Dusk had come early that afternoon and by the time of the church’s Evensong Service, all that could be seen outside the windows was black night. The church’s windows only reflected darkness, not even vague shapes or movement within it. In the time before the service began, I sat in my pew and stared at those dark night windows.
It was called The Youth Service. Once a month, the church’s Young People’s Fellowship was allowed to take part in the Evensong Service, though not the church’s big Sunday morning Eucharist Service. We, the young people, were allowed to lead the service’s music, even choose some of it, read the lessons and lead the prayers, even perform a short dramatic sketch, but we weren’t allowed to choose the service’s theme and we were certainly not allowed to preach the sermon. At twenty, I was still classed as a “youth” at church and was a member of the Young People’s Fellowship. I was sitting in the pew, waiting for that month’s Youth Service to begin. Two of us were going to perform a short sketch about where the kingdom of God actually was. Back then, my writing was very Christian and focused much more on Christianity’s message than any attempt to create realistic characters and situations and then to explore themes through them.
The high point of the Evensong Service was the sermon; the whole liturgy of the service seemed to lead up to it. That Sunday, the church’s curate was preaching. He was a middle-aged family man who took a very literal view of the Bible and that Sunday he had chosen a very topical subject for his sermon. The previous week, James Anderton, the chief constable of Manchester police, the neighbouring city, had said that people with HIV/AIDS were "swirling in a human cesspit of their own making" (1). The curate chose this as his sermon topic that evening.
In the sermon James Anderton was called a prophet of God and the curate applauded him for what he said. He said Anderton was standing up for the truth and that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuals. He told the congregation that homosexuals were a sin and now God was enacting his judgement on them. He said that people chose to be homosexual and therefore chose to turn away from God and they deserved AIDS.
I sat in my pew, wishing I was a million miles away from there. His words felt as if they were a direct attack on me. He was telling me that I wasn’t wanted there and that I was going straight to hell just for being who I was. It was as if his anger and hatred was directed straight at me. I was being told I wasn’t welcome there even when I was still deeply in the closet. No one there knew I was gay, not even the curate the night he preached that sermon. I barely knew it, I had certainly not acted on my sexuality, I had not kissed another man, not even held another man’s hand back then.
James Anderton was a divisive figure, even in 1986. Before his bigoted statements on people with HIV/AIDS, he had been called “God’s Copper” (2), and it was deserved. In 1987, he called for homosexuality to be criminalised again. He said, “The law of the land allows consenting adult homosexuals to engage in sexual practises which I think should be criminal offences. Sodomy between males is an abhorrent offence, condemned by the word of God, and ought to be against the criminal law.” (3) He also encouraged his police officers to patrol the Canal Street area of Manchester, the heart of the city’s gay village even then, to stalk its dark alleys and arrest any men caught in the merest clinch (4). There were also allegations that Manchester police used a colour-coding system to identify anyone homosexual in their files (5).
Anderton wasn’t just homophobic, he also had far right-wing views that he happily allowed to influence his role as chief constable. He openly stated the elected Labour politicians, who were running Manchester’s council, were part of a left-wing conspiracy to destroy British democracy (6). In late 1977, Anderton secretly met with a National Front leader to ensure that the far-right group could hold marches in Manchester without the risk of counter protests, when other cities had banned marches by the National Front. He allowed the marches to happen as long as their routes were kept secret beforehand (7). In 1987, he called for the corporal punishment for criminals until they begged for mercy (8) and he also called for the castration of rapists (9).
Anderton saw himself as having “a direct line to God” (10) and therefore being a prophet of God (11). He claimed that God was calling him to speak out on moral issues, therefore implying that his views could not be questioned because they came directly from God. (I have met this attitude many times in my life and always found it extremely worrying and even dangerous because it always seems to be used to justify extremist views.)
Anderton’s statements and behaviour didn’t go unchallenged. After his bigoted comments about people with HIV/AIDS and his claim to be God’s prophet, in January 1987 Manchester Council called for his resignation (5). The council leader wrote to then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd, calling for Anderton’s behaviour and his handling of Manchester’s police force to be formally investigated and him to be reprimanded (12). Other chief constables said Anderton was “bringing ridicule” onto the police service (12). Anderton ignored the call for his resignation, which is not surprising, but recently it has emerged that he was being protected by Margaret Thatcher’s government and Thatcher herself (12). In response to calls to restrain Anderton’s public announcements, her private secretary wrote to Douglas Hurd stating, "The Prime Minister has commented that it would be outrageous if the Chief Constable [Anderton] were required to seek clearance for all his public speaking engagements." (12) Thatcher also stopped any enquiry into Anderton’s behaviour, saying he shouldn’t be stopped from speaking publicly at non-policing events (13). She protected him.
In December 1986, I didn’t know of most of this, but I had heard Anderton making his statement on people with HIV/AIDS. His words were incredibly harsh and lacking in any compassion or concern; he actually seemed happy in his condemnation. How could he be speaking God’s will when there was no compassion to his words? Even though it was only 1986, I had taken a lot of time to read and learn about AIDS, though on my own and in secret, and nowhere could I see the facts of AIDS reflected in Anderton’s words.
Sitting in that church pew, I felt so beaten down and depressed. This was what the curate felt about me and now he was condemning me to hell, even though he didn’t know it was me he was specifically condemning. I had joined that church as a safe place, a place where I could be myself, a place where I was known as myself, not solely as my parents’ child, a place where I was wanted and could belong. I had been wrong. This wasn’t a safe place; this was a dangerous place of condemnation and hatred. I wasn’t wanted there. I felt sick and afraid. I didn’t know what to do.
It was a relief when the sermon was over, the end of the service rapidly approaching, but I couldn’t unhear those words. James Anderton, with all his hatred and bigotry, had been identified as prophet of God, the curate publicly stating that all his words were the truth. The words of that sermon told me so much—I wasn’t welcome there and neither was I safe, but where else could I go?
After the service I made some quick excuses and left the church early, I couldn’t risk hearing people say how much they agreed with that sermon. I had to leave that building and hurry out into the dark December night. But hurrying home still didn’t nullify that sermon, didn’t silence its words in my mind.
When I reached home, I found my father in a very chatty mood. My mother was out visiting a friend that evening and he wanted someone to talk to, but I just wanted to be silent. He started asking me how the service had been but got quickly tired with my monosyllabic and vague answers. I claimed I wasn’t feeling well and retreated to the solitude and safety of my bedroom. How could I tell my father what had happened? I could barely admit it to myself and to tell him would have involved, in some way, telling him I was gay, and back then that was an impossible task.
Even as I heard that sermon, I knew its words were untrue, but the prejudice and hatred behind it was all too real. My greatest regret from that evening was that I didn’t just stand up and walk out of the church as soon as I realised what that sermon was about, silently announcing my opposition to all of its hatred rather than condoning it with my silent presence. But that was far too big of a thing to ask of myself back then, too much to force on my very closeted self. But hindsight is still a wonderful thing…
(The photograph illustrating this essay is not a picture of the church where this took place)