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Rev. Richard Kirker | Profile

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Biography

Richard Kirker, early gay activist and leader in the Church of England (part of the Anglican Communion), was born in April 1951 in Nigeria.  His father Ralph Kirker, an ex-Royal Air Force (RAF) Spitfire pilot, worked in the Colonial Service in the Western Region of Nigeria and his mother Shelagh Kirker (nee Ennis), who had been in the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) was an Almoner Nurse in 2WW.  Richard recalls his early years being very unusual as he was often the only white child in hundreds of square miles. However, as he had numerous Nigerian friends and playmates this led to an unusual, but ultimately deeply enriching cultural experience of race.  He had no formal education until the age of seven when he went to a school for children of British colonial officers and Nigerian civil servants. When he was eight years old he was sent to Britain to enroll in a boarding prep-school, and then to Seaford College, in Sussex, until he left aged 19 in 1970. As was usual for children of parents serving overseas he returned to Africa during the school holidays three times a year.

His father left Nigeria in 1962, as a District Officer, the year following independence.  After 4 years in Britain he returned Africa, to newly independent Lesotho (formerly a colony called Basutoland) working for the Ministry of Overseas Development.  Lesotho has the geographical distinction of being the only country completely enclosed within the boundaries of one other country, South Africa.  This was when Richard first encountered the Afrikaaner-led, South African Dutch Reformed Church inspired apartheid ideology. It was still deeply entrenched, and South Africa a pariah state. Lesotho could not entirely escape its malign political and racist influence. This was a shocking, disturbing change for Richard who had been raised to be totally at-ease in a Black-dominated culture. He found that entirely natural and ordinary. But when in South Africa, in the midst of blatant, all pervasive racial injustice, controlled by ruthless white minority rule in what amounted to a police state, he was always uncomfortable. He found it increasingly difficult, almost repugnant, to live a privileged life in such a racially conflicted, inhumane society.  This precipitated his involvement in a range of UK-based anti-apartheid activities, including writing to ‘freedom’ fighters in South African prisons, numerous street protests, and vigils. At the same time, as he left adolescence, he was coming to grips with his sexuality and his same-gender attraction.  He came to understand that the struggles for racial equality and equality for gay persons had many indivisible, close parallels.

After completing his public (private) secondary schooling in Britain he enlisted in the Voluntary Service Overseas programme and taught English for one year at a Military Academy school in West Pakistan.  Religion had played a marginal role in Richard’s life as his parents did not attend church.  However, as he grappled with questions of race and his own sexuality he began exploring deeper dimensions of life and spirituality. The witness of many Christian leaders against apartheid,  but for racial justice and equality, was not lost on him. He looked around to see if there were comparable figures, Christian in particular, advocating justice and human rights for gay people.

On his return from Pakistan - at the age of 20 - Richard decided to test a religious vocation within the Church of England. He was selected for a special institute at the University of Durham, designed for those without a formal degree. Richard recalls that his vocation interview was the last time that he did not tell the truth when asked a question clearly designed to determine his sexual orientation. He was still uncertain whether to acknowledge his own sexuality to himself, let alone to others. Although he subsequently learned that it was acceptable for many of his colleagues to acknowledge they were gay, at the time of the interview he was unaware of this. Nor was he yet fully aware of the many ways it was possible to avoid giving a direct, honest answer, or why this might be justified or condoned under conditions of duress or fear.

During this particularly formative year he began a loving relationship, his first ever, with another student, Michael P Harding. It was to transform their lives. Together they decided, a year later, to begin training for the priesthood at Salisbury and Wells Theological School, in Wiltshire.  They made is clear from the outset to the college authorities, before being enrolled, they were a gay couple.  By this time he no longer felt compelled to live a lie. The course was accredited by the University of Southampton, but enrollment was a matter for the Church of England.

There Richard quickly awoke to the hypocrisy and opacity of the Church of England.  It was a double-edged revelation shaping the rest of his working life and vocation. He and Michael’s relationship was accepted (and they were not the only ones) by almost all students and staff.  A large number of other students, about 40%,  and clergy with whom they worked, were also gay, including the Principal Harold Wilson. Up to a point this was over-looked or tacitly tolerated, as a personal matter.  However, official church policy and practice were entrenched in pretence, denial, misogyny, patriarchy and homophobia.     

