There aren’t too many politically progressive gay Catholic priests around. But Sarah Cheverton met two of them – and they’re married to one another.
I have a confession. I haven’t been to a church service since the compulsory school services I attended as a child, when an elderly minister stood and rehashed Bible stories I’d already heard repeatedly in my RE class. So when I was asked to interview two Catholic priests, nothing could have prepared me for Fathers Brizz and Paul Miles-Knight. The Fathers fervently believe in a church community from which no one is excluded. They also happen to be gay and married – to one another – and after meeting them, my perceptions of going to church will never be the same again…
Both Fathers are Portsmouth born and bred, and felt a strong desire to build their religious ministry, the Community Parish of Holy Angels, here. They met via the internet and were married almost nine years ago, the first ordained priests in Britain to marry in a civil partnership (legally converted to a marriage in January of this year). So how do two Catholic priests end up married and running their own parish? Father Paul explained. ‘We’re priests of the United Ecumenical Catholic Church (UECC), which basically means we’re members of an independent Catholic church. We are not Roman Catholics, but our ordaining bishop and our present bishop derived from the historic succession known as the Apostolic succession. Our orders are perfectly valid. We’re not self-appointed clergymen, we’re properly ordained clergy with oversight from an independent bishop.’
The Fathers feel strongly that the United Ecumenical Catholic church allows them a sense of freedom to practise their beliefs in an environment that is freely accepting of their sexuality. Father Pauls tells me, ‘The Roman Catholic Church still completely condemns homosexuality and the Church of England is split on the subject. Our church has no such barriers. It doesn’t matter whether you’re gay, straight, old, young or whatever, as long as you’re sound and you’re vocationally tested, then ordination is a possibility. We ordain women as well as men, which is also not a possibility in the Roman Catholic Church.’
For Father Paul, the conflict within the Church of England over the issue of homosexuality played a significant role in leading to the eventual formation of the Parish of Holy Angels, Portsmouth with Father Brizz.
‘Prior to being ordained, I worked as an undertaker for 18 years and I had been a lay minister in the Church of England since 1993. I was as busy then as I am now as a priest and I was burning the candle at both ends. I had to decide which was more important, and I ultimately felt that it was the Church. But I had to be honest about looking at the way the Church of England treated gay people, for example, Dean Jeffrey John, [editor’s note: the openly gay cleric, then Canon Jeffrey John resigned from the post of Bishop of Reading in 2003 following controversy and protest within the Anglican church at his appointment] the Dean of St Albans.’
The UECC offered a way in which the Fathers could practice a ministry that included everybody. ‘In conscience, I can’t, as a gay man, practise a ministry when certain factions in my church are telling me that I’m evil and I’m an abomination. So I moved to a Church where I felt comfortable in its Catholic foundations, and that is accepting of the fact that we’re together. We both have a vocation to the priesthood and we’re able to make it work as a couple, as a unit. We’re not joined at the hip, but as far as most people are concerned we are. Everything we do, we do together.’
The services held by the Community Parish of Holy Angels, like the fathers themselves, also hold elements of the unconventional. ‘Our church leans towards the Catholic tradition of worship, so after services we hold Mass or the Eucharist. We wear formal vestments and that’s the style of our worship, but we’re not quite as rigid as you might expect. There’s often a few giggles during the service, we like everyone to feel relaxed. Where other churches have tea and coffee after the service, we have tea and coffee, wine and even chocolate, and we usually end up back at a pub afterwards, congregation as well.’
The Parish of Holy Angels has a growing congregation with services held on the first and third Sunday evenings of each month at the John Pounds Church in Old Portsmouth, and at the Chapel of Our Lady of Beaulieu (a private chapel in North End owned by Father Julian, another of the parish ministry team) on the other Sundays. ‘Every year on December 1st, we hold a special World Aids Day Service, a gentle contemplative service with informal prayers, readings, poetry, music to just sit and listen to. The most important part is that it is very interactive, during the music, the congregation are invited to come forward to light a candle on the altar – by the end of the service the altar is completely covered in lighted candles. It is an amazing service which, since 2011 has been an official Civic event attended by the Lord Mayor, members of the City Council, and other official guests.
In addition to their monthly services, the Fathers are active as chaplains to a variety of organisations, including the Italy Star Association (of which Father Brizz is Branch Secretary), the Type 42 Association (an association of Royal Naval veterans who served on Type 42 Destroyers), the Solent Branch of the National Malaya and Borneo Veterans Association, and Father Paul is the National Chaplain of the Riders Branch of the Royal British Legion.
At the heart of the Father’s work is a profound belief in the freedom to practise your spiritual beliefs, whoever you are. ‘We are not a gay church, but because of the people we are, some of our congregation are gay. Fundamentally, we welcome everybody – we are catholic in the truest sense of the word. We are all embracing and we will turn nobody away. We don’t ask questions and don’t need to know what brings them here. The fact that people come to worship with us is what’s important.’
Despite their strong base in the local community, the Fathers still occasionally experience discrimination and even hostility in their work, with one local minister recently refusing to speak to Father Paul at all. ‘Occasionally, we do get a bit of negative feedback via the guestbook on the website,’ says Father Brizz, ‘It’s never identified individually. We had a comment once that said ‘Your Church is an abomination,’ but it was anonymous. I think we’ve had only two negative feedbacks from the website since it started, and nothing for quite a long time.’
Yet Father Brizz and Father Paul believe that people are more tolerant now than in the past. ‘I’d say we are living in more tolerant times. We live in Somerstown, and most people round there know us, they saw us in the paper when we married, they know we’re priests and they know we’re gay. There’s been absolutely not one ounce of trouble.’
Regular services are held on the 1st and 3rd Sunday of every month at John Pounds Church, at 6.30 p.m. with additional special services at various points in the year. You can find out more about the Community Parish of Holy Angels at their website.
Photography copyright Richard Williams