an Anglo-Catholic church full of mystery and life and smoke and the glory and the beauty of God, and I fell in love with the beauty of God before I knew anything about doctrine or ethics. And it was this man who introduced me. But he ended his life as a broken man. He ended his life as an alcoholic, as someone who was cashiered from the priesthood. So I, looking back, realized that the greatest grace I was given in my ministry was given to me by a broken-down gay priest whom the church rejected. And that has been paradigmatic in my own understanding, both of the vehicles of grace, and of the status, the tragic status, certainly in the early part of my life, of gay priests.

I was brought up an Anglo-Catholic, and most of the priests I must have encountered were Anglo-Catholic, were gay, because the Anglo-Catholic movement was predominantly gay, in the priests who ran it. All of my confessors were gay, they ministered grace to me, and I realized, intuitively, that they were ministering a grace out of their own brokenness and pain. And to me

God’s grace has only ever been ministered through pain and brokenness, never through success. And there’s one reason why I worry a little bit about triumphalist queer theology. I think we need it almost as an antidote, but please, never ever lose that sense of your identification with Jesus, precisely because you have been, in many ways, crucified and shoved out onto the edge. This may be a straight man’s romanticizing of people who have been made victims, but I know that my life has been enriched by broken, gay men, who were repudiated by the church, but because they were wounded healers themselves, ministered grace to me.

I was sent to a junior theological seminary called Kellam, a monastery; they took poor boys and educated them for nothing. It was a highly charged male environment, highly disciplined, but subliminally very homo-erotic. Thirty boys, and about seventy men, and about thirty monks, and a very charged atmosphere, a very strong men and boy rule, no … you weren’t allowed to make friends if you were a boy, with a man, a man with a boy. But it did happen. People fell in love, or infatuated. There was this strong sense of attraction and its dangerousness. And some people would disappear overnight, because something had happened. You would wake up in the morning, you’d go to chapel, go to mass, they wouldn’t be there at breakfast, and you would hear only later on the grapevine that they’d been found out, something had happened, a physical incident, and they were off on the next train, away from Kellam. And so I was, from the very earliest part of my young adolescent life, aware that there was another world, a kind of invisible, almost unspoken world that was filled with pain and glory and joy and friendship, but was not spoken about. It was the great love that was never allowed either to speak its name, or to be spoken about. But it was there, it informed almost everything that was happening in that place.

My own kind of theological thinking about the time, about the matter at the time, was probably a kind of pre-liberal understanding that there was something here that was given, but something that was not yet committed. This, in Britain, was before it was even legal to have gay love, and I’m talking about men, because I only knew gay men. It was decriminalized in Britain, in about 1967. I’m talking about- I went to Kellam in 1948- I’m talking about the fifties, I’m talking about a time when it was not only unspoken, it was against the law to know this kind of love. And I knew that men ended up in jail, men ended up committing suicide, because they were being blackmailed, and a lot of them were priests. And I remember at the time, when they started debating whether or not to decriminalize it in Britain, famous Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsay, made a speech in the House of Lords, in which he made a distinction between a sin and a crime, and he said, “Homosexuality may be a sin, but it should no longer be a crime.” That was probably my thinking at the time.

On the other hand, my experience of gay men, gay priests, was a grace, was a being nourished by them, from the reality of their being. So there was a kind of theological contradiction. And gradually, I started understanding that Christianity made far too much of sexuality. It was too momentous, it was never meant to be as momentous as that, and okay, there may have been frailty, there may have been certain kinds of overstepping of boundaries, but so what. Even if there were, it was very unimportant compared to the big issues that we’ve just heard about. But these were the pre-occupying issues.