By his second year at Salisbury, Richard had begun working with similarly-minded students, many not gay, and some staff, to agitate for open discussions and inclusive policies on sexuality and women’s ordination.  Inspired by Derrick Sherwin Bailey and especially Norman Pittenger, as well as by liberation theology and critiques of fundamentalism, they brought in speakers and organized forums. These were intended to ‘name’ and confront homophobia as well as improving the quality and availability of non-judgemental pastoral care.  Based on the baptismal covenant they espoused a church Christian enough to embrace full human equality, which would no longer tolerate injustice and discrimination.     

However, there was a major point of contention looming, which ultimately proved a defining moment. While it was acceptable for gay seminarians (ordinands) and vicars to be quietly, if not excessively and self-destructively discreet, it transpired that it was not acceptable to publicly challenge the formal (as opposed to the informal) practices of the church.  Although there was ample precedent of Anglicans challenging the formal teachings of their church on matters such as divorce/remarriage and contraception, on this subject the lines were drawn far more narrowly, and Richard felt without justification.

Because Richard had become such a visible, vocal advocate he was required to attend weekly hourly ‘counselling’ sessions. These were with a new Principal, as the previous one had been removed for allowing such a high proportion of gay seminarians to enroll at the college.  Richard came to believe these sessions had all the hallmarks of intimidatory ‘spiritual harassment’, a form of coercive bullying, as their objective was to convince him to curtail his public advocacy for Christian gay liberation and ‘tone down’ declarations regarding his sexuality.  It became clear to Richard that upon completion of his theological training he would not be ordained a deacon, which would have been the usual conclusion of a satisfactory 4 year period of supervised and residential training.   

While he was not dismissed, or disciplined, and had no desire to end his vocation, he was given the option of becoming a Licensed Lay Worker.  Licensed lay workers were official paid parochial staff, working alongside (male) clergy and carried out most of the same duties, except sacramental ones.   This role had been created for women alone who had a religious vocation but were not eligible for ordination by virtue of being female.  Richard became the only known Licensed Lay worker who was not a woman. This did even more to strengthen his belief that the root cause of women not being ordained was closely aligned, and overlapped.

Michael went on to be ordained deacon and served as a curate in the Diocese of St Albans, where Robert Runcie was the bishop.  At the same time Richard was a Licensed Lay worker in the Diocese of Winchester, Hampshire.   The expectation was that if Richard carried out his duties for a year and did not stir controversy or scandal, he would be ordained a deacon, without ever having to renounce his loving relationship with Michael.  Although no scandal or controversy blighted that year he was once again told he would not be ordained.  So Richard asked Robert Runcie if he could move to the same diocese as his partner Michael Harding, not least so they could be geographically closer. Robert agreed, on condition that he served another year as a Licensed Lay Worker, in his diocese, before being ordained. That year passed without incident and he was ordained deacon in 1976, on the recommendation of his parish, becoming a curate in Hitchin, Hertfordshire.  Except that in the same year Michael was killed in a motorcycle accident, 6 months before Richard’s eventual ordination. His tragic death was a huge loss for Richard, who was also injured in the same accident. They were sharing their weekly day-off together, using separate motorbikes.

Three months before he was due to be made a priest, the following year in 1977, Robert Runcie, soon to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, told Richard that this would not happen. Richard had participated in a protest against a large public anti-gay rally, attended by a 1000+, organized by fundamentalist evangelical Anglicans in the ‘Nationwide Festival of Light’, at a famous central London church All Souls, Langham Place. The host and rector, a noted traditionalist John Stott, was outraged at the demonstration.  Richard and others had quietly walked to the podium after vitriolic untruths were spoken demonising and denouncing gay people, and requested a right of reply. Stott immediately forcibly moved to eject Richard, by a neck hold, and placed him outside the Church, into the care of waiting police. They sensibly took no action. But as this protest gained media attention Richard’s fate was sealed, although he participated in the following day’s Sunday worship, before the storm clouds burst.

Richard’s participation in the demonstration finally ended any illusion, in the eye of church authorities, that he could be a suitable vicar. But he was never asked not to enter into another same sex loving relationship. Being single again, after the death of Michael, made no difference in their eyes. However, in their view he had become too much of an uncontrollable liability, politically, lacking sufficient discretion and judgement to ‘toe the party line’. Robert Runcie summoned him to his office and demanded that he cease his advocacy on behalf of gay persons. He was also told to resign membership of all gay organizations and not to speak on or write about the subject. Richard reluctantly recognized that to accept these conditions would be antithetical to his core beliefs on the God-given equality of all persons, irrespective of sexual orientation, and his duties as a Christian minister to tell the truth as he saw it. The Church of England made no such requirements of its clergy on other contentious, contested ethical and theological matters, and he saw no reason why debating sexuality honestly should be the exception. He was not willing to forsake these freedoms. As he saw it, the duty to speak with reasoned argument alongside an informed conscience, could not be compromised without loss of integrity. Therefore he had no option but to accept, with immense sadness and regret, after seven years of training and service, the enforced termination of his employment as a deacon in the Church of England. The two parishes he had served never censured him, nor sought his removal.  In fact the second parish recommended ordination. He felt his vocation had been irrevocably and unjustly hijacked.

