Out of the closet, into the cloisters
Image courtesy of The Times
Confronted by the appearance of an enraged female worshiper, Rev Andrew Foreshew-Cain was harassed and condemned of being a "false Shepard". Ignorant of whom Andrew was and his 30 years of active ministry, the Christian woman denounced Andrew as a miscreant to God for the crime of loving another man.
Andrew Foreshew-Cain, 55, has been married to his husband, Stephen, since 2014 when same-sex marriage was legalised. They have now been together for 16 years. Unfortunately, the closet of the Church of England (C of E) hinges deeper on an unfeasible contradiction. Anglican leaders have driven gay congregants away in shame and have insisted that homosexual tendencies are unkempt. Yet, many are gay. "It is one of those open secrets nobody talks about." Revealed Andrew.
Their stories are unspoken, veiled from the public sphere, known only to one another, if at all. Members feel uncomfortable to talk about their sexuality in fear of hostility and ill-treatment. But Andrew is not your normal Anglican. The first vicar in the country to come out gay, Foreshew-Cain has been nicknamed the ‘rebel priest' for his outspokenness and criticism of the church. Despite holding no particular candle for the institutional church, Andrew has not been put off from exercising his religious beliefs.
Andrew was only 8 when he knew he was gay, after having multiple "crushes" with boys at school. "I had been aware of my sexuality," revealed Andrew. “I was extremely fortunate to have grown up in a very liberal family who weren't hostile in any way towards my sexuality.” It was also at this time when Andrew began to be fascinated with Christianity. His family was not traditional churchgoers, but Foreshew-Cain was baptised and remembers being "fascinated by the bible and finding the stories interesting and engaging.”
Those who have a personal relationship with God often include deity in their daily lives, and Andrew finds his connection with Christ to be personally prominent. "I'm one of those people who's always believed in God and had a strong sense that there is the eternal and the divine. I've always felt quite close to that. That's never changed throughout my entire life."
Although open about being both Christian and invert, Foreshew-Cain does not feel a moral conflict. When people read Genesis or Matthew, and the other verses implying that marriage is between and man and a woman, they will find contradictions. But the Bible, Andrew asserts, "might refer to what we perceive as being homosexuality". Interpretants will assert that the Bible is to be interpreted according to the ‘plain meaning' conveyed by its construction. Andrew thinks this is problematic. "We take the entire book and we use that as a test for the authenticity of Christianity. That's a complete mistake. The scripture is descriptive of the social reality at that time, and not prescriptive of all time."
Reflecting on his past, Andrew said that his family was broadly accepting of his sexual orientation when he came out: "I didn't get a massively negative attitude towards my sexuality from my family at all. My parents had a lot of gay and lesbian friends. It made me experience my faith and my sexuality more in a sense. It was never a particular problem for me as a Christian."
It seems unimaginable to hear Andrew say this, given the era he was brought up in. His adolescence ended with fear as the world faced an ill and unknown virus.
"The AIDS crisis occurred and was happening all around us. My friends and I were living in this upright protected little student bubble. Somehow, we managed to get through it all relatively unscathed”. Andrew accepts that this is "a privileged thing to say" because prejudice was rife during the epidemic. Queers were the victim of abject homophobia and Andrew says that the LGBT community continue to be downgraded as "second-class citizens".
As Andrew began experimenting with his sexuality, the C of E was shifting socially towards an agenda focusing on equality and diversity. The Osborne report saw the Church become more accepting of homosexuality, but its contribution to Christian discourse saw the Church begin to fragment. As the LGBT community became more visible in wider society, people started coming out, and gay relationships began to be seen, discussed and normalised within Christianity itself. "The Church of England found itself on the back foot. It fought against it. It began to clamp down on its gay clergy. After the ordination of women was resolved in ‘94, the battleground shifted to sexuality."
Foreshew-Cain was accepted into university and got involved with the Christian Union, but immediately began to question his involvement. "I never signed up to the Christian Union declarations of faith because it always made me feel uncomfortable. I wasn't a classic evangelical." It was at this time that Andrew met his first boyfriend. "We kind of fell in love, we didn't know we were falling in love. I think everybody else around us knew that we were falling in love. We just knew that we were really good friends. We both had a close and intense relationship."
