From exile to reconciliation: The remarkable journey of a gay clergyman

Published: December 29, 2011

(Editor’s note: The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of San Diego wrote this article for inclusion in a book that will be printed by the Church of Ireland.)

In 1980, I was fired for being a gay priest. It was a long time ago but it was very difficult, and an example the results of a "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy practiced by both church and state.

In the early 1980s it was still illegal to be gay in Ireland; and there was a stigma which the Church strongly endorsed through its interpretation of Scripture. My partner Frank and I were young and naive, and we didn’t really know what we were dealing with in terms of the culture of the Church of Ireland, which was still very homophobic.

At St. Bartholomew’s Church in Dublin, my rector, John Neill, when he discovered I was gay and in a relationship, suspended me from all duties and even from saying goodbye to parishioners. This hurt me personally, but it also profoundly hurt the congregation. Even worse was the impact this decision had on the whole Church of Ireland. The story of what happened circulated for many years after my departure and was cited as an example of the church’s poor handling of gay and lesbian clergy.

I later learned that John Neill might have been elected Archbishop of Dublin sooner than he was, partly because clergy in Dublin were worried about his ability to deal with his clergy as a fair and compassionate pastor, given that he had fired me without any significant support or agreed transition plan.

Henry McAdoo, the then-Archbishop of Dublin, also dealt with the issue in a very reactive and hidebound way. He allegedly said “I want him out of here, quickly and quietly." When I finally met with him at the See House in Dublin, he told me he did not know any gay people and assumed I was a paedophile. His last words to me (I was also a trained teacher and youth worker) were “I will not be able to recommend you for any position that involves working with children.” Given the power of the episcopacy over clergy, there was nothing I could do to challenge his ignorance.

Forced to leave Ireland, family and friends

I had to leave my home and my country within three months and it was horrific. I was dealing with my own grief and the grief of my parishioners. I had to come out to my father — (my mother already knew) — worried that the news might hit the press. He told me that he never wanted to see my partner ever again. He got his wish.

This premature coming out to my father led to a rift between my parents which took many years to heal. The shame of being fired for being gay cast an enormous cloud over everyone, our family, the parish and the whole church.

St. Bartholomew’s was considered a liberal progressive parish where a large number of parishioners were in mixed marriages, where there were known to be a number of gay couples, and the church was a refuge from the cultural and religious bigotry of the day. This status was undermined by the decision to fire me and in retrospect, it must have become difficult for John Neill to continue to function there as a spiritual leader, given what had happened.

I had nightmares about being rejected. It affected my spiritual life and as a priest I wasn’t able bring myself to celebrate the Eucharist for another three years. My only “sin” was that I was living in a six-year committed relationship with another man.

Picking up the pieces in London, but losing a partner

We limped off to London, like so many Irish gays before us, trying to pick up the pieces. The exile had devastating consequences on our relationship and we finally parted in 1982 when I moved to the USA. Frank got sick in 1985 and died from AIDS. I threw myself into full-time AIDS work in California and helped to set up some of the early AIDs services in the U.K. with our good friend Christopher Spence. A fountain in the London Lighthouse is dedicated in memory of Frank, whose inspiration and leadership in the early years of a frightening disease helped us to mobilize resources and move forward.

Between leaving St. Bart’s and moving to California, I worked in the U.K. as a project director with Newham Community Renewal Programme. I learned a lot about living in an alien land from children born to young West Indian parents living in London’s East End. Needless to say, I remained in the closet during my two years there and worked hard to build up the “Out of work Centre” for fellow exiles – they were black Londoners and I was a gay Irish priest. The U.K. was also a very difficult place to be gay and the Church of England remained a place of clergy closets with a few supportive bishops. Partners of clergy were reduced to “lodger” status.