Aged 27, newly single, bruised but undaunted, a new unexpected but by now a strangely familiar and suitable direction for his life very fortunately opened up.

Richard had been juggling his church duties, with his LGBTQ advocacy during his spare time, throughout his seven years of training for ministry and was not fully prepared for this sudden dismissal. Despite this rejection by the church’s leaders he experienced support from a large number of persons, many of them whom were straight allies.  This convinced him that he did have a vocation, albeit a novel and untested one, for which there was no precedent.  He would have to use his creative imagination, and the generous the support of friends, to define and fulfill this ‘experimental’ vocation outside the formal structures of the Church of England. He ceased to be part of the institutional Church, being no longer answerable to it.

Founded in 1977, Richard served on the first board of the Gay Christian Movement.  GCM immediately received a deluge of inquiries – pastoral, theological, and political - far greater than a volunteer board could handle. The board determined that they needed to raise funds and hire staff quickly. The Lambeth Conference in 1978, a ten-yearly gathering of the global Anglican family, in Canterbury, was around the corner and GCM could not afford to be absent. The pace of activity became frenetic.

When GCM posted the position of Administrative Secretary, Richard resigned from the board so that he could apply.   It seemed a dream job to fulfill a vocation so recently denied.   He interviewed, was hired and began work immediately.  He was 28 and would spend the next 30 years continuously in that role, eventually becoming its Chief Executive. He was paid to formulate policy and strategies on the subjects he most cared about - politics, sexuality, and religion. The three topics most people feel it best to avoid for fear of losing, or boring, friends. In his case he found it hard to believe his good fortune. He felt passionately about the importance of each of them, and their relationship to each other. And he made many friends equally interested in advocating equality.

He poured himself into the work in spite of the meagre initial salary.  GCM’s budget for that first year was £3,000 ($4000) and the board offered Richard one-half of that for his compensation.  He was instructed to grow the organization and its budget, which was £30,000 three years later.  That provided a reasonable salary plus enough resources for the group to be more effective nationally.

Richard notes that in a very short period he moved from being the lowliest staff in a very large parish to being the sole employee leading a high-profile national body, with greatly expanded responsibilities and daunting challenges. He became responsible for befriending and counselling services, fundraising, a Welcoming Congregations scheme, facilitating services of Blessing for Same Sex couples, lobbying, membership recruitment, organizing conferences, local groups, and speaking to groups of all kinds, as well as being its principal public face, especially in the media.  Building teams of volunteers, and extensive networking, to assist in all these tasks was essential, as was building ‘coalitions of the willing’ partnering with similar bodies with overlapping interests.  Despite persistent and sometimes aggressive hostility, and the malevolent resistance of church officials, goodwill and support for GCM grew quickly, as did its membership, into a (inter)national movement of persons whose lives and experiences could not be ignored by church authorities, or by wider society. ‘Lesbian’ was added to the name in 1987.

Three basic principles guided Richard and LGCM from this beginning: that it was democratic, ecumenical and expected nothing less than full acceptance, as soon as possible, by all parts of the church and all Christian bodies.

LGCM was a membership organization from its inception, espousing that every member would have an equal voice and vote.  LGCM’s policies and programme were hashed out at annual meetings at which all members were entitled and encouraged to participate.  They had democratic rights.  Richard believed that members were more likely to provide their time, goodwill, and monies when they had a voice, and the decisive vote, in creating policies and allocating resources.  Of course, democracies can also be messy, as evidenced by some resistance to Richard’s frequent expressions of forthright dismay, if not impatience, at the stubborn resistance of church authorities to embrace change and accept truth. However ill-judged and inflammatory his style could occasionally be, in the view of some, LGCM got noticed. It cut-through to a very wide, and increasingly receptive audience.  That strengthened its leverage and credibility.

