Escaping God’s Closet: The Revelations of a Queer Priest –Bernard Duncan Mayes

EGC(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

We are not a ‘religious’ group but we have an average percentage of churchgoers amongst us and we have had two priests as members over the time we have been running. However secular our society has come, the effects of Christian homophobia still cause us grief  in some ways.

This autobiography depicts a great man who has moved from Christianity to atheism, has ministered to suicides and people with AIDS, taught university students and been an activist.

The whole book charts his beliefs and his unpicking of them: “Early in life we sort experiences according to inherited beliefs and theories; later these are shaken when we discover unexpected facts, or ones that others have suppressed. Religions, for example, those sup­posed repositories of ultimate meaning, still claim the loyalty of millions even while the accelerating pace of discovery about the world around us forces many to rethink what once they took for granted. Each life, in fact, is a new exploration rather than a recapitulation of history.”

He has vivid memories of his early childhood but realised that they are subjective: “Even now it needs no more than a chill wind with a touch of snow to revive those memories with their promise of everlasting joy. But the beauty of those special days and the evanescence of what had seemed so real, so inviting, now dismay me. That such experiences can mis­lead is difficult to accept. Their sweet allure beckons ever backward into a world which was, in reality, quite different from that of my memories. Not only because it was a narrow world, circumscribed and ignorant or careless of anything beyond itself, but also because it stood for beliefs and attitudes that themselves had long been undermined and discredited.”

Fearful of the consequences of his sexual ‘sin’: “Perhaps my body provided relief from the brutality that was so present in the world around. After all, I was struggling to survive. At same time, some speculation about the role of God in the universe me to devise a strict morality according to which every action, every thought, was either good or bad, depending upon its effect within the divine plan. For example, because I perceived (though was never told) that masturbation was condemned, I thought that some­how it caused death directly or indirectly—a kind of domino effect. This self-punishing belief seemed not only correct but demanded something of me, perhaps in payment for offending against gentility. I was attempting to make sense of war and sex and even death, and  doing so in an alien, heterosexual world where pious parents of nearly all religions encouraged their sons to pair off with girls, even while forbidding them to make love, no doubt for fear of babies and disease. It was a contradictory world where pleasure and piety cancelled each other out.”

Here is a vivid description of an air raid – you can almost smell the fear. His father teaches him ‘the facts of life’ at the age of twelve, desperate that he should pass on the family name, which is threatened in time of war.

I liked the description if ‘the slurp and slap’ of the wharf at Great Yarmouth.

His parents told him not to be an officer in the armed forces but they get killed first (though that doesn’t seem to be borne out by accounts of the trenches I World War One) so when he does his national Service he is with the working class men he so admires, though his libido has gone. There are vivid descriptions of the seemingly pointless exercises they undertake. He develops a close emotional tier with his comrades, for whom he would willingly die.

There is a warm description of Cambridge’s architecture and Boris Ord’s music.

He trained for the priesthood at Mirfield theological College, a place I know well, and does his title curacy at St. Wilfrid’s Halton, Leeds, which was famous for the innovations of its vicar, Ernie Southcott, though it wasn’t anywhere near as successful as the spin claims.

There is a moving account of his encounter with a hospital patient. “He suffered from lupus, a disease that can have terrible effects. His face, as such, hardly existed; only raw flesh still attached to the living skull, with rimless eyeballs and two holes for a nose above teeth still in position but protruding from gums from which the lips were distorted and pulled back, mere pieces of dark red skin. A nauseating odor exuded from what flesh was left upon the bones and he wore a pink plastic mask that hid the more unsightly parts…… I ….sat by his bed. Suddenly, he whipped away the mask to display the horror that lay underneath.

“How d’you like it, eh?” he whispered.

He tested all his visitors this way to remind them, so he said, that sympathy and prayers meant little in the actual face of such a loss. I grasped his hand and, leaning over, kissed what remained of his fore­head. …..Great tears oozed from the raw skin around the eyeballs.

The author is headhunted, after a successful dabble in broadcasting, to America. He worked with Alistair Cooke, whose ‘Letter from America’ was a staple of weekly radio. He became fascinated with space research and tried on an astronaut’s space suit for TV.

He tried to help set public, non-commercial broadcasting networks but the First Amendment means people are scared of state intervention. The BBC would not be trusted there. Instead, it is commercial businesses which operate a stranglehold on the mass media. One spokesperson for radio predicts that FM will never catch on. Little did he know.

He gets involved in the civil rights movement and muses on the differences between minority groups: ‘although blacks might spit at us, whites turn on their heel, browns cut us dead, we each had our secret knowledge that we existed in our own right—that we were not artifacts, mistakes, or heterosexuals who were merely misbehaving; we were authentic. We rarely took to violence; we did our bit for society, served in its hospitals, helped its poor, taught in its schools, fought in its wars, designed its palaces, prepared its food, made its movies, and even helped run the country. This is why we are subversive. We have done much for society and yet to have accepted us would have undermined what heterosexual Christians had taken centuries to establish: the subservience of women, the rights of machismo, sex as sin, the body as temptation, materialism as ungodly, religious dogma as in contestable.’

