The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle – SDGLN Contributor
August 9th, 2013
The Rev. Mervyn Kingston The Rev. Mervyn Kingston
Mervyn Kingston was born with many challenges. He grew up in Ireland where it was illegal to be LGBT for half of his life. He grew up in an evangelical Anglican church in Belfast at the height of the sectarian violence and although the evangelical world condemned him for being gay, he ended up his own reconciliation project with Richard O’Leary, who was a Roman Catholic from the Republic of Ireland.
They were a transformative couple over their 24 years together and entered into civil partnership in 2005. He was to all outward appearances a “nerd” and his life as a Church of Ireland clergyman for 34 years was not exactly about setting the world on fire, but behind these appearances was a remarkable man the world is missing already.
RGOD2: Fearless love in a gentle soul
RGOD2: Fearless love in a gentle soul
Fifty years in the making
I knew Meryvn since I was 11 years old and we had a lot in common, though we didn’t know that until relatively recently. We attended the same grammar school, “Grosvenor High” in Belfast, and I remember him as a Prefect in the Sixth Form … about five years ahead of me. He was most memorable for a very pronounced stammer and it was butt-clenchingly painful to listen to Mervyn read from Scriptures at morning chapel when it came his turn. Sniggers and pure discomfort were all around and there was a kind of “please Lord – help him just get through this” kind of prayer some of us offered to the Almighty.
My connection with him grew initially from these painful encounters because I too had a stammer and I knew how incredibly difficult it was for Mervyn to stand up in front of an audience of about 1,000 people knowing he was going to stutter on every fifth word! So I was a secret admirer of his courage and shared his wound.
A form of self-sabotage
There are many theories about stammering and some would claim it is a kind of self-sabotage. It is a way of limiting our ability to communicate and between anger and self-knowledge, it was a kind of social disguise of not being too articulate for one’s own good.
People around you could hurt you if you really spoke your mind in this Irish working class and violently homophobic culture of the 1970s. So, like the nerdy, churchy costume that Mervyn wore, I too was influenced by these kinds of survival skills. “The King’s Speech” has wonderfully portrayed the issue of stammering that has been an unexplored taboo for most of my life and there is often a misinformed parallel drawn between stammering and having a learning disability. It is socially and professionally debilitating when a stammer chats and robs you of public speaking skills or simple conversational aptitude. People who stammer don’t when they sing and so Mervyn was a big part of the school’s music program.
Our paths would cross many times and most significantly during the ordination process. I was ordained before he was, even though he was older and I reckon my speech impediment issues were not as much as a concern for the authorities as his were. I worked very hard at overcoming my stammer and what began as my “thorn in the flesh” forced me to develop my communication skills. I love public speaking and preaching and with God’s help, the journey to this place has not been easy, but here we are. We are witnesses of the miraculous in many simple ways and sometimes it is purely about practice and honing skills that others take for granted.
Impediments to ordination to the priesthood
What Mervyn and I did not know about each other was that we were both struggling with issues of sexual identity and its relationship to us becoming priests at a time when being gay was illegal.
In many ways, my stammer was much more a serious practical impediment to my ordination that my sexual orientation given the amount of public speaking and social intercourse required by the work. Yet, I knew God loved me and if God could call a couple of Irish stammers into the priesthood, then he could probably handle my sexual orientation and the men who came into my life over the past 50 years. They too shaped this imperfect priest and God was present in these deep relationships. God always calls the most unlikely people into ministry and leadership and the pattern usually follows that we feel totally inadequate for the task, yet with God’s help and the beloved community around us, we find a way to move shuffle forward.
Moses had a similar speech problem which rabbis claim was most likely a stammer and he is reluctant to take on God’s task of liberating the Egyptian Jewish slaves because he feels he just cannot speak properly. So God provides Aaron to do his public speaking and the reluctant stammerer Moses –reluctantly leads.
Mervyn was a relatively rare and early ecumenist in the sectarian violent Northern Ireland society of the 1970s and 1980s. At his ordination in east Belfast in 1973 he invited a Roman Catholic priest to prominently attend, ecumenical actions he repeated in the 1980s when he was serving in the parish of Glencairn in exclusively Protestant loyalist west Belfast. In sharp contrast his next appointment was as rector to the group of parishes which included overwhelming Catholic and republican south Armagh. Mervyn quickly established fruitful relationships with his Catholic neighbors. Mervyn saw his ministry and social outreach as one for all the people – Protestant and Catholic, loyalist and republican.
A pioneer of LGBT pastoral care and rights in a difficult global context
When I was fired from my work in a parish in the Republic of Ireland in 1980, Mervyn and many clergy friends were sympathetic but the church was a bastion of homophobia and no dissention or discussion on these issues was allowed.
