On September 2, Nicholas Chamberlain made history
by coming out as the first gay bishop in the Church of England (CoE), following threats by a Sunday newspaper that they would reveal his long term - but celibate - relationship with another man. Now, Keith Arrowsmith is the first of the group to discuss what it's like to be the husband of a gay vicar.
“I was bullied because I was different as a child,” Keith recalls. “I still remember the day when it stopped, when my straight classmate at school called John went up to the bully and said 'you are going to stop this and stood up for me. That was an astonishing moment.'”
It was a David and Goliath-esque confrontation that Keith never forgot. Years later, he's a partner at a law firm, a religious man, and the husband of Rev Prof Mark Cobb. He is also one name on a list of 28 ministers and their same-sex partners who have come out in an open letter, pleading the CoE to ordain their relationships, due to the bullying and discrimination they have faced.
“I have been made to feel invisible,” he said. “There may be a social event where the spouses have been invited to come along and have a drink to recognise the support they give to members of the Church of England clergy. And that is extended to all clergy husbands and wives, but not me.
“That is akin to being bullied. I was bullied at school and it’s not much fun.”
Keith grew up in a village on the border of Essex and Suffolk, where the church was the linchpin of the community - and like a second family to him. He attended regularly and sang in the choir. When he left for university, he was so close with his parish that they helped him his textbooks. He met Mark at a conference, right before the end of his studies. They'd fallen for one another within a week.
“We ended up talking, sharing sentimental things that make us tick, our views on life and death and sexuality, and things that are really difficult to talk about. To have that laid bare and to hear someone else supporting what I was saying was incredibly special.”
So, instead of saying a final goodbye, Keith went back to Keele, packed his bags and jumped on the next train to London so they could be together.
“There was that kind of you are 'standing on the edge of a cliff' kind of moment. But then that’s what love is about - sometimes you take those risks.”
They have lived together through huge milestones in the fight for LGBT equality, starting with the Civil Partnership Act 2004, and followed by equal adoption rights, and the introduction of same-sex marriage in 2013. They celebrated their wedding at the Royal College of Music, a special occasion which family members - and even friends and colleagues from the church - attended.
While the state recognised their union, their church does not.
"It would not be appropriate conduct for someone in holy orders to enter into a same sex marriage," the House of Bishops declared in 2014 - but as Keith knows all too well, there are real consequences for those known to be in same-sex relationships, married or otherwise.
“I know of situations where jobs have been offered but withdrawn because of the presence of a same-sex partner,” he says.
While the Church argues that being in a same-sex partnership disqualifies someone from teaching the word of God, Keith argues that, like all occupations, it has little to do with his husband's ability to get the job done.
“I trust my doctor to help me if I am ill, regardless of their spiritual beliefs or their sexuality," Keith explained. "To feel that my husband’s professionalism is down rated because of his beliefs or his sexuality makes absolutely no sense to me. I would hope my doctor would be abler to support me if I needed to have a conversation with him about my sex life or my religious life.”
“On a one-to-one basis, a lot of people in the church have been very supportive but as an organisation, it is completely the opposite. It is that complete separation between you are a nice person and we like you but on the other hand if we acknowledge you publicly then we will have to shut doors in your face.”
Earlier this year, a poll found that Anglicans more Anglicans are in favour of same-sex marriage than against. The findings expose a split in mindset between them and church leaders. Conservative Anglicans were dealth a further blow when, in May this year, the Church of Scotland historically voted to permit ministers to enter same-sex civil partnerships. And in June this year, University of Cambridge theologians released a book urging the Church of England to bless lesbian and gay relationships, arguing the failure to adapt to the times would be ‘suicidal’. The debate continues, albeit at a pace that many would deem too slow.
While the voice of liberal dissent grows, those opposed to same-sex unions continue to stand their ground. Recently, 72 traditionalist members of the church’s governing body wrote to all bishops, encouraging them to abide by biblical teachings on sexuality.
“The line I was getting was there’s only three or four of you so keep your head down or else,” Keith says.
But that all changed when 13 other CoE clergy in same-sex couples bravely came out and implored the church to bless and welcome them. The news rocked the church; however some support did come. Perhaps most notably from the archbishop of Wales
, who questioned why straight ministers would want to deny same-sex couples the chance to "flourish" within a marriage.
Even as the number of supportive voices grow, the Church is still a hostile place to LGBT people, clergy and laypeople alike. But the thought of abandoning their spirituality has never crossed either Keith or his husband's mind.
“The less I believe in the Church of England, the more I want to fight for it," Keith said. "I think it is important to grapple with it rather than step back and abandon it. I have never felt that it is a problem with a belief in God, I felt that it was a problem with my fellow human beings.
“This is not just a conversation about people marrying clergy, it is a conversation about what should we do about the trans community and intersex community or even more broadly what do you do about asylum seekers," Keith explains. "That is a faction of our community that are exposed to real stresses and strains, and need that support. But if you can’t trust the church to deal with gay people how on earth do people feel about the church and its response to bigger life and community?”
Keith and Mark want another marriage - one that is ordained by the church, so Keith can be invited to spouses' social gatherings, his husband can have the ability to advance in his career, and they can feel free to be who they are without discrimination.
“Without that wedding, I think we face a future in which people will use the excuse of the church as a reason to carry on bullying.”
Words: Charlotte Callear
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