Like all activists, he encounters opposition, mainly from the ignorant, such as one carrying a placard to announce that ‘God hates peterasts’. God hates pet/animal lovers?

In the deep South, he muses about the appropriateness or otherwise of always telling the truth and of not betraying one’s values: “Yew a nigger lover?” (a Southern racist)  rasped.

“It was the question I had been warned about. Say no, and you betray your friends, abandon your principles, and never forgive your­self. Say yes, and you lose your story and possibly your life.

I had often considered similar test questions ever since the vicar of the fundamentalist church where I was a choirboy had challenged his congregation with a situation drawn from Roman times. “A pinch of incense,” he used to cry, “was all the Pagan wanted! But would you spit in the face of Jesus?” Whether from cowardice or because the need to martyr oneself must somehow be flawed, I had long ago come to the conclusion that demands by tyrants were valueless.”

 He encounters an example of how this racism is fuelled by fundamentalist religion: “half an hour later, in the Pastor’s house nearby, with the deacons seated round us and still looking as if they could finish me off, I had my interview. I wanted to hear their beliefs; to learn what these beliefs were based upon; and why they continued to hold them. But they took their directions from their boss, who quoted and used the bible to justify his hatred. He denied all knowl­edge of violence or threatening behavior and the deacons looked blankly at me. They were just “good ole boys” larking about for a bit of fun with the nigger-lovers.

“After all,” said one of them, “niggers are animals, as the bible says.”

“They were quite unable to explain their fear of integration except in such terms. Their ignorance had been reinforced, perhaps even encouraged, by religious teaching…”

He was instrumental in settling up Suicide Prevention Inc., a phone line similar to he Samaritans, (which was, incidentally [?] also set up by a maverick priest, Chad Varah.) Clergy volunteers were usually unsuitable because they oozed platitudes instead of listening to people’s pain.

There is a vivid and challenging account of a séance where the medium couldn’t possibly have known many of the philosophical issues about which the man ‘from the other side’ supposedly spoke.

For him, as for so many, the ‘gay scene’ becomes vital. It offers refuge from ‘straight-acting’, ‘passing as straight’ in a world which alienates LGBTs from their true selves: “there was no doubt that once inside the tub doors and among one’s own people, years of fear drained away. The outside world where, as Christopher Isherwood once described it, one seemed to suffer lack of oxygen, was laid aside during my brief sojourn in safety, and I would breathe deeply in sheer relief”

Heterosexuals often accurse gays of being obsessed with sex yet it is their hegemony which causes oppression and leads to promiscuity: “I explained, as I had then, how important the tubs were to gay people who had for so long been forbidden to have sex; that the tubs were an inevitable explosion of more than two thousand years of frustrated libido, all the more exhilarating for the time it had taken to burst forth. I added that if we continued to bottle up the sexuality of our young people, this effervescence was likely to continue unabated.

“Could they say, I asked the heterosexuals among the group, that their sexual lives were entirely and only concerned with producing children? That they had no physical pleasure in sexual activity? And that love was absent from it? more importantly, if heterosexual teenagers had been forbidden any show of affection to the opposite sex, would not a similar explosion of heterosexual libido have been likely? And I added that as for the accusation of promiscuity, the free­dom to love should not be confined; a country flower may bloom for not more than a night or an hour, but is no less beautiful for the drop­ping of its petals. I went on and on: duration was no guarantee of value; a rock may last for ever, but a rock remains cold, hard and unfeeling. One might be forgiven for suspecting that it was not divine law that kept heterosexuals from making love more often; it was fear of pregnancy. True love was open, free from jealousy and the sin of possession. One’s mate was not one’s property . . . and so on.”

Ever the theologian, he queries natural law, as envisaged by Aquinas: “But it is only an “unnatural” act (if any act can be said to be so) when nature is conceived as having such a rigid structure that a tree should never be made into a chair; and a chair should never be used as a table; and where even atoms should, like my own mother, know their proper place. Such claims were no more than intellectual definitions of nature that took advantage of attributes assumed to be divine as a cover to serve personal and insti­tutional ends. It was, in fact, a ruse to con people into accepting a particular theory of existence that did not hold water”

I think, however, he has misunderstood Aquinas and co. The natural ‘purpose’ of a tree might by to grow tall, produce fruit and provide oxygen but natural law theorists probably believe that God gave it to humans for their own use, maybe to make a table or chair.

He shares the dislike of many of the campness shown by Quentin Crisp, though he doesn’t seem to use this as a reason for saying that he, too, is ‘not one of them.’

There is an irritating misquotation of Cranmer’s third collect at Evening Prayer. But also an amusing pun: ‘the immaculate complexion.’

The book ends with a lyrical, almost mystic paean to evolution and entropy, to the primordial soup from which arises human consciousness. As a statement of faith, an atheist creed, it beautifully sums up this man’s credo.

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