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It’s a sin . . . not to care and listen

by
29 January 2021

The new Channel 4 series triggers memories of a London priest for Paul Bayes

Red Production Company

IN 1982 I moved to west London to minister as a university chaplain there. I had been ordained for three years.

The West London Chaplaincy was a wonderful, creative outfit; it had been set up a generation before by Ivor Smith-Cameron and had no place of its own, built around small groups meeting in halls, departments, and community houses. There were about 60 of these groups each week.

Fr Bill Kirkpatrick

The work was very rewarding. Intellectually demanding, certainly, but it was also lovely to minister alongside Christian students — men and women whose sense of identity and Christian calling grew as they learned from one another.

It was at this time, as a young priest wanting to make sense of my life and of ministry, that I connected with the late, great Bill Kirkpatrick, who became my spiritual director.

Fr Bill lived in a basement flat in Earl’s Court, from where he opened his heart to the community through Reaching Out, his ministry of presence and listening and love. He had converted a coal cellar, under the Inner Ring Road, into a chapel, with plain whitewashed walls and — for a place that shook whenever a lorry rolled over its roof — an extraordinary quietness and peace.

Fr Bill was an intense presence. His listening released truth in the people he met. He wore a wooden holding cross around his neck. He made a great cup of tea. At the end of every session he would say: “Thanks for sharing,” and I’d go and pray in that coal cellar and then walk up to Earl’s Court Tube station feeling that I’d been heard and understood, and feeling that life was richer than I had known before.

 

I WAS not the only one to receive wisdom from Bill, whose ministry was widespread and deeply respected. But in the years I knew him, Bill’s ministry took on one focus in particular, because of where he was and who he was.

For Bill was a gay, partnered man living in Earl’s Court, and these were the years of what was then a mystery illness that devastated and further marginalised the gay community in London, as in so many other cities: the years of AIDS/HIV.

And so, more and more, Bill’s life was spent accompanying people in their journey of illness and, too often, of death and bereavement. He brought a listening ear and the openness and love of Christ to people in fear and desperate need, people who saw all too little of that openness and love in communities of Christians that told them nothing more than that they were sinners, and passed by on the other side when they fell ill.

 

I WRITE this partly to give honour to Fr Bill, who died three years ago this month, and whose radical mission and radical ministry deserves to be celebrated at any time. But I write it in particular now because those years have been dramatized and recaptured by Russell T. Davies in his TV series It’s a Sin.

The series follows a group of young people, mostly gay men, as the adventure of their adult lives begins in the ’80s. We are with them as they find themselves — and then find themselves under a terrible shadow.

It’s truthful, honest, unsparing about the consequences of unknowing and unbridled promiscuity in a community that was still finding out how to live wisely in a world where love was not forbidden. It also remembers energy and laughter and joy and friendship and care and life, sustained even in the face of fear and illness and death.

It is resonant. Gay friends of mine have been triggered by it this week, remembering people they loved and lost in those years, remembering their own experience of living in the shadows, still hearing the homophobic echoes in their lives today. It’s a Sin is a title with a lot of resonance: it references the Pet Shop Boys’ song, of course, but wherever did Chris and Neil get the idea for such a title or for such a lyric?

“When I look back upon my life
it’s always with a sense of shame
I’ve always been the one to blame. . .”

Neil Tennant has said that his song “was intended as a camp joke, and it wasn’t something I consciously took very seriously.” But he went on: “Sometimes I wonder if there was more to it than I thought at the time. . .” (interview, The Atlantic).

 

WELL, yes, you do wonder. Thirty years later, poor little talkative Christianity continues to talk. The churches’ conversations on love and faith, which so many are still pleased to call “debates”, will continue for a good while yet. Human lives will continue to be pressed like flowers between the covers of one book or another.

For myself, I love the body of Christ, and I believe Jesus was serious when he asked his Father that we might all be one. So I will continue to do my best to take part in these conversations; I will do my best not to talk about people without them being there. I will do my best to advocate love and marriage for all, in the persistent hope that Christ’s body may move forward together, may indeed be one, in love.

But when, from time to time, all this talking gets too much, and I tiptoe out of the room in search of the God of love, when I want to follow Jesus Christ on to the street, I’m going to remember Fr Bill Kirkpatrick — a partnered gay man with a ministry on the edge of the Church to people on the edge of the world, a man who reached out.

And I’ll remember a coal cellar under the London streets, a place of contemplation and silence as the cars roar overhead. And a priest with a ministry of “hearing through listening”, a ministry of unfailing presence, a ministry of encouragement for so many, including me — most of all, a ministry of listening to his people where his people were: listening in the hubbub of the Coleherne, listening on the street, listening on the ward, listening by the grave.

And alongside all this a ministry of resourcing and writing — about prayer, about AIDS, about death, and, in everything he wrote, about life. Thanks for sharing, Bill. Remembering you I’ll remember that a self-absorbed, censorious and condemning Christianity need not have the last word - it will indeed never have the last word, because the last word is life beyond death.

 

The Rt Revd Paul Bayes is Bishop of Liverpool. This article is reproduced with permission from the Via Media site. Read the Church Times obituary of Fr Kirkpatrick here, and another here.

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