Mirror Moments, or, Practising to be Me. 

Something I wrote and gave nearly a year ago – but it may be of interest.

A lunchtime Seminar for LGBT History Month
Sponsored by PRIDE Cymru and Cardiff University LGBT+ Staff Network

Wednesday 17th February 2016

 

Very good to be with you today. And thanks to the sponsors of this event.

This talk is about identity, and identities. It is about how I came to work out who I was and how the journey has been towards simplicity on the one hard and complication on the other.

I am old enough to remember the time before legalisation, and my story is profoundly influenced by the generation to which I belong.

  1. Mirror looking 

When I was about 11- or around the time of the change in the law regarding male homosexuality in 1967 – I was sitting one day with my parents at the breakfast table (the days when you all sat down to have breakfast). My mother laughed then passed her paper to me to show me a cartoon. It was a weak joke about someone feeling a “little queer”. The joke was passed on to my father who laughed. And I laughed too.

I realised it was a test. My mother (who I loved greatly and who was a wonderful mother to me) wanted to make sure that I knew what a queer was. I did. I laughed. And in so doing I knew then that I had both passed and failed the test.

I had passed it for their purposes – neither of them gave me any sex or relationship education except by such tangential means as this. They could tick that one off their mental list – though in truth I don’t suppose they ever talked between themselves about what I did or didn’t know. The note of warning was implicit – these are people to be laughed about – AND AVOIDED.

But I had failed the test too. I had colluded with an attitude, that even then, was something that worried me. I knew, in a way that simply defies description, that I was “not quite like the other boys”.

I had a well tuned sense of self-preservation – and I did not want to become the object of other people’s bullying or scorn. I did not want to be seen to be a sissy. So I did games, and I was ok at them. I did them more than I really wanted to, because you had some kudos with other boys if you did. And there were the changing rooms..

I also did them because I was a musician, and that took me into dangerous territory. A bit poofy. And all my passion was directed to being a good musician even at a very young age.

And I knew as well that I found men and boys my own age fascinating in a way that I knew most of my friends did not. So I entered puberty with a sense of unease which I think now looking back was more than the usual teenage uncertainties.

So here is my first mirror moment. It is the gaze of the adolescent boy wondering who he is. The surface matters a lot of course at that age – you examine yourself endlessly for spots, blackheads and pimples. You check out every inch of your body, noting every change as you become..well, as you become a man, or at least manly. You spend a good deal of time looking and wondering. Inside, I felt a significant lack of confidence, more I think than my peers.

For the adolescent heterosexual teenager there were (and are) endless cultural clues telling him that his uncertainties about who he is are going to be all right. This was still the age of casual sexism, of wolf whistles, of “dolly birds”, of pin up calendars in garages. Every semiotic indicator had pragmatic value for them.

Their fathers would nudge them to admire the young women they already were admiring. They would hear their male peers talking boastfully about what they had (almost certainly not) done with whoever it was last night. And it was all bathed in a general approval – even if the culture of the time was still fierce towards girls who got “in the family way” or the “pudding club”, it still sort of expected young men to try it on.

For me, however, it was to enter a time of increased anxiety. I knew I liked boys of my own age – but I could never admit it to myself. It had to be a phase, didn’t it? Mercifully (as I saw it), I was randy enough to be able to respond to a girl’s kisses. So if I got hard then that would be ok, wouldn’t it?

It was a time when my mirror looking had added concern: would anyone be able to see what was happening inside, and discern what my real desires were? I was unable to pretend that I was really drawn to women sexually, but I decided that perhaps if I got emotionally involved then maybe the other stuff would sort itself out. I fell, puppy-like, for a succession of girls, who, if they were worried about what I might have wanted from them, had, if they only knew it, nothing to fear.

I also fell in love with one or two male friends at boarding school – but, while I was having a good deal of very enjoyable sexual contact with some of my mates most of whom turned out to be heterosexual, I never had any sexual contact with the boys I loved. That would have put everything together in a way that would have blown my fragile mind and personality apart.

Into this mix, we now have to add religion. I want you to understand that I was not a conventionally religious child – indeed, I was inclined to scepticism. However, I had one or two very powerful spiritual transcendental experiences from the age of ten, which meant that while I adhered to no particular creed I was convinced that the observable world is not all there is.

What shattered my spritual and psychological equilibrium was the death of my mother in a car crash when I was fifteen. I became quite a difficult adolescent – in 1971 there was no such thing as grief counselling for children. Her death had a very bad impact on our family life – she had been very much its centre. I became very hostile to the idea of God, who I blamed for the pain I was experiencing.

