Is it time the
English were more afraid of God?
I can tell you to
the day the last time I stepped into a church for
something other than a wedding or a funeral. That’s
not because I have a remarkable memory, it’s
just that it was Christmas Eve, and because I so
rarely park my arse on a pew. Some friends had joined my
partner, Kenny, and me for the holiday, and having
watched some dreadful Xmas telly and downed a few
bottles of vino, someone suggested that we go to church for
midnight mass. And rather than laughing and asking that
person to pass the spliff, I found myself standing by
the door in my winter coat as my guests searched
drunkenly for their shoes, making jokes about whether
they would let us in once they saw the state we were all in.
Of course, this moment of festive cheer (I would
be lying if I called it more than that) was only made
possible by our proximity to the local Protestant
church. It was practically in the back garden. I am lucky
enough to own a beautiful 16th-century house on the River
Thames, and it’s adjacent to a magnificent
Saxon church. We all stood at the kitchen door and
listened as the sound of Christianity floated toward the
river. It was a hymn none of us recognized—but
then why would we?
As my trashed mates and I shuffled noisily into
the pew closest to the church door, I looked at the
sea of gray heads ahead of me and suddenly felt a
little guilty. There were five of us, and none of us ever
went to church ordinarily. We were there to add a
little romance to our drunken Christmas break, but
(despite the weakness of heart in their singing) these
men and women were at midnight mass because they believed.
Grandmothers and fathers, widows and widowers—the
only remaining evidence of a gentler, kinder, terribly
English generation. They had used this little village
church to get through wars. To pray for those they had
lost. To celebrate marriages and births, to ask for
guidance, or to beg for God’s forgiveness. To
get through 70 or 80 years of life.
I remember feeling glad that no one noticed us.
We were sitting at the back of the classroom giggling
uncontrollably because one of us had just farted.
Much as I am amused by the thought of five tipsy
queens rejoicing in their rejection by laughing at the
back of a church during Christmas Eve mass, it
wasn’t like that at all. The fact is, Kenny and I
were the only shirt-lifters on show that night. My
(straight) friends and I showed so little respect in
church for one simple reason: We grew up in England.
And in England, for every man or woman who goes to church on
a Sunday, there are 99 who don’t. Less than 1%
of the English are God-fearing people. In fact, on the
day of rest, they are all at Ikea.
I bet you think I’m joking, don’t
you? I’m really not. The reason I’m
telling you all of this is that I know that you are an
American. And unless you are reading this article in a
friend’s house or a waiting room somewhere, you
are almost certainly bent as a nine-bob note, as we
English like to say. Which in turn means that you are a
homosexual living in a country where more than 60% of
the country is taught that you and your kind are going
to end up at the hottest circuit party in town. A
country that’s moving slowly but surely to the right
for all to see. And now, at the very moment that
American culture is at its most influential, its most
powerful, some of your neighbors have begun to search for
answers in the past, and more specifically, in the Good Book.
And no amount of Will or Grace is going to make
up for the sight of George W. Bush receiving a
standing ovation in Congress as he steps into his time
machine to protect the country from fags and dykes like us.
So I have a question to ask, one gay person to
another. I know you can’t answer it fully, but
who else am I supposed to ask?
As a gay Englishman, should I be more afraid of God?
I’ve never had a problem with God, you
see. (The God that Americans are presented with day
after day would, I think, have a few problems with me,
but we’ll come back to that.) In the England of my
childhood, God could be described only as a fading
presence, really. Two hundred children would hum
vaguely decipherable hymns around me in the main hall each
morning, and every once in a while I’d have to stop
picking my nose to pretend I was looking for a number
in my hymn book, but school had already become a
secular environment for all intents and purposes.
It was the ’70s, and by then the
historical victims of the British Empire had been
tricked into becoming the postwar labor force in England.
The Sikh and Hindu children I sat next to in class
didn’t have a lot to say about Jesus, and being
English and feeling terribly guilty about that whole
empire business, we didn’t want to start waving
Bibles around and reminding them what fascists we had
I for one think that was a pretty good call. If
guilt is the bedrock of the multicultural society
England has steadily become, then long live guilt. My
father is one of those seduced by England in the
’50s, and London remains the most convincing
example of a melting pot in the world. And if you
think the United States is getting there—well,
I’m sorry, but you need to dust off that
passport once in a while.
If all this guilt was beneficial to the cause of
racial integration, its knock-on effect was beneficial
to us. One of the by-products of a more secular
society is, of course, a lack of brimstone and fire when it
comes to homosexuality. The two go hand in hand. In
fact, there really ought to be a campaign to make
Henry VIII the patron saint of English queerdom.
Without his arrogance the English would still be Catholic,
and we would probably have our own Mel Gibsons and
Dubyas to deal with. The lack of interest with which
The Passion of the Christ was greeted in
England made me proud of my country (for the first time in
a while), and if that sounds excessive, bear in mind
I’d been in Texas when it was released
stateside. Between that and the hysteria over gay
marriage at the time, it was an unsettling few weeks to be
Even though it didn’t take a genius to
work out that Bush’s timing was purely
political (a sorely needed distraction to the hell on earth
that Iraq had become), the fact was that it worked.
People all over America lost interest in young men and
women losing their lives in the name of oil, their
heads swinging in the direction of the TV as they caught the
words “marriage,” “gay,”
and—lest we forget—“sanctity.”
Jesus wept. And who could blame him.
When I look at
Kenny sometimes I wonder how much more it took to be the
gay son of a Texan. Our separate struggles with family and
sexuality were not that different, but my journey was
not accompanied by the distant sound of church bells.
I have the feeling that for him, they were never far
away. I would go as far as to say that people who attend
church regularly are regarded with something close to
suspicion by most of my generation in England. As a
result the politics of religion won’t play a
part in the way we vote any time soon. Will it?
In a sick twist, immigration, the very thing
that watered down the Church of England and protected
English gay men from the ferocity of religious
persecution, has become the new enemy to watch out for. As
fundamentalism sweeps across America in the form of
Bush and his new fan club, gays and lesbians on this
side of the pond find themselves in the dreadful
position of sharing our soapbox with racists. We’re
not afraid of our soft old village vicar. But we are
beginning to worry about Allah. Emboldened by their
own persecution, Muslim clerics here are beginning to
spout some very scary stuff indeed in public, the kind of
rhetoric that bishops and archbishops have had to
stifle for the past 40 years.
Devout Christians and hard-line Muslims have
found common political ground, and it’s called Us.
Is it really possible that immigration, the
saving grace of English queerdom, will eventually lead
the charge against us?
It is June 2005, and Tony Blair has just won his
third term as Britain’s prime minister, despite
the public’s complete lack of trust in his
politics (and his friends). “Faith schools”
are booming, and immigration played a large and
unnerving part in the preelection campaigning that
barked at us from the TV all day, every day, in the weeks
before the May vote. The lowest common denominator
rules. No one cares.
The English are palpably losing their identity
in a sea of reality shows and American business
models, and somewhere in the distance I could swear I
hear a bell ring. Or should that be toll?
So maybe those of
us giggling at the back should shut up for a bit. The
joke may be on us soon enough.