In his third year as Secretary an extraordinary general meeting was called to cancel his contract.   After much lively debate, Richard and his allies did prevail, but the experience was unsettling for him and destabalised LGCM’s work, but not for long.  A similar attempted ‘coup’ occurred a second time a few years later, and again the membership showed their confidence is his work. It could never be said he was not held to account by the membership, however misguided, in his view, they might occasionally have been. After each attempt to remove him from his post failed, the organisation grew in every respect. LGCM’s democratic structure had provided a safety valve and a remedy which saved it from imploding, or being taken over by ‘entryists’ with undisclosed or divisive agendas.

Richard’s consciousness had been shaped by the ecumenism he had witnessed years earlier in the resistance to apartheid in South Africa.  He observed that a powerful network of Christians from many traditions came together to speak and act against this blatant racism.  This was Christianity acting more effectively by intervening ecumenically.  He was so drawn to the World Council of Churches that around 1972, aged 21, he wrote a letter that was published in its magazine, One World, encouraging persons to address injustice against homosexual persons. Richard believed that GCM needed to be ecumenical from its beginning, so as to have the maximum impact across all denominations.  Even though most members were Anglicans, from many countries, LGCM members came from 20+ other Christian traditions, as well from the Jewish community and sympathetic agnostics.  They were drawn together by its mission to fully embrace, to emancipate, in God’s sight, all persons regardless of sexual orientation, and of course gender.

LGCM held fast to the basic premise that the church’s attitudes and policies toward LGBTQ persons were unjust, failed the basic test of Christianity (that all are created equal in the sight of God) and therefore must be be changed.   Such a radical view would require a new way of understanding and being the church.  LGCM stimulated brisk public debate, drawing upon cutting-edge thinkers, writers and speakers to re-imagine faith that could be truly liberating for, and accepting of, all persons.  It was also unyielding in its support for the ordination of women in the Anglican Church. This had the effect of making membership unattractive, in particular, to many largely closeted and archly-traditional Anglo-Catholics, who might otherwise have had an affinity with LGCM. This meant LGCM’s work was unencumbered by the views of those gay people (mostly heavily into self-denial) who would have used their influence to dilute, distort and deflect its pivotal message.

Among the highlights of Richard’s tenure with LGCM were the Lambeth Conferences of 1978, 1988, 1998 and 2008.  (Lambeth is the international gathering of all bishops in the Anglican Communion convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury every ten years.)  LCGM had a presence at each of these Conferences, beginning a tradition of ensuring sexuality became increasingly prominent and ultimately,   but sadly, more volatile and divisive each time.  In 1988, Archbishop George Carey was criticized for making a courtesy appearance at an LCGM Reception.  The 1998 Conference spent one day discussing sexuality in which many voices expressed opposition to openness to LGBTQ persons.  This extreme tension was illustrated by widespread media coverage of a LGCM demonstration at which Nigerian bishop Emmanuel Chukwuma confronted Richard and placed his hand upon him and spoke words of exorcism.   A photograph of this encounter appeared on the front page of the New York Times and countless other newspapers and tv stations around the world.  It brought an outpouring of support for and giving to LGCM.  The 2008 Conference managed to do nothing to resolve the wide gulf between traditionalist and liberals, and the Anglican Communion became more divided than ever since it could find no effective, credible way of being a reconciling, mutually respectful Church.

LGCM’s office had been at St. Botolph’s Church, Aldgate, in the City of London, almost from its outset. The first office had been at the Chaplain’s residence at Gonville and Caius college at the University of Cambridge.  In 1987, the Diocese of London initiated court proceedings to evict LGCM from the church premises.  This unprovoked action by church officials drew lots of media attention and criticism from many arenas.  Prominent church historian Dr Edward Norman, who had not been a friend of LGCM, published a newspaper column criticizing the Diocese’s action. Rowan Williams who was the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge (and later Archbishop of Canterbury) publicly rebuked the diocese.  However, this lawsuit put great pressure on LCGM and the St. Botolph’s Church Council because of large sums of money required upfront, one third of its annual income, to indemnify the court costs.   Richard, the membership, and the LGCM board decided to make a tactical retreat so as not to jeopardize its own finances nor those of St. Botolph’s which provided a host of support services and justice ministries, especially to the homeless and rootless.  LGCM gathered for a Service of Exodus and left the church premises with hits dignity and finances intact in 1988.  The publicity resulted in a major increase in membership and revenue for LGCM.   

Around this same time, in May 1988, the Government introduced the notorious Local Government Act with Section 28 stating that a local authority ‘shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality; nor promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’.

