Derek Alec Rawcliffe, the son of a tobacconist, was born in Manchester, England, on July 8 1921. When the family moved to Gloucester he attended Sir Thomas Rich's School and also the cathedral to which he was attracted by the music. By the time he was 17 he felt drawn to holy orders and went to Leeds University where he took a First in English and studied theology. Concern for the downtrodden and outcast was honed in his training at the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield, West Yorkshire. He was ordained in 1944 and served as a curate at St George's Church, Claines, in Worcester until 1947.
Rawcliffe then offered for service overseas and became assistant master at All Hallows School, Pawa, in the Solomon Islands. There he displayed considerable teaching ability and was appointed headmaster in 1953. After three years in this post he moved to become headmaster of St. Mary's School, Maravovo, also in the Solomon Islands. In 1959 he was made Archdeacon of Southern Melanesia. Based on Lolowai, he spent the next 15 years travelling extensively to minister in the New Hebrides and to the islands of Banks and Torres.
Most of the other clergy were now indigenous and Rawcliffe proved to be an effective leader, identifying with the local culture to the extent of becoming a noted grass skirt dancer. In 1974 he became Assistant Bishop of Melanesia in preparation for appointment in the following year as the first Bishop of the newly-created Diocese of the New Hebrides. Rawcliffe played a vital part in the building up of the new diocese, which was renamed Vanuatu after the granting of political independence in 1980, and prepared the way for the appointment of an indigenous successor.
His appointment as Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway in the Scottish Episcopal Church in 1981 was quite unexpected. When a successor to Bishop Frederick Goldies was required, the electoral college could not reach agreement until someone suggested a candidate from the distant South Pacific. Being quite unknown to the electors, but said to have unusual pastoral skills allied to a charismatic personality, Rawcliffe was chosen.
This inauspicious start was compounded by Rawcliffe's administrative shortcomings: like many primarily pastoral priests, he had little appetite for committees and power struggles. His new diocese also lacked the warmth and laidback life of the South Seas to ride muddles or calm misunderstandings down. The diocese had a bumpy ride during the 1980s.
Rawcliffe retired to West Yorkshire in 1991 and accepted the offer of the post of assistant bishop from the Right Rev. David Young, bishop of Ripon.
In March 1995, Rawcliffe revealed in the course of a television programme that he was homosexual – the first Church of England bishop to be open about his homosexuality. Moreover, he reported that when he was 50 he had fallen in love with a young Melanesian man and come to believe that his homosexuality was "a gift from God".
Nonetheless, four years after that, in 1977, he had married Susan Speight who had been a teacher of ballet and domestic science but was then confined to a wheelchair, the result of diabetic neuropathy. Although much the younger of the two, she was thought to be close to death, but as a result of a shared mystical experience she had a remission and lived for another 12 years. After her death in 1989 he realised "I was still gay, always had been".
In August 1995 Rawcliffe caused further controversy by writing to Gay Times urging that the age of consent for homosexual relations should be reduced to fourteen: "I had my first relationship when I was 14 with a man ten years my senior. I knew what I was doing and gave my consent". His intent was not to encourage or endorse under-age sex but to reduce the criminalisation of the many young people who have sexual experiences before the age of 16. He also urged earlier, better quality sex and relationship education to help youngsters to make wise, responsible decisions and to ensure that they shared mutually respectful, caring relationships.
The Bishop of Ripon responded to this controversy by ceasing to invite Rawcliffe to carry out any episcopal functions. When it became known in October 1996 that Rawcliffe had held a service of blessing in a hotel for the "marriage" of two men – something he had been doing regularly for the previous five years – Bishop Young withdrew his commission to perform confirmations and other duties.
Rawcliffe turned this to his advantage in a characteristic way. Accepting the church's discipline, he continued as a tireless, accessible priest, while working hard but politely with the Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement (UK) and other groups advocating more liberal attitudes toward LGBT persons.
Rawcliffe's great asset, acknowledged even by his detractors, was a simple Christianity expressed by living and practising the New Testament's emphasis on love. His Christian humanitarian instincts led him to become a champion for social justice, not only for LGBT persons but also against racism and global poverty. He became a trusted helper and supporter of asylum-seekers and others living in poverty.
Release from episcopal duties also led to the late flowering of Rawcliffe's literary gifts. Between 2000 and 2005 he published three books and four volumes of poems. He died on February 2, 2011.
(This biographical statement written by Mark Bowman with information from obituaries by The Telegraph, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/8321553/The-Right-Reverend-Derek-Rawcliffe.html; by Martin Wainwright, www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/16/derek-rawcliffe-obituary ; and by Peter Tatchell, www.petertatchell.net/religion/bishop-derek-rawcliffe-1921-2011.htm)
Biography Date: November 2011
Church of England (Anglican) | Clergy Activist | United Kingdom
“Right Rev. Derek Rawcliffe | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed January 30, 2023, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/derek-rawcliffe.
“When the late Rawcliffe taught at All Hallows Pawa (now Pawa Provincial Secondary School) he wrote the school song ("From Islands Guarded by the Restless Sea") which currently is not only used by that school but also by all schools owned by the Anglican Church of Melanesia. I would be most grateful if someone could find the original music to this song and send me a copy.”
– as remembered by Richardson Irio on June 28, 2012
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