I can understand the religious climate in Russia or Africa where Archbishops still rule with impunity. In Russia today, any LGBT sympathetic clergy are simply excommunicated. It is not that long ago when we clearly had the same experience in Ireland both within Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism. I had to leave Ireland and Mervyn and others like him stayed to do the difficult work of transformation. He met Richard O’Leary, a delightfully sweet and self-effacing academic who later taught at Queens University in Belfast, and they began to work really intentionally at bringing Ireland into the 21st century around LGBT rights and faith. His obituary reads:
“The Revd Kingston was a pioneer of the gay Christian movement in Ireland since the early 1980s as well as a member of the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association (NIGRA). He was a serving clergyman in the Church of Ireland for over 30 years until he retired in 2003 on health grounds as rector of the Creggan and Ballymascanlon group of parishes which straddled the Irish border. In that same year he co-founded Changing Attitude Ireland (CAI) as a group of Christians, gay and straight, lay and ordained persons, which has campaigned for the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the churches.”
In 2002 Mervyn was diagnosed with cancer and retired early at 60 in 2007. He claimed his church pension and sought to establish Richard’s entitlement to a survivor’s pension as his civil partner. He then had to fight the Church of Ireland to ensure his FULL pension rights could be transferred to his legal partner and when I spent two years back in Ireland in 2007, Richard and Mervyn were in the throes of this important battle. Eventually, Richard was given the same right of access to pension that other married clergy are entitled to and the pension policy was changed for other civil partnered couples.
Although Archbishop Alan Harper was pastorally supportive of him, Mervyn’s own bishop refused to license him to preach or celebrate the eucharist in his local parish church. (Ironically, a memorial service was held there this week). The Bishop of Down and Dromore, Harold Miller, is a contemporary of mine and like Mervyn comes from evangelical roots, but this “good cop- bad cop” strategy by our church leaders is a far cry from the ministry of Jesus. I don’t know what version of the Bible these guys read.
I remember often visiting them and walking on the beach near their seaside home and listening to the exhausting effects of a church that simply could not deal with the realities of having to engage fully with a gay person (or clergyperson), even when they had dedicated most of their life to its mission, as Mervyn had done. The courage and the tenacity, the sense of justice was palpable. These were holy men who were engaged in their own process of grief and loss with Mervyn’s terminal illness, while they were vicariously fighting for the rights and dignity of others. It was another remarkable witness behind all the apparent conservative exterior, there was a lion, a tower of strength, a prophet crying in the wilderness. Fearless love in a gentle soul.
Comrades in the global battle for LGBT equality
We continued to communicate when I returned home to the U.S. and worked together on a video and some publications. Mervyn was the editor of “Share Your Story: Gay and Lesbian Experiences of Church” (2010, CAI) and the author of “Church Needs To Listen To Its Gay Clergy” (in “Moving Forward Together: Homosexuality and the Church of Ireland” 2011, CAI). They supported the work of our St. Paul’s Foundation and hosted Ugandan Bishop Christopher Senyonjo once in Ireland.
I always considered Mervyn and Richard were bravely dealing with as difficult a religious context as any African country because they remained totally excluded from the life of the mainstream church and were treated as a kind of pariah by many of their contemporaries (especially almost all of the bishops). If these bishops had only approached this situation differently, their legacy and their common humanity might have been more compassionate. These bishops remain on the wrong side of justice and have failed to offer any significant contribution to the public debate, which has now passed them by.
The Church of England mirrors much of this similar response. History will judge these acts of cowardice disguised as a concern for church orthodoxy. Not to permit a dying priest permission to celebrate the eucharist or share the Word of God through preaching just because he is in a legal partnership with another man is simply another form of clergy abuse by Bishop Harold Miller.
Mervyn died on Aug. 2 and was buried in Downpatrick on Tuesday. My love goes out to Richard, who remained at his side even during these tough years when the institutional church failed them.
A tribute to our heroes
So it has been a difficult week for me with the burialof two LGBT heroes, Eric Lembembe in Cameroon and the Rev. Mervyn Kingston in Ireland. In tribute to both of them and representing the LGBT diaspora, I share one of my favorite poems written by an early LGBT theorist from the late 19th century and Anglican clergyman, Edward Carpenter. These men lived and loved deeply and have shaped who we are and what we are becoming. They rest in the earth’s womb which brought them forth and inspired them to do the kingdom work that we are all invited to participate in doing. Unlikely leaders, yes. But what wounded and challenged them became their strength and shaped their legacies. They shaped us.
”The Lake of Beauty”
Let your mind be quiet, realizing the beauty of the world, and the immense the boundless treasures that it holds in store.
All that you have within you, all that your heart desires, all that your Nature so specially fits for you- that or the counterpart of it waits for you embedded in the great Whole, for you. It will surely come to you.
Yet equally surely not one moment before its appointed time will it come. All your crying and fever and reaching out of hands will make no difference.
Therefore do not begin that game at all.
Do not recklessly spill the waters of your mind in this direction and in that, lest you become like a spring lost and dissipated in the desert.
But draw them together into a little compass, and hold them still, so still.
And let them become clear, so clear- so limpid, so mirror-like;
At last the mountains and the sky shall glass themselves in peaceful beauty.
And the antelope shall descend to drink, and to gaze at his reflected image, and the lion to quench his thirst,
And Love himself shall come and bend over, and catch his own likeness in you.
RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.
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