This law effectively prohibited any teacher, school, public library or public arts body from presenting same sex relationships in anything other than a negative, homophobic way. Richard and LGCM took a strong stand in support of everyone who protested against this vicious, offensive legislation. It also published a resource for school teachers to teach homosexuality from an inclusive Christian perspective.

The increasing need to undertake research, commission reports and publish resources led LGCM to create the Institute for the Study of Christianity and Sexuality (ISCS) as a public charity and brought a number of prominent academics and scholars on board as Trustees.  At that time because of its political activities LGCM could not take advantage of tax-exempt status. However, ISCS could function as a registered charity and receive funding from trusts and charities. This ‘split’ and relationship helped both bodies perform to their maximum effect.

Another highlight of Richard’s leadership of LGCM was its twentieth anniversary celebration.  On November 16, 1996, over 2,000 people gathered at Southwark Cathedral, London for the first worship service for LGBT persons in a British Cathedral.  John Gladwin, then Bishop of Guildford, was the preacher. The service attracted threats to the Dean and Diocese in advance, and protests outside on the day itself. A special BBC tv programme based on the event aired across the country the next day.

As the new century unfolded it became clear to Richard that advances in human rights, equal opportunities, employment law, and equal marriage were being stymied by traditionalist and fundamentalist religious groups. In particular this resistance came from coalitions of evangelical Christians, Orthodox Jews and conservative Muslims.  Neither was it helped by those secularists who cared not about the destiny of faith groups in the belief their ills were largely bought about by not abandoning faith altogether.  This led to Richard and LGCM initiating more interfaith outreach and coalition-building.   The final LGCM conference that Richard organized, Faith, Homophobia and Human Rights, drew 400 participants in early 2008.  It was a ground-breaking conference, attracting participants from more diverse religious settings than was usual, and equally important also from outside religious circles.  The focus was on building and strengthening networks to challenge religiously sanctioned homophobia wherever it emerged.  Nothing less was required if genuine emancipation was ever to be achieved.

Following the Lambeth Conference in August 2008, Richard’s fourth, he retired from LGCM after 30 years at the helm and in the firing line. Acting as a lightning rod for the discontents and malevolences which animate the discord and disjunctions around sexuality and faith would be for his successor to decipher, and diffuse. Doing this as constructively, and eirenically as possible in the never ending struggle to end homophobia, and all irrational phobias centered on personal identity, sexual desire, and emotional bonding choices is not for the easily hurt, the timid, or for those who expect quick, sustainable, or necessarily popular results.

Richard recalls profound satisfaction and personal fulfilment for the time he served the membership as LGCM’s Chief Executive.  “Although our work exposed me to the least attractive type of Christian, in fact to those at times I found it very hard not to be repelled by,” he said   “it also brought me into contact with some of the most compelling and compassionate Christians. It was their dependable, inspiring presence that kept me focused and motivated.” He had, because of their support, the opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of persons who had been deeply hurt and damaged by ‘Christian’ homophobia, discrimination, and injustice.  

He was humbled by the number of renowned theologians, Church leaders, policy-makers and leading activists who offered their encouragement, and counsel, both publicly and privately.   He notes that without, on the whole, the incredibly sympathetic and extensive media coverage, often global, LGCM’s work would have been harder, had less impact, and may well have escaped the attention of the country as a whole. From a relatively young age he took on the mantle of being prophetic in calling for radical change and full acceptance.    Undergirding all of his work was an uncompromising belief that the Christian Gospel required treating LGBTQ persons - and all other persons - as full and free human beings.   

Once retired Richard immediately stood back from LGCM. He began a new life, for 12 years, as host, owner, and manager of two holiday homes in France and Morocco. Now he divides his time between London and Lisbon, Portugal. When in the UK he is involved in grassroots community and political activities.

(This biographical statement written by Mark Bowman from interviews with Richard Kirker and edited by Kirker.)

Biography Date: September 2020

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Church of England (Anglican) | Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (United Kingdom) | Activist (religious institutions) | London | United Kingdom | Kirker, Richard

Remembrances

“I met Richard briefly when I was a Young Liberal in Salisbury in the 1970s and he helped out with election campaigning (Liberals were seen as more openly sympathetic to gay rights in those days than the other parties).  He won’t remember me I’m sure, but he certainly made an impression on me as I can picture him now handing out leaflets and posters to shoppers in Salisbury market place with great elan.  A remarkable character and very brave human being.”
 – as remembered by Christopher Saywell on December 4, 2020

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