Our road to Damascus

2011-08-05 00:00

MY partner was always sceptical. He experienced, first hand, the sheer awfulness of the church as a gay teenager. He says he will forever be scarred by it and he can never again go under the banner of Christian.

When we adopted our first child, a debate arose between us and our Muslim social worker about what religion we intended bringing up our children in. Our initial instinct was to say none — and she would not have minded — she made that quite clear. But it was I who blinked.

I suggested to Leon, and he agreed, that faith, of whatever kind, is an important human thing to experience. It matters not if it gets rejected — that is irrelevant. But you can't teach a child faith. You have to experience it, contradictions and all, for yourself.

A friend of mine told us at the time about her experience of bringing up her children as atheists. She said it seemed fine for a while, but she had noticed their loneliness when things went bad or wrong. They seemed to have no one to turn to, not even an imaginary friend. How lonely indeed.

So, we found a church. It had splendid music and some sense of liturgy and decorum. We were welcomed there and no one seemed to make any fuss. Whatever stir one middle-aged white man, a younger man and two black babies caused was well managed. And the children would have been none the wiser.

Spurred on by baptism and early communion, our boys have, therefore, since their first year, attended church. I have been the one to take them, mostly. Leon would come with us on the odd occasion, and then would attend to the needs of his Blackberry during the service. Our eldest son, Gabriel, became a server, while Joshua went through the motions in a good-spirited sort of way, but would much rather have been playing some computer game.

That was how it has been for years. The church we attended in Cape Town was spikey, with lots of prancing around and doffing of birettas and a congregation whose attention was focused forwards in the direction of the choir and the altar, rather than communal, so that suited me perfectly. Sermons were short, incidental and easily ignored. The music was good. The language was the austere beauty of the King James, which could either serve a comedic purpose or else lull one into a sense of quiet comfort.

Then came the attack. I happened to be looking for the address of one of the bishops on the Internet, when I came across an article in a blog relating to a priest, who has, for other reasons, been relieved of his licence to operate as a priest. In it, my name was mentioned, together with a list of statements about me which amounted to an extraordinary and vicious attack. I knew I had to take action immediately.

I withdrew Gabriel from the server's guild and indicated to the parish priest the nature of the attack and the fact that we would not be returning to the church unless we could be afforded some measure of protection from this man. Silence was the response.

I approached the bishops and archbishop of Cape Town, asking the latter for an interview. Again, silence was the response and no interview was granted. Instead, the archbishop suggested through his provincial officer that I be urged to "pray" for the perpetrator of the attack. In general, bar one or two notable exceptions, silence has been the response of the diocese, the parish priest and parish as well.

Now, I venture to suggest that had this attack been racial, xenophobic or even an attack against a woman, the response would have been markedly different. It would have been immediate and it would have come from the highest levels of the church. But in this instance of clear sustained homophobia, there has been silence, except for a short statement given out by the office of the archbishop, which in the end I suggested and helped draft.

The clear and distinct impression we have been given as a family is that we are not wanted. This despite mouthings to the contrary elsewhere. Homosexual people are supposedly welcome (but more singly, than in pairs, it seems). Homosexual priests are not welcome at all. That is very clear indeed (again, despite mouthings to the contrary). And homosexual priests with a heathen partner and two adopted children seem to deserve no protection from homophobic attacks by another priest who comes from within the ranks of the church and who is quite obviously in need of psychological care.

I withdrew immediately from the church and as I had guessed, this priest came looking for me on Sunday mornings at mass. Had I and my children been there, there would have been, I am quite sure, no protection from him. It was not a risk I was willing to take and certainly not one I was willing to expose my children to.

At the start of this whole situation, Leon had asked a fundamental question. He asked: "What kind of an institution is this, that we are exposing our children to?" And I had to admit, it was not a safe one for them or us. Now, it is doubtless true that they will be exposed to a whole range of issues and problems throughout their lives. They will doubtless encounter homophobia in their schools and on the sports fields, etc. But that does not mean that we should be actually seeking out places for them to be abused. The church is clearly one such place. It is not a safe place for them or for us. But more than this, the church is an environment where gay and lesbian people are second-class citizens, and that is intolerable.

From the perspective of faith, well, that is something one must mould for oneself in any case. And my life is not and never has been one which depends on a faith in God for its goodness. I have not quite worked out how we will explain to the children why we don't go to church anymore, but I guess the truth won't hurt them. I might just say that the church just wasn't a safe place for us. We can do much better elsewhere.

• Michael Worsnip is the Land Claims Commissioner for the Western Cape.

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