When I was finally ordained, I went through a phase when I didn’t really encounter much in the way of queer people, gay or lesbian people. I was working in the slums of Glasgow, the Gorbers group, one of the worst slums in Europe. I was engaged in other things than this. But then I was called, in 1968, to become rector of old St. Paul’s in Edinburgh, a very rich Anglo-Catholic tradition, with a significant number of gay people, and the next major milestone in my own development and thinking on these issues, was when I preached a series of sermons on Christians and sex. And a guy who had recently joined the congregation, his own words when he asked for an interview were that he was a “screaming queer.” This man was as camp as a whole bunch of Easter lilies. He was an intensely brave man. He was the kind of man that gets regularly beaten up in schools, simply because he was so utterly camp. He was the most courageous man I’ve ever met in my life. And he came to me, and he said, “I hope, Father, that you will address the other part of the human community when you’re talking about sexuality.” And I did. In a kind of liberal way, I kind of said, “Well, there is also the experience of loving members of your own sex, and they should be accorded the same privileges.”

And he came to me three months later, with another guy, who was a very repressed and restrained boy from a working-class background in Edinburgh, and he said, “We have fallen in love with each other, and we want you to bless our marriage.” This was in 1972. And one evening after evensong and benediction (this was a very advanced Anglo-Catholic church, it would make the pope look a graduate of Wycliffe College. It was so far up the candle it was dancing in the flames), and after evensong and benediction, I blessed the union of these two men, and one of the greatest privileges of my life is that two years after I was elected bishop, I went and celebrated a high mass for their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.

I moved from old St. Paul’s Church to the Church of the Advent, in Boston, Massachusetts, a very very gay church. There was a magazine called “Boston Magazine” and a few months before I got there, it did a series of surveys and things, you know, the best place to get a good fish dinner, the best place to hear a good violoncello concert, the best place for a good gay pick-up, and the answer to that question was “the Church of the Advent, Boston.” It was filled with gloriously handsome men, and gloriously beautiful young women, who all went ‘round looking rather puzzled.

And two things happened to me at the Church of the Advent in Boston. I discovered feminism, because I was challenged by some of these very strong women, because I was a liberal, a fairly… I thought of myself as a decent, tolerant, open-minded kind of guy who thought the ordination of women, yeah, would probably come sometime, and that all this gender-inclusive language stuff was a little bit neurotic and over-sensitive. I was challenged, and I learnt, I was prophesied to by some of these women, so I discovered the nature of the feminist hermeneutic, the challenge to my theology, my understanding of the Bible, and I also discovered that the gays in that congregation were in solidarity with the women. And that taught me an enormously important lesson, that gay men and feminist straight women, fighting for ordination, could make common cause. I was only there for four years, but I grew exponentially in my appreciation of these things.

When I came back to Britain in 1984, to my dismay, I discovered that in the battle that was just beginning then for women’s ordination, one of the most implacable blocks opposed to it was the gay priest fraternity in the Church of England. Deeply closeted men in denial, very often living gay lives but saying they weren’t, and opposing the ordination of women. Misogynistic, a lie in the soul of the gay priesthood and the Church of England, and it’s still there. Because the built-in institutional opposition to the ordination of women, the acceptance of women’s ordination in Britain, is still significantly gay male-led, in some significant places. It’s one of the deepest tragedies of the queer experience in Britain, that they have not achieved any kind of solidarity with other people seeking justice. And it’s one reason why I think that the Church of England is in such a damaged state in this particular debate. Not only the debate over women, but the debate over gay sexuality.

That was a profoundly conflicting experience. I came back to Scotland as a bishop in 1986, and I tried to be a bishop, for a year or two. I kind of gave up, finally. Because bishops are supposed to be focuses of unity, which means they’re not supposed to disagree with anyone, about anything. And I did practice the classical Anglican fudge, if you like. Fudge, there’s a lot to be said for Anglican fudge, it’s quite sticky, it can be quite sweet and nourishing, and it was “don’t ask, don’t tell” time. Remember those days? It worked for quite a long time, because there were lots of gay priests, in particular, who managed wonderful ministries, and probably also an appropriate level of intimacy, but it never became an issue. But the turning point in Britain, that actually made it important to stand up alongside people who were being persecuted, was when, in its gradual ascendance, the conservative evangelical part of the Church of England not only disapproved of homosexual priests, but began to seek them out in order to excommunicate them. And there were a series of resolutions before synods, and that’s when something began to turn in me, when I started moving from a classic tolerant liberal stance to something approaching anger.

