An anniversary, and some weddings and funerals

by Jeremy Pemberton

Jeremy Pemberton is a former canon in the Church of England who, in 2014, became the first priest to marry his same-sex partner. In this article he offers some reflections on Leonard of Grantchester, Mpho Tutu van Furth, and his own experiences of the Church of England’s homophobia.

We have just started watching the latest series of Grantchester, the clerical murder mysteries set in the eponymous village near Cambridge. The date is 1958, and the timid curate, Leonard Finch, has, with great tentativeness, started to come out of his closet, and embarked upon a very secretive and illegal relationship with a local photographer. His boss, the robustly heterosexual Will Davenport, knows about it and supports him. To risk even this Leonard has had to overcome a lifetime’s self-loathing and a crushing fear of exposure and punishment by a society and church that hates homosexuals.

All goes well until the characters go on a holiday together to a holiday camp. A redcoat there makes a pass at Leonard, and, being rejected, decides to take his revenge. He finds Leonard and his partner in bed together and reports it to the police and to the bishop. Eventually, fighting through the shame and disgrace, Leonard pleads guilty to gross indecency (though there is no indication that anything of that kind has taken place) with an unknown man (shielding his partner) and is jailed for six months. He is broken, but he has discovered the dignity of being truly himself. It is a masterful piece of character acting by Al Weaver.

Among the villains along the way are the archdeacon and the bishop. They abandon Finch to his fate, they assure him that he has no future in the church, and they put pressure on Will Davenport, his boss, not to support Leonard, lest by so doing he brings shame on the church. Will ignores them, and so a new curate is imposed on him whose job it is to report everything that goes on to the bishop. Even showing support and compassion to a gay man, then, is enough to make you the enemy of the institution. The bishop tells Will, “Did it not occur to you that I did this to protect you? Well, I won’t protect you any more.”

As someone who has had their permission to officiate removed, and has been told that I will never get it back until and unless my husband dies, I found watching Leonard’s story very moving and unsettling. I have never had to cope with the pressure that he faced in the story, but I do understand the hostility of church authorities and their reluctance to face the homophobia of their actions. I am retired now, but I have had to let go of a ministry I loved, and of years in which I know I could have continued to do good work and support the ministry of others, because of my determination to honour the man I loved and to make a marriage with him. I have no regrets about that at all, but the hurtfulness of the church’s attitude, and its inability to welcome same-sex marriage, continue to have its damaging effects, on individuals and on the church itself.

Yesterday’s [22 September 2022] media told of the refusal to permit Archbishop Tutu’s daughter, Mpho Tutu van Furth, to officiate at the funeral of her godfather, who had asked for her to take his service. She is not resident in the UK, but no permission was forthcoming from any bishop. The Diocese of Hereford said: “Advice was given in line with the House of Bishops’ current guidance on same-sex marriage.” Ms Tutu van Furth reportedly told the broadcaster the decision “seemed really churlish and hurtful”.

I know exactly how she feels. Since my PTO was removed I have been asked on a number of occasions to take weddings or funerals for close friends and family. On every single occasion on which permission was sought for me to do so in a variety of dioceses, it was refused. I was not permitted even to participate in a service being led by someone else. The closest I have got is being allowed to lead prayers in a wedding service, just as a lay person might.

I think I found Leonard’s story so upsetting because on Monday I pass forty years of being a priest. Though I have never been put through any kind of disciplinary procedure I have had the full force of Anglican passive aggression turned on me (not least because I had the temerity to go to law against them) and have been efficiently and effectively excluded from priestly ministry. So the capacity of the church to turn on Leonard reminded me of how little has changed, and how much fear and uncertainty there still is among LGBT clergy who know that their position is tolerated only as long as it stays within bounds. At present, those bounds do not include marriage, and there are many clergy since 2014 who have chosen to have a civil partnership, not because they conscientiously want one rather than to be married, but because that is the only way to continue in ministry.

I won’t celebrate my anniversary on Monday. I will let it go past with some private thanksgivings to God for all his goodness to me, a bit of personal rededication, and I will do my best not to be angry. We still have a very long way to go.

For more about Mpho Tutu van Furth’s being refused permission to take her godfather’s funeral, see the news article ‘Churlish and hurtful’.