It is hard to explain what happened to me two years later. I had a huge spiritual experience that led me to begin following Jesus Christ. However far I have come and however much I have changed I still look back to that seminal day in 1973 and can’t deny the reality of what happened. But it meant that one day I was very much not a Christian and the next I was, and I knew I was.

I lost friends over it. It made life complicated  -but at the same time it was wonderfully purposeful, and I felt more alive than I ever had before.

For the next six years I was very absorbed in working out what this all meant. The difficult issues about my sexuality did not go away, needless to say. But they were obliged to take something of a backseat as I worked out what it meant to be a Christian. It was clear from very early on that the faith I had found, in its cultural manifestation, took a very simple and clear line on things sexual – sex was for marriage and marriage was for a man and a woman for life. Everything else was out. Sex before marriage was very frowned upon, masturbation was a matter of concern, and as for homosexuality – well that was a complete no no.

By the age of 22 I was training to be a priest and a year later I was married to a girl I had met in the last year of Uni. I did really fall very much in love with her – and the night before the wedding I remember looking at myself in the mirror and thinking ‘I hope this is going to be all right’. And also that I was sure it would be for a good 25 years – as far ahead as I could bring myself to look.

  1. Unable to look

And it was all right. My virginal fears proved groundless. We were happy in lots of ways. We had a big family, we never had much money, we had lots of adventures, we lived in Europe and Africa. We tried to make a difference for the better in the communities in which we worked. Along the way I had met and cared for a fair number of LGBT people, and had always tried to treat them as I would anyone else. As the years went by I became more vociferous about supporting their rights.

But I had two difficulties: I was always fearing that somehow I would give myself away, that my big secret would be exposed. And this, despite the decision I had made never to admit to myself that I was gay, never to say the word, never to let myself explore the meaning of what that might be about. So my big fear was a nameless fear, that had a perfectly good name always just beyond speaking.

The other difficulty was one that was harder to manage. I lived with a persistent sense of shame. Of not being right, of not being myself, and being somehow wrong. I had a very poor self-image. And I somehow never connected the dots with my secret. But, deep down, it made me very unhappy, and sometimes rather depressed.

So this was a long period of life when, if you like, I avoided mirrors for fear of what I might see.

I was faithful to my wife all through this period – though if I had been heterosexual it might have been more difficult, I had a number of women fall in love with me and tell me how they felt. I don’t believe I would have been unfaithful, but then again, I never had a man tell me he fell in love with me in all that period, and I schooled myself not to look at men, nor to allow myself to develop feelings for them.

  1. Arriving at the mirror moment

When I reached fifty, now ten yours ago, I was becoming difficult to live with – or so my growing family told me. I don’t doubt it. The strain of pretending to be someone other than myself was showing. I went to find a counsellor. I was, by now, being told that the next job I would do would be a senior one in the Church of England as an Archdeacon or a Dean or a Bishop. Being told such things if you are at all ambitious makes you not want to rock the boat.

So it was difficult when I went to speak to the diocesan advisor for counselling to ask for a referral to a therapist and he said “But why, Jeremy? You are one of the best and most respected priests in the diocese!”

But he sent me to a Jungian analyst. And I started to talk. Which is a very dangerous thing to do.

Early in the year Brokeback Mountain had come out. I knew that it was very dangerous territory for me, and that I could not risk going to the cinema to see it, so I waited until it was released on video. On 24th April 2006 I went to Tesco’s, bought myself a copy and went home. I locked myself in my study and watched the film. It was a moment of utter self-realisation. I sobbed my way through it and then for quite some time after. I knew that in the characters of Ennis and, particularly, Jack, I was looking at people like me, gay married men.

I dried my tears and went upstairs to wash my face. I looked in the mirror, really looked, and then said “I am a gay man”. And I knew it was true.

Two things happened at once. One was that the shame I had carried, that sense of being somehow wrong, disappeared never to return. Secondly, I recognised at once that this was going to cause a shed load of trouble.

The loss of shame was almost a powerful a spiritual experience as what happened to me in 1973. It felt to me rather like the description of Christian at the foot of the cross in the first part of the Pilgrim’s Progress:

“So I saw in my dream, That just as Christian came up with the Cross, his Burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do, till it came to the mouth of the Sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.”

