by the Very Revd Joe Hawes, Dean of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich and Member of General Synod
As a young gay ordination candidate I learnt the contested territory I was about to step into in the Church during a ministry experience scheme a year before my selection and training.
The year was spent at a cathedral, a wonderful flourishing community where I learned much, made various mistakes and began to understand what ordained ministry might look like. It was 1987 and the infamous ‘Higton debate’ on General Synod was brewing. Like so many others, I experienced the casual homophobia of the tabloid press (remember the Sun article ‘How to spot if you’ve got a Gay Vicar’?) In my case the insecurity came not just from the knowledge that this was about people like me, but also from the proclaimed conservative standpoint of my bishop who was quite clear that questions would be asked of all ordinands whose sexual identities were in question.
Into this febrile atmosphere came a request for me to join ‘Kilroy’ a daytime live audience show. Not quite Jerry Springer, but populist and opportunist nevertheless. I should have said no at once but the prospect of the lure of the television cameras was just too strong. In discussions with the researcher beforehand I was careful to stress the precariousness of my position, that there could be no question of being outed and that my future would be in question if I was. Solemn assurances were given, and fool that I was, I believed them. Faithfully I did my research about how different factions of the Church of England, represented on the cathedral Chapter, might feel about the vexed question. From the ebullient defiantly liberal Sub Dean (“What’s all the fuss about?”) through to the conservative Anglo Catholic Chaplain (“celibacy would be your only option…if it’s you we are talking about here?”) and on to the gentle, agonised Precentor (“Oh I just wish it would all go away”), I swiftly gained a comprehensive picture of the polarisation of the Church of England. On one thing, however, all were clear: “If, by any chance, any of this is relevant to you, for heaven’s sakes, don’t admit to anything: you are in a highly vulnerable position!” I should have listened harder!
Came the day, and on the front row I sat – opposite members of LGCM (Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement), theologically conservative vicars and members of General Synod, hoping in vain that that I could escape any notice. Of course, it was not to be. Perma tanned and implacable, Roger Kilroy-Silk honed in on me half way through the programme, which we had all been warned went out live without editing. “Now we have here today an ordinand, Joe Hawes, who is gay. So, Joe, do you feel at risk that you won’t be ordained?” I still remember the feeling of icy paralysis, knowing my family, my bishop, cathedral staff were all watching, all unaware (or so I thought) of ‘The Truth About Me’.
Swallowing hard and denying my true nature on daytime television does not come high on the list of my ‘ must be repeated’ life experiences, but it is what I did. Expressions of pity and disbelief on the faces of fellow guests did little to dispel the feelings of guilt, shame, fear and embarrassment which accompanied me as I aimlessly walked the streets, not daring to return to the cathedral, a card from LGCM in my pocket. (“If you ever need to talk, phone us.”)
I have recalled that day so many times in the intervening years.
It was followed by a decision to embrace celibacy as I began training for ordination even though I didn’t much want to) – a decision soon set aside as on my first night at Theological College I met the man who would become my life partner. The subsequent years have been quite a journey where I have grown in confidence by his love as well as by good teaching and generous friendships, where I have learned from sound, inclusive and progressive theology that I was loved by God for who I am rather than in spite of who I am; where I have found a voice to try and speak without hatred but with passion about inclusion; found welcome and fellow feeling in generous inclusive parishes; to eventually finding three years ago that a senior appointment in the Church of England really is possible if your bishop is brave and inclusive enough; even if it meant negotiating a storm in a teacup of a certain senior Tory politician’s reaction to my appointment as a Dean (we have subsequently become good friends and I was honoured to conduct the funeral of his wife), until the recent inauguration of General Synod.
Buoyed up by the good fellowship of LGBTQ members, I stood during the inaugural session of General Synod during Simon Butler’s powerful speech in silent witness to our LGBT sisters and brothers in Ghana who are soon to be in even greater risk of imprisonment and physical danger than they are at present.
As I stood, I recalled that terrified young ordinand under studio lights in the summer of 1987. If that was how I felt then, then how must it feel to be LGBT+ in Ghana today?
And as the years rolled back, I forgave myself, got over myself, set my very minor struggle in the context of the real danger faced by those in whom we stood in solidarity, and gave thanks for the liberty I enjoy, the task in which I share with other good people, and prayed the God who has been faithful to me to protect them and change the hearts of their government and Church.