On Trinity Sunday, 32 years ago, I was made Deacon on what was a particularly frozen morning, in the Cathedral Church of St Mary and St James, Maseru, Lesotho. I was living in Lesotho because I had chosen to leave South Africa, instead of facing either jail or conscription into the Army. I left behind bewildered parents, who simply did not understand and who were extremely fearful of the consequences. I left behind a parish priest and a Bishop who were enraged that I had not informed them beforehand. I left behind the whole of my life – family, friends, places I had known and loved. I and my (then) wife had no idea what the future might hold and very little plan for it. All we knew, was that we couldn’t support the violence and the killing of the apartheid state anymore.
And on Trinity Sunday, three years later, I found myself prostrate before the Suffragan Bishop of Lesotho, Donald Nestor. There was snow on the ground outside. Dark clouds swirled. Thunder cracked. If I close my eyes, I can conjure up in an instant – in a moment – the smell of the incense, the sound of the congregation in full throat – the ice cold stone of the floor on which I was lying.
I can remember the Bishop dressing me in a Stole, across one shoulder, and Dalmatic. I can remember the taste of the wine and the bread. And I can remember how pleased I was to be ordained Priest a year later on the Feast of St Thomas the Doubter. Because that is what I was, am and probably always will be.
“It is not God that I reject, Alyosha”, I read in Dostoyevsky’s extraordinary novel, The Bothers Karamazov, “it is just that I, most respectfully, return Him the ticket”. I can remember those words pounding through my brain at a later point in my life, when I decided, once and for all, to leave the Church and all that is in it, for good. I most respectfully return Him the ticket. The ticket to redemption, to Heaven, to eternal bliss, to Paradise. I return Him the ticket to certainty. I return Him the ticket to resurrection and the life eternal. I do it calmly. I do it peaceably and I do it respectfully.
The Church has shaped me and fashioned me in so many ways. When I was a teenager, I formed a virtually unnatural relationship with the wife of the local priest. There was nothing sexual in the relationship, but it was an extraordinary trans-generational friendship. I drank in her taste for art, for music, for theatre. I swam naked in the lake of her wisdom, her critique of sacred cows, her bluntness and honesty. I was 15 at the time. She opened up a wonderful, colourful world for me. She was a woman of faith. Her husband was dreary, plodding, unimaginative and sweet. She was incandescent.
I sang in her choir, Sunday by Sunday. She was the organist and introduced me to the wonder of that instrument. Sunday by Sunday, I heard stories about justice, about honesty and integrity, about what could be and what should be in the world. Sunday by Sunday we would sing the Psalms of David and we would hear about a new world which was just out there – within our grasp. Our fingertips were touching it. It was a hairsbreadth away.
I played the organ at weddings and funerals. I saw the cycle of life firsthand. I understood, even at that young age, that Faith means believing things which you know to be untrue.
My encounter with academic theology at university was a liberation. I could, at last, throw away all the nonsense and concentrate on the meaning, on the symbol, on the truth as opposed to the way in which that truth was so inadequately being transmitted. I was shocked to discover that the church, in general, didn’t like this at all. It was becoming clear to me that ill-educated priests and intellectually stagnant bishops battled to deal with even the basics in theology. Instead they trundled along on the easy road, where everything is explicable – where God has an answer and the Bible is clear and obvious.
They wanted their students to do theology, but they did not want them to change any of their Sunday School understandings. And the students, likewise, would fiercely resist any questioning. Because any questioning, any reasoning, any rejection of anything at all, meant a lack of that thing called “faith”.
I stayed in the church for largely pragmatic reasons. Perhaps even pragmatic political reasons. It was never comfortable. But nor was it impossible, provided I did not overstep any serious theological line. I sometimes did.
But I say all of this, because of a question my partner asked me the other day. Why, he asked, despite my rejection of religion, am I still so connected to it all? (The question was in relation to music by that amazing contemporary American composer, Morten Lauridsen, whose music is infused with the most profound sense of the numinous).
My response was inadequate – and doubtless it is still so. My being, the way I think, the things I respond to in art and in music – are shaped by my life’s journey with the church. To deny that would be impossible. To shake it off, ridiculous. I am stuck with it. That is just the way it is.
And have I lost faith? Do I regret the things I do not believe? Not at all! I am most profoundly liberated by them. I am free to take the best and to dispense with the worst. I would describe myself, I suppose, as an old fashioned Existentialist, where what matters most is what you choose to do.
And if it were at all possible, I would be a church goer – possibly more accurately, a church lurker. But it is not possible, until the church fully and completely accepts LGBTI people as full citizens of the human race. If that day were to come, in my lifetime, I would be pleased to return and celebrate my Diakonate, or my priesthood on the feasts of the Blessed Trinity and St Thomas the Doubter, once again. But until then, it is impossible. I would be completely and utterly inauthentic. I would not be able to justify myself.
But until then (and in the hope that there will be a then) – I will enjoy what there is to enjoy. I will relate to all that is good. I will value all that I have been shown and all that I have been given. Because faith is inevitably faith in someone else’s faith.