The Rebel Priest ‘Gay people in the Church are not going to go away’

Fr Andrew was interviewed by the Guardian recently about his new post at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, the work of the Campaign and the challenges to the Church of England in its current attitudes to gay people and our relationships.

You can read the article here and the full text of the article is below:

The Rev Andrew Foreshew-Cain had served as a vicar for around two decades until his fractious exit in 2017. His crime? Marrying his partner, Stephen, in 2014.

While he kept his position at St Mary with All Souls, Kilburn, and St James’, West Hampstead, after his wedding, he says he was “blacklisted” from finding a new job. In 2017, he resigned, publicly condemning the church as “institutionally homophobic”. It was a bold statement, and one he knew would bar him from ever returning.

While heterosexual priests can marry and have sex, gay clergy members are expected to remain unmarried and celibate. “Insisting on celibacy,” he argues, “[implies that] God will only accept you if you don’t have sex; that is, if you don’t want what everybody wants, which is to be loved by somebody and to love them on their terms.” He pauses, weighing his words. “I think that’s abusive.”

He has spent the year and a half since his exit from the clergy near the Peak District, in the quiet Derbyshire village of Chapel-en-le-Frith, restoring a neglected Georgian vicarage. It has been, it seems, an opportunity to create something he couldn’t find in the church: a home for him and his husband.

Now, Foreshew-Cain is returning to the ministry. In the autumn, he will become the chaplain of Lady Margaret Hall, a college at Oxford University, which operates outside the Church of England’s jurisdiction. “It feels as if I’m ready to become a priest again, but a different kind of priest, perhaps.”

Foreshew-Cain’s return, as with his time in the church, is unlikely to be quiet. In April, he and a coalition of LGBTQ clergy members launched the Campaign for Equal Marriage in the Church of England, which advocates for the right of lesbian and gay Anglicans to marry in their local parish, and demands that gay clergy members who marry should be allowed to exercise their ministry. What is at stake, he argues, is not just his relationship to the church, or even LGBTQ Christians across the country, but the future of the C of E in British society.

According to the British Social Attitudes survey, only 2% of young Britons identify with the C of E, and, after years of declining church attendance, Foreshew-Cain sees LGBTQ issues as a synecdoche for the broader identity crisis facing the church: whether to cleave to conservative interpretations of scripture and reinvigorate the faithful, or move towards a progressive Anglicanism that may appeal to a new generation of believers. “We’re not losing people because they no longer believe in God. We’re losing people because they no longer believe in the church,” he says. “Unless the Church of England can be enthusiastic in its welcome of gay and lesbian people, and their families and friends, too, we don’t stand a chance.”

Foreshew-Cain never wanted to be a priest. “I grew up with an image of the clergy which was a cross between a maiden aunt you can’t say ‘fuck’ in front of, and a member of the thought police who knows absolutely what you did last Saturday night, who you did it with, how long it took – and is disgusted and disappointed with you. Nothing about that appealed to me.”

He and his four siblings were baptised; his mother was “churched” – or blessed in the church – after every birth, and crosses hung on the walls of the family home in Hertfordshire. However, they were not churchgoers. “We were culturally Christian,” he says. At 17, he stumbled into a church. He attended a local service, and became involved in the Christian Union two years later, when he went to university in Aberdeen. It was there he met his first boyfriend, who was training for the Presbyterian ministry. “We just fell in love,” he remembers, recounting three happy years together before going their separate ways. Loving a man and loving God never came into conflict. “I’ve never seen a contradiction, and I still don’t,” he says.

His vicar at the time knew about their relationship and never encouraged him to end it. His fellow churchgoers, too, were supportive. “I never experienced any homophobia about it,” he recalls. By Foreshew-Cain’s account, the broad acceptance he enjoyed wasn’t an aberration, but indicative of Anglicanism at the time.

“The Church of England feels very different as an organisation now to how it felt when I was first in the church. The sort of progressive liberalism that dominated the church from the 1950s has been replaced by a kind of much more self-confident evangelicalism, which is often very conservative.”

That shift has been well documented. In the US, charismatic evangelicals such as Billy Graham have moved US Christians through fiery sermons and savvy engagement with mass media. In the UK, figures such as the Rev John Stott encouraged evangelicals not to leave the C of E, as had been mooted in the 1960s, but to transform the church in their image. The present archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and an increasing number of bishops identify with the evangelical tradition.

A resurgent conservatism within the C of E unhappily coincided with more antagonistic forms of gay activism and liberation after the partial decriminalisation of same-sex intimacy in 1967. Pride marches began the following decade, while the onset of the Aids crisis in the 80s would force sexuality into the public consciousness.

The growing visibility of gay and transgender people within society forced the church to define its position. In 1991, it published the Issues in Human Sexuality, a document, which treads a delicate line between compassion for and acceptance of “homophiles” within the church.

At the Lambeth conference of 1998, a global convening of more than 100 national churches across the world that takes place about every 10 years, sexuality came up again. Resolution 1.10, which passed with an overwhelming majority, stated that “persons who experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation” are “loved by God” and “full members of the Body of Christ”, but that, nonetheless, “homosexual practice” is “incompatible with Scripture”.

For the church, emphasising celibacy was a compromise between its warring factions. For Foreshew-Cain, it was an abdication of the church’s duty of care to its clergy and gay laity.

Foreshew-Cain recalls the suicide, in 2014, of Lizzie Lowe, a 14-year-old Christian from Manchester who had struggled to reconcile her faith with her sexuality. Before taking her life she confided in friends that she was a lesbian and feared rejection from her local church. Since her death, her parents and former rector have become campaigners for equality for LGBTQ people in the church. St James and Emmanuel, her former church in Didsbury, has helped form the first inclusive deanery in the C of E. In 2018, the church played host to the first ever Didsbury Pride.


“In the past decade or so, I have seen and spoken to lots of young people who are trying to reconcile their sexuality and their faith, who end up self-harming, attempting suicide or who suffer with depression and mental illness,” says Foreshew-Cain. “Because if you believe God is condemning you for your essential being and that you have got to be something other than you are, where does that leave you?” He pauses. “Lizzie wasn’t the only one, and she won’t be the last.”

Statements from the most senior figures in the C of E have done little to ease his concerns. Welby, who recently announced that same-sex partners would not be invited to the Lambeth conference in 2020, while heterosexual spouses would, said he was pained by his decision and regretted the conflicts racking the church.

“Honestly, a lot of us in the queer community are very fed up with straight, white, cisgendered men talking about their suffering when they are inflicting it on other people,” says Foreshew-Cain. “It’s a bit like an abusive partner hitting you and saying: ‘This hurts me more than it hurts you.’”

The picture he paints is one of disorder, barely held together by a carefully cultivated ambiguity among the church’s top brass: bishops who quietly voice support for same-sex marriage behind closed doors vote against any liberalisation towards gay and lesbian clergy in the synod, he claims. Parishioners, tired of the endless debates, are abandoning a church at odds with itself. And young Anglicans, hoping to find acceptance and often succeeding in local parishes, are finding institutional debates about their place the source of intense pain.

Foreshew-Cain is sceptical that much will change – at least not until the conclusion of the next Lambeth conference in 2020. But a reckoning will come, and it seems the point of compromise is long past. “These campaigns are not going to go away. Gay people in the church are not going to go away. And the moral question mark over the integrity of the church is not going to go away. It’s only going to become more intense.”