When men were being drummed out of the priesthood of the Church of England, because they were discovered to have been gay, and there started this kind of persecutory wave that is still fairly dominant in English ecclesiastical experience. And it was at that point that I started myself being more overt in the things that I would say. I had, as I’ve already indicated, been ministered to by gay priests. I had blessed the unions of gay men. I no longer theologically had any problems with any of this stuff, but I still wasn’t saying very much about it. Because it still struck me that the best way to manage it was through this kind of political silence. And that’s the way many gay men, in particular, wanted it. But when this particular stream of persecution started, mainly in the Church of England, some of us gradually elevated our heads above the parapet, and it was about that time that I finally joined the lesbian and gay Christian movement.

And, theologically, an interesting thing happened to me. Like a lot of liberal people, and I don’t know if you know Elizabeth Stuart’s book, Just Good Friends, she’s a Catholic theologian, there’s something about Catholic women, lesbian theologians, people of enormous power and insight, they seem to major in them, that you’d think the penny would drop in the papal mind, but … Elizabeth Stuart’s book Just Good Friends uses the image of the football match, in which she says that you have the two teams, you know, the liberals and the conservatives, playing each other, and the people that they’re actually debating, or fighting over, are in the bleachers watching it. And she blows the whistle, she says “I’m sorry. This game is about us. You’re not going to argue about us. We’re in the game.” And that, to me, raised an important theological crisis, because, like many moderately liberal catholic-minded priests, I was still hung up on the weight of the tradition and the biblical narrative in what it said about this particular situation.

But the thing that actually blew those issues out of the water for me was women’s ordination. Because I suddenly realized that when the traditionalists who were opposing the ordination of women said, “If you let women be ordained, nothing will stay the same,” and we would say, “No, no, no. That’s not true. We’re simply putting collars round their necks. You know, they’ll simply become honorary men.” In fact, the traditionalists were right. Because if you ordain women, against the burden of the tradition, against the specific textual stuff in the Old and the New Testament, you radically relativize tradition. You relativize scripture. You humanize it. You provisionalize it. You say bits of it are culture, and time-specific. You make choices, and you have therefore altered the whole theological landscape. You then dance more lightly. You’re not committed to these great blocks that do not enable you to respond with any kind of versatility to new things that are coming. You discover that your God can revise Herself, and if you read the Acts of the Apostles, chapter ten, you’ve got that lovely encounter between Peter the conservative, and God the radical, wanting Peter to do some new thinking. And God says to Peter, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat,” and he says back to God, “But you already told me this stuff is illegal. Make up your bloody mind.” “What I have cleansed, you must not call …” The Torah corrects the Torah. And if you have a dynamic understanding of scripture, you mustn’t get into textual fundamentalism. You must learn to play it like jazz. You must listen to the God who’s ahead of you.

Theologically, that had a profound effect on me. It almost cheered me up, until the Lambeth Conference of 1998. The Lambeth Conference of 1998 was the most horrifying experience of my life. It was like being present at a lynch mob. The afternoon when we debated human sexuality and all those resolutions came, they were determined to condemn. We thought we would get a compromise, a good old Anglican fudge. I’ve already said I quite 2 like Anglican fudge. In 1988 when the hot neuralgic subject was the ordination of women, we said, “We disagree about it. Let’s have a commission.” So we appointed a commission chaired by the Archbishop of Armagh, and it stretched the debate, took a lot of the heat out of it, and by the time it reported, a lot of things had happened. It’s quite good politics to do that sometimes.