It was not only that sense of finally arriving at being myself, but of my being welcomed by God as I truly was that meant so much to me. Bunyan writes of Christian weeping after this happened: I wept with relief and joy.

  1. Negotiating the Hall of Mirrors

I have called this part Negotiating the Hall of Mirrors, because the consequences of that moment of truthfulness have sometimes felt like going back into a world of unreality.

Not with my wife and family, I might say. Having come out to myself and God I came out to her the next day.

The end of a marriage and the break up of a family is always very painful. What makes it more difficult is if, as is the case with Church of England clergy, their housing is tied to their job. I had a major breakdown at the end of 2006, and felt that I had to leave the family home and my wife. It happened in 2007, and it meant a lot of anguish because, in leaving my job, I was also depriving them of a home.

In the end, everyone is ok. My children are busy getting on with their lives and my former wife is happily in another relationship. We have good and loving communications between us all. But it would have been good if the Church was a safe place in which to come out and where there were those who were both willing and equipped to support people through difficult transitions. But I have to say it is not a safe place.

I moved north and started again. I got work singing professionally in a cathedral, and then eventually rather fell into healthcare chaplaincy. I had steadily been in the business of coming out to people from the early days. But that accelerated when I moved away.

In that gayest of gay novels, E M Forster’s A Room with a View, Lucy Honeychurch, the heroine, gradually tells more and more lies about herself and her feelings until her world implodes. Forster gives us a lovely happy ending.

I knew that I had to be truthful about myself. When you have lied for so long there is nothing attractive at all about secrets any more. I had no conviction that spiritually or theologically to be an out gay man was a problem. As one good friend said to me “I thought it your boss who said ‘They shall know the truth. and the truth will set them free?” He was absolutely right.

At first I lived by myself. But in 2008 I met Laurence, and after some months we decided to share a home. Frankly, we loved each other so much we couldn’t bear to be apart.

Because I wasn’t in the lying game any more everyone locally knew. So did everyone at both places of work. So too did the church authorities in Southwell. No one objected, no one told me I shouldn’t, no one had me in ‘for a chat’. When I asked the bishop of Southwell and Nottingham for a Permission to Officiate so that I could take services it came back in the post by return, no questions asked.

We never wanted a civil partnership. We had both been married for a long time and, despite the fact of our both being divorced, we believed in the commitment and seriousness of marriage. We were delighted when the legislation to make same-sex civil marriage possible passed through the Houses of Parliament and received Royal Assent.

So we planned a wedding. We didn’t contact any media about it – it was as far as we were concerned a private matter. I informed the church authorities both in Lincoln and Southwell just so that they could update their files as a matter of courtesy. Of course I knew that the bishops had been against the bill in its passage through the House of Lords, but I did not know how they were going to respond thereafter.

With Civil Partnerships they had begun by being very hostile to the idea, but had eventually settled down to accepting that they might be acceptable for clergy, so long as the clergy were celibate (or perhaps more correctly, chaste). I had never (and still haven’t) been asked any intimate questions about the nature of my relationship, and if I had ever been I would have refused to answer them. But it was clear that legally speaking civil partnerships did not presume a sexual relationship.

This was less clear with same sex marriage. Notions of consummation were deliberated in the House of Lords, but fairly swiftly abandoned. So same-sex marriage had a kind of sexual uncertainty about it that civil partnerships did not. And nothing makes the Church of England more anxious than sex.

When we got married in April 2014, we had no idea, until a day or two before, that I was going to be the first priest to contract such a marriage. I knew by then that this was going to cause trouble. The Bishops’ Valentine Day Statement had included Guidance that explicitly said that priests should not contract one of these marriages.

My own view was that bishops’ Guidance is one thing – but making vows to the person you love most for the rest of your life is something entirely different and much more important. So we got married.

It was a big splash in the media, which was quite hard to handle. And it was followed by a rebuke from the Bishop of Lincoln, a man who had shaken me by the hand only five weeks earlier and told me that he “hoped it would all go very well”.

The rebuke was copied to the Archbishop of Canterbury and lies on my file forever. We received it on our return from honeymoon, and it told me that I had broken my ordination vows. It was a most unpleasant thing to receive, but it didn’t, and doesn’t, make any difference to my being able to work in Lincoln diocese as I still have the licence the bishop gave me when I went to work there in 2011.

By this time I was looking for a promotion in the world of Healthcare chaplaincy. I had been a deputy chaplain for some time and wanted a senior post. One came up only twenty minutes down the road from where we live – I decided to apply.

