GAY TIMES December 1996

Actually I think Mrs Anne Atkins is right. She’s the vicar’s wife who made the famous Thought for the Day broadcast which seems to have brought the Anglican Church to the point of schism. In the broadcast, Mrs Atkins used the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement’s 20th anniversary bash at Southwark Cathedral to launch a full-frontal attack on what she regards as the Church of England’s permissive attitude to homosexuality. “Soon we will have an adulterers’ Christian fellowship, a sex before marriage Christian fellowship. I see no reason why the list should ever end.”

That fateful two and a half minutes on Radio Four generated a huge amount of comment and reaction. Stories appeared about the support the fragrant lady had got from her husband’s parishioners and people all around the country. She was photographed being embraced by her husband and surrounded by adoring children. The complete picture of traditional family values within the context of heterosexual marriage.

Apparently her phone never stopped ringing all day — and naturally everyone who rang agreed with her. A hundred vicars wrote to The Church Times roused to action by her clarion call. The woman certainly whipped up a storm, to the extent that The London Evening Standard opined: “Mrs Atkins bids fair to become a heroine of the church-going middle classes.” And there was plenty of evidence to support that opinion in the other papers.

Her outburst was like manna from heaven for those havens of moral correctness The Daily Mail, The Express and The Sun. “The Reverend Richard Kirker says the proposed service for gays and lesbians will be a ‘celebration’ of the ‘gift’ of their homosexuality. Who might I ask, gave them that gift? It certainly didn’t come from the God I love,” wrote D Keefe to The Daily Mail.

“Church must admit gays are sinners” headlined The Sun, while The Daily Telegraph thought that blasphemy had changed its meaning. The “modern blasphemy” apparently is not speaking ill of God, but daring to criticise homosexuals. Every religious fanatic and right-winger in the land raised cheers. At last, it seemed, their time had come.

But even as the newspapers lauded Mrs Atkins for her forthright espousal of true Christian values, they were, in their usual way, preparing to knock their new-found heroine from her pedestal.

Boy George was first in, when he wrote in his Daily Express column: “Just 60 shopping days to go and already the Christians are curdling the milk of human kindness. Anne Atkins, the wife of a vicar, says gays should be chased out of the Church. Her media outburst and profile might boost the sales of crimplene but life still goes on.”

The Sunday Express, however, thought it wasn’t the sales of crimplene Mrs Atkins was trying to boost, but something else entirely. “Thought for the Day: How to market my wonderful new book” was the headline over a comprehensive hatchet job on Mrs Atkins by Jane Warren. “Could it be that her dramatic contribution to the moral debate was related to the publication last week of her novel On Our Own, on sale in all good bookshops for £16.99?” Surely not.

A retired rector is quoted as saying: “It would certainly seem inappropriate for a vicar’s wife to use the scriptures to serve any other ends than God’s, if that’s what indeed she has done.” And yet Mrs Atkins “does not refute the charge that the radio and the book might be connected.” She happily admits: “The novel may have been one of my reasons for doing Thought…”

“Her morality is also distractingly flexible when it comes to her own fiction,” writes Jane Warren. “the unmarried heroine of her novel feels no shame about sleeping with her boyfriend. Bible-bashing fiction doesn’t sell so she simply stumped up the standard fare.”

During her Thought for the Day talk, Mrs Atkins claimed: “I am not homophobic and have gay friends.” It seems she must now speak of those friends in the past tense, because according to Richard Kirker: “We have received a number of letters from gay Christian friends of Anne Atkins. They are horrified that she might have been thinking of them when she spoke of having ‘gay friends’ and they no longer wish to be considered as her friends.”

But despite the fall from grace, Mrs Atkins had given the holy homophobes a new impetus. The Daily Telegraph reported that “every Friday at lunch-time, two dozen or so City workers meet in a room at St Margaret’s Church, tucked behind the Bank of England, for tea, sandwiches, Bible-reading and prayers”. And, it seems, a spot of righteous gay-bashing.

“The Bible says that if people are involved in homosexuality they cannot enter the kingdom of God,” one is quoted as saying. Another says: “Homosexuality is one thing God says you should not do if you want to benefit from My kingdom and My life.” Another insists the Bible considers homosexuality “shameful and a perversion”.

These sad souls, who seem to derive great pleasure from hatred, adore telling each other how good they are and how wicked everyone else is. But they don’t have it all their own way. The Telegraph also visited a pub up the road, where ordinary people were spending their lunch break, to find out what they thought. Ms Rochelle Ormond, 26, who describes herself as a regular churchgoer said: “If gays and lesbians want to do that sort of thing then good luck to them. It’s a free country. If they want to be together they should be allowed. If a heterosexual couple want to be married in church, then I can’t see why a gay couple can’t be. I don’t see why if two people love each other they shouldn’t show the world what their feelings are.”

Dear old bleeding-heart liberal Rachelle. She’d better watch what she says or she’ll be going to church on Sunday and finding herself had up for heresy. Yes, heresy! If you thought that such a medieval idea had gone out of fashion with the Spanish Inquisition, think again. In fact it’s one of the favourite buzz-words of Reform, a group of Anglican authoritarians who are leading the charge against gays in the Church.