We went, some of us, to Lambeth in ’98 expecting the same thing to happen on this issue, that we would say we disagreed, it’s a neuralgic point, we know there are some people who have problems with it, but let’s appoint a commission and study it theologically by time. Not on your life. They were not up for any kind of compromise. They wanted blood. They wanted condemnation. And to be in that assembly and to hear the baying and the booing and the hissing and the insults and the screaming was a profoundly demoralizing experience. I almost came away immediately. The person who kept me at it for a few days longer was Michael Peers, the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, because I went to him and said “I’m off.” And he said, “No, you must stay,” because there was going to be a Primates’ meeting a few days later. One of the reasons I’m profoundly glad no longer to be in office as a bishop is that I no longer have to attend those bishops’ meetings and listen to that kind of thing. Because they were profoundly demoralizing experiences.

So, unlike your previous speaker, I’m not terribly optimistic, actually. I’m actually quite pessimistic, maybe I’m just a bit tired. I feel a bit like a general who’s fought many wars and is now looking back and wondering about the ethics of any of them. And I think of myself now as a kind of an ecclesiological civilian. I’m, myself, not sure where we’re going to go, where religion’s going to end up. I came here this weekend, partly for the free meals, partly maybe to get my own batteries a little bit charged on the issue, and partly out of a kind of loyalty and love. I can never keep up with the terms ‘gay,’ ‘lesbian,’ ‘queer,’ ‘homosexual.’ Whatever it is, they’ve ministered to me my whole life long. They’ve taught me grace, and the moments of clearest understanding of what I am now not sure the meaning of, this word ‘God,’ has come to me through this community. So to that extent, I’m here partly out of a kind of gratitude, a returning of thanks.

But I’m not confident as to where it’s going to go, because I see in the Anglican Church an ascendance of a kind of primitive literalism about scripture, a kind of return to a pre-critical understanding of scripture I thought had been won years ago. I thought that when I was a theological student forty-five years ago, the stuff that we were pretty well accepting was pretty well established, and now we’re witnessing in world Christianity, and certainly in the Anglican Communion, a reversion to a kind of pre-scientific, historical understanding of scripture and tradition, which is astounding to me. I don’t know whether we’re going to switch the thing back at all. It seems to me that religion in many of its forms is becoming increasingly anxious and fundamentalistic, and I’m not sure that I have much energy left to want religion to survive, if that’s the way it’s going. But I’m here. And I’m still dancing on the edge of Christianity. Some people, when that book came out a few years ago, said “He wasn’t dancing on the edge. He’s leapt over the edge and right off.” And I’m kind of spiralling down, but I’m still here.

After the Lambeth Conference of 1998, this is the last thing I want to say, a British journalist writing in the Times, because of course this was world news, it was on the front page, you saw that Nigerian Bishop exorcising Richard Kerka. It was conspicuously unsuccessful, as far as I can gather. And the world press was there. They lapped it up, of course, because it showed Christianity at its primitive, vindictive worst. But this guy, Simon Jenkins, writing in the Times the next day said, “What I don’t understand is why gay and lesbian, transgendered people want to be a part of this outfit anyway. Why do they want to stay on in Christianity? What is the point? Why do you want to belong to an outfit that insults you, persecutes you? Are they masochists as well as everything else?”

And I’ll absolutely end with a kind of, four lines of verse I got from the refrigerator, you know how refrigerators, certainly in the United States, they’re kind of walking, well they’re static encyclopedias. Lots of messages on them. I’m going to do a book on fridge door theology one day. This is a gay friend of mine, who’s known a lot of pain, and his partner died a few years ago and he was an extraordinary man. Anyway, I saw on Rusty’s fridge door a few years ago, a poem by a little-known American poet, that seems to me maybe to be a good marching song for the conference this weekend. “They drew a circle that shut me out, Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win, we drew a circle that took them in.” And it seems to me that that’s what you’re trying to do, and I hope you get it as wide as that. 

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