Post-graduation, Andrew held ministry positions at St Mary with All Souls, Kilburn, and St James', West Hampstead, but after his wedding was made public, Andrew was "blacklisted" from finding a new job. “Other people have made it a problem for me, the institution has made it a problem for me. And when I took the conscientious decision to marry, it famously became a problem for me."
A victim of systemic bullying, Foreshew-Cain said the news of going into partnership with Stephen caused a breach with his bishop, who disciplined him. "Because I was already the vicar of the church, I said they had to throw me out, which is what I was threatened with. It would have been a very public thing to do. I was just disciplined and told that if I ever left, I would never be allowed to work and find a job ever again."
Alongside marriage, gay priests must wrestle with celibacy and is often seen as a compromise in Anglicanism. "Insisting on celibacy," Andrew 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. The need an innate desire for an intimate connection with another person is crucial." Weighing his words, Andrew denounces celibacy as "hard-line" and when asked about his experience with sexual intercourse, he paused and giggled: "Well…I like it quite a lot!"
After two decades of service, Andrew left with a fractious exit in 2017 which made headlines across the country. "I have a consciousness of God at all times. I trust Jesus. I believe in the divine. But I don't believe in the institution of the church anymore. Their behaviour towards gay and lesbian people in the last decade or so is abhorrent. They use us as a political tool. If the bishops knew that a particular attitude towards young people was causing them to have mental health issues, self-harm and resulting in elevated rates of civil unrest, they would think twice."
The environment for gays in the community has grown only more hostile. The University of Kent is due to host the Lambeth Conference next year, a global Anglican event that takes place once a decade with representatives from more than 165 countries set to attend. Bishops were cleared to invite their spouses, but Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby personally told same-sex partners they would not be allowed to attend, stating it would be "inappropriate". Students have been vocal critics. Aaron Thompson, ex-Kent Union President, argued that this event undermines Kent's "commitment to equality, diversity, and inclusivity".
In a statement released afterward a meeting of senior officials, Vice-Chancellor Karen Cox said the conference will act as a forum to discuss "issues on which opinion within the Communion is currently divided" and that all couples will be offered accommodation on campus. Despite the change, Andrew sees this move as a cash-grab (tickets cost £5,000-a-head). "The money at this conference is extraordinarily expensive, it is the same as a luxury cruise line. The university is putting commercial interests above its moral values."
Andrew's story is both disconcerting and sad for a multitude of reasons. The church may not have a problem with same-sex relationships. Queers make up a large proportion of the Church clergy, and up to 14 of the 26 Lord Spirituals – bishops – are secretly gay. "David Hope, the former Archbishop of York, said it was a ‘grey area' for him and others. Looking at it myself, it is a huge great ‘pink flamingo'." However, when gays and lesbians ask to get married in a church, the C of E suddenly has a problem, which Andrew says is beginning to undermine the covenant of union. "Bishops seem to be incapable of seeing that, while acknowledging that gay and lesbian people are married. It's not undermining marriage as a concept. It's strengthening marriage. It's welcoming people into the institution, a whole group of new people who are finding its joys and its pleasures and enhancing it as a social situation."
Nine out of 10 in the Church of England now accept women priests. This, Andrew emphasised, is what the Church of England should do on sexuality; recognise the primacy of conscience: "There's a new reformation going on in the West, between those who are seriously progressive in their attitudes towards women, gay and lesbian people, and those who are conservative. And I think what we are seeing is a realignment at the moment and that's happening within the churches. This is causing problems. There's a division between what the official line is and what the people truly believe. And long-term that's not sustainable. At some point, you're going to have to reconcile the two sides. At the moment, that's a big step."
Today, Foreshew-Cain is back in the ministry. He works as chaplain of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, which operates outside the C of E jurisdiction. "I was struggling with the institution." An institution, Andrew cites, that is "homophobic and regressive". Intaking a breath of fresh air, Andrew elated: "Since leaving, I feel much more my true self then I could ever be within the Church of England. I am happier and more content. And then in lots of ways my I feel stronger."