Gay Catholic priest commits to adding myth to civil partnerships in the UK
The headline in the Evening Standard at the end of January read, “700 gay weddings in a month,” then put the word “married” in quotes when referring to the same-sex couples who entered into civil partnerships in London since they became legal on December 21. Many gay couples want more than a legal contract and a civil ceremony at the Town Hall and some turn to Father Bernard Lynch of Camden Town to preside over the ritual that they seek.
Sitting in a café along the Thames in late January, Lynch, an out gay Catholic priest and psychotherapist in his late 50s, spoke with enthusiasm about the role he has been able to play for these couples not just in the wake of legal partnerships, but before such things were imagined by the modern gay movement.
A native of Ireland who is an American citizen but resident of London for many years, Lynch, whom this reporter has known since his Dignity/New York days in the late 1970s, describes his church as “the most homosocial and homophobic institution” in the world.
“There was no anti-gay rhetoric for the first thousand years,” he said. “Same-gender unions were blessed by the Church long before marriages of opposite sex couples were. Most marriages were political and dynastic, an exchange between people. It is still the only sacrament in which the couple performs it themselves. I’m just the witness.”
Now, he said, “The Church’s greatest fear is that if it gives up its hold on marriage, it will lose control of people.” It’s all about producing more Catholics, he added.
As we spoke, Lynch was set to marry a gay couple the next day—“Church of England, but having very little to do with institutional religion”—and a lesbian couple the following week.
“They want some way of ritualizing their commitment,” he said. “We live in a society that has lost the meaning of myths—which are always about truth, but not in a literal sense. Catholics have always been able to provide myths—stories—that have been superseded by a materialistic, rationalistic cultural capitalism.
“People entering into marriage want to celebrate it with myth, meaning, and ritual. The will ask a Catholic priest—the last ‘pagan’ religion of the West—to help them.”
Lynch said, “I believe in the Catholic Church in its mythological profundity, not dogma. God is love and finds expression and empiricization in the love of human beings no matter what the gender.”
When performing these ceremonies, he said, “I stand there on behalf of myth and family and friends and say, ‘We support you and are with you.’ I ritualize it in a way that is both comforting and a challenge.”
Many of the same-sex weddings over which Lynch has presided have been for couples who have been together for decades. “I don’t ask them to promise to stay together. That’s absurd. I acknowledge what they’ve done and affirm what they’ve done as an example to us. Some come from a time when their relationships were criminal and seen as sinful. They risked their lives.”
Lynch acknowledged that lots of people “won’t touch religion” because of anti-gay oppression, which he insisted “is not historical,” citing same-sex friendship and marriage ceremonies in past centuries.
The Church of England has forbidden its priests to officiate at gay nuptials and so has the Catholic Church. Lynch feels that he has been able to conduct these ceremonies without too much controversy because of the status of Catholics as “an underchurch” in Britain. During his time in the United States in the 1980s, the Archdiocese of New York went after him harshly—including playing a role in trumping up false charges of an inappropriate relationship with an underage youth—simply because he stood up for gay rights.
Lynch has performed weddings for a diverse range of couples over the years. In the mid-1980s, he married a lesbian couple from the South Bronx, one a white cop, her partner Latina. “They wouldn’t sleep together until after the ceremony,” he said.
“The best was two guys, one who had been married and had five kids and two grandkids,” Father Lynch said. “He first went to his priest in Birmingham and the priest wouldn’t marry them. So he contacted the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and asked for a Catholic priest and they referred him to me. They wanted a full blessing.
“The couple and I were the only three gay people at a wedding for 180 people. The 16-year old son of one was best man. The person who sang the “Ave Maria” was a drag queen.”
After the ceremony, the ex-wife of one of the men came up to him. She said, “The way I look at it, he’s happy. Now my children have two fathers.”
“That to me is the Kingdom of Heaven,” said Father Bernard Lynch.
After seeing “Coram Boy” at the National Theatre, I learned all about how Thomas Coram, a sea captain, established the first Foundling Hospital in Britain in the mid-1700s, engaging the help of Handel and Hogarth in the effort. The hospital is no more. The Foundling Museum opened in 2004 on the hospital’s old site, a quiet retreat now with volunteers who include former foundlings. A social service agency called Coram Family continues their work.
At a public forum, I asked Honor Rhodes, the foundation’s chief executive, how open they are to gay adoptions. “We’ve always placed children with gay and lesbian families and children,” she said. “We’re committed to placements with the best family. Period.”
In contrast, the latest craze in U.S. red state legislatures is banning adoption by gay people. Sixteen states are considering it now.
Britain’s Super-Ego Slide
The super-ego that among other things tells us not to engage in conversation whilst watching a play or movie or concert is long dead in America and now seems to be slipping in Britain. Even at the most serious plays at the National, some people seem to think they’re in their living rooms watching telly and yak whenever they feel like it. At “Billy Elliot: The Musical,” it was incessant. Two of the magpies in front of me at “The History Boys,” however, stopped when I asked them to at intermission. That provides some hope. In New York, you risk a knuckle sandwich when you try to silence anyone.
As well, the British capital has found a way to make going to the theater about much more than just going to a show. Theaters such as the National, Royal Court, Almeida, Lyric Hammersmith, and Sadler’s Wells attract their audiences early and keep them late with bars, cafés, and trendy restaurants in and around the lobbies providing great opportunities for socializing. We can get some of that feel in New York at Lincoln Center and the Public Theatre, but more would be welcome.
The Show Does Not Always Go On
I showed up to see “Paul,” Howard Brenton’s new play about St. Paul at the National’s intimate Cottesloe Theatre and was told the performance had been cancelled because the lead, Adam Godley, was ill and there was no understudy. I was given a refund and a voucher for a drink, but I can’t think of another time that’s happened in 40 years of theater-going. I would have been happy to have the stage manager come on and read the part. Theater is made by the audience as much as by actors.
I took the unusual opportunity of a free Saturday evening in London to walk across the river to the Savoy where I found you can get a great and reasonable meal at their Banquette restaurant—earthy wild mushroom soup and pork belly with red cabbage overlooking the only street in London where they drive on the right side of the road and the Savoy Theatre where Gilbert and Sullivan once ruled.