I was asked to go and see the acting Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham on 29th May. I took the CEO of LGCM with me, as the bishop concerned said he would have his diocesan registrar (solicitor) with him.

We met and he asked me to explain what I had done. I did, and rebutted his assertions about the impropriety of me, as a priest, having married. He told me that he would think about what he was going to do and then let me know. I asked him what options he might be considering in terms of actions. He told me there were four:

 

  1. Nothing
    2. a rebuke, like the one I had received in Lincoln
    3. the removal of my Permission to Officiate
    4. ordering his archdeacon to make a complaint under the Clergy Discipline Measure – in other words, more formal disciplinary action.

I told the bishop about the job I was applying for in the diocese, and reminded him that if I was offered the job, the NHS Trust would, following normal procedures, write to him to ask him for a licence for me. He said that it might be difficult to give me one if he had removed my PTO.

A few days later I got a letter telling me that he was removing my Permission to Officiate and that I was to return it to the diocesan offices as soon as possible. I was very upset by this – I was, as far as I knew a good and faithful priest, and I felt I had done nothing to deserve this.

I was asked for interview in Mansfield, and offered the job that day. The bishop refused to give me a licence and in August 2014, the Trust withdrew the job offer.

It was at this point that the distorting and weird world of the Church of England impacted upon me most profoundly. Their whole way of behaving says that if you lie, if you tell only a very little part of your truth, if you don’t want to commit publicly to the man you love, if you have secret gay affairs, then that is fine. In the Hall of Mirrors tall is short, fat is thin, truth is lies, honesty is dissimulation. What you mustn’t do in the Church of England is be honest.

It seemed to me that an honest desire to commit in love to someone for life is self-evidently a good and moral thing. It was informed by my Christian conscience and my spiritual journey. It would have been the height of dishonesty, a walking back into the world of lies and shame for me to have done anything else but marry Laurence. If the Church can’t see it, then it ought to tell them something very concerning about the setting of their moral compass.

Moreover, once I had lost the job, I had to make a serious decision about whether or not I was going to be prepared to have this institution, to which I had given over thirty years of service, treat me in a way which seemed to me to be dishonest, cruel and immoral.

I have always been wary of lawyers in life. Too much Bleak House at an early age, perhaps. But I now understand the value of their wisdom. I have been wonderfully supported by a team of highly skilled people who believe passionately in the justice of what I am trying to do. We lost the first round of my claim in the ET, we are now appealing that judgment.

The experience of the hearing was both gruelling and cathartic. It is hard to be cross-examined about your motivations and to have your morality and integrity questioned for seven hours. But it was also very good to have to listen to a bishop attempt to justify what he did and why for a similar period. I didn’t have to remember any dissimulations – all I have is myself and what happened to me. And I felt good at having done it – and I hope to have the chance to see the judgment tested at appeal.

 

  1. Seeing in a mirror, dimly

Human life is a becoming as much as it is a being. But all the practising to be me that consumed my early years were fatally hampered by my inability to be honest about who I was. I settled for being a kind of me, for being, perhaps, as much of me as I could bear. But it would not do. In the end it nearly killed me.

Now, I am fully myself. In other words I am a work in progress. I do that work, but I also believe God is working in me making and remaking me. As Paul says “work out your own salvation…for it is God who works in you”. I can look myself in the mirror without fear or shame, confident that I can cope with the process of becoming for the rest of my life.

What I can’t do is cope with the Hall of Mirrors that is the Church of England. I stay, because I think I hope for something better, and because I think that better things will only come if some of us refuse to move out of the seats at the front of the bus. But I don’t underestimate the cost of that.

In many ways, mostly very passive-aggressive, the Church makes clear its discomfort with its LGBTI faithful, particularly when we want justice, and when we will no longer put up with being a patronised and overlooked minority. Our vocal dissatisfaction with our lot means that the Church’s whole muddle, dishonesty and stubbornness over questions of human sexuality cannot be spun out for ever – and no one likes the people who make life difficult for them.

But I have to keep a psychological distance now. No mirror tells you the truth, only a reflection of it. But the mirrors of friendship, openness, honest companionship, and genuine spiritual connection, are all better guides to the road ahead than the Hall of Mirrors with its distortions and traps.

But the mirrors I have give me hope as well.

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly,* but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” 1 Corinthians 13:12

Thank you for listening.

Jeremy Pemberton
Southwell
16th February 2016

Advertisements

One thought on “Mirror Moments, or, Practising to be Me. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s