HIV activist Philip C Baldwin opens up about finding his faith following his diagnosis and the ever-changing attitudes towards LGBT+ people in the Church of England.
I am proudly gay and proudly Christian. I attend two of London’s Church of England churches – St John’s in Waterloo and St Anne’s in Soho. I was diagnosed with HIV and Hep C in 2010. Up to that point I had considered myself an atheist or agnostic. My discovery of Christianity became an important part of my journey of self-acceptance. Since my Confirmation, in May 2015, I have written extensively about the importance of Christianity in my life. My faith continues to flourish, the flame of Jesus’ love burning brightly in my life.
I have attended services at St John’s in Waterloo since the summer of 2014. St John’s is headed by the Reverend Canon Giles Goddard. Giles is an intelligent and dynamic priest, who also co-ordinates the Human Sexuality Group on the Church of England’s General Synod. I was very lucky to find St John’s and to meet Giles, who has guided me spiritually.
I first attended St John’s by coincidence. Previously, I had been attending churches along the Strand. I wanted to try a new place to worship and saw the steeple of St John’s from Waterloo station. St John’s is one of the most inclusive churches in London, with a diverse and LGBT+ friendly congregation.
At the end of 2016, I also began to attend services at St Anne’s in Soho. St Anne’s is an obvious place for LGBT+ worshippers, with its central Soho location and outgoing gay priest Simon Buckley. I am now a trustee of the church. I didn’t, however, start attending services there until I moved to Soho in 2016. On World AIDS Day 2016, I did a reading at St Anne’s, reflecting on my HIV status and ongoing HIV stigma in our society.
I like the intimate atmosphere of St Anne’s. During the World AIDS Day service, members of the congregation and other residents of Soho came forward to commemorate loved ones lost to AIDS. Simon has created a community which caters to many different backgrounds. A female Chinese worshipper told me recently that she loved the atmosphere at St Anne’s, noting the number of gay men in the congregation, because it is so inclusive. In contrast, some Church of England churches, she told me, seemed cliquey. At St Anne’s all are welcome and respected, regardless of sexuality, race, gender or age.
Over the course of 2017, the Church of England has made significant progress around LGBT+ inclusion. The Church of England churches I attend are LGBT+ friendly, but across the UK LGBT+ worshippers still receive a mixed reception.
Some LGBT+ Christians have suffered years of emotional abuse from an institution which behaved towards them in a way which was hostile, unwilling to listen and repressive.
In February of this year, the Synod voted against a bishops’ report which had affirmed a regressive interpretation of marriage and which excluded same-sex couples for the foreseeable future. The report had defined marriage as: “A union, permanent and lifelong, of one man with one woman.” I found this statement hugely offensive.
When I fall in love, I would like to marry my partner in a Church of England church. The rejection of this report was a decisive moment, leading to a call from the Archbishop of Canterbury for a new form of “radical Christian inclusion” for the Church. In June, the Scottish Episcopal Church – the equivalent of the Church of England in Scotland – voted to allow same-sex unions. Canon Law was amended, so that marriage is no longer defined as exclusively between a man and a woman.
In July, partly in response to the tireless campaigning of the gay evangelical Jayne Ozanne, the Church of England’s Synod voted definitively against conversion therapy, the controversial practice by which LGBT+ Christians are encouraged to renounce their sexuality through psychological and spiritual interventions.
On LGBT+ issues the Church of England remains a battleground and all LGBT+ people, regardless of whether they have faith themselves, need to advocate for change.
This year has been an important year for my faith. I continue to grow as a person, as an activist and as a Christian. This has also been an important year for the development of a more inclusive approach to LGBT+ people within the Church of England. I am fortunate to have found such inclusive churches.
Hopefully, we are moving towards a situation where LGBT+ people will be welcomed in all Church of England churches throughout the UK. And one day I hope this will be true for every church in the Anglican Communion worldwide.
Follow Phillip on Twitter @philipcbaldwin.