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Interview: Stephen De Silva, educator, cathedral guide

22 May 2020

‘All knowledge is useless if the values are all wrong’

I was born in Bermuda of dual Azorean and British heritage. My father’s mother, Granny Sarah, had a simple and deep faith. God was as near to her as her next breath, and I think I caught that very early on.

I’ve always been an Anglophile; so coming to the UK for university was natural. I was raised in Methodism; then, at Exeter University, I found that the sacraments and Catholic liturgy within the Church of England nurtured my faith and kept me closer to God.

I became a teacher as a preparation for being ordained. But my bishop wanted a personal lifelong vow of chastity from me: I’d told him I was a gay man. There was no way I was going to do that. Being celibate’s a fine thing — but it’s not for me; so ordination was refused, and I ended up as head of religious studies in a church school.

When AIDS reared its ugly head, I decided to use my skills in sexual-health education. I have worked as a freelance nationally and internationally with students and teachers, promoting good pastoral care generally and teaching good sexual health and relationships in particular.

You’re always doing three things in teaching: imparting knowledge, checking what your students want to know, and exploring these young people’s attitudes and values. All knowledge is useless if the values are all wrong; so you work from the young person outwards.

You never start with the sex or relationships, of course. That has to be sited overall in the PSHE programme; and then, as you go, you build trust. You make sure that people don’t inappropriately disclose anything, or ever put a young person on the spot and ask them to say out loud what they themselves would do in any given situation.

I was invited to run a three-day course at the British school in Taiwan, which is part of the Federation of British International Schools in South-East Asia. That evolved into five years’ work in that part of the world. I loved it, and always made sure I kept a few days for personal exploration.

What’s being taught in the new relationships curriculum in the UK is respect for individuals in community. You may not wish to live in the way that other individuals do, but it’s very important to understand who they are and respect their autonomy. If you come from a minority group, it can give you a different perspective. As a Christian — a minority group now — and as a gay man, with a British Muslim partner, as a non-British-born person, I find my view is diverse. I revel in it. But when people feel scared. . . One of my biggest worries about this pandemic is that we retreat into our homes and lose contact with each other.

The Heritage Alliance gives the national “Heritage Heroes” award annually. It is sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance, to celebrate the role of volunteers, who are crucial in protecting England’s heritage. They’re the national umbrella organisation for all our heritage sites.

I was really chuffed. I’d no idea that I’d been nominated, and feel very honoured to be a Hero. Friends have been asking what my superpower is. Now we’re in lockdown, I’d like the power to banish calories from my refrigerator.

I was awarded it for two things. I chaired the committee responsible for the interpretation of the new visitor experience at St Albans Cathedral: how we tell our story, methodology, technique, and what’s the story about Alban we want to tell. We hold him up as a paradigm of welcoming the stranger, self-sacrifice, and the importance of freedom of worship. I was also the internal editor for all the texts on the displays, touchscreens, and materials.

For me, it’s about the place. Britain’s first Christian saint welcoming, protecting, and dying on behalf of a stranger is a powerful heritage and foundation story. I’ve always wanted to share that faith story with others.

The work was pretty full-on for two years, and it’s rather sad to think that, at the moment, no one is handling the touchscreens, following the tours, or playing with the historical dressing-up box. But that will return. As the Dean said in his first YouTube sermon: “Easter will come late this year, but come it will.”

This year, it was the 40th anniversary of my becoming a guide at the Abbey. The two constants through this time for me have been serving at the altar and being a cathedral guide. I’ve also been a warden, lay canon, and was a member of Chapter for ten years.

At the moment, every cathedral and church is facing a challenging time financially. With closed doors, there are no visitor donations, no service collections, and no income from our café, shop, and venue hire, and there’ll be practical challenges to our ongoing programmes of care and maintenance.

We’re missing our communal life, although everyone is trying to keep connected technologically. The optimist in me says society will re-evaluate what is important. And I hope we’ve learnt how important creative art is in its many forms. Music, writing, poetry, and storytelling will get us through. Let’s not take them for granted.

Not being ordained was painful early on. That pain went away, and it’s come back in the last few years. If you believe it’s a calling by God and the Church, you can accept the decision, but I do feel there’s an injustice about it. I know there were people who told untruths in order to get through the process. I don’t blame them, and maybe I’d have done that, too. I really wanted to be alongside people to welcome their babies, bury their dead, marry them, remind them of God’s being with them.

But not being ordained has allowed me to anchor in one place, as clergy never can, to grow with it, and help it grow. I feel so woven into the cathedral, like one of its little Roman bricks. One day, I may be buried in Canons’ Row.

I find church politics very difficult. A stint on the General Synod almost cost me my faith. Seeing that up close in the 1980s was just awful: watching the machinations of extreme Evangelicals and Catholics making pacts with one another to block things. I hope it’s not as bad now.

Within the Abbey, I’ve never had difficulties. Of course, there are issues, but the Dean is a real consensus-builder, and the Abbey’s politics have been generally very healthy.

My partner and I have been together for 15 years, but we still keep separate homes, his nearer his workplace. (He’s a solicitor.) In lockdown in St Albans, my constant companions are Phibs and Albi, my two cats. I’m coaching a boy on Skype for his English GCSE next year, enjoying the new Hilary Mantel, and, actually, lots of cathedral committees have been having a Zoom meeting every day; so it’s quite busy.

On a business flight in Thailand, our aircraft was suddenly and rather dramatically in trouble. That was perhaps the moment demanding my greatest courage. In that moment, I discovered I was a pray-er, not a screamer.

I’m looking forward to travelling and exploring new places with my partner again. I love the sound of the ocean, especially surf breaking on a beach. And I want to see my great-niece and -nephews grow up and flourish.

The C of E’s refusal to allow parishes to make their own decisions about marrying same-sex couples makes me angry. I sometimes preach for a local URC congregation, and I’m impressed with their decision to give churches the right to choose.

I believe in our potential to be better people, a better Church, a better society.

I’m happiest when I’m cooking and sharing a big celebratory meal, with those I love around me.

I pray that I’ll continue to trust God “that all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well”.

If it was just for a few hours, I’d want to be locked in a church with George Herbert. I’d ask him to take me round the church and tell me about his poems for each location. If it’s going to be longer than that, it would be Maya Angelou, who would be full of fascinating stories. She was a great raconteur, and I admire her resilience.


Stephen De Silva was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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