Moving to Los Angeles to work with homeless gay youth

I had heard about how progressive the American Episcopal Church was becoming, and on a vacation in Los Angeles in 1982, I met Marsha Langford at my first Gay Pride parade. As president of Integrity, the Episcopal Church’s LGBT advocacy organisation, she was looking for an openly gay priest to begin a ministry with the hundreds of runaway gay youth that flocked to Los Angeles every year, as refugees from homophobic Middle America. I moved to L.A. later that year and began the ministry at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center.

These exiled kids were the product of the same forces that had kicked me out from my home and church. I was lucky as a university graduate with friends and connections to a better life. They ended up selling their bodies on the streets of Santa Monica Boulevard. Within five years, many of them were sick or dead from AIDS. I watched a whole generation of exiles either die of AIDS or became care-givers and activists to fight the discrimination caused by it.

As a priest, I had a unique role to play and my mediation skills that had been honed in Ireland as a reconciler on the streets of Belfast, were now used to get insurance companies and health care providers to help the marginalized. The Episcopal Church became, in the words of Ed Browning our amazing presiding bishop, “The Church of no outcasts.” I had found a home where my gifts and calling could be validated.

A profound healing experience

Later that year, I was invited to celebrate the Eucharist at St. John’s church, now the Pro-Cathedral. It was the first time I had celebrated in over three years, and I was terrified. There was something very painful about standing as a priest before the altar and saying those words again. The damning words of the Archbishop of Dublin haunted me and I felt so unworthy; yet surrounded by members of the Los Angeles chapter of Integrity, the blessing of sharing in the feast of love and reconciliation was one of the most profound healing experiences I have ever known.

When clergy stand at the altar, they are called to represent Christ, to sometimes stand with the suffering ones; but for me priesthood is more than ever to hold the sacred space open for everyone, so they can experience the power of God’s redeeming love. The altar became for me “a place of wounded memory,” just as sitting in church for most LGBT people is a painful returning to the place where we first heard “our love was not good.”

It is my belief that the authentic spiritual journey begins in exile (the Garden of Eden story affirms it) and being fully healed as an LGBT person, we are gently encouraged to return to the place of the wound. The sacrifice that is being made by LGBT people on a global scale, on altars of certainty and righteousness is a daily occurrence. “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” takes on a new meaning when one’s own spiritual journey follows a pattern of crucifixion, death and resurrection.

Canon Malcolm Boyd, one of the great openly gay mentors for the church who I came to love and respect in Los Angeles, once told me “Albert, for every one of us who have survived, 10 have not.” I think of the many gay and closeted clergy I know from the Church of Ireland who either committed suicide, drank themselves to death in a bid to numb their alienation, or were shipped off to London as I was. The toll is devastating and the waste of God-given gifts is a great blight on the church’s stewardship of creation in all its diversity.

What thousands of blessings have been withheld from the church as a result of the rejection faced by clergy like me? Yet many lives, mine among them, have experienced healing and reconciling love thanks to dioceses, parishes and nonprofit organizations conscious of the needs of LGBT people.

We now have the opportunity to tell our stories, and there are thousands more to tell. Integrity and the Diocese of Los Angeles welcomed me and took me in, broken and afraid and humiliated, and surrounded me with the friends of God. They believed in me when I could not believe in myself. As I come up to my 35th year of ministry, I realize that my move to the United States allowed me opportunities that most gay clergy are not given.

Uganda, AIDS work and reconciliation

My ministry also involved getting to know the Anglican Church of Uganda and working on AIDS prevention there from 1991 to 1997 and more recently with the amazing Bishop Christopher Senyonjo. As a straight ally for LGBT inclusion, he too shares the shame and exile of the “crucified ones.” He has been stripped of his status in the church and refused the privileges of baptizing his own grandchildren or being buried in consecrated ground. The sacrifices are endless for those who are called to “stand with the crucified,” LGBT and for straight allies.

