Mike was quite a character.
Born and raised as a Roman Catholic in Belfast, his family were caught in the thick of the rising violence of the troubles, with catastrophic results.
To take him out of the cycle of violence and hatred, he was sent to a convent school in England, which was the beginning of a long road which eventually led to him seeking ordination in an Evangelical Anglican Church.
But there was a problem.
During this long journey, Mike had also discovered that he was Gay, and he was honest about this to those who were discerning whether he had a vocation to ordination. The answer came back clear and simple. If he was called to ministry, he had put his sexuality aside. He couldn’t follow both.
As he agonised over this, he was convinced that his faith must come first. He was sure that God was calling him to ministry, so he agreed to set aside his sexuality believing that God would honour this sacrifice, and somehow make up for it in blessing him in the ministry he was being called to.
Mike went through the selection process and was recommended for training. He chose to train at Trinity College Bristol, a good evangelical college, and that is where we first met.
I had no idea that Mike was gay – neither, I am sure did anyone else. He was a larger than life figure, often outspoken, always committed in what he spoke about, but not on the issue of homosexuality.
I remember taking my turn in leading a seminar in Pastoral studies. I chose the Christian approach to Homosexuality as the subject, and presented a ‘balanced’ but definitely ‘sound’ evaluation of Christian ethics on the subject. I remember Mike questioning one or two things quietly, but not in a way which would have revealed his situation. I now cringe to think what I must have said without realising the possible impact on him – and indeed on others whom I now know to be gay!
Mike and I both took part in the college’s Walsall project, spending time in Urban Priority Areas in the West Midlands, for a short time sharing a house. Little did I know the turmoil which was brewing underneath the surface.
Then suddenly for Mike, everything came crashing down.
First, he was arrested in the Gents toilets in the park, by an undercover policeman for seeking sex in a public place. Not being able to live openly as a gay man, and tormented by the frustrations and agony that brought, Mike had been driven to the secret way of expressing his sexuality. No names, no relationships, but most importantly, no way of being traced, or so he thought.
Mike was charged, and came back to college in a shroud of mystery. His vocation was placed under the spotlight, and put in doubt. Some of us knew something was wrong but had no idea how bad things were.
But things were to get even worse, because then Mike discovered that he was HIV Positive.
Today the treatments for HIV give hope to many, but then in the late 1980’s, there was no such optimism and Mike was devastated. Trinity College, to their credit, responded with care and compassion. A number of us, chosen by Mike, were invited to form a support group for him, and we met with him regularly to listen, support and pray with him.
His sense of hurt, fear and frustration were obvious to everyone in that group. He felt that God and the church had failed him – that the burden which had been placed on him, to set aside his sexuality and seek his vocation, had been more than anyone could have borne – and he felt betrayed by God, condemned to sickness & probably death as a result.
At the end of my time at Trinity, I was married to my wife Mel, ordained in Southwark Cathedral, and began ministry in London. Mike was not ordained, and stayed in Bristol, close to his health care. We kept in touch, largely through my wife, Mel, who has always been more open to gay people than I.
We visited Mike in Bristol from time to time. He came and stayed with us in London. For much of this time he was incredibly bitter and angry, but he gradually became reconciled to God through becoming part of an MCC Church (Metropolitan Community Church) made up of gay Christians who celebrated both their faith and their sexuality.
In time Mike developed Aids. Over the course of a year or more, Mike’s health steadily deteriorated, and eventually he told us that he was approaching death. We went to Bristol and visited him in hospital one last time. Gaunt and emaciated, we held him as he coughed up blood, railed against the church, and asked us to pray with him.
Forty-eight hours later, he was dead.
His funeral was an event never to be forgotten. Lead by the MCC church, it was a defiant celebration of his life, capped by the Afrcian civil rights singer Labbi Seiffre, arriving (as Mike always said he would – and we never believed him!) to sing “Something inside so strong” on his guitar. His mother, still a devout Belfast Catholic was there, grieving but encouraged by the significance which the event gave to his life. One of the numerous addresses was given by one of his tutors from Trinity College, the evangelical college where everything had fallen apart for Mike.
Mel & I went home to London, back to the profoundly non-accepting evangelical church where I was serving as curate.
Our friendship with Mike did not change my view of homosexuality, but it did re-awaken those uncomfortable questions in my mind. Mike was a complex character, and was certainly not an Iconic Saintly figure in the usual sense of the word. He had been arrested for indecency, contacted Aids from having sex with strangers, and spent much of his final months and years bitter and angry at the church. Yet he was also someone who had been called by God, and on whom an impossible burden had been placed – a burden which had eaten him away inside, creating irreconcilable conflicts in his faith, life and identity – a burden which eventually led to his premature, painful and undignified death. Was this burden really from God? And if it was, why didn’t God help him to carry it? Where were Jesus words in this?“Come to me all you that are burdened or heavy-laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Or was it a burden placed there by his church – my church – my understanding of the Christian faith?
As I look back, this was an experience that brought me back to reality with a sharp bump. The issue was once again at the forefront of my mind – I could not ignore it anymore, and there were questions I didn’t have answers to.
But as I struggled with this, I was determined to continue to be a Biblical Christian, even when that was uncomfortable. That was the bottom line, and has remained the bottom line in my faith – and the Bible said “No” as far as I was concerned. Whatever I believed had to measure up to scripture, even when it would be much easier to believe something else.