One of the leading lights of this bunch of fanatics is the Reverend David Holloway (he’s the one who’s always on Kilroy and The Time and The Place breathing fire and brimstone to order). The Revd Holloway was writing in The Church Times about LGCM’s party: “There is now evil in the Church even where there is ‘chief authority’. There has been overt heresy in the episcopate… Public doubts and denials of the virginal conception and empty tomb of Jesus are heretical, if words mean anything. The bishops’ report Issues in Human Sexuality is also heretical. For all the benign language (and much good material), the acceptance of conscientious gay sex among the laity is heresy.” In fact, anything that Reform doesn’t agree with (and that’s just about everything that’s happened since the 12th century) is “heretical”.

Heresy is a very useful concept for authoritarians because it effectively stifles debate. You want to challenge the orthodoxy? You’re a heretic. You think the church is being cruel and inhuman? You’re a heretic. This is one game the gentle and compassionate Christian can’t win, only McCarthyite bully boys like Reform will use weapons such as ‘heresy’ and ‘blasphemy’ to silence its opponents. Don’t forget, you can still be sent to jail for blasphemy.

An editorial in The Church Times sought to referee the scrap between the LGCM and Reform. “The bishops have become like the police at a demonstration, caught between two rival factions, and hit by missiles thrown by both… Different views necessarily exist in any Christian Church; and a common mistake is to allow the existence of opposing views to harden one’s own. Valuable Anglican habits of debate and toleration are thus replaced by assertion and confrontation. To live in communion with people with whom one disagrees is a sign of strength, not weakness.”

This plea for tolerance regrettably fell on deaf ears. The Revd Ian F R Jarvis of Derbyshire wrote in the following issue: “You pass over the awkward fact that Reform, most evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics, and many other Anglicans besides believe that the gay and lesbian sexual behaviour advocated by LGCM is radically unChristian, in fact anti-Christian. Because of that conviction, solidly based in scripture and age-long Christian teaching, they can do no other than protest and oppose such behaviour as rigorously as possible. Truth matters far more than your editorial begins to acknowledge. It exposes a deep, radical disagreement on what is, and is not, Christian sexual behaviour. Your editorial makes sorry reading, a sad capitulation to secular Western cultural values.”

And so I return to the point I made at the beginning. I think Mrs Atkins is right, and so is the Revd Holloway and all the others. Christian teaching leaves no room for doubt that homosexual sex is contrary to the rules and all the “theological nit-picking” (as the Revd Holloway calls it) in which gay Christians engage will not change that fact. Reform and its members, and the Roman Catholic Church say that our love is “intrinsically evil”. We know from our own experience that they are wrong about this. And if they are wrong about this, then they can be wrong about so much else.

It’s from this starting point that those gays hammering on the doors of an institution that despises them might stop and consider the alternatives. They could begin the slow process of disengagement. There are alternatives to religion that value human life and all experience. It’s possible to be good without God.

***

QUOTES OF THE MONTH:

The Guardian was enchanted by a photograph of Defence Secretary Michael Portillo published in The Times during the Tory Party Conference. It showed our Mick “relaxing in his Bournemouth Hotel with a bowl of fruit by his side.” Guardian diarist, Smallweed, pondered the significance of the fruit. “I suspect the return of the kind of iconography, once familiar in portraiture, where heroes appear with symbols… designed to convey some allegedly salient truth about them. We are being asked, subliminally, to see Michael Portillo as a bringer of fruit…”

The arrival of TV’s newest and campest cooks, Two Fat Ladies, has prompted much wild speculation. “Are they nodding acquaintances,” asked The Independent on Sunday’s David Aaronovitch, “brought together by the BBC, like the Monkees or Boyzone, to create a camera-friendly chemistry? Is it possible that they are followers of Sappho, living together in Shropshire, with two golden retrievers and a donkey called Prescott? Or are they Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders in their most subversive show to date?”

“He doesn’t say much,” writes Sylvia Patterson in The Face, “has a lot of sex and is full-frontal naked for much of his on-screen time.” Who? Euan McGregor, that’s who. In Peter Greenaway’s new film, The Pillow Book. Oh, and “he has a very handsome penis.” There’s more. “Weren’t you worried about, you know, shrinkage?” Patterson boldly enquires. “No fuckin’ worries there, darlin’.” For once, this is no idle boast…

When politicians talk about morality, it’s usually time to count the spoons. But Labour leader, Tony Blair, has made a better pitch than many: “I’ve no desire to return to the age of Victorian hypocrisy about sex, to women’s place being only in the kitchen, to homophobia or to preaching to people about their private lives… But the absence of prejudice should not mean the absence of rules, of order, of stability… Let the social morality be based on reason — not bigotry.”

Poor Jason Donovan, forever haunted by that libel case. His latest attempt to resurrect his once-glittering career saw him talking to The Guardian: “I was virtually brought up by a gay guy for six years so I was surrounded by the gay community and I loved it… I paid the price for alienating the gay community and my gay audience.” And if he had his time over again, would he still have sued The Face? “No, I wouldn’t. It was horrible. Horrible.”

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