More than anything, my ministry has been helped by returning to Ireland following a wonderful reconciliation that sprang from taking part in the “Hands of Healing” process in Los Angeles in 2005. At the end of a two-day training program, we were invited to write down the name of someone we either sought forgiveness from or wanted to forgive. After 20 years of carrying around the negative energy of John Neill and his impact on my life, I committed HIS name on a little piece of paper with others seeking healing that was then prayed over in a large bowl of water. Months later, I would receive an email from my old parish of St. Bartholomew’s in Dublin, congratulating me on becoming a Canon in Los Angeles. The present rector, who obviously knew the story of what had happened to a former priest at St. Bart’s, invited me to preach and celebrate next time I was in Dublin. I could not believe what I was reading! I wrote back thanking Fr. Thompson and suggesting he run it by his present Archbishop, who happened to be none other than John Neill. I was certain John would not want me around Dublin any time soon. But I was wrong.

What followed was an email from John Neill – a very wonderful email apologizing for what he had done to me. He said he understood a lot more about LGBT issues and had great respect for some of his clergy who are gay and lesbian. He also admitted that, if faced with a similar situation today, he would handle it very differently. I immediately wrote back, accepted his apology and arranged to meet with him as soon as possible. I arranged a special trip to Dublin to have dinner with him and his wife Betty. I remember the difficult drive down the very street where Archbishop McAdoo lived and rang the doorbell of the same house where 20+ years before, John Neill’s predecessor had told me he could not recommend me for ministry where children were involved. It was a very difficult thing to do, but I had to “return to the place of the wound” if I was going to find healing and we were all going to move forward.

So I reconciled with him and we became good friends. We had a lovely dinner in their kitchen and it was just like old times. We picked up where we left off and tried to catch up on what each other had been doing, what their family was up to. It was a grace-filled blessing to all of us. A few months later, while I was web-surfing for a course on conflict resolution as part of a planned sabbatical, “The Irish School of Ecumenics” popped up. The course was perfect for what I wanted to do, but if I had not reconciled with John Neill, I could never have come back to Ireland.

So in 2006, I returned to complete a master of philosophy degree at the ISE and was licensed by John Neill to officiate in the Diocese of Dublin. Fr. Thompson’s invitation to preach and celebrate in St Bart’s after 20 years was gladly accepted. I found myself back in the place of my nightmare of shame and rejection. The amazing thing about that Sunday morning, seeing parishioners who I knew and were certainly familiar with the whole story, was how ORDINARY and matter of fact it all was. It was an unconditional welcome to my old parish after 20 years. It was healing for me and I even acted as John’s chaplain at the enthronement of the new Archbishop of Armagh, Alan Harper, who was a contemporary of mine in seminary. There in front of the whole Church of Ireland gathered that day in Armagh Cathedral complete with the Duke of Edinburgh and President of Ireland, John and I demonstrated Christian forgiveness and reconciliation.

Yet while I was in Ireland, two fine Irish gay clergy once again left for London. There was no still no place for them in the Church of Ireland either. Another priest friend, suffering from a terminal illness, was fighting for his rights to give his church pension to his legally recognized civil partner, having been refused permission to officiate by his diocesan bishop. I witnessed the inhumanity of a church that may have done wonders for the Irish peace process, but was continuing to discriminate against gay clergy. Like institutional sectarianism, institutional homophobia can creep up on us and before we know it, we are reverting to old patterns of relating.

I recently visited the Ulster Museum to read the damning consequences of the Penal Laws against Catholics, supported and encouraged by the Church of Ireland, then the established state Church. Such state-sanctioned violence against Catholics in the 18th century has much in common with LGBT criminalization in places like Africa where the Anglican Church supports criminalizing LGBT people. The consequences are death dealing and it is difficult to provide HIV education and services in many of these 76 countries. If there ever was an opportunity for the Church of Ireland to repair its dark past, it has to be today’s engagement with LGBT people. It begins by listening to the stories of your own children and fellow clergy and then to the stories of African LGBT Christians. What do both very different contexts have in common, and what could the Church of Ireland do to take leadership and, in the words of my friend John Neill, “to do it differently”?

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