‘Coming out’, especially when one is ordained, can feel a fraught business. I will never forget the time a new ordinand at my theological college came and sat next to me in the common room and, without ceremony, asked, ‘So, Rachel, how long have you been in the closet?’ I was simultaneously amused by this person’s lack of social nouse and a bit annoyed at the implications of their question. For while this person was very clearly out and proud in the college context, and at some personal cost I think, I did not quite see myself as ‘in the closet’. Being ‘in’ or ‘out’ for LGBT Christian ministers in the UK is usually a matter of degree rather than an absolute.
The recent Pilling Report – a discussion document which, in many ways, represents some very small steps towards affirming LGBT* people in the Church of England – underlines how dangerous the church can still feel for those of us who are LGBT* and Christian, especially if we are ordained. On many occasions I’ve chatted with both gay and straight clergy about ‘safe’ places for LGBT folk to work within the Church of England. I am inclined to suggest that the metropolitan areas of England – notably Manchester and London - have a strong commitment to affirming gay clergy, partly because there are just a lot of us. And yet many of us remain discreet about who we are because of perceived threat to our jobs and prospects.
How this works out at a diocesan level is moot. Bishops can have a real impact on the mood of a diocese or episcopal area and one must accept that there are still many parishes in which a queer vicar would be well advised to keep the reality of their lives quiet. And, alas, there remain numerous dioceses and bishops for whom being gay is perceived as lesser, as embarrassing or dangerous.
From the point of view of gay clergy themselves, the situation remains complex. It remains the case that – given that the church seems to reward silence and ‘discretion’ – often LGBT people have chosen to remain quiet about who they are for the sake of their careers. At its most brutal this is simply a calculation about ‘keeping a job’. ‘Being discreet’ in such circumstances is surely one of the key signfiers of homo- and transphobia in the church. Yet this uncomfortable silence is also imposed on people who ‘want to get on’. Understandably – as human beings – we have ambitions. For the sake of having influence at a ‘higher’ level of the institution, some choose to keep quiet. I’m not sure what the cost of this incongruence must be on relationships and self-understanding.
All of us regularly involved in church have probably met that person – usually part of a largish more conservatively minded church – who says they’ve never met a gay Christian or that there are no gay people in their fellowship. I suppose that one has to accept that it is at least not logically impossible that this claim is true. Even if it is empirically possible, it is not especially plausible. What such a person means is that no one is ‘out’ with them or they have woefully underdeveloped gaydar. I suspect that there are still many more liberally minded congregations who might be surprised to discover that their priest is LGBT. I hardly need to outline the reasons why that is the case. The fact that it is the case is one way the church signifies how dangerous it is for gay clergy. ‘Being out’ is a metonym for ‘exposure’ and being exposed in an hostile environment is always going to be dangerous.
It has never struck me that it’s my business to out people. It’s their story, not mine. Anyone who is gay and ordained, especially those in relationships, are making constant calculations about what to say, disclose and how to negotiate the mess the church has got itself in about LGBT* people. Yet I wish more of us would take the risk of being out and proud. That probably reads as a forlorn statement (though, if it is, it is an indictment of where we are).
Some people tell me that ‘coming out’ shouldn’t matter – that we should be ‘beyond that’ now. I suspect that claim is grounded in – at best – a kind of British embarrassment about demonstrative behavior (though nobody bats an eyelid when folk make public declarations of hetero identity like getting engaged) and – at worst – in fear. The fact is that ‘coming out’ is one way those of us who have traditionally been seen as ‘other’ act on the world. Coming out is not about ‘self-expression’ (or not merely so) but an action. If events like ‘National Coming Out Day’ are signs, their significance is not merely symbolic.
One of my fantasies is a mass LGBT* clergy ‘Coming Out’ Day (I know…I have such second-rate fantasies…!). I am sufficiently plugged into the realities of the C of E and of the clergy mindset that I recognize that this is as remote a possibility as George Osborne being converted to State Socialism. Yet there is a sense in which the current culture of silence and denial and – at best – a grudging acknowledgement that LGBT* people are part of the church will only be changed if we speak together. One of the profound and embarrassing weaknesses of The Pilling Report is that no out LGBT* people were on the group charged with its creation. Again, we were being talked about and discussed without representation. This is not me being chippy about allies. We all need allies and friends. But it’s time the church realized how many of us there are. It’s time the church saw how many potentially and - in some cases – actually influential and significant LGBT* clergy there are in the church. It is time we united and genuinely stood together.